BILL MECHANIC'S KEYNOTE SPEECH FROM THE IFTPC
"I was asked to address you this morning with my observations on the present as well as the future state of Independent Production. But before I begin, I have to relate the story of a close friend of mine, who's a leading heart surgeon. He said he'd recently been involved in a very trying and emotional six hour piece of open heart surgery where he and a team of people fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to save a patient. Afterwards, my friend entered the Doctor's locker room where one of his colleagues was staring absently into the void, clearly spent from the ordeal. He tried to cheer him up but the colleague turned to him and asked why he was not more distraught. My friend answered with a smile:
At least we weren't asked to save Independent Production.
Well, the truth be told, we may not be heart patients but we aren't that far away. We have too many insignificant movies clogging our distribution channels. Tightening economic conditions are sending sharp pains through our systems. Our blood supply from heretofore vibrant markets such as DVD and TV seemingly have evaporated in front of our eyes. The question we must ask is if the condition is fatal. In all candor I would say only to some. Those who ignore the warning signs. Who don't adjust to the threatening conditions. Those producers and distributors who pretend there is nothing wrong.
Nine years ago, I was a healthy and occasionally happy studio executive. I had taken Fox over a 7 year period from a doormat to the #1 studio and before that had spent 9 years at Disney building a then-dormant minor player into a muscular and, for the first time in its history, a real force in the studio world. I left Fox with 5 of the Top 10 films in history and departed Disney with 19 of the Top 20 Videos ever and as the #1 International distributor.
I had fought with Rupert Murdoch over my desire to create a business for Fox in the world of animation. He felt no one could compete with Disney. Nevertheless I started up Fox Animation. ANASTASIA was a start, it made money. TITAN AE a misstep, and lost. Even though that is the nature of the business, that not everything works, he didn't want to wait for ICE AGE to finish production. I didn't have a foot out of the door before Fox tried to sell off the film. Luckily for them, they couldn't get a deal done.
At the same time, Peter Chernin thought I was taking too much of a chance with X MEN. He called it my $70mm art film, since everyone knew that not only were comic book movies dead but you certainly couldn't start one in a concentration camp. That wasn't comic book fun. Maybe not, but most comic books are dark, so it was a question of being relevant, of being grounded.
Ironically, both films have lasted longer at Fox than I did and are now the most valuable franchises in the history of that studio, throwing off billions of dollars of profit.
But, they also were, along with FIGHT CLUB, the leading reasons I was shown the door. My bosses couldn't deal with the unconventional choices like those and others such as BRAVEHEART and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY because the films weren't pre-sold and thus seemed less predictable. This despite the fact that these unconventional movies guided Fox to the 5 best years in its history.
When I left, a few of the other Majors called to see if I were interested in running their shops. I thought instead it was time to do things on my own, to not work for companies that no longer wanted to be in the film business, that no longer thought enough about the future to not gum it up. Easier to raise money and worry only about making good movies which could make money.
Needless to say I was naïve. I thought raising money would be easy. I didn't exactly foresee such things as the Silicon Valley bubble bursting, or the economic meltdown, or the Madof scandal. But then I guess the Captain of the Titanic thought the Atlantic was smooth sailing. And Batman thought the Joker would be a laugh.
When I first made the decision to go off on my own, Larry Gordon said to me something that I've never forgotten. He said running a studio is a great job but a terrible life. Producing is a great life but a terrible job.
9 years as an independent producer provides a great perspective. It also cause heart palpitations. Here's the one key thing I've learned: there is no such thing as an independent producer. There are only dependent producers. Dependent on distributors, financiers, and bankers, and distribution channels that understand the needs of the market even less than the corporations that own the studios. Which makes a truly independent producer even more truly dependent because the alternatives to the studio system are in many ways more difficult, not easier. Perhaps even more than the studios, those with the controls over whether or not a movie gets made independent of the studios do so almost with less attention to the movie itself.
Part of that is due to outsiders who always seem to come into the business believing they can do better and yet rarely have an idea of what they are doing. Attorneys and financial analysts picking movies is a recipe for disaster. They can tell you all day long what hasn't recently worked, but in truth, haven't the experience or the knowledge to do anything different than has already been done.
That's been the oddest lesson of this period for me. That the independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the Studios, doesn't have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the SAME. Maybe costing a little less than the Majors, but they want what the Studios want, or in FIGHT CLUB speak, they want copies of a copy.
I now understand that unconventional choices like X MEN and ICE AGE would barely have a prayer getting made independently. Why? Because at the time, they didn't look like anything else.
It's disrespectful if not downright dumb to think audiences can't tell the difference between the original, which occasionally might even have some fresh faces, and the copy, which almost always is populated with retreads. It's like thinking you can sell yesterday's news under a different banner.
The exception to the rule is DISTRICT 9, which didn't try to compete with the Majors with special effects or stars or plot. Instead of feeling recycled, it was fresh and is now one of the year's best and most successful pictures. But lot of credit has to go to Peter Jackson since it was undoubtedly his clout that got the film made.
Following the lead of the Majors, presumes that they know what they want. It presumes they have a fix on their audiences. I would say that's anything but true. Admissions are down over the past few years and, perhaps most troubling, the audience that Hollywood spends the majority of time focusing on, the under 25's, are the ones finding other things to do.
Take a look at this shift over the past decade. While use of the internet and video games have dominated leisure time activities, movie consumption is down or flat over the same period. And, more to the point, you can see that there is a 21% drop in film going amongst the core target audience and a 24% drop in the next key category, 25-39 year olds.
And yes, these charts beg another question: if the audiences are shifting, why isn't the product shifting as well. Name 5 mainstream films this year that successfully targeted an over-30 year audience. In that way, Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It's a manufacturer's mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.
Market it and they will come.
And don't worry if they don't come back. Accept 60% drop off rates as the norm, saying it's all about wide openings.
Three years ago the Lakers all-but sold out every game even though they had a lousy team. Since Jerry Buss is a smart owner, he knew if he didn't fix things, no shows would eventually turn into season ticket non-renewals. He did what he needed to do to make it the hottest ticket in town again and a no-show today is a no-no.
When was the last time you heard anyone either from a studio or an independent talking about improving their product, of creating positive buzz and expanding the audience?
Here's one basic question to ask yourself: If the most popular film in history was TITANIC and it did so by weaving together interest in all demographic pockets as well as pulling in non-film goers, why in the last 12 years has no attempted to do the same?
TITANIC was #1 at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks. It not only spurred on record year in theatrical attendance, and had the biggest video in history, but also generated the biggest Oscar telecast in years. A good movie, like a good team in sports, makes everything around it better.
An independent couldn't and shouldn't make movies of that scale but it should make movies as individualistic and compelling. Certainly there are good examples among some of the smaller independent films--SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE being an easy choice - that actually do stand out and succeed because of their quality and their uniqueness.
But as you can see from these next few charts, the independent world was no more concerned with the consumer than the studios. With the influx of hedge fund money, the past decade saw a glutting of product, again most of it with no idea of who it was for or how it could be sold. Whether some of these movies had artistic integrity or not, there is no question there was no audience appeal.
From the low water mark of 1990, there has been a 50% increase in the number of pictures and even since 2000, nearly a 25% increase. And most of the influx came from non-Majors, rising from 150 in 1990 to 450 in 2008. That, my friends, is insanity.
Remember that through this entire period, the only growth at the box office has been inflationary, which means more films were fighting for a share of a flat box office. Over approximately this same period, the biggest hits took even a greater share of the box office pie, meaning the independents, even with a vastly greater number of releases, are taking a dramatically smaller percentage of the available money.
Let me get out the rest of the bad news, though I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. The next 2-3 years will be even worse, not because of the flood of new releases, since that is already abating, but rather due to the effect the over saturation has had combined with the economic downturn.
New money is going to be hard, if not impossible to find. Ad sales are down, so TV networks around the world, other than cable, aren't buying. Add in a confused video market, and it's going to be tough.
To my mind, the next few years will be about survival.
If it's any consolation, it will be harder on the Studios than the independents. Not only is it harder for big companies to change, to adapt, but there are legacy issues in terms of personnel. And within the next few years, their big market advantage, the bricks and mortar of their distribution operations, will become a disadvantage in the democratic age of digital. I would assume at least 2 of the Majors to be sold or consolidated by the middle of the decade.
Before I turn to why I don't think this is all fatal - and in fact, might be a boon - let me address one more item, video. I get asked a lot if the problems are systemic. My answer is not necessarily. That we would reach a point of maturation in DVD is natural and logical, but too much of the downturn is completely self-imposed.
Like much of the bad decision making that has helped take a lot of the profit out of the business, the air was let out of the tires by the studios themselves. No top management of a studio really cared what was going on over the past few years other than was their budget being met.
No one asked whether their units should be pushing Blu-Ray in the face of an economic melt-down or even whether or not Blu-Ray was going to be the next big ap to the general consumer. They simply accepted the idea that they could resell their libraries at higher prices.
So no one asked what impact dropping the price on their existing DVD's would have. I mean if I can buy TITANIC for under $5 in some stores, why am I so eager then to rush out to pay $30 or so when it's released on Blu Ray? Is the quality difference that great? How many formats are yet to come?
No one asked what buying great movies at cheap prices would do to new releases, which may not be as great. Give a consumer with less expendable dollars a choice between LEGALLY BLONDE for $5 or ALL ABOUT STEVE for $20 or $30, which do I want to buy?
Simply said, the studios have destroyed the price-value relationship in video, particularly when low priced rental alternatives have sprung up everywhere.
And then add in the absolute flooding of TV product from the beginning of time into the market, and you have the conditions that have absolutely killed video as the key profit center of new movies.
Ok, so in the face of all this, why can I say this is all good news? Because a lot of waste is going to be cleared from the marketplace. Excess product will go away, the people who don't take the business seriously will go away. Hopefully those who make crummy movies will also go away, but that may just be a personal wish.
In 1984, I went with Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to Disney as perhaps the 4th employee of the new regime. Disney at the time was barely a film producer much less a major distributor. Before we could execute the plans to transform that company into one of the Majors, I was asked to prepare the presentation to the Board of Directors. A lot of capital was at stake.
The numbers, like some of those we've discussed today, were overwhelmingly negative. In truth, the film business has never been an easy one to master. More companies fail than succeed. But what I presented, and this is still one of the absolute truths of the industry, was that it was only a bad business on average. If you expect to be an average performer in this world, you can expect to fail.
Those without the ambition or the brains to figure their way through these tough economic conditions are going to be the heart patients who cannot be saved. No one has a birthright in this business.
It is a game for winners. And those who win today will win to an even greater extent than at almost any point in the past. The flattening of the box office is only true on a macro level. For the individual film, the sky is the limit. Even though there's more piracy of the hit picture than any other, it's still that same hit picture that can score giant revenues in all the ancillary streams.
Those who will win will be smart about what they make and how they sell their films. They will hopefully make good films but perhaps even more key they will make unique films that stand out, which means they will not have to compete against the bulk of the films for talent. They won't look like all the other films so they won't have to spend as much money marketing them.
It's not that the buyers aren't there. Consumers, TV outlets, Retailers and, yes, even Pirates want what works.
Don't believe me? Ask Summit about TWILIGHT. Ask Searchlight about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Ask Screen Gems about DISTRICT 9. Ask Focus about CORALINE.
Let me conclude by saying that the challenges are great. Technological innovations often hurt before they help, it takes resources to fight the sense of entitlement that breeds piracy, it takes skill and experience to know what FDR really meant when he said: We have nothing to fear but fear itself."
No, no, no, damn it, Rosebud isn't a girl I used to ride--she's a sled. Yeah, a sled, see? And, I used to ride her...
The concept behind writing a sequence certainly seems simple enough. A sequence is a string of related events, with a beginning, middle and an end. But, the big trick in placing them in a film or television script isn't what a sequence is--it's the content, timing, and result. An unclear, static, ill advised, or poorly placed sequence will get you the dreaded "execution problems" label, and your spec script is toast.
As I stated before, two things propelled my writing to the next level: developing a command of plot points, and learning to write sequences (which increases a scripts flow and better hooks the reader). I always had an innate talent for writing characters and dialogue, for whatever reason, so it's pretty hard for me to define how I do it. I just do, I suppose. A lot of it, to me, is simply giving your characters a unique/distinct personality and perspective (so you can avoid the dreaded "all the characters sound the same" result). Think of them as people you have met in life. How many times have you met two people who aren't twins that talk that act the same? Rarely, if ever. What makes people you know unique? Linda Seger covers the nuts and bolts of writing characters pretty well in her book.
A lot of writing is common sense, in a way. But, like anything that should be evident, sometimes you need to get hit over the head with it. I did. I also needed to write a lot to get better at it, push myself, and develop dynamic material. Be patient. Take the time to practice. Write some random things for the hell of it. One of the ten page practice sequences I wrote five years ago became a TV spec my agent sent out that was well well received. Nothing is a waste of time--no matter what happens to the material you produce--because you are getting better.
A sequence is a series of scenes in a screenplay (or television script) that are united by a central theme and purpose. There absolutely needs to be a very important reason why it is there, and it needs to be accomplishing something evident. That's the best way I can put it. There might be 2 scenes in a sequence, there might be 10. It just depends on how many scenes you need to tell this story within your story. What a sequence does is allow you to move the story forward a long distance in a short amount of time. It also sucks your audience in, because for a little while, we are only focusing on these particular characters, peering into their lives.
