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Producing : How to Make a Movie that Sells... by Stacey Bradford Schaller

Stacey Bradford Schaller

How to Make a Movie that Sells...

That's the #1 question on every producer's mind -- and it's the topic everyone swarms to learn more about. Books, webinars, discussions ... So, with the libraries of info posted by myriads of experts more experienced than I, why do I tackle the subject? Well, I'm an expert too. I've got the card that says so; I have the crystal ball; and I know everything about everything. (Didn't you get the memo?) ;) OK, so I'm not all that -- but I AM an expert. I am a film fan. I know what I like and I know why I like it. The same is true for the minions of film fans that are scattered across the globe. While most could not direct a decent movie if their lives depended on it, they know what they like -- and they vote with their money. In virtually all of the material on crafting films that sell, the focus has been on packaging/selling to distribution. What do distributors want? What do they like? Etc. Etc. While that is a valuable focus, I feel it is near-sighted. You should be asking the same question the distributor asks ... "What do audiences want?" In this era of web networking, it has literally become possible to bypass distributors altogether and go directly to fans. (Not usually profitable, but definitely possible.) And whether you will be aiming for traditional distribution channels, or going Wild West, determining what audiences want is THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION. So, I, the "expert" (film fan), will present my observations on how to make a movie that sells. And, like you should with most experts, I invite you to take what you can use -- and dump the rest. If what I say helps you in any way, you're welcome (and maybe you can give me a credit in your film ;). Better yet, call me, and we might just pick your film up for distribution. :) I have a number of points, so I'll post them in installments as I have a chance. So, here goes... I just as well start with the most important thing in producing a film that sells (in case I don't get back soon - or you miss a point while shooting your next project). It's not name talent. Not a mega-MM budget. Nope, it's not getting your hands on the best camera invented. The most important element of making a movie that sells is The Story. It's also the cheapest part. And it's the part that indie filmmakers almost universally fail at (which is why so many have a hard time selling). Boat loads of classes, courses, books and articles walk filmmakers through the mechanics of making a movie. Lighting. Sound. Cameras. Angles. Movements. Editing. A college student can afford enough pro-grade equipment to shoot a movie that looks fantastic. (I know. I've done it.) But no one cares how good the film looks of they don't care about the story. There are a number of good books that can help you get started with your writing. They can't however, make you a good writer. I do have some tips to help you get there, though, and hopefully the use (of at least a few) of them will help you become the master writer your film needs you to be. Tip #1: The Devil is in the Details If you find yourself shrugging off the incredulous glances of your friends/production team with with the comment "It's a movie! No on expects it to be real," or if you find yourself constantly saying, "We'll figure it out in Post," your in danger of missing the details. Details matter. Film fans can't always tell what details are missing or wrong, but they can tell it's not right. (It's like spelling. You know when a word does not look write, but you may not know the rite way to spell it.) ;) When the EMT rushes into a room, does he actually say THAT? How does a car actually sound as it crunches over a gravel road (I've actually read screenplays that that have the tires squealing.) Would the character really respond that way? How would a cop actually confront an assailant. I can't tell you how many times a film has lost me at the point where bad-guy has a hostage and demands that good-guy drops his weapon. So good-guy does. At which point bad-guy does something bad. >:( Seriously!?! No good-guy in his right mind would give control of the situation to the bad-guy. In real life, that could never have a happy ending. And then (miraculously), good-guy gets some surprise advantage that turns the situation around (usually while bad-guy is monologing). Remember, when you get the details right, you keep your audience engaged with a much more believable story. Tip #2: Observe. Observe. Observe. Watch everyone. Listen to how they speak - what they say - what they don't say. Examine how people hold their pens, "squinch" their noses, and open doors. Feel you car accelerate, decelerate, take a corner. How does it sound? What do you see? Examine how tablets interact with users. Watch dogs run. Sit on a park bench and watch the wind rustle through the trees. Getting a deep, rich feel for the world and how it works will help you write "authentically." I can't tell how many times I have seen screenwriters get things wrong because they don't know enough to get it right. And I can't tell how many times that I have appreciated when writers DID get details right. :) Tip #3: Do your Research Compared to the other things you will do to get your film done, research is cheap. Many times, I don't even need to step away from my computer or spend a thin dime to get the info I need. How many guns does a schooner have? A Man-O-War? How many wheels does a big-rig have? (What IS a big-rig anyway?) Who wasJFK's Secretary of State. Where did he grow up? In what sort of carriage would a Victorian-Era gentleman ride through London? How many foot-pounds of thrust would a Saturn-V rocket engine deliver? How long does a typical fencing duel take when using a foil? How about a rapier? When did Julius Caesar live? Who were his compatriots? How does a GI hold a Winchester 30-06 rifle? How does a Vietnam Marine mount a 60mm mini-gun? Your story will be filled with details, and you weave the tapestry of your scene in some time and some place. To make it authentic, or to take advantage of dramatic opportunities presented by the setting, you need to research. Tip #4: Write "Real" Dialog Most screenplays fail on the dialog. Writers will pen things like: TEEN Hello, Mother! It is a fantastic day today. MOTHER It certainly is, Rose. Did you drink your milk today? TEEN Yes, Mother, I did. Gag!!! Seriously!?! Unless