Blog by Doug Davidson, Produced Screenwriter and Screenplay Consultant. Doug is a credited writer on two direct-to-video animated features for Lionsgate: Elephant Kingdom starring Cary Elwes, Patrick Warburton and Alexa PenaVega and The Giant King starring Bella Thorne and Russell Peters.
A few years ago, my manager submitted a script of mine to Sony. After a weekend of nail-biting anticipation I finally found out that they!!!!!!! -- passed.
The reason, I was told, was that they have a policy of making films offering “wish fulfillment” and this particular script didn’t fit the bill.
It got me thinking about the idea of wish fulfillment in movies, and since then I’ve noticed that audiences have a way of loving films and TV shows that play out certain scenarios. If you include one or more of them in your story, you’ll have a better chance of selling your work. Here are three to choose from:
One – Average Guy Attracts Beautiful Woman
How many sitcoms feature a regular guy with an unusually attractive woman? It happens all the time.
Think of Big Bangfor example. Leonard, while sweet, isn’t even an “average” guy. He’s a serious nerd. And yet: Penny?
Audiences don’t usually talk about why, but they love watching stories like this. They love them because they secretly want to believe this is possible.
Not enough stories flip it around the other way: an average woman with an extraordinary guy. In the past it was probably because nobody could believe any man had that kind of sensitivity and depth. But times have changed, and this could be a great wish fulfillment scenario in modern stories.
Two – We All Get To Be “Super”
In light of the soaring box office numbers of Avengers Endgame, I’ve been wondering: Why is it that superhero movies are so incredibly popular? Is it because so many people love comic books? Not likely. Only the nerdy guys – who happen to date beautiful women in sitcoms – love comics.
The real reason superheroes are so popular is because most audience members are “powerless”. Most of us aren’t the bosses; most of us are the underlings being ordered around. Teenagers, the core audience for superhero movies, feel ordered around by their parents and teachers. In terms of influence, finances and control over our time, most of us feel like we have no power at all.
But the classic superhero origin story tells us that we might suddenly become powerful –very powerful. We’re all secretly waiting for the radioactive spider of our emotional lives to bite us and set us free.
That’s the force behind the many blockbuster superhero films – that and snarky one-liners.
Three – Against All Odds Characters Survive
We’re all secretly – or not so secretly – afraid to die. There are many threats to our existence, and modern media broadcasts them daily.
That’s why audiences love to see a good “survival” scenario. Yes, it’s because life and death stories have great conflict, but it’s deeper than that. Storylines like this affirm a belief that no matter what we face, we’ll still be all right. And our loved ones will still end up all right. Yeah, some minor characters will bite it, but for us it’s all going to be okay.
What Do All Three Of These Have In Common?
It all comes down to hope.
The majority of moviegoers feel less “successful” – less loved, less powerful and less safe – than they need to feel.
But they never give up hope.
While our media presents a constant parade of super-successful people, that’s not even close to reality for most. And that disparity causes negative feelings.
And people don’t go to movies simply to escape those feelings.
The movies audiences really love make them believe – despite the odds – that success (however they envision it) can still happen, that it can still somehow seem likely to happen.
That’s wish fulfillment, and for screenwriters it’s a very powerful tool.
We all learn from our missteps. These are the lessons we never forget. So to save you the trouble of making all your own mistakes, here are three of my own fumbles made during meetings with producers and studio execs.
One – Don’t Forget To Read Your Audience
I remember pitching to two young producers at Red Wagon. The two producers were very “main stream” corporate types – nothing artsy about them. But I decided to pitch an oddball indie project I wanted to do. Neither of the two was taken with the idea, and one of them thought it was “gross”.
The lesson here: Know your audience. Take a few minutes to get to know the producers you’re meeting before launching into a pitch. A lot of producers/execs like to share their favorite movies with writers. That’s an easy way to learn their preferences. Have pitches in multiple genres ready to go, and then take the time to listen and choose the pitch best suited to hit home in the room.
Two – Don’t Forget To Support Your Argument
I was pitching an idea called Alien Baby. The idea of the project was that an Earth couple adopts a baby from outer space. In my pitch, I told a producer that all the things that are hard about raising children were a thousand times harder with an alien baby. And then I said something like: All the things that are great about raising kids, it’s even bigger and more emotional in the movie. The producer’s reaction was flat. He said, “I guess I’ll have to take your word for it,” and then he asked to hear about something else.
The lesson here: Don’t pitch in vague terms about how great or funny or emotional your screenplay is. Unless you’ve already written a bona fide Hollywood hit, you need to provide specific details. You need to prove your script is what you say it is. You need to support your argument. And do it from the get go, before the person you’re pitching asks to hear about “something else.”
Three – Don’t Be Anywhere Near Late
This one hurts to recall.
I had my one and only meeting at Disney. Disney has an in-house writing program, and my agents were able to convince them to give me a shot at it.
I wasn’t actually late, but I got lost on the way, and I cut it too close. I was really frazzled by the time I got through the doors. I probably looked a mess. I felt like a mess. And the meeting just didn’t go as well as it could have.
I pitched an idea about snowmen having to cross the equator, and the exec brushed it off quickly, saying they already had a “snowman” story in development. I don’t know for sure, but this might be the project that turned into Frozen. Or maybe the exec just wanted a polite excuse to blow me off. It may not have mattered at all, but I’ll never know if it could have gone better if I’d had the time to get myself together.
The lesson here: Give yourself as much extra travel time as necessary to make sure you’re never ever even close to late.
For a bit of extra motivation to push harder on our screenplays – and as an excuse to spend some time thinking about my favorite Hollywood area hotels – this month’s blog lists five great Los Angeles locales to celebrate a big break.
The Beverly Hilton
This unassuming edifice at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica is the home of the Golden Globes. They have a large circular driveway where they’ve been known to park their guests’ most exotic rides for all to gawk at. So if you’ve just sold a screenplay, you can research the hot new car you plan to buy right outside the spacious main lobby. I saw a Bugatti there once. If that’s the one you pick, you’ll have to sell a few more scripts.
The Hotel Bel-Air
This famous La La Land lodge offers “out of the fray quiet elegance”. It has a simple round pool – nearly empty and silent the one time I stayed there. There was an equally noiseless herb garden with the most amazing aromas – oregano and basil melding with the nearby lavender and bougainvillea. It’s a place to sit back, listen to your dreams and smell victory.
The Beverly Wilshire
I never actually stayed here, but I attended an industry event inside its hallowed walls at the south end of Rodeo Drive. The ornate arched entryway is grand. You walk past pillars framing impeccably clean windows into a world of luxury and privilege. This is the hotel where they filmed the moviePretty Woman – you know, the one where Julia Roberts plays a hooker who falls in love with her john. Hoist a drink here with your fellow screenwriters and toast to prostituting your soul to Hollywood.
The Beverly Hills Hotel
I love this place. It’s pure pink panache tucked in among a rainforest of semi-tropical foliage. There’s something so old-school glam about the setting, it makes for an amazing spot to sit poolside on a plush chaise lounge and tweak your latest script. And yes, it’s very likely you’ll dine near someone famous in the Polo Lounge. My wife and I sat ten feet from Diane Keaton. Maybe, in a few years, someone will be able to say they sat ten feet from you.
The Chateau Marmont
You’ve probably heard the old saying about this storied Sunset Strip hotel: “If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” That idea always appealed to me. This hilltop gothic palace is the place to party when you really have a reason to let loose. I’ve never stepped foot on the grounds. I vowed not to until I’ve done everything I wanted to in screenwriting. I haven’t done that yet – not even close. I’m not even sure what it will look like, but I’ll know it when it happens. And when it does – or if my writing career ever tanks for good – you’ll find me at the Chateau Marmont getting in trouble.
When I read scripts, there’s a phenomenon that happens fairly often. It goes like this:
The writer manages to impress me with some fresh comedy in the early pages, and I’m looking forward to more of the same.
But then the writer does something that threatens to ruin the whole script.
Don’t worry if you’ve done this in your screenplay, because it’s not a very hard fix.
It’s just a matter of having the discipline to NEVER do this one thing.
What monumental and yet easily remedied mistake do all these writers keep making?
They re-use old jokes.
Even one outdated/over-worn gag will make your entire screenplay feel less original. Producers looking for writing samples will worry that you’ll throw tired old comedy at their project. Readers who were enjoying your story will stop in their tracks and question your abilities.
But again, there’s no need to panic, because all you have to do is ready up your delete button and take out any old jokes.
Here, for purposes of illustration, is a non-exhaustive list of overused gags:
Things being what “she said”.
Anything about injuries leaving a mark.
Anything to do with falling and not getting up.
Star Wars homages.
Generic hard-to-assemble-furniture bits.
Saying hello to “my little friend”.
Any riff on if the glove doesn’t fit.
Yucks about being the most interesting man in the world.
Any play on happenings staying in Vegas.
You get the idea.
Is it possible to write a joke in one of these heavily trodden areas with such a clever twist that it feels fresh once again?
Sure, it’s possible.
Anything is possible.
But it’s much more likely that it will do more harm than good.
If I see this kind of hackneyed humor in a screenplay I’m reading at Four Star Feedback, will I turn against the entire project with inordinate levels of annoyance and disdain?