A montage or series of shots is another way to do this, as a condensed sequence, but usually takes a half to a single page--rather than 5-10 pages (the length of your sequence really depends on what you're trying to accomplish, and how quickly you can get it done). A famous montage is the breakfast table in Citizen Kane. It's short, simple, and to the point. As Kane, the character based on William Randolph Hearst, becomes more successful, his relationship with his first wife deteriorates, and the distance between them grows. The table gets longer, and longer, and longer, until they are sitting a great distance apart. This is the classic difference between what I call 'show and tell.' It is always preferable to show the audience rather than have a character tell them with dialogue. Orson Welles uses a table to show this distance, rather than having Kane's wife say, "You know, Charles, I don't feel as close to you as I once did. That giant bouquet in the middle of the table is also obstructing my view."
A sequence is no different, and in a sense, is an extended montage with dialogue. We devote 5-10 pages of the screenplay to something very important in the story, and show as much as possible, as opposed to tell. Sometimes a montage can be a pivotal part of a sequence.
Here is where I start with a sequence. I think of it as the audience is simply going to be spending some time with these characters for a while, to get to know them better, and watch them grow--but, I'm going to get straight to the point. We might end up liking them better, we might hate them worse. But, the sequence will propel the story forward, and have a great purpose. So, let's say a guy meets a girl, asks her out on a date. They have coffee. It goes well, so they have drinks. That goes well, so have dinner together. That goes well, so they go home together, and sleep with one another. Now, things pick up, they're 'in the zone'--spending every waking moment together. Their friends wonder if they've fallen off the face of the earth. Along the way the conversations get deeper, more emotional. The sex gets better. They reveal things to one another. They learn to trust one another. They get married. The sex slows to a stop. They're bored, maybe even restless.
In this sequence, the couple goes from point A (not knowing one another/attraction) to point B (knowing one another well, trusting one another, dating seriously, married, bored). They started out in one very distinct situation, and ended up in another. Maybe it's a month; maybe it's a year. Maybe there's montage in here showing the seasons changing to let the audience know how much time has passed. What have you. You're squishing a long amount of time into a compact package like a wrecked car being crushed into a cube at the junkyard. So, rather than carving this self-contained story up, staggering it, mixing it with other scenes, or whatever, you're just rolling with it for a while. You're allowing your story to progress, uninterrupted. Now that you've gotten to this point, you can get into the meat of your script, the nitty gritty, a pivotal scene, and you didn't spend an entire act getting there. In my relationship analogy, I would take two people longing for, hoping for love. They find it, get deep into this relationship, married, then maybe realize they're bored, or being married isn't as great as they thought it would be. Maybe the newness has worn off and they're both left feeling disappointed. Maybe their relationship is great, but the sex isn't. Maybe they realize they married the wrong person. Maybe they both start cheating. Whatever it is, now that you've gotten here, your story can move forward, or even begin. Without sequences, your screenplay will be in danger of being what's called 'choppy.' You'll be playing with script coverage fire. Now that's not to say that there aren't times where your story can be paying attention to more than one thing for a bit, but sequences generally make for excellent bridges, connecting things--but, most importantly, putting the story in fast forward, so the audience doesn't get bored. Your sequence has a beginning (lonely, unhappy), a middle (dating), and an end (marriage). What you do, and what happens with these people after they get married, is up to you. But, that's essentially your sequence. And, you hopefully crammed one or two years into five to ten minutes so you can get on with it.
You could also be presenting and tracking someone starting a business and making it successful. Do you want to spend 30-60 pages doing that? No. Because we'd be taking a nap. So you find a unique, compelling way to show it in 5-10. Maybe it's someone training a stray dog to catch frisbees. The dog goes from being seemingly worthless and annoying, to having this talent, to getting better and better, to being ready to compete in the world championships. Imagine if that was an entire movie? Or, half the movie was this guy bonding with the dog while it's learning to catch frisbees? Who the hell wants to read about a dog getting better at catching frisbees for sixty pages? You'd want to impale yourself. And, so would an executive. Just make sure that where you start, and where you end--that the journey ends in change for either character. In Citizen Kane, they go from happily married, to their relationship being in shambles. While Hearst's career has never been better, his marriage has never been worse.
Is there a way to show two people meeting, and falling in love with a simple, cutesy montage? Sure. But, would it be as meaningful? Would we be able to see and hear what their friends think? Their families? Their therapists? Typically, audiences (and readers) want more. I've also seen writers put montages in the middle of sequences (to mark the middle). Personally, I try to avoid the montage unless, like Citizen Kane, I can get it done very quickly and succinctly, and it's part of a broader sequence. You must think about the circumstances surrounding that Citizen Kane montage. It works so well because of what leads up to it, and what happens afterward.
Once I started to think about a screenplay as essentially 10-12 major sequences, bridging the gap between the pivotal points of my A, B, and C stories, constructing an appealing story became a whole lot easier--and obviously a whole lot better for executives to read. And, that's what we'll cover next: A, B, and C stories. What they should be, and more importantly, where they should/could be placed for maximum effect.
But, for now, just remember--sequences are simply being able to hang out with a character (or, characters) for a while, and see their life progress--in fast-forward.
Sometimes the better story isn't two people falling in love. It's what happens after the excitement wears off. And, they act on their boredom.
A SIMPLE SCREENWRITING PLOT POINT GUIDE
Back in 1996, a production company optioned one of my scripts, a cop drama, and called me in for a meeting. I was 24 years old at the time, and this screenplay was my third--and my first dramatic piece. I had started out writing comedy, and at the urging of my manager at the time, I exited the genre due to a "lack of movement" in the marketplace for laughter. I was freaking out. I mean, imagine writing your first drama, and getting a manager and an agent out of it. I couldn't catch a cold before that
After sitting down with the principals at the company, and hearing a lot of positive reviews of my writing, I then ducked into a room with the lowest ranking development executive, and we had a secondary meeting. I wasn't expecting any more than the cursory, "good job," and a few more notes. What transpired changed my approach to writing forever. And, everything I needed to know in order to take a jump to the next level as a scribe was on one single sheet of paper.
I had read McKee's Story, and Syd Field's screenplay, but I had never had someone lay it all out in such a concise manner. Really, a screenplay is a formula. Oh, execs will tell you that they hate to read fomulaic material until they're blue in the face, but deep down, they know that a greenlight is going to require a script that confines itself to certain parameters. I tend to think of it more like a recipe. If you were going to make a souflee, what's the first thing you would do? Google, souflee, and look for a recipe. A screenplay is no different. People who know what a souflee is, and what it should taste like, well, they might not mind some creative variation, but in the end, they want to eat a souflee. You follow me?
This development executive basically told me that I had not cooked a souflee, but rather, an apple pie. She was trying to find a way to get me to follow a recipe that Warner Bros., their studio deal, would accept. And, in hindsight, what I had written was just simply too straightfoward. It didn't have enough peaks and valleys and twists and turns to be compelling enough to get bought. She spoke to me for awhile about structure, and thinking about each act as it's own little film (with it's own plot points). Then she handed me the holy grail: a single sheet of paper her professor in film school had given her that summed up everything you needed to know about writing a screenplay in one page, 12 font, single spaced. Then she told me to take my story, and "work backwards." Find out where I wanted my main character to end up, and then think about things I could put in his way.
I was swimming in information, and had just gone from Algebra I to Calculus. I was scared shitless. When you're 24 years old, and write dialogue well, like I did (and still do), you can get away with murder. Because frankly, there just aren't a lot of talented 24 year old writers running around in an industry that is obsessed with youth. I had gotten a huge break, but was not ready for what was going to be required of me. The script, granted a much improved script, went to the studio, and got a pass. I felt as though I had failed miserably.
However, I walked away from that experience a much better writer.
Every screenplay has plot points. Pivotal moments in which your main character faces a very important decision, and your story twists. I like to think of these as positive and negative moments, and the major ones should happen every 30 pages (for a 120 page script). I also like to think of a screenplay as 4 acts, not 3, since, really, your mid-act climax in a script represents a 180. Now, certainly, the second act should be a cohesive 60 pages with the same theme, but the second half of Act II is always quite different. A new character is introduced, the main character gets more desperate, deeper into whatever it is he/she is trying to acomplish, etc. In a courtroom drama, it might simply be when the prosecution has finished their case, rests, and the defense takes over. In between these pivotal major moments are twists as well.
So, we're never really going more than 10-15 pages without something major happening. So, here is the recipe for the major plot points in a screenplay. And, just remember, a film is about a main character who is trying to accomplish something, and he can't, because things keep getting in the way and stopping him--villains, cohorts, the weather, whatever it is--he/she must find constant impedements to their goal. In the end, this journey has changed who they are as a person (their character "arc"), forever. In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise goes from a lawyer who avoids the court room at all costs (because his Father was a famous trial lawyer, and he's afraid he'll never be as good), to being someone who masterfully defends two soldiers charged with murder. And, keep in mind that Cruise first tries to get his case settled out of court. The only reason he adopts the goal of defending these guys is because they refuse to take a deal. So, your character's goal in the first act should be different than what it is in the second. That is your Act One reversal. If your main charcater doesn't face a pivotal decision around page 25-30, and develop a very well defined goal for the rest of the movie, you are simply not writing a screenplay.
You are making a rhoubarb pie.
Your character's life at this very moment. Are things going very well, are they going poorly? Are they just getting by? Has someone very close to them passed away? Are they in jail? Whatever your character is going to try to do differently for a change later on, the set up is who he is now (the opposite of who he'll be in the end).
In a Few Good Men, we find out that Cruise's character has a reputation for never setting foot in a court room, and being a used car salesman. We think he's lazy, and just putting in his time in JAG until he gets out and can sign with some big firm as a defense attorney.
This is the first big decision your character has to make. They have encountered an incident in their life, and although it may seem just like any other (or, it could be more extraordinary), they are going to have to handle this one differently.
Why? Because it's an f-ing movie. That's why. For Cruise in AFGM, he gets the case of the privates who committed a code red, and killed someone. Code reds are no longer allowed in the military, and these two soldiers are in deep shit. Cruise plans to handle this one like every other--with a plea bargain, and a good deal for his clients.
Every act in a screenplay should end with a crisis and climax. Everything your character knew, who they were, 20-25 pages ago, is put in serious jeaopardy.
For Cruise in AFGM, the soldiers refuse to take the deal, even though it is a very good one (Cruise's character plays softball with the prosecutor, and given the circumstances, gets him to go easy on them). Cruise argues with them and can't undertsand why they would risk spending the rest of their lives in jail. But, he has no choice here but to move forward, into a land of the unknown for him, and go to trial. His character might be a lot of things, but he's not a quitter. This plot point marks the line of demarcation between a non-courtroom life, and a courtroom life for Cruise's character. This turn represents a negative for his character because he didn't want to do this in the first place, and now he has two people's lives in his hands. And, he has little to no experience trying a case. It's the same in Star Wars. Luke Skywalker only goes with Ben because his family has been killed. How is some desert guy going to make a difference in defeating the empire? Good lord, Skywalker hasn't even been through flight school. He's more raw than sushi. A lot of screenplays start their second act with a huge bummer (just like a lot of screenplays start with a huge bummer, and the Act I charge is positive).
Think of the first half of Act II as "the climb." Your character is admirably pushing that boulder up the hill. It's going to have it's own set up, now that your main character has experienced this life changing event just a few pages ago. How has this affected him/her? What kind of person are they now? How do they react?
Is Luke Skywalker hell bent on getting revenge on the Empire, or is he just like, "oh well, they killed my family?" It is the Empire killing his family that drives Luke to blow up the Death Star. In AFGM, it is his client's refusal to take a plea bargain that thrusts Cruise into the court room. At the beginning of Act I, Luke Skywalker is a farm hand with big dreams to be a fighter pilot, but his family is discouraging him for some reason. Cruise is a car salesmen who hates the court room for some reason. At the beginning of Act II, Luke instead wants to train with Ben to be a Jedi Knight, so he can kick the Empire's ass. Cruise's character is a trial lawyer, whether he likes it or not.
A pinch is simply a point in your narrative where your main character encounters a major obstacle or incident that puts them in jeopardy, and forces he/she to take their blinders off for a moment. It's a pause in your story that gets your audience on the edge of it's seat.
In Star Wars, it's really the moment where Han Solo and Co. encounter the asteroid field. The asteroids have nothing to do with the Empire, Darth Vader, or the Emporer, it's just space. The whole group of protagonists has to put everything aside, and worry about asteroids. Out of all the things that could do them in and ruin the rebellions chances of defeating the empire, it's floating rocks? In a Few Good Men, it's when Cruise's character finds out one of his clients wasn't in the room when the order for the code red was given.
Think of the mid-act in a script as the peak of Act II. Things are not going to get any better than this for your main character in this act. A new character typically enters the picture (that has typically been set up earlier in the film).
For Luke Skywalker, this is freeing Princess Leia from the clutches of the Empire. Sure, she's not very appreciative, but still. It's a pretty big deal. It also introduces a new character to the story to make things more interesting. It's hard for me to think of a great screenplay that doesn't do this. in AFGM, it's Jack Nicolson's character entering the fold, and putting Tom Cruise's nuts in a vice. He's just begging Cruise to fuck with him. Up until now, Cruise didn't really need an antagonist. The courtroom was his enemy. It should all be downhill from here, though. I like to think of the second half of Act II as, now your character has to push his/her boulder downhill, and it's just too heavy for them now--and worse, it's going 120mph toward a village full of small children holding puppies.
Again, we put our character's goal in jeopardy--even more serious jeopardy because the stakes are now higher.
In Star Wars, everyone gets stuck in a trash compactor. I can't think of a better pinch in a film than this.
This is the moment, coming out of your pinch, where your main character gets the idea for his/her plan that is going to solve everything. By now, things should be falling apart for your main character, and we're coming down off of the peak. We're going downhill, and your main character has that, "a-ha," moment on how to stop the avalanche. He/she develops a plan that makes a lot of sense, might even be fool proof, but it's going to fail miserably.
In AFGM, Markinson agrees to help Cruise exonnerate his clients.
