Intro & disclaimer

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A LYRICAL STYLE: People tend to think of screenplays the way they think of novels. In truth writing a script is much more like writing poetry. The form and structure are paramount, and the goal is to convey as much information as possible in as compact a form as possible. Not only does every word count, every syllable counts.
Song lyrics are one form of poetry. I prefer to think of screenwriting as song writing. Consider the following line, for example, as if it were the first line of a screenplay: The screen door slams. Mary's dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays. Springsteen fans will recognize the opening line to "Thunder Road." But it reads quite well as a descriptive passage. If a screenplay began with such a simple, evocative line, I'd know I was in good hands; I'd be hooked. It conveys setting, tone, character, situation, with an incredible efficiency (unlike long-winded WORDPLAY articles). A time and place are described using a very limited number of syllables -- which is what an effective style is all about.
In the end, stylistically, the screenwriter is free to do whatever works to effectively convey the intent of the scene. There are some even more radical choices that can be made: for example, to imply overlapping dialog, two dialog blocks can be printed side-by-side. Or you can write 'overlap this dialog with' above the second block. It's even not inconceivable that a screenplay contain a diagram, for clarity's sake. The rule is: if there's a solid reason to do it, go ahead. But if you're doing it to be cute, or to cover up dull writing, you won't be fooling anybody. It does require focus and discipline to subjugate one's style to the singular purpose of transferring the vision of the film to the reader. To refrain from being cute, or brilliant, or even funny -- to instead just get the intent of the scene across. But that's what has to be done It's your first priority as a writer to get the screenplay sold, attract the directors and stars, and to get a green light. After that you can hang out on the set and convey everything else that you know about the story. Jeffrey Katzenberg once said in a story meeting, "The screenplay is first and foremost a selling tool. It isn't always the movie that gets made -- but it's always what gets the movie made." Amen. * Original AOL-era title: "Style vs. Substance"


Here's the cynical view: At one point the movie business was a wide-open field, a culturally relevant popular art form that drew the most creative individuals of society, who challenged themselves to achieve ever-higher levels of expertise, always pushing the boundaries of the medium, pursuing excellence with artistic integrity and creating a new golden age of cinema. That all ended around 1985. Now what we have is a mature industry, codified, operating within narrow creative limitations, leaning heavily on formula, cynically focused on churning out cynical product, everyone's gaze firmly focused on the bottom line. It's an industry that continues forward on sheer momentum, trading on the audience's ever-dimming memory of past glories, and their hope to have such experiences again... but the business can only distract and dazzle, leaving audiences with a gnawing sense that things aren't as good as they once were but not really understanding why. For example: movie titles. Perhaps you think you can just come up with a title you think is great, and be done with it. It's not quite that easy. Consider the following: For that Mel Gibson film about kidnapping, Disney Studios' Joe Roth paid $600,000 to Columbia Pictures for the title RANSOM. (If you're keeping score at home, that's over half a million for one word! I wonder if the script cost that much?) For the Demi Moore Navy Seals picture, Disney paid Hasbro several hundred thousand dollars to use the title, G.I. JANE. (This despite the fact that the film is clearly about the Navy, not the Army!) In order for Pixar to use the title A BUG'S LIFE, Disney had to trade the rights to two titles it 'owned' to Warner Bros. -- FATHER'S DAY and CONSPIRACY THEORY. It's a war out there... even with something as simple and basic as a film title. Let's keep going on the business-end stuff, get that out of the way first, before we go on to talk 'creative.'
BUSINESS CONSIDERATIONS First off, don't believe a word I write, I'm not an entertainment lawyer. But, as I understand it, you can't copyright a title. But when a title is in the marketplace, it can acquire a secondary meaning -- for example, the public has an expectation that all STAR WARS films are likely to be produced by George Lucas. The title STAR WARS can then be trademarked, and thus protected. You can, in some cases, register a title as a trademark before it even enters the marketplace to acquire its secondary meaning. Again -- consult your lawyer for details. (While we're on STAR WARS... studio research at the time deemed it a terrible title. 'Star' was considered bad, because nobody went to see science fiction movies. And 'Wars' was terrible, because war pictures were box office death. Somehow the film managed to overcome the terrible hindrance of such an awful title.) A second way to protect a title is by registering the title with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). There's a $300 per year fee to subscribe to the service. And a $200 charge to register 10 titles. The first party to register a title has the right to use it. But this only protects you against other members signatory to the MPAA, not to all producers everywhere. Each MPAA member is allowed 250 titles under permanent registration -- but the big studios, using corporate umbrella entities, retain thousands of registered titles. Squabbles are resolved by arbitration. And on the subject of squabbles, we've run into title problems on several of the movies we worked on:

#1. Robert A. Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS There was an existing series of direct-to-video films called PUPPETMASTER, produced by Charles Band, about killer marionettes. Apparently our two-word, pluralized version of the title with the word 'The' didn't distinguish THE PUPPET MASTERS enough in the marketplace. Other titles were toyed with -- I think DOMINION was the best of the various suggestions -- but it was hard to feel satisfied with anything but the title of the original, classic novel. And there was marketplace value, it was felt, to using a title that would be familiar with fans of Robert Heinlein. Finally the somewhat cumbersome "Robert A. Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS" was chosen as the best way to navigate all the competing concerns. (This is the same tack chosen in the case of "Bram Stoker's DRACULA" and "Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN"; they needed to distinguish their films from the originals).

#2. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO An upcoming animated film, EL DORADO had some licensing concerns in other countries, where the phrase is already quite popular. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO was chosen as more 'copyrightable.'

#3. THE MASK OF ZORRO ZORRO couldn't be used due to legal concerns, so the title became THE MASK OF ZORRO... a title I'm particularly proud of, as I campaigned for it. My idea was that it would make a great bookend for the original MARK OF ZORRO; I figured the two films would show up in review books side by side. But then someone pointed out Jim Carrey's MASK is going to land smack dab between them. Drat!

