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What Hollywood Wants:

10 Things Studios Like To See in Adapted (and Original) Screenplays

(complete version)

by John Robert Marlow


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It’s a brave new world for Hollywood—and a scary one. Films must now compete with big-screen TVs, cable networks, video games, free Internet videos, and a thousand other forms of entertainment that, until recently, didn’t exist.

As a result, it’s now more challenging than ever to craft a screenplay—or screenplay adaptation—that measures up to buyer expectations. With studios less willing to invest in time-consuming revamps of “promising” projects, today’s screen stories must stand out in ways that yesterday’s didn’t have to.

THE BASICS

“There are any number of ways to develop a project, but not all of those are commercial,” says Julie Richardson, who produced Collateral for the big screen and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office for television. “Studios don't want something they cannot sell. It's important to understand their mindset because the studios are your market, and you need to know their market.”

Ryan Condal knows about markets; he left an advertising career to pursue screenwriting. He sold his first script in 2008; Galahad (now in development) is a radical retelling of the Arthurian legend. His screen adaptations of the graphic novels Ocean, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, and Queen & Country are also in development.

“The best movies,” he says, “are those with an eternally relatable story at their core. That’s true of genre films as well. The reason Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park resonate for decades is not because of dinosaurs, robots or aliens; it’s because of the way these worlds—and, most importantly, their characters—are realized. There will be plenty of alien, robot, swashbuckler, and dinosaur movies to come. But the reason we remember the ones we do will always remain the same, no matter how much the technology evolves.”

ADAPTATIONS ON THE RISE

Hollywood is currently trending toward screenplays based on other works. “Adaptations are super-hot right now,” says Christopher Lockhart, Story Editor at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, the largest of the Hollywood super-agencies. “The thirst for original material is not what it was,” adds Ryan. “Probably 99% of the active projects in Hollywood are adaptations of one kind or another. I find them appealing because they often find studio backing, which gives them a better shot at becoming movies.”



APPEALING TO HOLLYWOOD

As Sylvester Stallone once pointed out, “There’s a reason they call it show business, not show art.” Film studios and the production companies that team with them look for timeless stories with compelling characters—but they also like to see a number of very specific things before investing anywhere from $1 million to $400 million in a film that will rise or fall on the tide of public opinion. The most important of these things are...

A CINEMATIC CONCEPT that can be communicated in ten seconds.

Terry Rossio is perhaps the best-paid screenwriter in history, and certainly one of the highest-grossing. His credits (often shared with writing partner Ted Elliott) are literally too numerous to mention, and include such hits as Aladdin, Godzilla, and the Zorro, Shrek, National Treasure, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. Most of these were based on works in other media. His Déjà Vu script (co-written with Bill Marsilii) sold for $5.6 million.

“The first issue to me, and most important,” he says, “is whether the concept of the movie is intrinsically compelling. I like to feel with absolute certainty that the fundamental idea for the film is, without a doubt, an exceptional premise, one that implies that a film must be made from it, without question. You want to cross the finish line at the beginning of the race.”

Screenwriter Ehren Kruger agrees. Winner of a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship, he’s written dozens of screenplays, including Arlington Road, The Ring 1 and 2, Transformers 2 and 3, and the upcoming adaptations The Talisman (TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s book) and God Is A Bullet (based on the book).

“Studio executives need to know what the concept is,” he relates, “and what element is going to make this project stand out or attract top talent—meaning directors or actors. Because for the most part, it's really stars and filmmakers who determine which movies do or don't get made. Emphasize whatever is original about your concept.”

Christopher Lockhart lends a buyer’s perspective. As Story Editor at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, he has read and consulted on scripts for the kind of top-end clients who get movies made: Antonio Banderas, Nicholas Cage, Russell Crowe, Robert Downey Jr., Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn, Jennifer Lopez, Adrian Lyne, Steve Martin, Matthew McConaughey, Liam Neeson, Sam Neill, Ed Norton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Denzel Washington, and others.

“I've got 80 people a week sending me emails,” he says, “and they all say their writing is great. But I can't read those 80 scripts; I just can't do it. There are tens of thousands of scripts circulating around town, and no one can read all of them. So there has to be some kind of vetting process. And weighing the concept is the quickest and easiest way to vet. Concept is the best way to catch someone’s attention. Concept, concept, concept.”

