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Selling Your Big Studio Script

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Selling Your Big Studio Script
Food for thought from someone on the inside...

Below are some email afterthoughts from a recent attendee and friend of the group, Don MacLeod, Paramount Pictures Story Analyst. Special thanks to Don for sharing this valuable insight with Deadline Junkies and the greater screenwriting community. (5-19-2010)

I've been asked "what are the studios looking for?" many times before - and I now realize I should actually have an answer prepared for that. But here are a few thoughts:

As I briefly mentioned, the studios are now building their slates around the big budget "tent pole" projects - those are the ones, once again, that appeal to all "four quadrants," have the biggest draw internationally, and drive DVD sales. I would never presume to tell any writer not to write a tent pole project, but I would caution that most of them are also centered around established franchises - be they well-known superheroes, graphic novels, toys, video games, etc. Unless one owns the rights to this kind of material, there is no point whatsoever in trying to write a spec related to a property someone else controls. I've seen submissions like this numerous times through the years - and believe me, there's nothing quite so sad as someone's spec "Star Trek" script when they don't have a hope in hell of selling it. If memory serves correct, there were really only two tent poles last year that were not based on established franchises - 2012 and Avatar. And both of those, of course, were set up entirely on the reputations of the filmmakers involved. So that, in turn, is how one sells a tent pole spec: once it's blow-you-out-of-the-water good, the writer has to get a heavyweight director and producer on board. Selling such a spec without the people on board that a studio knows can deliver the goods is going to be a serious longshot - as if selling a script wasn't a longshot enough already!

So, outside of tent poles, the question then becomes, once again: what are studios (or independent production companies, for that matter) looking for? The answer to that, in short, is that that is so entirely unpredictable, I believe writers shouldn't even concern themselves with it. Yes, a story department will occasionally be looking for a specific genre to fill in holes in their slate, but the truth is, we're ALWAYS looking for a script that's good. And the good news is, if it's good, we'll make room for it. (It might not get made, mind you - but the writer will still get actual cash money for their work!) Even if a studio has a glut of any one type of genre in the pipeline, they're not about to pass on something that is gold.

Sorry about the "write with passion" platitude. I heard myself saying that and I was suddenly thinking inside, "shut up! shut up! They've heard this a thousand times before!" Still, I have truly come to believe that that is the key to getting movies made - regardless of genre. Whether one is writing a gut-wrenching drama or a wacky, lightweight comedy, it only works if the writer cares deeply about their characters (both heros and villains) and believes in their story.

As someone who has literally read thousands of scripts, I can always tell when a writer is genuinely passionate about their work, and when they're simply churning out gimmicks and cliches that are designed to sell. Reading a script, it soon becomes obvious which scenes the writer really cared about, and which ones were simply marking time as the script moves from a to b. While reading a script, I want EVERY scene to be a scene the writer cares about. There should be no throw-away scenes. Period. If the writer isn't interested, after all, there's no way in hell the reader will be.

There are so many screenplays out there that are polished, professional, and hit all the right marks - but are also boring and pedestrian as hell, because the writer isn't bringing anything with real heart and soul to the work. So the good news is, write with passion and heart, and your material will stand heads and shoulders above the crowd. Those are the scripts that get noticed - those are the writers studios want to work with.

I think I may have shared this with you before, but an experience that really hammered that home to me occurred while writing development notes for "Legally Blonde." Now there's a fluffy, featherweight project of no consequence whatsoever, right? Well, you would never know that listening to the writers. They loved "Elle," they were passionate about their screenplay, and they politely protected the integrity of their work with a zeal that, in fact, was nothing less than ferocious. They infused Elle with a great deal of heart - and as a result, a character who could easily have devolved into a tedious, Barbie doll cartoon nevertheless had substance and depth. And what happened? Audiences really cared about her, and truly cared about her story. And the thing is, the runaway success of that movie wasn't just Reese Witherspoon's performance. Yes, she nailed the character and her performance was outstanding - but she had a great script to work with, and there was nothing in the finished film that wasn't "on the page."

Bottom line: books like "Save The Cat," which was referenced last night, are chock full of invaluable information pertaining to sharpening your concept, coming up with a killer title and logline, etc.. That's enormously helpful advice, and Blake Snyder did us all a great service writing that book. What I would add to that is a writer needs to write the script only they can write. If a writer truly brings their passion to their work - if they write from the heart, and thus bring their own unique voice to the material - there's a very good chance their work will sell, or at least be noticed enough to get the ball rolling and start opening doors to the people who can help them take it to the next level.

Don MacLeod, Paramount Pictures Story Analyst



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