you are writing a spoof of a '50's sitcom, them lines ain't gonna fly. (Of course everyone is writing sassy teens these days, which isn't necessarily more realistic.) As you watch people, you'll discover that most of what we say is not spoken in words. Salt that through your script. Instead of dialog, you might describe the actions. And you might describe the emotions... While studying screenwriting in school, I was taught to write visually. Writing emotions was discouraged. "You can't show what's inside someone's head," I was instructed. But you can. Writing emotions helps the actor determine his or her motivations. The skilled cast member can then convert the feelings into (often subtle) actions or expressions that belie the thoughts and emotions you hope to convey. But to accurately describe those emotions, or to get to what is natural, you must carefully observe people in the real world and get a feel for how those emotions look in action. Tip #5: If you Sell them on the Mundane, you can Sell them on the Fantastic People are used to the way things are. When things don't fit, they notice. This is particularly true with the way individuals respond in given situations. Certain types of dialog "feel natural" in a certain situation while others don't. Certain people might say something one way while others would say it differently. Actions are specific. "Props" are specific. Eccentricities are specific. You are going to try to sell your audience on something fantastic in some way or another. Maybe it's the coincidental meeting that leads to romance. Perhaps its time travel. Maybe its fast-action combat that the star "magically" survives. You want your audience to believe that it could actually happen just that way. To convince them, you must get the "normal" right. How people speak, how they move, what props can be found in what locations, how they can interact. The things in your story that would be "normal" to viewers must be believable, or your audience will not buy the fantastic. Some of you may argue that "comic realism" ignores reality (like traveling through space in a Winnebago). Remember, though, that is part of the fantastic. The "mundane" has to be true to reality at an acceptable level. Tip #6: You can make the rules, but you can't break them What!!! Doesn't that violate the artistic nirvana of filmmaking? Here is what I mean. You can establish the rules of your own cinematic world, but you can't break your rules. Your rules set up "normal" in your film world. When you violate your rules, you tend to lose the audience. (If you don't get too far off track, most people won't notice, but be careful of that). For instance, when you have an invincible character fighting a lesser character, your action choreographer will will want to make your hero nearly fail before succeeding. If he's invincible, however, it doesn't make sense that he could even be close to losing. If you establish the rule, however, that he has a weakness (Kryptonite?), the lesser character has a chance by exploiting the weakness. Star Wars: Episode #2 violated the rules. It was established that the Master and the Apprentice always existed. If the Apprentice killed the master, he became the master. If another killed the apprentice, the victor became the new apprentice. Then Obi-Wan killed Darth Maul. Magically, no new apprentice. Some other character was introduced in Episode #3 as the new apprentice. To keep the rules, Darth Maul would needed to have come back to allow Anakin to defeat him and take his place as the new apprentice. It would have made the third movie more exciting, and let the film stick to the rules. The recent Star Trek prequel however, followed the rules -- and did so very well. It was very established that transporter technology existed in the Star Trek world. In the recent "prequel" films, the storytellers used a very natural story flow to explain the generation of that technology. It augmented the story and made the fantastic more believable. Tip #7: Write You heard me. The best way to become a good writer is to start out a bad one. Write. Write a lot. Then throw it away. And wrote some more. Writing is TOUGH. I wrote a short novel (trashed), two screen plays (horrible) and a first draft of a third (useless) before writing four enjoyable novellas and an (in my humble opinion) excellent script. You need to write a lot, get criticized a lot, grow tough skin, learn a lot, and write some more before becoming good. Tip #8: Get Criticized--a Lot! I can't over emphasize the tough hide part of the above. You are not your script and your script is not you. Nor is it your baby. The sheets will not crackle and burst into flame when someone dares to call it crap. It probably is. Here is the trick for handling criticism, however: Get Details! Critics have opinions, but "This script is B*** S***," is not helpful. What IS helpful is for the critic to say, "The character, Joe, is too flat and one-dimensional, and I read 86 pages before I found any plot to hang onto. And you only wrote 87 pages!" Everyone has his or her own opinion. Some people will love something while others hate it. Getting details, however, will give you clues to confusing details, missing plot points and misguided characterizations. When you find common threads in the criticisms, that's when it is time to pay attention. Some of you remember the Greenlight Project. It was a script competition that, in lieu of an entry fee, required participants to review at least three other scripts. I entered my first script, and it got horrible reviews. But no one agreed on why the script was so bad. They did have a common thread, however. All of the reviewers said that my characters were flat and predictable. They were under-developed and uninteresting. That was useful information. Now, that screenplay has more things wrong than just character development, so you won't see it on screen any time soon, but the opinions did help me to better write my subsequent script. With script criticism, remember, "it's not personal. It's business." Take the criticism with a grain of salt, make the needed fixes (if possible) and move forward. OK, I recon that's about enough chawin'. I'll save more for later. Your mission, if you chose to accept it, will be to observe and to write. This message will not self destruct in five seconds (so you can come back for a second look). ;) So, is this helpful? What questions do you have that might, if answered, help you make a movie that sells? I look forward to your comments. :)