#4. DUNN'S CONUNDRUM Ted and I worked on an adaptation of this novel for Chevy Chase, of all people. Chase's role was a secret agent whose specialty was analyzing garbage -- the Sherlock Holmes of garbage. He could tell the difference between 800 shades of lipstick on a Styrofoam cup, that sort of thing. A great set-up, we thought, to lampoon Washington politics. There was a fear no one knew what CONUNDRUM meant. THE GARBAGEMAN was an obvious choice for the title. But then you consider the critics and the headline writers and you realize no, you don't want to star Chevy Chase in a film called THE GARBAGEMAN. And that's the segue to --
CREATIVE STUFF Your film needs to have an awesome title. Re-read the above sentence a few times. Really. I'm serious. You need to come up with an excellent title -- and not only for the eventual moviegoing audience. Your title is the first chance you have to demonstrate your artistic and commercial sensibilities. It's the first impression you'll make, and you've got to make it good. You've got to convince people you know what you're doing. That you can judge words, that you can select words with a refined sense of how they work. If you send out a script with a sucky title, you're all but telling people, "Don't hire me yet." A film title, by nature, is a bold claim. People think, "So this is what you think should go onto all the posters, the billboards, the marquees. This is what you think people are going to line up to see. This is what you think is going to lodge firmly into the public consciousness, ascend to an honored place alongside the great pictures in the history of cinema." All right. It'd better be good. Ted and I were listening to a pitch once from a friend of ours, Ron, an aspiring filmmaker. He had an idea that was pretty good. Really good, in fact -- we could tell because we were both getting that slightly jealous "I wish I'd thought of that" feeling. Where you start coming up with your own cool ways to execute the idea, as if it were yours. "So, what's the title?" I asked. "I really, really like the title," Ron said. He took a breath and proclaimed with great relish, "It's called SILLY GOOSE." Ted and I looked at each other. Imagine the high-pitched cartoon sound of something plummeting earthward from a great height. We'd felt we'd been standing on solid creative ground, but then looked down and saw there was nothing beneath us. We knew his promising concept would be dead in the water as long as it was saddled with that title. And that, perhaps, is the most important thing about titles -- It has to sound like a title! Most scripts that hit my desk -- say eighty percent -- are saddled with titles you could never imagine seeing on a poster or marquee. The first thought you have is, "Oh, that obviously needs a different title." I admit, I'm a bit of a title fanatic (as a cruise around the Wordplay site will reveal). To me a project isn't even real, somehow, until it has found a workable title. It's almost a superstitious belief: if, after weeks of effort and working with the story and concept, if a title doesn't suggest itself, then maybe there's something amiss with the basic concept. A central situation that's truly compelling and cool and rich with thematic possibilities ought to, over a period of time, suggest a number of good titles. Because the best titles imply the central situation of the film. BACK TO THE FUTURE is a perfect example. Not only is there a clever bit of wordplay (you'd expect to go BACK TO THE PAST) but it perfectly summarizes Marty McFly's plight. GHOSTBUSTERS, RISKY BUSINESS, FLATLINERS are other great titles that suggest each film's central situation. Some other collected bits of title lore:
DIRTY DANCING The whole film DIRTY DANCING originated with the title. As the story goes, one of the producers was talking about her experiences, about this place where they did 'dirty dancing' when she was a teen. The other producer jumped on it. "That title alone is worth $10 million in box office," he said. He was right.
SNEAK PREVIEW The very first spec project Ted and I worked on together had a neat title. The story was set at a small town movie theatre, and the title was SNEAK PREVIEW. We just loved the idea of someday seeing that title on marquees all over town, and people coming into theaters asking, "So, what's the sneak preview?" "It's called SNEAK PREVIEW." "Yeah, but what's the movie?" The Who's On First possibilities abound. Similarly, high on director Joe Dante's list of alternate titles is always, "FREE POPCORN."
TITLES TO AVOID There are some titles to avoid just because, well, they seem cursed. The logical choice for ZORRO was to call the film THE LEGEND OF ZORRO. But nobody wants to pick that, because 'The Legend of' movies all suck. Similarly, avoid movies with JOHNNY in the title. With JOHNNY HANDSOME, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, and JOHNNY MNEMONIC, we can pretty much put Johnny-titles to bed. We've also had enough of 'The Last' and 'The Final' series of movies (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, THE LAST ACTION HERO, FINAL ANALYSIS, FINAL CONFLICT). Ted says we should allow just one more, a film about successfully graduating from college, call it THE LAST GOOD FINAL and then call it done. It is nice, though, that TOY STORY broke the run of mediocre 'Toy' pictures. (Think Robin Williams in TOYS, Richard Pryor in THE TOY.) So these title curses can be overcome.
REVIEW FODDER Avoid giving an easy target to the critics with your title. Maybe back away from calling your film DEAD IN THE WATER, for example. And what were they thinking with BILLY BATHGATE? And DYING YOUNG? How about THE ABYSS? At least producers had the sense to change COMA GUY to WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, a modest improvement. It works in the other direction as well -- if you title your film PERFECT, you're begging for the review headline, "PERFECT Isn't Even Close." Come to think of it, with THE PERFECT BRIDE, PERFECT PEOPLE, THE PERFECT MATCH, THE PERFECT WEAPON, A PERFECT WORLD and PERFECTLY NORMAL, better keep your film title away from the p-word altogether. It is possible for the quality of the film to overcome a questionable title. The producers of ROBOCOP reportedly went crazy trying to come up with a better title, something more appropriate to the more adult tone and style of the movie. They were convinced that a gimmicky, the comic-bookish sounding title would preclude the film from finding its audience. But the film was so good, it managed to elevate the title from silly to cool.
LITERARY TITLES One trend that seems to have passed is the requirement of having to actually say the title at some point in the movie. Remember that? Perhaps it came to an end with Jane Fonda's speech in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? Ah, they don't title films like that any more. Or at least not all that often. There used to be a time when titles like ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS or THE WIND AND THE LION were perfectly acceptable; now you'd have to fight for them. It's rare that something like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS makes it through -- but the films would be less, I think, if they lacked those distinctive titles. The title is a significant clue to the audience as to what the film is about -- it sits in the back of the mind, and the events of the film play against it. You've got to applaud titles like TO WONG FU, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR; THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD; and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT just because they're willing to take a chance. But it probably was a good idea to change MY POSSE DON'T DO HOMEWORK to DANGEROUS MINDS.
PHRASES & SONGS Sadly, the trend these days is against the literary title, and toward phrases and song tiles. The phrase title is probably the most common 'title' type in movies. HIGH NOON, BODY HEAT, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, FRENCH KISS, and the recent WORST CASE SCENARIO are all examples of films adopting an existing phrase, or finding a phrase that applies to the movie in some way. And if you can't locate a phrase these days, you go for a song title. And it's not an entirely bad idea. With films like BLUE VELVET, or WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?, where the music is important to the story, it can be a good choice. Where the song title method goes awry is when it becomes generic. COP TIPS WAITRESS TWO MILLION DOLLARS -- a cool, distinctive title -- was changed to the less-descriptive, harder-to-remember IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.
NAME TITLES Single-name titles fascinate me -- why do some work, but others don't? BILLY BATHGATE is obviously bad, as FORREST GUMP is obviously interesting... but what made JERRY MAGUIRE so memorable, before the film was even released? In the end, a screenwriter should be prepared to spend as much time as it takes to get the one-to-five words of the title exactly right. If there ever was a time to not quit, to keep searching, to not be satisfied, to keep your standards high, it's in choosing your film title. A good title could get your script moved up from the bottom of the stack of to-read scripts to the top -- and change your life. As a final illustration of the power of a title, do the following exercise: Imagine you've been given an assignment and have to write a screenplay, based solely on an assigned title. Forget the actual films the following titles represent. Actually try to imagine the sort of film you'd write if you sat down and worked from the following: BACK TO THE FUTURE, GHOSTBUSTERS, FLATLINERS, BODY HEAT, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, RISKY BUSINESS, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, TRUE LIES, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. Man, if you had any of these titles, you'd have no choice. You'd be forced to write a classic film!


