What's a screenplay? Good question. After all, if you're going to write one, you ought to know the answer. Right?
You probably already know an answer. A screenplay is writing intended to be turned into film. It's a hundred-odd pages held together by brass brads, in which you have written down whatever you want the audience to see and hear in that big dark room.
If it gets made, the director will come up with a whole new vision, the actors will change your dialogue, the editor will concoct another way to order the scenes, and it won't be "your movie" any more. That's okay. A screenplay is not a complete work. It is not intended to be appreciated on its own. If a movie were a building, a screenplay would be the blueprint. Nobody settles down in front of a roaring fire with her beloved, a bottle of Chianti, and a nice blueprint. Nobody takes a couple of good screenplays out to the beach - except for show business people, anyway.
That means there is no point writing a screenplay if it isn't going to get produced.
We all know that, somewhere in the back of our minds, but most of the thousands of screenplays I've read in ten years as a development executive were never in any danger of being made into a movie. From the moment the writer conceived them, they were doomed. They may have been well-crafted or poorly crafted, but they were all missing what they needed in order to get made.
This book is about writing movies that get made. Not just popular movies. Art films get made, too. Writing a screenplay that will make a brilliant movie is a good part of writing a movie that will get made, and that's what most of this book is about. But that's not all of it. So it's important to understand what else a screenplay is, if you're going to go to all the trouble of writing one, because if you don't, the odds are you're wasting your time.
A screenplay is the first element in what the movie business calls a package. A package is a combination of:
A package is made of creative elements that movie people are betting the audience will want to see in movie theaters or on their TVs.
A screenplay is an element in a deal.
Show business has a split personality. It is a business, which means people are not in it for their health. When movies flop, people lose their jobs. Unsuccessful directors have to go back to shooting commercials. Unsuccessful actresses have to go back to waiting tables, or marry carpet salesmen. Unsuccessful producers have to go back to selling carpets. It's not surprising how crassly commercial the movies are. What's surprising is that they're not more crassly commercial.
Very few people go into the motion picture industry because they want above all to make a lot of money. The money's great if you're working, but really, if you just want to make money, you might as well be selling Porsches or oil drilling equipment. Practically everyone in the business got into it because they love movies. Screenwriters want to tell stories. Producers want to put good movies on the screen. Actors want to indulge their most extreme emotions in front of a crowd of people, so think twice about dating one. Practically everyone in the motion picture industry is trying to make good movies. They're not all trying to make great art, but if they had the choice, most of them would rather make a movie that will last.
Every motion picture project starts with a bit of commerce and bit of art.
In theory, a motion picture project begins when someone working in development at a motion picture studio or production company reads a wonderful screenplay. "Development" is the stage of the movie-making process when screenplays get optioned, bought, rewritten, rewritten, rewritten, and usually buried. This reader is likely someone called, believe it or not, a "reader" - often a recent film school grad who gets paid $40 a pop to write two to five pages of synopsis and scornful commentary. If the reader likes it, he might alert a story editor, who brings it to the attention of a development executive, who gives it to a production executive at a studio or a producer at a production company.
Once a deal is struck, the production exec or producer sends the script out to a director, who, hopefully, sparks to the material and agrees to direct the script. Then the script goes to stars. Once a big enough star agrees to do the picture, the studio agrees to fund the picture, and we're off to the races.
Your screenplay does not get made into a movie until all of these people say "yes": the reader, the story editor, the development exec, the production exec, the director, and the star. If the production exec, the development exec, the story editor, or the reader got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, your project is dead at that studio or production company.
(If Tom Cruise sends in a friend's screenplay, then it skips to the top. The production exec reads it and automatically likes it, it gets optioned, and if Tom agrees to star in it, it gets made. More about that in a bit.)
A screenplay is a selling tool. It is a salesman for the movie. It sells your story to people you've never met, whom you'll never meet, some of whom are in a permanently bad mood because you can write and they can't. It has to sell to a reader who's just out of film school and thinks he knows everything about what makes a great movie. It has to sell to a story editor up past midnight trying to finish her stack of scripts so she can make love to her boyfriend before he goes into REM sleep. It has to sell to a production exec who brought home two scripts: yours, and one Tom Hanks wants to do. It has to sell to an actor who is terrified of getting old. It has to convince all of these cranky people that it is a movie just dying to be made.