This event is the worst thing that could possibly happen to your main character. It tears their entire world apart.
In Top Gun, it's Goose dying. In Star Wars, Ben, Luke's mentor, is killed. In a Few Good Men, Lt. Markinson kills himself, leaving Cruise's character seemingly with no witness who can refute previous testimony. His clients are going to go to jail forever. He is a terrible trial lawyer, as he always felt. All is always seemingly lost. Your character second guesses himself/herself. Pushes their friends away. They decend into what legendary producer Don Simpson always refers to as, "the shits."
But, they don't stay down for long. Because if they did, it wouldn't be a movie.
As in Act I, and II, you must think about who your character is at this moment, having just watched their entire world crumble to the ground. How long do they stay down? How much do they retract from the world, from friends, etc. Who were they 90 minutes ago? Who do you want them to be in the end? They had better be a lot different, and a lot better, because of what they have gone through.
So, at the end of Act II, your character has a Chrysalis Moment that bombs. But, this time, in Act III, your character is going to have one that works out ((I call this Chrysalis Moment II). He puts all of the self pity, the second guessing, the lashing out at his/her friends aside, and jumps back into action, rejuvinated, working towards that goal. He pulls himself up out of what producer Don Simpson always referred to as, "the shits," and finds a way to keep going. What would Star Wars be like if Luke gave up after Ben was killed? What would A Few Good Men be like if Cruise's character never puts Jessup on the stand?
We make sure we put another pinch in Act III as well.
In a Few Good Men, it's that painfully long moment where Cruise's character is trying to figure out what the hell to do with Jessup's zinger, downs a glass of water, and then tells him to take a seat, "I'm not finished yet."
Your climax is the culmination of everything this character has been through, and their chance to finally succeed. You should always have a twist in your climax as well. An unexpected moment where your main character is tested one last time before they make their decision.
And be the hero. Or, be a good mother. Or, be forgiven. Whatever the case may be. In Star Wars, it's Han Solo coming back to get Darth Vader off Luke's tail and get him in the clear. Luke deciding to use/trust the force to blow up the Death Star is the culmination of his entire journey. Saving the galaxy, avenging his family's death, becoming a Jedi Knight, and being pleasantly surprised by the character of one of his new found friends in the process.
Now, I don't want everyone out there thinking, gee, if I get all of these things down, I can sell a screenplay. Quite the contrary. It is simply the beginning of a very complex process that most writers do not inately understand from watching films. I like to call them "macro" elements. The big picture. The big parts of your story. Once you have these down, you move on to micro elements like scene, nuance, blocks, etc.
Also, a very big part of macro elements: sequences. Two things were holding me back as a writer. Identifying and having a firm grasp of major plot points, and learning to write sequences. Once I mastered those two things, I never heard the dreaded "it has execution probelms," again.
And, sequences will be the next installment of the 'ol writing series. So stay tuned.
--Posted by Angry One--
Writer Stephen Susco (top) trying not to think about the box of Krispy Kremes on the craft service table...
You're set to be the valedictorian, and have accepted a scholarship to M.I.T. Everything you have worked for since you were an embryo is finally coming to pass. The week before graduation you decide to reward yourself and do something crazy for once, so you get high with the school stoner in the tree house you used to play in as kids. For you, it's a satisfying ending to the final chapter of your adolescence.
Only one problem.
That same night, the school announces an upcoming mandatory drug test for all students to get their diploma. You're certain to fail. So, if you're going to have any chance to salvage your dream (and future), you're going to have to do the impossible...
...get the entire senior class stoned in the next 24 hours.
"It's really more of a bromance than a stoner movie, these two people reconnecting," Susco explains, describing the independent film he wrote and produced with John Stalberg, High School. "The idea for the film came from to notion of, hey, we can't get (the main character) to pass (the drug test), but what if everyone else failed? So, the goal isn't necessarily to get everyone stoned, it's just to throw off the test results...although, some weird stuff does happen."
The set up is executed in more of an Amsterdam-ish fashion. The main character, (spoiler alert) decides to try and swap out the normal brownies in the cafeteria with his recipe, shall we say. Along the way he steals weed from Psycho Ed (that cannot be a smart idea--stealing from a dude nicknamed Psycho), a local drug dealer played by Adrien Brody, and faces a formidable antagonist in Michael Chiklis, of The Shield, in the role of the high school principal. Caught in the middle, Colin Hanks' sympathetic character, Brandon, the Assistant Principal, and secret pot smoker.
The filmmakers plan to hop on the festival circuit, where the producers and investors hope to find a distributor and recoup their investment. "Studios just won't make movies for 10 million anymore," Susco says, talking about why he and Stalberg chose the independent route to make High. "Their costs are too high." Since they did not have traditional studio bills attached, like script development, the film's backers were able to keep the budget down, and their potential for profit up.