This is the column your agent doesn't want you to read. You're in the middle of a heated bidding war on your latest spec, the numbers have escalated from expensive foreign sports car to moderately priced home in Brentwood, you're positively giddy with feelings of vindication about your talent and choice of career, your agent is calling with hourly updates using that slightly smug 'I'm not really excited by all this' tone that agents try to adopt at such times, visions of front-page "Variety" headlines (below the fold) are dancing before your eyes -- Now. What do you ask for? What's important to you, what's not important? What deal points do you cave in on, where do you draw the line? Quick, you've got 20 minutes to decide, because Columbia drops their offer at noon. What sort of deal do you want? What sort of deal should you want? The reason your agent doesn't want you to read this column is... money. Large sums of money, that the studio will throw at you to gain control of your project. Agents, you see, are only really doing their job when they can get a paycheck sent your way. That's their function, that's their priority, that's their profession, and that's fine. But money isn't all that selling a script is about. I know, I know, you should have such troubles. The beginning writer can't help but cry out, "Hell -- get me an agent!" or even, "Hell, get me someone to just read my script!" And here I am, talking about the first big spec sale. Most column writers would take you step-by-step through various submission strategies, on up to initial interest, and then talk about what to ask for. That's no fun. Here we'll do it backwards. We'll start with that dream deal, all the ridiculous, impossible stuff you'd like to get from a big spec sale. Then we'll reverse-engineer our way into a few career-path decisions. Considering what sort of deal you want challenges presumptions and reveals priorities, which can lead to adopting new ways of thinking -- which could even bring about that long sought-after deal after all. That's the theory, anyway. So -- what are you going to ask for? Like any good agent, we'll start with the sun, moon and stars... Direct the Film Yourself This is a frivolous, outrageous, completely unrealistic demand for most writers, so it goes up front: tell them you want to direct the thing yourself. Sound crazy? It is. Because, in fact, most writers are not directors. The skill set is vastly different. Making a film is a total lifestyle commitment (check out the Indy Pros columns by Fred Dekker and Frank Darabont for some real-world perspectives on this). Without a decent demo reel or some other training or experience, asking to direct is an instant deal-breaker, the first thing to be taken off the table. But you know what? When Ted and I put our next spec script on the market, that's going to be one of our demands. Two reasons. First, there are plenty of directors out there who can't direct. If someone is going to screw up our screenplay, it might as well be one of us. Nobody knows how to direct the first time; you make it up as you go, and learn what you need to know to do the job your own way. And the second reason -- hey, they can always pay us to not direct the thing. Again, sounds crazy... but consider our first spec sale, LITTLE MONSTERS. Our producers, bless them, picked out a director who had done some television work in Canada, and 'attached' him to our script. Their attempt to put together a package. MGM eventually bought the screenplay, but disagreed with the director choice, and subsequently paid the guy $100,000... to not direct the movie. Hollywood, you gotta love it. When I found out about this, I was amazed. If anybody was going to get a hundred grand to not direct the movie, it just as well could have been me. Or heck, my mother could use the money. She could not direct the movie as well as anyone. Now with a really fabulous spec and the true desire to direct, it could make sense to hold out against this payoff. When Frank Darabont was shopping the screenplay for THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, he attached himself as director. And was offered a million dollars to remove himself from the film, and see it produced -- but turned it down. Castle Rock finally stepped up, the film got made, and went on to be nominated for Best Picture. M. Night Shyamalan faced a similar scenario with THE SIXTH SENSE, but his screenplay sale deal included payment for directing services. It's almost certain neither film would have been as good if directed by someone else. In the end, the huge advantage with directing (if you can pull it off) is that you can truly protect your screenplay.
Attach Yourself as Producer "Wait a second," you're thinking. "I'm a producer even less than I am a director! Producers are people with shiny suits, houses on stilts, and stars on their speed dials!" True enough. But it's also true that the first thing a producer does is acquire the rights to some property. Like a screenplay. But hey, look -- you've already got one of those -- you just wrote it! So that makes you a producer, if you want to be. Say it with me: "Here's my script, and I've attached myself to produce." Sounds good, doesn't it? Now, I'm not a big fan of the proliferation of producer credits on films. I always thought that the producer should be the guy who actually gets the film made. But it turns out some producers get credit for finding and acquiring material, some get credit for attaching a star, some get credit for owning underlying rights, some get credit for raising the money (traditionally, this is the executive producer credit) and some get credit for, yes, actually making the film. Sometimes, when a bigger producer steps in, the little producer will get bumped to co-producer, associate producer or executive producer -- which is still worthwhile; this town runs on credits. Writers don't grasp right off that the ability to attach a person to a script is a thing of value. The beauty of a just-finished spec is that the major positions on the film (producer and director) have yet to be decided. Yes, in the final analysis, you might not want to 'encumber' your script by attaching yourself as producer; it could be more valuable to leave it attractively 'naked.' But if you have done any producing chores -- optioning material, for example -- then by all means, negotiate the credit. Because there's another incentive: if you get fired from the film as screenwriter, with producer status you have a better chance (just a chance, mind you!) to still attend meetings on your own movie. Wouldn't it be nice to actually be there when they discuss what directors to hire, which stars to go out to for certain parts? In a word: yep.
Proceed to Production You need a 'Proceed to Production' clause in your deal. More than anything else in the world. Really you do. I'm gonna explain why, and it's going to take a while, but it's important, so bear with me. We'll start with a crucial truth, which you should write down and tape above your monitor: most often, the day your screenplay sells is the day your project dies. Oh, man, now it seems like I'm taking all the fun out of everything! How can this possibly be? To actually sell a script is the Holy Grail of screenwriting. It's vindication of talent, it's money, it's joining the pro ranks, it's medical coverage from the Writer's Guild of America, West (WGA/w), it's rolling the dice and having it come up seven. Surely that's a day to celebrate? Perhaps. But it's also the day, in the majority of cases, you give up your deepest, most cherished hope as a writer: to see your vision up on screen. Because here's the evil truth: the people who buy your script don't intend to make it. Quite often, they'll actively work to not get it made. I know it's counterintuitive. But trust me, this next section is worth all the time you may have spent wandering this site in order to get to this exact spot. Because the illusion is so well maintained, the truth so well hidden, that it took me, literally, a decade to figure out. In the beginning, when the studio is buying, it's all excitement and money and everyone loves the project and they love you. Deals get signed. Meetings are held. The writer is fooled into thinking everyone wants to make the film, and behaves accordingly. Then the notes come. The stated purpose of notes is to improve the script, usually under the guise of 'making it perfect' so that a director can just come in and shoot it. Sounds reasonable, sounds like we're on the path to production, and in fact it's somewhat true: all screenplays can be improved. But the truth of the matter -- which gains you no friends for pointing out -- is that NOTHING IS DECIDED until there is a director in the room. Weeks, months, years can pass, with screenwriters spending years fiddling over a script under the guidance of development executives; people who can't write and certainly have no idea how films are made. And it's all to zero purpose, because everything goes back up into the air the day a director is hired. So what are the real purposes of getting notes, and doing revisions, if not to truly finalize the screenplay? There are several things going on: #1. POLITICS Consider that at a major studio, there are approximately 150 projects in active development at all times. And the studio only intends to make fifteen or so in any single year. Of those, many are remakes, or based on other material, or have stars or directors attached, and so land in line ahead of your spec. The people who bought your script don't want you to know this, but they don't actually have the ability to green light a project -- that's a decision their boss makes, or the boss above their boss. They can only hope to put an attractive package together, and in an intensely fought, highly political competition with their fellow executives, try to marshal a consensus that your project should be made. If your script was purchased by a production company, the odds get longer, as there are more hoops to jump through. In the worst case scenario, your script may have been put into development as a favor to an actor or director; the 'star' has enough clout to get the thing bought, but not enough to get it made. (Repeat: the day your screenplay sells is the day your project dies.) And time is a factor. Death comes with the changing of the guard. If you lose your advocate in the inevitable executive shuffle, your project can get swept out the door... or, if it's at Warner Bros. (notorious for refusing to put projects in turnaround) left to gather dust on a shelf.

#2. TRANSFER OF THE CREATIVE VISION Another thing that happens during the 'notes' process is a transfer of the creative vision of the story away from the writer to someone else. This someone else could be a low-level executive (since they don't know how to actually make the film, they can justify their position by doing what they can, messing with the story). Or it could be a more powerful, higher-level executive who has fought his way to the top and wants to see the thing done with his creative sensibilities. But the result is the same: you've been assigned a writing partner, one with many opinions, but little time to do the actual work. (Repeat: the day your screenplay sells is the day your project dies... at least in the form you originally wanted to see it.)

#3. THE ILLUSION OF MOVEMENT While the politics is playing out and the script is trying to gain creative support, it's important to keep the impression that all is proceeding smoothly. So the other purpose of notes and rewrites is to keep a project from seeming to be dead. It's not dead, see, there's a draft coming in, the writer is making fixes! This is a case where it is important to write quickly. The level of excitement and interest in a project is a real, tangible thing. A substantially late revision can kill the momentum of a project -- simply by letting attention wander onto other projects.

#4. SHOW BUSINESS This took me a long time to figure out; stupid me. Very often, you're in a meeting working on a project at a company that is, in fact, not in the business of making movies. You might as well be hanging out shooting pool. How can that be? Doesn't it say Warner Bros., or DreamWorks, or MGM out there on the sign? Sure it does. But there's an ebb and flow to the entertainment business. Films are incredibly expensive -- on average, fifty million to make and another fifty million to market. So films are not churned out by assembly line. Each one that happens, happens in a unique way. Maybe the studio has filled their production quota for the year. Maybe they've had a couple of bombs. Maybe they have a commitment from a star on another film, and that one gets the nod. Maybe they do make movies, just not your type of movie. Maybe they're scaling back. Maybe nobody there actually has the time, or the know-how, to make the film happen. For whatever the reason, you could find yourself with your project set up at a place that, for some period of time, isn't in the business of making films. I can't tell you how many times, looking back, Ted and I took meetings thinking we were working on making a film, knocking ourselves out, finalizing a screenplay for production. In truth, we were just baby-sitting the script until some elusive combination of elements came together; money, willingness to proceed, interest from a filmmaker, or star, etc. Tim Burton was asked recently what happened to the Superman movie he was attached to direct, with Nicholas Cage to star. He laughed, and said, "I don't think Warner Bros. is interested in making movies right now." I've seen projects get a green light that were in terrible shape, and perfect screenplays passed over for no logical reason. If your project gets stalled somewhere, consider there may be nothing wrong with the script... other than it lacks the commitment to get it made. So -- what's the solution? I got it right here: the lovely and wonderful 'Proceed to Production' clause. See, writers and agents started to catch on to the losing game that is selling a script destined to sit on a shelf, or get lost in development hell. Writers were working, and getting paid, but nothing was getting made. It became not enough, on the studio's part, to be willing to buy a screenplay for big fun bucks. To truly show their interest, a studio would emphasize that they were putting the project on 'the fast track.' Which meant that they were going to quickly take steps to actually produce the picture. Soon, this was not enough, and a project had to go on the 'super fast track' (presumably lapping all those sluggish fast track projects) and leaping to the top of the production slate. It was only a matter of time before this got formalized into contract language. Now, I must admit, I only know of this from reading in the trades. But the way it seems to work: the studio buys the screenplay, and agrees to 'proceed to production' within a set time -- perhaps within a year, or eighteen months. At that point the studio must 'elect to proceed or abandon' the project. All deals are different, I'm sure, but I imagine that there is some penalty if the studio does not elect to proceed, to produce the film. Reversion of all rights to the writer, for example. Or a prohibitively high penalty payment. (In the television world, the equivalent would be a 'put pilot' agreement. The network promises to pay for a pilot to be produced; the kill fee is the same as the budget of the pilot, so it makes no financial sense to pull out.) This 'Proceed to Production' clause is heaven-sent, and should be requested in any negotiation. Because if they refuse, what does that say about their true interest in the screenplay? Perhaps they're buying it only for the concept. Perhaps they love it, but don't have the budget, and really can't afford to make it. Maybe the low level people love it, but the top dog can't stand it. Maybe they just don't know what they're doing. Case in point: working in the capacity of producers on a screenplay, Ted and I had a script go into turnaround. It was a great script with many fans around town. There was serious interest from Studio A and Studio B. We had a meeting with Studio A, sat in a room, discussed the picture, and were ready to shake hands. My interest was getting the film made. With the insurance of Studio B's interest, I held off on the handshake, asking them to check where the project landed on their production slate. The next day, they discussed the project with the studio head -- and discovered that he truly disliked that type of film, and would never, in fact, agree to make it. Even the development folk were surprised; they had no idea. The good news: I avoided sending the project into the oblivion of a production cul-de-sac. The bad news: Studio B subsequently called, changed their position, and the script went from having two homes to none. (Eventually it was picked up by a third studio, that, it turns out, also doesn't want to make it; but hope springs eternal, a fourth studio is interested.) You'd think that these issues would come up in the course of a bidding war; that the writer would get to meet the folk he's working with, hear what changes they want, see what their production intent is. But it doesn't happen that way. It should.
Reversion of Rights I should point out that there are some existing provisions for rescuing your work out of development hell. Studios can be persuaded to put the project into 'turnaround' -- which means it can be shopped around to new buyers. The catch is, the new buyer has to reimburse the old for all of the development costs: rights payments, fees to writers, producers, and overhead expenses. There's also a little-used WGA provision: if a studio has let a project languish, with no active development for five years, and writer can re-acquire the project by paying back his fees. This 'reversion of rights' clause is a poor cousin to the 'proceed to production,' but still potentially valuable. And the point is, perhaps the standard deal can be negotiated and improved upon. Maybe set the reversion of rights to occur ten years in the future, at no cost to the writer? The date will arrive sooner than you think. And now, moving on with our outrageous demands, I'm gonna utter those two little words –
Creative Control John Patrick Shanley, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of MOONSTRUCK, has a great attitude about his screenplays. "I don't contract to do any revisions or rewrites on my scripts," he says, "because that implies the work isn't finished." I love that. In truth, the standard 'step deal' is an open invitation to producers and development executives to make potentially unreasoned demands. I would love it if a 'no rewrite' clause was at least an early demand in all spec screenplays, even if it did get taken quickly off the table (in exchange for more cash, of course). Another creative rights strategy here would be for you to agree to do rewrites, but only if they're done by yourself -- no other writers can be brought in. It sounds reasonable, but in truth, it would be hard to get -- because the studio needs to be free to find a top director, and if the director has a favourite writer, pfft! You're gone. So here's a good one... you could happily agree to do any number of rewrites -- but only when they're done under the supervision of a director. (Too bad you can't see my evil grin as I sit here typing that one!) Why is this choice so insidiously clever? First off, it's fairly agreeable. You're willing to do rewrites -- if the director wants them. Ah, but they don't have a director yet. As you recall from the 'Proceed to Production' section, the phrase you are guaranteed to hear is, "We want it to be as good as it can be before it goes out to directors." And you can come back with, "Gee, I think I'd rather go someplace that's willing to put it on the fast track." Or, "Who is it that is going to give notes, and what do they think is wrong with it?" Either the notes will be so huge that it's a good thing you heard them up front. Or they will be so small that you can respond, "Oh, let's let the director decide those things." And, if you really want to shake things up, try this one: negotiate for approval of director. In truth, you might not be able to get any of this. But the underlying point here is that, creatively, the place you most want to be in the world is in the room working with the director, designing your film. The place you don't want to be is home, getting this phone call from the development executive: "The revision just came in, I think you'll be happy with it, they kept a lot of your work." Consider that, sometimes, no film is better than a bad film executed by others that still has your name on it. When the bidding war happens, it's hard to keep this in mind, hard to take the long view, and focus on a career, rather than a sale. Which leads us to something else to ask for
Negotiate a Second Deal Robert Rodriguez nailed this in his outstanding book, "Rebel Without a Crew." He recognized that a director's second film is, in some ways, more important than the first. So Rodriguez decided to confuse the issue. By doing an HBO movie, a segment of FOUR ROOMS, DESPERADO and FROM DUSK 'TILL DAWN nearly simultaneously, critics would be confused as to what his second film even was, and so he'd avoid the usual scrutiny, the presumption that the first success was 'just a fluke.' Meanwhile, he'd be learning his craft, and insuring that he'd actually have a career. For a screenwriter, one sale is just a sale. But the second sale is a career. So consider making a second writing assignment part of your spec script deal. The best would be what's called a 'blind script deal,' where the studio agrees to buy whatever you mutually decide you will write. But even any assignment -- even at a low cost to the studio -- is good for you. That makes you a working professional. The potential to learn the ropes, make contacts, and establish a reputation is enormous. You use the heat of your initial spec sale to create your career. And along those lines...
Don't Sell the Screenplay At All An option your agent would never advise: as you negotiate the spec script deal, put the price prohibitively high, and don't come down, don't close the deal -- not until you've landed that next assignment. And then, perhaps, you don't even have to sell your spec (unless they meet your price, of course, or you could be accused of not bargaining in good faith). That's the ultimate way to protect your work, and not let it get screwed up -- don't sell it at all. Better to keep your work, then, until you have better industry standing, and can control the result; maybe even direct it yourself. As crazy as this sounds -- and I know it is Machiavellian and bizarre -- there are many pros out there who would agree that, in hindsight, this would have been a better way to go. Protect that early screenplay that got all the attention, keep it in your arsenal, rather than let it get messed up on the way to the screen.
Money, Money, Money Finally, we're down to the cash. In truth, your agent will probably do fine on this count. Agents love the 'mid six figures against high six figures on the back end' stuff. I think it has to do with those staff meetings they hold every Monday morning. All the agents sit around the big conference table and give status reports. Being able to say, "I closed the ADDAM'S FAMILY IV rewrite deal at $500,000" sure sounds more impressive than, "My writer got $75,000, but he's really in creative sync with his producers." Agents instinctively go for the big bucks -- if they didn't, they wouldn't be agents. There's another column planned that will focus in detail on money (hey, everyone's favourite topic), but here are a few of the basics:

#1. 'UP FRONT' AGAINST THE 'BACK END' It should perhaps make you feel a little less envious to know that those huge deals you read about in the trades commonly don't materialize fully for the writers involved. When the trades scream a $600,000 sale, the lion's share is often the production bonus (money paid when the film starts production, an iffy proposition) and all of the steps of a step deal, some of which are optional. The writer gets paid as he begins and completes each step -- a revision or a polish -- so there's no big check; the money gets doled out over time. In addition, the production bonus is tied to credit; a shared credit (or no credit) decision from the WGA will reduce the bonus.


Like everyone says, the 'net points' you get offered on your film are indeed worthless. Supposedly they're a percentage of net profit on a film. The trick the studio uses is to charge a distribution fee tied to box office performance. The more the film makes, the more money is owed, and break-even is never reached.

It should be noted that Sony Pictures made headlines recently, breaking rank, for the first time offering 'gross points' to certain screenwriters. It's not really gross points, it's true adjusted gross (actually, what net points ought to be). After the film truly returns its cost, leaving out the distribution fee, the writer gets to participate in subsequent returns.

Perhaps this opens the door to more writers getting gross points. I think all writers should start out negotiating for 1% of first dollar gross on original spec screenplays, even if it gets turned down every time.

How could the writer, who originates the project, not deserve at least that?


Finally some good news. Most writers don't know that you get residuals on a produced picture, if you have credit -- even simply story credit -- on the film, even if it has not turned a profit. You get money for videocassette sales, cable and television sales, even when the picture shows on an airplane. On a hit film, over time, with some money coming in each year, this could add up to more than the amount you were paid for the script. And you don't have to negotiate it; it's part of the WGA's 'Minimum Basic Agreement' (MBA)... although you might have to go on strike to keep it.


Money -- big heaping piles of money -- is usually a great thing for a writer. Not for its own sake, but for how it can impact your career. Perhaps the money allows you to quit that day job, and focus on writing full time. Maybe it lets you get a new computer, a better reference library, more books and scripts to read. A DVD player. Time to do research, see movies, watch plays. Perhaps even move to Los Angeles. Dollars can change your life, pave the way for your career -- and that's a benefit.
Sometimes you have to weigh the value of the WGA card beyond other concerns. Ted and I faced this problem on our spec script, LITTLE MONSTERS. Call it the sacrifice-of-the-firstborn dilemma. We had one of those ideas that (we felt) was a potentially classic family film. But we let it get away, trading the control of the idea for cash and industry standing, and the hope that whoever acquired it would do a good job getting it made. Of course (as is quite common) that didn't turn out to be the case, and the idea was ruined.

Now we have to ask ourselves: was it worth the trade-off?

If it was worth it, it's only because the money led to other things. Quitting our jobs. Joining the Writer's Guild. Studying the craft of writing. A reliable car to get to LA to pitch assignments. And ultimately, the chance to make films that are actually good.
Why You Need a Lawyer

I would be remiss, in a column about negotiating the sale of your work, to not mention the importance of all those ancillary rights. Most people know the story of how George Lucas held back the merchandizing rights to his STAR WARS films, at a time when merchandizing was considered worthless, and the billions the move made him.

It's important stuff, and this is where your entertainment lawyer really shines. Don't think you can do without, and don't accept the basic boilerplate agreement tacked on to your contract (all of which are different from the different studios, and all of which start off containing intentional errors, not in the writer's favor, there for the lawyers to catch and fix). This world is complex; far more complex than I can cover here, and it's not my area of expertise. But you should be aware that there is a vast array of rights associated with your film, and all of them are negotiable.

Should you sell the rights to novelize your film? For how much? Or do you want to write it? Do you get the first opportunity to write a sequel? Even if there are subsequent credited writers? What happens if your film spawns a television show? Or a Broadway play? Do you get the first opportunity to write the play? What if it turns into a comic book? Or a Saturday morning cartoon show?

How about a 'box office performance bonus?' (Not so common in theatrical features, but they do happen in animation, which lacks the usual residuals payments.) What if the film wins an award -- Academy or Golden Globe -- how about a bonus for that?

What about merchandizing? Say you're Mike Meyers, and created 'Austin Powers.' Shouldn't you participate in that merchandizing revenue derived from the character?

What about 'new media' such as DVDs, new delivery systems, such as the Internet? How do those fields figure in the formula the studio will use to figure net profits?

That's just a quick sampling. We live in a big, fast-changing world, where films are more and more often a loss leader, and the real revenue comes from other sources. In the long run, these 'back end' areas could be the most important part of your deal. Proceed with caution.


So -- we've covered the outrageous, sometimes wild demands you should ask for if a studio, or several of them, shows interest in your work.

Now we do the back-engineering part.

In truth it might be a long while before you have to worry about any of these big money, big power choices -- if ever. Most are blue-sky, not gonna happen possibilities, even in the most optimistic scenarios.

But (and say this with kind of William Shatner solemnity) how does all this affect the choices you make with your writing, now? How should these considerations influence, or change, your tactics, today?
Bargaining Strength

When you really look at all you want, one thing becomes clear: to get any of these types of demands, a screenwriter has to negotiate from a position of incredible strength.

They have to really, really want what you've got to give. (Even just the money alone, when you think about it -- it still amazes me that a pile of pages that you can hold in your hand, with some ink on them -- can be worth more than a house. Sometimes two houses. Amazing.)

So, how do you go about gaining that kind of strength?

It's not easy.

First, there's the writing part, which can't be overlooked. You absolutely must have that great concept. You must have that memorable, intriguing title. You have to make yourself into the expert, and demonstrate that expertise on the page. Your writing has to be stylistically professional. You should turn yourself into a brand name.

But -- I'm forced to say -- even doing all that will turn out to be a losing game for most writers. Consider the numbers. Of the 3000 feature screenwriters in the WGA, I bet each one has ten ideas they'd like to see turned into a film. That's 30,000 projects... and the studios will only make, at best, 200 per year.

And those are just the pros. If it's not a winning game for them, what's the new writer to do?

Roger Avary, Academy-Award winning screenwriter of PULP FICTION, mentioned once about his career: "I'm convinced it was all about getting out of one pile and into the other pile."

By this he meant he had to submit his scripts in such a way that they would be looked at more closely, more seriously, by the best people in town.

One way to accomplish this is to attach 'elements.' In essence, you become an agent. Oh, you don't have to print up business cards, rent an office and take two-hour lunches at California Pizza Kitchen. But you can shop the script amongst producers. And directors. Special effects pros. Animators. A project that arrives with elements attached automatically goes into that 'other' pile.

Another technique: prove yourself in another writing field. Getting a novel or short story published, or a play produced is tough, but it's one possible way to enter the film business with some cache.

Another technique that I recommend -- and it's under-utilized -- is to align yourself with a known property. Not even 'well-known,' just 'known' will do.

The guy who owns the rights to say, oh, the old "Battleship" board game is at least going to get his script read. Or, say (really scraping the bottom of the barrel here) biographical film rights to the one-hit-wonder rock band "Bay City Rollers." Or, say you make yourself into an expert on Sabitini novels. Now you're not just another writer, you're suddenly "The guy who's getting a lot of attention for his Sabitini adaptations." Are the rights to TERRY AND THE PIRATES in the public domain yet? Check it out. How about a nostalgic film about the big, fun national Jamborees of the Boy Scouts in the 1950s -- and you own the film rights to the Boy Scout name?

(Let's not overlook that Frank Darabont started by getting the rights and filming Stephen King's short story "The Woman in the Room." He allied himself with a brand name early on.)

Yet another tactic is to get the rights to celebrities, and write a film biography (such as MAN ON THE MOON or ED WOOD). One advantage here is that there's a kind of built-in limit to how much people can mess with your work.

And, now... even using these techniques, I'm forced to admit, the lot of most writers is still an unhappy one. So in the end, there is always --
Make Your Own Rules

Even the big guns face the same issues. When Michael Crichton set up his deal for the upcoming motion picture TIMELINE, he deferred his $10 million salary in favor of a percentage of the gross, along with the director and producers.

"What is interesting," commented Crichton on the deal, "is our conscious attempt to try to really keep the picture moving forward briskly at the studio." In this case, taking no money, going for a deal of deferred payments, helped insure the production green light.

Given the reality of the business, I find it more and more difficult to encourage writers to play the game by the standard rules -- losing rules for most writers, even Michael Crichton, when it comes to getting something made. It seems like the last thing you want to be is 'just' a writer with a script in hand, and the hope that other people will somehow adopt your vision and want to make it your way.

I don't want to be completely pessimistic. There are cases of screenwriters selling scripts, studios green light them, directors make them as written, and they turn out fine. But as a percentage of films made, sadly, too few.

So take the plunge.

Direct a low budget film. Or even an award-winning short film. A submitted screenplay, accompanied by a videotape, is automatically going to go into the 'good' pile.

Or: learn animation, and made your product yourself. Become an expert in that field, and create demand for your approach, your style (I'm thinking of the wonderful Nick Park short films). Even better, learn special effects, or computer graphics. Or align yourself with someone who can execute computer graphics, and approach the industry as a team.

Learn streaming video, and work on the Internet.

Shoot and edit digitally.

See, most folk in Hollywood have a secret fear. They make their living in the movie business, but they haven't a clue about how movies get made. If you can present yourself as someone who actually makes product, you're way ahead of the game.

Hollywood always respects the person who invents himself or herself.

Does all this sound crazy? It probably does. The goal, though, is to create a scenario where you can negotiate from that position of strength -- so you can get as much creative control and industry standing (and yes, money) as possible.

How much is too much? I'll end with one of my favorite Hollywood quotes, by the actor James Woods: "If they haven't said no, you haven't asked for enough."


There's this thing that drives me crazy at all those panel discussion-type seminars given by industry pros. Invariably someone in the audience will raise their hand and ask, "So, how do I break into the movie business?" That's the fundamental reason people attend such seminars... and also the source of that subtle, underlying tension, that feeling of resentment that permeates the room. (For more on this, check out Dan Petrie, Jr.'s Indy Pros feature, How Do You Get An Agent?) If voice could be given to that unspoken feeling, it would come out something like: "Tell me why you have such a cool job, and not me? Tell me why, EXACTLY, do you get to pursue YOUR dream at a cushy yearly salary and not the rest of us? Huh? WHAT MAKES YOU SO GODDAMN SPECIAL?"

(Okay, maybe that's a little overboard. Maybe that's only part of the audience. Maybe I attended a few bad seminars. Maybe it was just me.)

Anyway. So the industry pro typically responds to the question by telling the audience how they 'broke in' to the movie business. Which is good enough; we want to know that, we look on with anticipation. Now here's the part that drives me crazy. Invariably the pro will say something like: "It was really funny the way I broke in. I just happened to run into George Roy Hill outside one of the dubbing stages at Warner Bros. He mentioned that his assistant was looking for somebody to co-adapt a book they'd recently optioned. I met with the assistant, we hit it off and -- "

-- and I want to jump up in the audience and scream, "WAIT A SECOND. Wait-a-goddamn-second. How did you get to point where you were hanging out on the Warners lot to begin with?"

No matter how helpful industry professionals try to be, in books and interviews and seminars and such, they always seem to fall short. They make presumptions, they skip over stuff, they leave out essential details.

Me, I want all the details. I'd be happy to get this type of answer from a screenwriter, on how they wrote a hit film: "Well, first off, I needed some typing paper, so I got in my car and drove down to Kinkos. Bought a 500-sheet ream of plain white, and also bought a new pen. Not one of those dumb blue Bic jobs, but a cool Uniball. I debated for a few minutes whether to get fine point or medium point, decided I wasn't quite ready for fine point, better to work my way up..."

One of the goals of this column is to provide the actual details of the screenwriting business, in all their excruciating boredom. Like putting a JennyCAM on the writing business. Nobody ever does that, because it's too much work, and a sensible person wouldn't even try, and everywhere else, people are actually sensible.

But not here.

So for this column, I'm going to show you a contract.

An actual, executed film contract. Not just a standard contract, but a post-negotiated item, with all the numbers and time limits and little nuances you usually don't see -- like payment amounts. Only the production company name, project title and writers' names have been changed, to make it harder for the right people to know that they should be angry at me.

Think of it as your first-ever film contract. One you get to examine at your leisure. Most writers, when it comes time to review their contracts, don't have the time -- they just want to sign and get that paycheck coming.

Here you can get comfortable with the style and the language. (My personal favorite is, 'Paragraph intentionally omitted.') It will even give you a sort of benchmark to refer to when your own first deal comes through.

Hopefully, this provides a little more information on one of those details that commonly gets skipped over: "So, then we signed our contract..." Sounds so simple, when you put it like that. Here's the behind-the-scenes.

Your very first film contract. Congratulations!


A fellow screenwriter was concerned about the possible effects of turning in his rewrite 'late' to the studio. ('Late' here being defined as 'several weeks past-the proscribed six week writing period' late, not 'late,' as in, say, 'the writer has been out-of-contact in Hawaii for the last eight months boozing away his commencement money' late.) (Which is what the studio executives all assume the writer is doing during the writing periods anyway, even if the script does come in on time.) (Maybe because that's what THEY'D be doing?)

Anyway. This screenwriter was worried about what would happen if he missed his writing deadline. The danger, I told him, is that it would suggest he'd run into major story problems while writing -- and once people get that idea, they'll start to read problems into the script, no matter what.

Screenplays are pretty defenseless items. If somebody tags a screenplay as 'too complex' in a story meeting, heads around the table wag up and down, and all of a sudden the screenplay sitting there on the table has indeed become too complex. If someone comments that the script 'doesn't have enough levels,' the poor script undergoes an instant transformation and, alas, becomes simplistic and shallow. There's a wall of resistance any script must overcome to gain acceptance and be considered 'good,' and if you turn it in late, you do build that wall a little higher.

On the other hand... I told the writer what our agent, Dodie Gold at the William Morris Agency, has told us: "They'd rather have it good than have it on time."

"Well, which is it?" the writer demanded, "Am I risking my career by taking extra time, or risking my career by not taking extra time?"

"It's really simple," I said. "If they love the script, nobody will even remember there was a completion deadline, or whether or not you met it. And if they hate the script, the fact they also had to wait to get the lousy thing will make them even more pissed at you, and you'll never work in this town again."

Now, this column is actually about writing adaptations, and you'll notice I haven't said a single word yet about writing adaptations. But here's where I wrest control of the column, and bend and shape it to my will, execute an ambitious and impossible move, and force together these two disparate concepts. Stand back and watch.
Your first requirement in writing an adaptation is to MAKE AN EFFECTIVE MOVIE. Whether the original source material was a novel, short story, play, comic book, television series or whatever, it has to now work, on its own merits, in the dramatic form of a film. If you make a good film nobody will mind if you had to take some liberties with the source material. And if you make a bad film, however much you strayed from the source material will just piss people off all the more, and be used as justification for your lynching. (Just like turning in the script late. See the connection? If you blinked, you missed it.)

Your goal in writing an adaptation absolutely cannot be to 'preserve the source material onto the screen.' It must be to 'make an effective film based upon the source material.' Lorenzo Deboneventura, currently in charge of Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN project at Warner Bros., put this quite succinctly: "Sometimes keeping too true to the material results in not doing justice to the material."

In writing adaptations, we give ourselves an additional challenge: to make an effective film based on the source material, and preserve as much of the source material as possible, and write the new material in the voice of the source material as much as possible.

Now, before continuing on with some tips on how to approach adaptations, let me stress the importance of this subject for new writers. There are immense benefits in associating yourself with good material, in optioning books, plays, magazine articles, even comic scripts.

Here are a few:

You immediately separate yourself from 99% of the aspiring writers out there. If you arrive at the studio with a book in hand, you've given yourself a much better chance of signing a deal.

It's a great opportunity to 'connect.' If, say, you managed to purchase the rights to the "Dilbert" comic strip before it got famous, and you meet an executive who's a huge fan, you're well on your way to your first deal. Name recognition is a wonderful thing, and you want it working on your side.

There are immense learning benefits to be had by working with classic material. Adapt a classic work by a brilliant author and you can't help but improve your own writing abilities.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process. In doing an adaptation, the very first step involves a collaboration -- between yourself and the writer of the original material. This is good practice for later on in the process when you work with other creative people, prior to and including production.

It is a far, far easier experience when a film gets ruined if the material wasn't originally 'yours.' There's a bigger difference than you might think. You have more of a proprietary feeling about your original work, with original characters, concept, and structure, than with material you've chosen to adapt. In Hollywood, doing adaptations can be beneficial to your mental health.

You increase your chances of getting a writing assignment. When the Writers Guild sends out their awards ballots every year, writers can vote for five screenplays in two categories: best original screenplay, and best screenplay adapted from another medium. In the package there's a listing of all the eligible films from the previous year -- and you know what? The lists are invariably the same length. So fully half of the screenplays written and paid for in this town are based on previously existing material. So if you can establish a reputation for pulling off an adaptation... it's like that Woody Allen line, "Bisexuality has its merits. It doubles your chance for a date on a Saturday night."

So, now, if you're like me, when you first think about doing an adaptation, you're thrilled. Adapting a best-seller is like having a brilliant, professional, award-winning writing partner who's willing to do all the work -- characters, plot, the whole thing -- but you get complete power to change any element you want.


And you think (as you lay in your hammock at the Kauna Hilton in Hawaii, wasting that writing period away), "Hey, these fools are paying me, and all I have to do is just sit down and transcribe all that brilliant prose into screenplay form!" Just whip out the OCR software and you're on your way.

That attitude doesn't last. Turns out doing adaptations is really hard.
One of the first things to get over is awe of the material. It's often said that bad novels make good movies, and good novels make bad movies. Reportedly Howard Hawks told Ernest Hemingway (who was unhappy with the film version of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS) that he could make a great film out of Hemingway's worst book. Hemingway took him up on the challenge. The book Hawks picked was "To Have and Have Not." Perhaps one reason bad novels make good films is that the filmmakers feel more free to manipulate the material into filmic form. It's easier to get past the awe of the material, and go about the process of fashioning a well-structured story -- and not think, "Ohmigod, I'm rewriting Mark Twain!" You're better able to focus on the specifics of just what to keep, and what to change --

Which is pretty much what it's all about. What do you keep, and what do you change? Here's a list of points to consider:


This is perhaps the easiest to get right. Detective stories should stay detective stories, romances should stay romances, etc. The essential elements that made something good in one medium rarely survive both a change of medium and a change of genre.

It's worthwhile here to look at an example that failed: the FLETCH movies. The original books, written by Gregory MacDonald, were squarely in the detective genre. They were smart, well-plotted and clever. The films adapted from turned into an excuse for Chevy Chase to do comic schtick --essentially a change of genre. They took a great character premise -- an investigator with a photographic memory who could lie instantly -- and turned him into someone who couldn't drink from a straw correctly. The results were neither fish nor fowl. The books would not sustain a broad comic re-telling, and the films left the best parts of the books -- the character stuff, the detective plots -- behind.

(As an aside, there's another famous quote having to do with adaptations. As the story goes, someone said to James M. Cain that "Hollywood ruined your books." "No," he is reported to have answered, "There they are right there, sitting on my shelf." The FLETCH movies prove this wrong. The "Fletch" books have, for many millions of people, been ruined. Chevy Chase's visage gets in the way of enjoying them, and millions of people will never pick one up, thinking they aren't something that they are -- which is really, really good.)

#2. TONE

This is another element that, in the best adaptations, does not change. In fact, adding to the story or complementing the story in the style and tone of the original writer is one of the main challenges of doing an adaptation. A brilliant example of this is the screen adaptation of John Irving's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. The story elements of Garp wanting to fly, and choosing wrestling (because the wrestling helmets look like aviator helmets) were, I believe, added by the screenwriter, Steve Teisch. And they were perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the movie.


The danger with theme is not that it will get changed unnecessarily, but that it will simply get lost along the way. The theme of Robert Heinlein's novel THE PUPPET MASTERS had to do with the price of survival as paid by each individual, and by a society. The idea was, those who can fight, have a responsibility to step forward and fight. And the fact that people do this, despite their fear, is a tribute to the human race. This entire concept was simply lost in the film adaptation, and so the film came to be about, essentially, nothing.


One of the weakest aspect of most spec scripts are the characters. Again, here's another reason to work with existing material. Imagine adapting Cyrano de Bergerac, as Steve Martin did, into ROXANNE -- what great training in character development! Characters are often the key element in any adaptation. Say you're going to go see a JOHNNY QUEST movie -- what is it you really want to see? Okay -- you want to hear that cool theme song, but what else? Dr. Quest! Race Bannon! Hadji! Bandit, and Johnny! You're going to see the characters. If you can get the characters right you've won half the battle of doing an adaptation. (This is one reason, by the way, I think the ADAMS FAMILY films have been successful. The plots may not have been great, but they got the characters dead on.)


The two best adaptations of Stephen King novels have been, I believe, STAND BY ME and SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. For each film, much of the King-written speech patterns were retained for the dialog, thereby retaining the 'sound' of the novels. This was enhanced by the choice to use voice-over narration, which benefited both movies. It's a great device, if it can be used, in that it effectively retains the voice of the original author.


I'll illustrate this one by how not to do it: The basic situation of any Star Trek episode is a bunch of military-adventurers on the bridge of a spaceship coming upon a strange, life-threatening situation. The basic situation is not what most of the films have been about, which is spending half and hour getting a bunch of old television stars together onto the bridge of a ship. Identify the basic situation. Keep the basic situation. 'Nuff said.


This is where it gets hard, and your love of the material can affect your story judgment.

Our biggest failure in our screenwriting careers involved working on a TRAVIS McGEE adaptation for Frank Marshall at Amblin' Entertainment. We set about the project very logically: we re-read all 18 or so novels, from "The Deep Blue Good-bye" to "The Lonely Silver Train." We identified all the key elements that made up the "Travis McGee" series -- the friendship with Meyer, the Busted Flush, helping a friend out of a jam, the action sequences, the sex, the inevitable 'wounded bird' woman, the con games, the philosophical asides.

In the end we fashioned a story out of two of the books, "Bright Orange for the Shroud" and "Pale Gray for Guilt." McGee got to foil a land scheme, battle a ruthless villain, and pull of an investment con. He excelled on both an intellectual and physical level. Our script hit all the key elements of the series -- and when we turned it in, it was received with a gut-wrenching THUD.