Jay Simpson is a Nicholl Finalist who sold his first script (Armored) for $400,000 in 2006. “Most writers obsess over execution,” he notes. “And execution is important to a point, in that it needs to exploit the concept and clearly convey it in an entertaining way. But you have to start with a concept that feels like a movie. Something with a unique and appealing hook that’s solidly rooted in a specific genre, but also elevates and twists that genre in a new and interesting way. If you don't start with a concept—that “hook” that grabs someone's attention at first blush—you're stacking the odds against your own success. Because you can't pitch execution, and you can't put execution in a query letter.”

What you can put in a query letter is a logline. “A good logline is a necessity,” Christopher explains. “It conveys the dramatic story of the screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.” Ideally, this boils down to a ten-second summary. Sound impossible? Try this:

A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal. That, of course, is a logline for The Fugitive.

An agent or producer can read seven hundred to a thousand loglines in the time it takes to read a single script. Those few that stand out will be acted upon. Consequently, the logline has one purpose: to hook the reader or listener, and make them want more. “The logline is the cornerstone of your pitch,” says Jay. “Its importance cannot be overstated.”

Ehren concurs. “When there's no clear, concise concept that can be easily articulated, you’re in trouble,” he explains. “The logline is how an executive will describe your project to his boss. And that's how your story must ultimately be described to whoever is going to say "Yes, buy that" or "No, don't buy it."”

Says Terry: "You know the logline is coming, somebody somewhere is going to write one, so it seems a smart play to choose a story that is logline friendly. And you know marketing is going to distill your concept down to a few words, so you want a story that can survive that process, and help your project compete in a crowded market.”

A RELATABLE HERO a large segment of the movie-going public can relate to, root for, sympathize or empathize with.

Gale Anne Hurd co-wrote and also produced The Terminator and has since gone on to found her own company (Valhalla Motion Pictures) and produce over thirty films and five television features. Her work runs the gamut from young adult and family dramas to big-budget action fare like Armageddon, Aliens, and the Terminator, Hulk, and Punisher franchises. Gale is a PGA (Producers Guild of America) board member, and has produced films based on true stories, magazine articles, novels and comic books. Most of her upcoming projects are adaptations.

“I respond to character-driven material, regardless of its origin,” she says. “I fall in love with the characters and generally respond to stories featuring ordinary people who succeed in overcoming extraordinary challenges.” Ryan agrees. “I search for a compelling hero I can build a story around,” he says. “It all starts with the hero—who are they, how are they different, and why do we care about them?”

“You need to create characters people care about,” Ehren counsels. “You want that propulsive energy: what's going to happen to these people, where are they going to end up? You can’t have characters who are just there to serve the function of the plot. Aim for unique characters with consistent voices.”

When it comes to adaptations, says Ryan, “what’s most often missing in the original work is a compelling protagonist that we want to pay $12, $13, $18 dollars to see in a movie theater on a Saturday night. That’s where I make my reputation and my money as a writer of adaptations: cracking the hero’s journey in a given property. The world of the story is usually fairly well thought-out; I have to make sure the main character is someone we give a damn about.”

Audiences must care about your hero, or Hollywood doesn’t care about your story. If concept is king, character is heart—and a poor hero with heart will draw more viewers than a king without.

STRONG VISUAL POTENTIAL . Simply put, film is less flexible than print. A novel can delve inside characters’ heads and stay there for three hundred pages; the reader’s imagination supplies the details. But can you imagine a movie that shows nothing but a hand turning pages? Neither can Hollywood. Film is a visual medium, and interesting things must pass before the camera because all of the details are on the screen. No one knows this better than the director, whose job it is to mold the visual experience.

Lesli Linka Glatter’s directorial and producing debut—Tales of Meeting and Parting—was based on a series of true stories and earned an Academy Award nomination. She has since directed several features and TV movies and dozens of TV series episodes. She sits on the board of the DGA (Directors Guild of America), won this year’s DGA Award for Best Director of Dramatic Series (Night), and has five feature films in development—three of which are adaptations.

“You need to create the kind of experience that people can see taking place on the screen,” she advises. “And doing that with an adaptation is hard. You have to strike a delicate balance between being true to the original material and story concept and translating it into this other, very visual medium. But it can be done.”

Screenwriter Teena Booth has done it more than once. She’s written eight produced TV movie scripts, five of which were based on books or true stories. “In adapting novels,” she says, “the problem is often how to take interior drama and make it explicit and visually exciting.”

Indeed, when not carefully adapted, introspective books make lousy movies. When brilliantly adapted, they win Academy Awards.

A THREE-ACT STRUCTURE . The vast majority of commercially successful films are “classically structured” into three acts. Even those with additional acts (like Star Wars) have only three major acts; the others fall within that framework.