So, a screenplay is a blueprint, an element in a deal, and a sales tool.
What gets your screenplay through the gauntlet? If you read most screenwriting books, the answer is something like this:
These things don't get you past the gatekeepers. Oh, sure, you'll want to have'em in your screenplay. But what actually gets you through is a great hook.
A hook is the concept of the picture in a nutshell. Not just any concept. A hook is a fresh idea for a story that instantly makes show business people interested in reading your script, and then makes the audience want to see your movie.
Here are some good hooks:
Some of these were made into big Hollywood productions, and some were "independent" pictures. ("Independent" is a huge misnomer. "Independent producers" are dependent on practically everybody. A better term might be "co-dependent producers.") What all these hooks have in common is that you want to see how the stories are going to turn out. What happened to those kids up in those woods? How do a bunch of gnarly guys from Sheffield guys get people to see them take their clothes off? You have to read the screenplays to find out. At this point, you may be thinking, "But most movies don't have great hooks." In fact, if you look at the Internet Movie Database's list of the top 250 movies according to viewer ratings (at http://www.imdb.com/), almost none of the top movies have great hooks. I never said any screenplay needs a great hook to get made. I said that your screenplay needs a great hook to get made.
These days, movies are driven by bankable elements. A bankable element is any creative element - star, director, material it's based on - you can bank on getting people to come to see the picture. Or to put it another way, Harrison Ford is starring in my picture, and now I am going to deposit my big fat check in the bank.
Here are some ways hookless pictures get made:
If you have bankable elements, you don't need a great hook, or any hook at all. If your elements are bankable enough, you don't even need a good screenplay, at least as far as getting your project made goes. But even a powerful producer will find it easier to attract a director or a star to a project with a great hook. A great hook makes everything easier all along the way.
It is possible to make a movie based on a script without a great hook and without bankable elements - a script so brilliantly written, so compelling and poignant, so funny and true, that it draws the passion and dedication of many people to make the film with whatever money they can find and whatever actors they can afford. It can happen. Look, I once found a $100 bill on the pavement. Really!
Even apparently hookless pictures that apparently do not have bankable cast often have hidden advantages that probably do not apply to your script. Foreign films often benefit from large government subsidies for pictures shot locally using local talent. For example, a Canadian producer shooting in Canada using Canadian actors, writers and director can get more than a quarter of his production budget handed back to him for free by the federal and provincial tax authorities. In other words on a $5,000,000 picture he's getting a $1,250,000 thank-you. Niche market pictures account for most of the rest: pictures made for a built-in core audience, such as Smoke Signals, a charming drama about Native Americans, or Go Fish, a clever romance about lesbians. A tiny fraction of all hookless, no-bankable-element films released in the United States are made by daring producers who raise the money by any means necessary, often maxing out their credit cards. We read about the home-financed success stories, like Clerks or El Mariachi or The Blair Witch Project or Benji. For each one of those, there are ten that barely covered their costs, and a hundred that never got released at all! No one writes news stories about producers who made a pretty okay film but couldn't find distribution, lost everything, and had to go and live with Mom.
Assuming you do not have a bankable element attached, and you're not bankable yourself, you need a great hook or your screenplay is just not going to get made. If your story does not have a hook, you are almost certainly wasting your time writing the screenplay.
As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one, and there are also ways around it. But if your objective is to get a picture made, and if you are not pals with influential people in show business, then it is a rule you should pay attention to.
It's worth saying again: If your story does not have a hook, you are probably wasting your time writing the screenplay. You may enjoy the process of writing, you may get an agent, you may get invited to meetings in nice air-conditioned offices. But you aren't likely to sell your screenplay, and you do, it's not likely to get made.
So: how do you come up with a great hook?
Alas for you (and me!), I don't have a magic way to coming up with great hooks. No one does. Not even George Lucas does. (Ever see Howard the Duck?) But I have two techniques. They're not magic. In fact they require a lot of effort. But they do work. They are: