Learn the Business

By Alan Denman

Money. Well who’d want that? I mean, you’ve got some great ideas, a good laptop, your flat’s a bit small maybe, but hey – you’re a writer, and you’re writing your latest and greatest screenplay. If you get it sold, success! Or even if you just get it optioned – that could pay the rent for a few months. But come on, you might think to yourself, whether I sell my script or not, I’m still a writer, as I keep telling everyone. Does it really matter if I never sell a script?

You bet it does. And there’s two reasons why. One, you have almost certainly invested your time and money in doing writing courses, joining organizations like Raindance, and buying (yet another) book on the secrets of screenwriting. Don’t you want to see a return for your investment? Don’t you want to get some results for all your years of effort? As each year passes without success, so you may start to lose conviction and doubt yourself. What began as a plan for a brilliant new career fades into something you talk about at the bar and practice less and less.

If your writing is just a hobby, a passion of yours and no more, then unless you change your mindset, it’s very likely that’s the way it will stay.

The second, and in some ways even more important, reason is that to write a good screenplay you must have a firm grasp of the film industry and the way it works. To regard screenwriting as a sophisticated hobby reveals a fundamental disregard and misunderstanding of what it is you’re doing. Above all other forms of storytelling, films require a hefty, upfront investment to produce and get propelled into the market place. If you, the writer, aren’t creating your blueprint with costs in mind, if you write in armies of ten thousand barbarians sweeping desolate plains that even with realistic computer graphics is going to cost an arm and a leg, you reveal an ignorance and disregard for the most fundamental fact of all: the film industry is not an art – it’s a business.  Yes, there’s a lot of art in making movies and some amazingly talented people doing it. But fundamentally it’s a business.

The film industry – Hollywood in particular – is enshrined in mythology. Its successes and indulgences, scandals and excesses, are well-documented. But long gone are the days when a script could be sold on a pitch or a poster and money sloshed around like water in a large jacuzzi. The recession of 2008 finally put paid to the notion that there is an excess of money floating around and that anyone making a film has money to burn. In the present economic climate stars’ wages are down, there are far fewer productions of some scale, dvd sales do not bring in the revenue they did five years ago and everyone wants something for nothing or next-to-nothing. With patterns of sales and distribution shifting rapidly, it is not easy to see how films can make money. Most don’t. Most don’t even recoup their production costs. So if you’re a writer you’d better know the business, especially now, and write accordingly.

It is getting harder and harder to simply be a writer. Not only is it wise to understand production you must have a grasp of the financial and marketing aspects of the industry. The chances of you writing a $100 million script that gets sold and produced are very remote. Playing the lottery might well give you better odds. There are only a small number of writers that the US Studios at that level of budget work with and these guys are very savvy and have a pretty good idea what is expected of them. So think smaller. Get rid of your armies, milling crowd scenes, elaborate sets. Even if you do know someone who can do the cg cheaply, it may well not look convincing. A golden rule is: shoot as much in-camera as possible and don’t rely on sorting things out in post-production. When you make a film, you want it to look and feel as authentic and convincing as possible, and computer graphics, which allows you to create any image you can think of, often lacks authenticity.

So think smaller. Take away characters, props, special effects. Avoid period stories. Think smaller still. How small can you go? Let’s say, for example, you’ve got a script about three sisters. That’s three actresses that all have to be paid. Can you lose one of them? Now there’s only two roles to fund. “Disaster,” you think. But wait - you can get creative. Perhaps you show a photograph of the third sister and have the other sisters talk about her. So there are three characters, but you’re only paying for two. You might create some mystery this way also. What happened to sister number three? You start to build suspense.

So here’s a great lesson. When you start to prune back your budget, you get more inventive. When you have an unlimited budget, the writing can become flabby because anything is possible.

Then there’s your locations. Look at your script and count them up. How many have you got? Sixteen? Twenty? Too many. Think of three or four to give some variety, but ideally these should all be close so that not too much time is used up moving the actors and crew from place to place.

So let’s take into account budgetary considerations and revise our screenplay. Let’s give it a working title – The Sisters. There’s only two now, though it might be good to introduce a man to provide some sexual tension. Three characters. Main location – an old farm which the sisters are desperately trying to maintain. But what about genre? Genre identifies the kind of audience you’re aiming for and the type of experience you want to give people. Laughter, if it’s a comedy, fear and suspense if it’s supernatural, terror if it’s a slasher horror, and so on.
So let’s go for supernatural. The Sisters is a supernatural mystery thriller. The two sisters seem so sweet and charming at first. A little eccentric but fairly normal. But what happened to the third sister? Is she dead? How did she die? You draw in your audience by rousing their curiosity. If you had insisted on having all three sisters, you’d have lost this opportunity for more intrigue. Cutting one out opens up new possibilities.

Then what happens to the man when he does a little probing? What is he going to unearth? Is he in danger? The fact there is only one main location can be used to advantage. The old farmhouse, with its small doorways and low ceilings, is claustrophobic. The weather grows bad, the man falls sick. One of the sisters grows weird. Other sounds are heard. You may not have the most original story, but because you thought about restricting the budget, you got inventive. You had to be more disciplined – and more creative.

If you bring practical and financial considerations into your planning at an early stage – before you’ve written the script and the story is still in an embryonic state – you will write something that stands a much greater chance of getting sold and getting made.

There’s one other thing. Marketing. Write a great “money shot”. A lot of images in a film are functional and predictable, helping the story along from beat to beat. But in every good film there is a powerful and unforgettable image that acts as a memory device and signpost. It says: “come and see this film”. If you really understand that films are not only very practical and that every minute of filming costs money, but that also films succeed or fail according to how well they are marketed, you will be ahead of the pack.

Does this sound like a lot to take in? Did you think that all you needed was to do those screenwriting classes, read those books and write scripts? Yes, there’s more to learn – the business itself, as well as how films are produced – but be motivated by one powerful thought: you will increase your chances of selling your script and getting it made enormously. Then, when you go into your local bar, you can lean on the counter and genuinely and with pride tell people what you do. Yes, be a writer, but think like a producer.

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About Alan Denman

Alan Denman is an award-winning British writer, director and producer with his own production company, Stinging Bull Films. He is also an experienced film teacher and script consultant. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles. More information about him and his courses can be found at:  www.script-to-screen.com

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Learn the Business