Stacey Bradford Schaller

WOW! Wound up being long. Next time I'll keep it shorter. :)

Stacey Bradford Schaller

Are you looking for distribution options? What project(s) are you working on? What films have you produced in the past?

Beulah Jones

Stacey, I have just written a BioPic. It ismy first attempt at writing a screenplay and the difference in writing an autobiography and writing a movie script is unbelievable. I am not a "screen writer" nor do I aspire to be one. I only want to get my screenplay produced to tell my story :). I've been told it's a good story and needs to be told. I have a logline, a synopsis and I'm working on a treatment. I intend to pitch on Joey's pitchfest, when I have perfected my pitch.Any advice you can give will be most appreciated? Also, you mentioned a script in which the tires were "screeching". How was that sound written inthe script?

Stacey Bradford Schaller

Regarding the sound, the script might read "The tires SQUEALED as JOEY gunned the gas." I have seen those descriptors in screenplays, though most often they are introduced by the sound designer later. In this case, a writer should have penned "The tires GROUND the loose gravel as JOEY gunned the gas." Though filmmakers are not always looking for realism, realism in the screenplay helps add richness and depth to the story. People begin to "get lost" in your story as it "feels right." When it "feels wrong," for what ever reason, it shocks them back to reality and interrupts the story. Different viewers have different thresholds, so filmmakers can get by with some "unrealism," but the better you do it, the more audience you will keep--and the more "sellable" you movie will be. Regarding the log line, pitch and synopsis, go ahead an run it by me. And you can send me a private message if you don't want it "out there." I'll tell you what I think. I can probably better tell you what definitely won't sell rather than what definitely will. Everyone is different, and that's true for producers as well. They have different tasted and interests, so you will get a lot of "No's" even if it is good. But if it is good, keep after it and someone will tell you Yes. :)

Beulah Jones

Please send me your e-mail address.

Egypt Reale

I love this post so much truth to it - story is everything! And telling something people can relate to and see to be real is gold and if you add into that marketing materials - such as new cell phones and other such things like they did in matrix - you've got a seller!

Stacey Bradford Schaller

Absolutely. :) In film school, we had this saying: "You can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can't make a good movie from a bad script."

Beulah Jones

Stacey, Did you get my script?

Stacey Bradford Schaller

I don't think so, Beulah. When did you send it?

Beulah Jones

Yes, how. You can use my story for an example. :)

Robin Chappell

"NObody knows Nothing." William Goldman

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