That won’t happen.
But I will mention that you can do better.
And don’t worry -- I won’t badmouth you around town. What happens at Four Star Feedback stays at Four Star Feedback. :-)
It’s Halloween season, time to turn to spooky stuff. Going eerie won’t be hard for me at all because the screenplay biz can be downright bloodcurdling. Here’s my top five countdown of screenwriting frights:
5. Screenwriters are constantly vanishing into thin air!
It’s a “what have you done lately” kind of culture in Hollywood. Nobody cares if you wrote a great spec 5 years ago. You have to keep producing new work or a mist will soon surround you, and you’ll never be heard from again. [Insert evil laugh here.]
4. People Want You To Work For NO MONEY!!
It happens all the time. Producers ask you to develop an idea for nada, or option your script for zilch. I remember I was offered a one-dollar option, and I was new to the business, and this guy was from L.A. and convinced me to take the deal. I told him okay, but I wanted the dollar, the actual dollar – the first dollar I would earn as a screenwriter. He said of course. He never sent it.
3. Writing Is Torture!!!
Writing crappy scripts is pain free, but getting to a pro-level final draft, it just plain hurts, on a soul-eviscerating level. Learn to love it.
2. There Is SO MUCH Competition!!!!!!!
Yes, we’ve all heard that thousands of hacks hurl mediocre screenplays at Hollywood every year. But that’s not the scary part. The scary part is what I’ve seen as a writer, as a screenplay festival judge and as a consultant at Four Star Feedback. The really scary part is how many talented screenwriters are out there on the margins of the biz. I’ve seen it first hand. These are the ones you need to worry about.
You can be very talented, but you can’t just settle for making your screenplays pretty good. Your specs have to work on all levels. They have to be great. That’s one of the reasons getting feedback is so important – if you hope to survive . . .
1. People May HATE Your Work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This is what writers really fear, isn’t it?
This is the ineffable horror that lurks around the corner of every spec submission, the boom falling on one’s fading hopes of ever having talent.
But this is just a phobia, an urban myth, a nonexistent hobgoblin that shouldn’t be scary at all. Here’s why:
All writers get criticized. It happens all the time. It’s all just a matter of opinion. And it absolutely doesn’t mean you have no talent.
I’ll end this entry with my own personal horror story:
A number of years ago, I sent out one of my very first spec scripts to an industry reader. I was excited about this one. I had worked hard on it.
And the feedback came in.
It was petrifying.
The reader said things like: “this screenplay needs a lot more, comedically and dramatically” . . . “it has tone problems throughout” . . . and “it never gets off the ground”.
I sunk into an emotional early grave when I read this.
It stung like a thousand mutant bees.
It was “scary”.
After several dark nights of the soul, I went back to work on the script.
I got other much-more-helpful feedback on it, and I dug in on a revision.
New writers often think the industry is biased against them.
In some ways that’s true. Film executives are risk averse and love the comfort of banking on a scribe who already has a hit at the box office.
But new writers have one big advantage that pros often find unavailable:
Writers on assignment don’t get nearly as much time to write.
But You Get At Least Fourteen Weeks To Write A Screenplay On Assignment, Right?
Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.
On several low-budget assignments for Lionsgate, I was asked to turn around an entire feature film script in less than a month. I’m not talking about the first draft. I’m talking about done – “heading into production” done. That’s barely time to come up with one viable storyline and execute as quickly as possible.
It’s not even close to the ideal way to write a screenplay.
Ideally, you take a month or more just to brainstorm ideas, and then you carefully construct a treatment, and then you get feedback on that treatment and revise, and then you take your time crafting a first draft, and then you get feedback on that draft, and you revise, and you rinse and repeat and repeat, until you have a finely polished feedback-vetted gem.
This process takes months and months, so when you see a movie written on assignment and think “that could have been better” spend a moment wondering if the credited writer was given even close to enough time.
A few years back, I was working with a very successful and influential producer and was asked to rewrite the outline for half a feature film in one night and then walk into a studio the next day to pitch it. It was nuts, but I wasn’t about to say no to that request. There’s no saying no.
And That’s The Great News For New Screenwriters
You’ve got all the time in the world to write your spec.
You can go through every step of the creative process.
You can get feedback on your story so you know what’s working and what isn’t.
You can take the time to remove a story element that just isn’t playing to readers.
You can revise again and again until every moment is perfect.
Revision Isn’t Easy
It takes a ton of time. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, you can put together a compelling script, and that achievement will be your key to the industry.
All it takes is one writing sample that really works.
And you can get representation.
And you can actually make your way in.
And Once You Make It:
You’re going to have to write a lot faster, but that’s a great problem to have.