Working outside the studio system also has other advantages: more creative control. "It was good because this was my first time fully producing a film. Really producing. Putting out fires, solving problems... not just sitting on the set," Susco explained. "That's what I was seeking. The action of putting a film together." Susco served as co-producer on The Grudge II, a studio film he wrote, and being on set really reminded him of what he loved about filmmaking. "It recharged me, and brought me back to what I loved about writing: the characters." So, when the idea for High School came along, Susco knew he wanted to be more involved. "Getting a chance to produce on High School came from two things," Susco recalls. "The success of my first studio film, The Grudge, and co-producing on Grudge II." "It was nice walking on set and people weren't telling me to leave," Susco said with a laugh.
Kids if you're reading at home, always hold hot beverages with two hands...
Susco's writing career got off to a self-described "bizarre" start. He pitched to the President of New Line and scored an assignment adapting the novel Bone in the Throat. But, it was only after a series of highly unlikely events led to a spec he wrote in graduate school falling into the right hands. "I wrote a script in film school that never went anywhere initially," he explained. "Then, New Line calls out of the blue and said they might be interested in my writing partner and me adapting a book. So, I skip class, go pitch to the President of New Line in New York, and we get the job." Turns out, Susco's spec (his eighth, by the way) had mistakenly gotten on the President's stack, he read it, and responded. "A total script mix-up," he admitted. "But, I put it out there, and got in the mix. Anytime you do that you increase the likelihood of something bizarre happening," he said with a chuckle. "The insanity (of the business) is promising, in a way, because the randomness can work for you."
While Susco was a working writer from 1996 (the New Line assignment) to 2004, he still wasn't able to get a film produced from one of his original scripts until he wrote his twenty-fifth--The Grudge. It took the backing of Sam Raimi, coming off the success of The Ring to get The Grudge pre-sold in Japan. Because of the increase in the popularity of Asian horror films (thanks in large part to The Ring), Grudge actually pre-sold for more than was budgeted.
There were times during that string of films, from number eight to number twenty-five, when Susco would get down because no one seemed to feel like his writing was worthy of an actual film. "I had to remind myself how lucky I was that someone had actually paid me for something I'd written." But, he never got so frustrated he thought about quitting. "Quitting is ridiculous," he stated. "If someone quits writing, they're not a writer. Never stop writing. You're writing (a spec) for free anyway."
Inevitably, Susco is approached by writers who are starting out, and is asked for advice, he usually starts his "pep talk" with a dose of reality. "I tell them, "You're not going to like what I have to say."" It is, after all, an incredibly difficult business, and one that is notorious for being nearly impossible to break into. And, Susco would rather be up front and honest, than try to sugar coat. "[I tell them] have a good script, and know how to write before you move [to Los Angeles]," the Pennsylvania native purported. "What's the point of taking that kind of risk if you're not prepared?" Susco, who followed his own advice, wrote a number of screenplays in college, and felt as though he had a solid spec before he moved and enrolled in film school. "Otherwise you're going to be handing people something that isn't ready." Like many of the other successful writers he knows, Susco had zero contacts when he arrived in Southern California. "Most A-list writers I know didn't have any contacts at all. But, they came out here and found a way to meet people."
The other question Susco, and presumably any other successful writer, gets is, "Do I have to live in L.A. to make it?" "I think you can write from anywhere," he answered. "But, you have to be in it for the marathon, not the sprint." Making that an even greater possibility today is the prevalence of material online. "Back then, I had to go to the script library (at film school) to read. Today, everything's on the internet." Susco suggests reading as many different scripts and genres as possible to, "See the diversity, and liberation within the constraints of the structure." Reading books on the business is another part of his recipe for success--particularly ones written by or about producers. "I still read books on the business," he explained. "[The books] give insight into what executives, producers, etc., require."
Like most writers, one of Susco's favorite books on the business is William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade. "It's informative (in regard to the business), but it also tells you how to be a writer, how to conduct yourself, what you need to do." Goldman is the author of one of the most famous quotes in Hollywood. Susco knows it well. ""Nobody knows anything." I think those are the three best words ever uttered about the film industry."
Susco is the recipient of some of that logic (or illogic?) and knows it all too well. "There are two types of people who go through Hollywood. The first is the type of person who turns and runs when they realize the landscape. The second is the type that says, "Oh, wow, this is great. There's always going to be an opportunity because of the insanity."
"And, I can promise you, when something does happen, it's gonna be bizarre."
Stephen Susco is a 1995 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and received a Masters from the USC Film School in 1999.
--by Gary Bueller--