“Structure is a living, breathing thing that has a life of its own, based on the story,” says Christopher. “But an archetypical three-act structure is this: we meet the protagonist, and we learn that there's a problem. By the end of the first act, the protagonist has to set out on a mission to solve that problem. If I don’t see that happening around page 30 in a 120-page script, I start to think the writer doesn’t know structure.

“The second act goes about exponentially increasing the protagonist’s problems, while trying to take him closer to finally solving the problem and achieving his goal. At the end of the second act, he hits a low point, which means the character is about as far away from solving his problem as he could possibly be.

“The third act is when the character rises from the dead—his low point—and concocts a new plan. In the climax we learn whether or not he succeeds in attaining his goal. After which there may be a brief resolution or denouement.

“There is a physics to storytelling: it's pacing, it's momentum; ebb and flow, highs and lows, peaks and valleys. Those are created via the structure, in the same way a roller coaster generates its momentum. If you have too many peaks or too many valleys, the car slows to a stop.” Experienced readers can see when things start to go wrong—and that’s deadly.

There are additional structural considerations, but these are the basics. When it comes to adapting works from other media, much of the effort revolves around fitting the story into the expected format, length, and “classical” structure. And of course, as Gale points out, “true stories don’t follow traditional plot lines.” Which is why they’re altered to accommodate the three-act structure demanded by Hollywood. This, in turn, is why so many films are said to be “based upon” or “inspired by” true stories.

A TWO-HOUR LIMIT , of sorts. If a story cannot be told in two hours or less (one hundred twenty script pages), it may be too costly to shoot. Some industry players will read longer screenplays—but even then, there are limits.

“If I pick up a script,” says Gale, “and it’s not for a TV mini-series, and it’s longer than 140 pages—I tend to put it at the bottom of the pile. It often means that story structure is sadly lacking, and the writer doesn’t know the basic rules of the craft.” Film is an extraordinarily expensive medium, and those footing a bill that could run upwards of $1 million per minute of screen time don’t want to hear that some rookie screenwriter thinks his story should run long. Seasoned veterans with proven track records warrant occasional exceptions; newcomers do not.

But scripts shouldn’t be too short, either. Comedies tend to run shorter than action, but there are limits here as well. The audience wants its money’s worth, and the writer must deliver. And so with rare exceptions involving well-known properties and established screenwriters, professional scripts are expected to run 105 to 120 pages. This is why major cuts are an absolute necessity when book-length works are adapted for the screen. The trick lies in knowing what to cut, what to keep, and what to change.

“Adaptations,” Gale points out, “pose the challenge of determining which material is relevant, and it’s especially difficult—though often necessary—to lose compelling scenes and characters from the underlying source material. And it’s a rare author who has sufficient objectivity to make the best choices when adapting their own material.”

A similar challenge awaits those adapting shorter works, which require the addition of completely new material. “Different media have different requirements for success,” notes Ryan. “You’ve got books, comic books, video games, board games, all kinds of things out there. My job as the screenwriter is to tear apart the guts of whatever I’m given, go back to the studio or producer and say, “Here. This is your movie.”

“Sometimes that’s about simplifying mythology or finding the core emotional story within a complex world. Other times, it’s about finding the one idea that everyone’s responding to, throwing out all the rest and starting over. Those serious about adaptation must be willing to consider all options, and exercise them within the expected page count.

A REASONABLE BUDGET . In the book world, the publisher’s cost-per-page remains the same whether your characters are playing checkers or blowing up a planet. This is not true of film, where shooting two characters playing checkers might cost $200,000, and filming a major action sequence could run $10 million.

“Studios are still making expensive movies,” says Ehren, “but the more affordable your project's budget, the more options you have with buyers.” Christopher expands on this: “You can't expect someone to film on a $500 million budget,” he says, “just like you can't write an $80 million movie with an 80-year-old Japanese female protagonist. It's like: Dude, who's gonna make that movie? I'm just constantly trying to pound that reality into those who are new at this, to say: Listen, I understand what you want to do—but if you want to make a movie, then you have to think like you're in a business.”

If the story seems prohibitively expensive to film, it will not become a movie unless someone very powerful pushes the project very hard. For those new to Hollywood, that’s not the way to bet.

LOW FAT . Because of time and budgetary constraints, there’s little room for anything not absolutely essential to the onscreen story. Novelists can burn ten pages describing a room. A screenwriter might do this in a sentence—and going on for more than a paragraph will mark him or her as an amateur.

This kind of storytelling economy is the point of an old Hollywood adage: “If you show a shotgun over the mantle in the first act, you’d better use it in the third.” Examples of this can be seen in James Cameron’s Aliens and Avatar movies, where things seen early on reappear—and prove important—later. (Think of the power loader Ripley uses to load missiles, and then to fight the alien queen—or the AMP suit Col. Quartich uses to practice his boxing moves, and then escape the burning ship to battle Neytiri and the thanator.)

FRANCHISE POTENTIAL . If a film based on your book can be endlessly sequeled, that’s a big point in your favor. If the first movie hits, it’s a safer bet to release a sequel to your film than it is to risk vast sums on something new and untried. Sequel/prequel potential isn’t mandatory—but the more expensive the film, the more it helps. (At this moment, there are eighty-six movie sequels in development, and James Cameron is planning not one but two Avatar follow-ups.)

“FOUR QUADRANT” APPEAL . Studios divide the moviegoing public into four large segments, or quadrants: young male, older male, young female, older female. The greater the number of quadrants your project appeals to, the better.

"A great four-quadrant script is rarer than a Republican in Hollywood,” says Ryan. “Instead of being force-fit to attract as many people as possible, these stories hold an organic appeal for a mass audience. That's why they're so highly prized.”

“Successful writers,” says Christopher, “call upon ideas, and characters, and themes that fascinate them, but also intrigue the population at large—and people go to see their movies. I still meet people all the time who say, "I don't want to write something like Titanic. That's not real life." But that movie made two billion dollars worldwide. You can say whatever the hell you want to say about Titanic—you don't even have to like it—but the truth is that millions upon millions of people connected with that movie. And that's what, as a writer, you want to do: you want to connect with people. That writer who hates Titanic thinks his script about grandma's earthworm farm is much more interesting and universal. But Titanic is a movie. The earthworm farm is a home video. Either you write a home video, or you write a movie.”

Four-quadrant appeal is not a strict necessity (the more people you pull from one quadrant, the fewer you need to pull from others)—but it’s nice to have. And if, like James Cameron, you can draw viewers from eight to eighty—you too will be king (or queen) of the world.

MERCHANDISING POTENTIAL . Film studios make more money from film-related merchandising than they do from the films themselves. A lot more. Films with low or no merchandising potential continue to be made, but the tidal wave is moving the other way—favoring projects with strong merchandising appeal.

In fact, things have now progressed to the point where merchandise is made into movies, which in turn sell more merchandise: witness the Transformers series Ehren is working on. Generally speaking, big-budget action and animation films are merchandising bonanzas while dramas, thrillers, and comedies have considerably less merchandising appeal.

Obviously, this hasn’t kept studios from making dramas, thrillers, and comedies—which are less expensive to film and, therefore, don’t require the kind of Herculean merchandising blitz needed to keep a marketing juggernaut like the Batman franchise raking in the billions.

CONCLUSION

In the final analysis, every one of these ten qualities is extremely important, and—from a business standpoint—the more of them your story has, the better. But it would be a mistake to believe that this is “all there is.” We must never forget why we—and the audience—are here in the first place. “We’re all looking for tremendous stories,” Gale reminds us, “—stories with interesting characters, and true insight into the human condition.”

TAKING ACTION

To maximize the odds of seeing your work on the big screen, consider adapting your book or story before pitching it to Hollywood. As Gale notes, “There are more buyers for finished screenplays than for pitches.” And you’d rather sell a screenplay than mere “screen rights.” One of the reasons for this is that even first-time screenplays sell for far more—$300,000 to $600,000 on average, with some first-time efforts topping the $1 million mark.

For more on the actual process of adapting your book or true story into screenplay format (alone or with professional help)—see the author’s article
Make Your Book A Movie: Adapting Your Book or Story for Hollywood.


NOTE:   This article is an expansion of the “Appealing to Hollywood” section of another of John's article's Make Your Book A Movie: Adapting Your Book or Story for Hollywood.


The content of this article is copyright © 2010 by John Robert Marlow

All rights reserved


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR




John is a published novelist, screenwriter, script consultant and book editor. His tech thriller screenplay Nano (adapted from his own novel) recently went into development with director-producer Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister, Minority Report), and his romantic comedy script Dispatch was optioned by producer Julie Richardson (Collateral, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office). John is also a two-time Academy Nicholl Fellowships finalist—a feat accomplished by only seven of the 50,000 screenwriters who've competed over the past twenty-four years. His Self Editing Blog offers free advice for authors and screenwriters. Working with partner Jacqueline Radley at http://makeyourbookamovie.com/, John specializes in in adapting books, short stories, and true stories for the screen.

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