We probably tried to do too much. Given that we were working from an entire series of novels, we weren't willing enough to pare it all back, and lose some key elements. With too many elements, we failed in fashioning them into a proper movie experience. Maybe, given time, those elements we chose could have been re-worked into something quite effective, but Amblin' wasn't willing to wait. Key elements must be refined into film language in order to be effective.


This is where most of the changes on a property will take place, as the original concepts find their form in the new medium of film. 'Plot' is defined here as the events that take place, and 'story' is the way in which you choose to present those events to an audience. It might not seem so at first, but plot is the least important element to retain from a property. It must remain malleable. This is where you bring all your knowledge of film, film structure, scene construction, visual storytelling, transitions, etc. to bear in order to tell the story through film.


The phrase, 'open it up' is one you'll invariably run into somewhere along the line if you work on adaptations. Very often films are based on plays, and so can seem 'stagebound' when those stories are filmed. Or short stories of even novels, which, in exploring their ideas, don't concern themselves with an audience's need for visual relief. It makes sense to explore those story concepts without the restraints imposed by the prior medium.
Okay, just one other thing before I wrap things up: you need to consider the PRIOR awareness of the property. At the very start, you have to ask yourself some hard questions about what the general public knows about the material, and how widespread that awareness is. The answers can become a guide over what can be safely 'changed' and what needs to be protected at all costs.

If you're adapting a movie from the "Kung Fu" TV series, for example, and you do one of those training flashbacks, the kid's name had better be 'Grasshopper.' If you do a JOHNNY QUEST film, we'd better see Hadji and Bandit. And that neat walking spider thing would be nice, and those cool jet-paks.

Here's a really silly example of prior awareness: the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE previews that played in theaters. When I hear that great theme music and see that match lit, I want to see the fuse continue burning across the bottom of the screen. Isn't that how the original show had it? Am I mis-remembering this? WHERE'S THE DAMN BURNING MATCH?

Disney Feature Animation is brilliant at understanding prior awareness of their properties. They pick high name-recognition material -- such as ALADDIN, or LITTLE MERMAID, or even HERCULES. Then they figure out what the general public knows about them -- with ALADDIN, for example, people sort of expect a lamp, a genie, three wishes, and maybe a cave and a magic carpet. They don't mess with those elements, but beyond them, they're free to invent whatever they want.

Audience expectations do affect the film-going experience. Consider Stanley Kubrik's THE SHINING, based on the Stephen King novel. It really came down to whether you'd read the book first, or saw the film first. Those that read the book first weren't all that happy with the movie. But I'd say it was a successful adaptation (I happened to see the film first) simply because of this: I was scared shitless. To me, it's clear that a scary novel had been successfully adapted into a scary movie.

In the end, when doing an adaptation, the true measure of success is whether you're able to duplicate in the film medium the experience the audience felt with the property in its original form. Simply, if they laughed during the play, or were scared by the comic, or thrilled by the page-turner novel -- those are the emotions they should feel when they see it on screen. Give them those same emotions on film, and your adaptation will be a success.

Oh, and one last thing. As I sit here on a beach in Maui, sipping a Mai Tai purchased with the last of the studio's commencement money, uploading this column via satellite, overdue on our last rewrite, I have one last bit of advice:

Try to get it in on time!


Who knows, you might just end up working on an animated feature someday. The odds are against it, like everything else in Hollywood, but it could happen. Your live-action spec goes out, gets good response; suddenly you're called in to a pitch meeting, on a project in development. And halfway through the meeting they casually mention, "Oh, this is going to be an animated film."

Knowing nothing about animation, you could probably vamp your way though the rest of the meeting. But if you happen to get called in to talk to the animation directors, or the story crew, it would really help to know a few things about the medium. (For more info on animation writing, check out Letter #25, "Drawing the Line.")

Now, it only really takes about 20 years or so to become truly knowledgeable about animation. Many books have been written on the subject, and there's no way this column can add much to the body of information.

So, for this topic, we've abandoned the usual Wordplay column style. We've picked a different format to present information --

Readers, grab a pencil!

Take this handy test, and find out how much you may already know about writing for animation!

Score 4 points for every correct answer.
1. The page count of a typical animated feature script runs: a. 120 pages -- every shot must be detailed so the 'page a minute' rule does NOT apply to animated features. b. About 105 pages. c. No more than 85 pages, tops. d. Only 65 pages -- you have to leave room for the songs. e. Trick question -- there are no animated feature scripts, the storyboard artists do all the work. f. Over 4,000 pages.
2. The person most responsible for the revitalization of animation and current golden age of animation is: a. Jeffrey Katzenberg b. Howard Ashman c. Don Bluth d. Homer Simpson e. Robert Zemeckis
3. The Disney animated feature ALADDIN contains a hidden, subliminal message. That message is: a. "Good teenagers, take off your clothes." b. "Go forth and pay handsomely for plush toys." c. "Drink Diet Coke." d. "Euro Disney is not always cold and rainy." e. "Believe in yourself enough to make decisions based upon who you truly are, and value those true aspects of yourself enough to be willing to risk showing them to others."
4. Animated films often have two directors because: a. One to draw the lines, the other to color them in. b. Easier to gang up on Katzenberg over story changes. c. Gee, it's really hard to make an animated film. d. Animation Guild rules. e. Insurance in case one director dies (they're also contractually required to take separate flights).
5. Which major studio boasts the most state-of-the-art animation equipment, the highest number of animation employees, and the most experienced and most talented animation crews? a. Warner Bros. b. Disney c. 20th Century Fox d. Hanna Barbera e. DreamWorks
6. Dialog on an animated film is recorded: a. After the animation is drawn. b. At the same time the animation is drawn. c. During Mardi Gras week, if possible. d. In one day. e. Before the animation is drawn, but after storyboards if possible.
7. During production of LITTLE MERMAID, the song Jeffrey Katzenberg argued vehemently and repeatedly to cut was: a. "Under the Sea" b. "Les Poissons" c. "Kiss the Girl" d. "Shark Bait" ("Flounder's Song") e. "Part of Your World"
8. Most of the female characters in animated features are drawn as anatomically-impossible babes. This is because: a. More curves, bigger box office. b. The scientifically documented 'nude-figure-model' effect. c. Hey, many of these guys started drawing in the first place because they couldn't get dates, now you put 'em in a room drawing pretty girls all day, how do you expect the drawings to come out? d. Well financed, well-organized Hollywood conspiracy to promote impossible-to-meet standards and thus create poor body image among women. e. Residual negative influence of artists reading comic books as kids.
9. The Disney animated feature 101 DALMATIANS was the first animated feature ever to make extensive use of this invention: a. Chem flat-bed editing machine b. Xerox copy machine c. Multi-plane camera d. CGI e. Pocket calculator
10. In the Disney animated film ALADDIN, what original song was replaced by the song "One Jump Ahead"? a. "Count on Me" b. "Proud of Your Boy" c. "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" d. "Why Me?" e. "Silence is Golden"
11. The brand new, state-of-the-art animation facility for Disney studios is designed such that: a. All the animators get offices with windows and natural light. b. Some of the really good animators get offices with windows and natural light. c. Skylights send shafts of natural light down onto executives. d. All windows open onto a hallway, so nobody gets natural light. e. Only Glen Keene gets an office with a window and natural light.
12. On an animated feature film, the screenwriter is responsible for: a. Getting the dialog right. b. Transcribing the storyboards into screenplay form. c. Making coffee. d. Plot, character, dialog, visuals, humor, action sequences, transitions, theme, music, tone -- in short, just the same as in a feature film. e. The entire movie if it's bad, nothing if it's good.
13. When it rains in Burbank, waterflow off the roof of the Team Disney building causes which of the seven dwarves to look like he's peeing onto everyone who enters the building? a. Doc b. Bashful c. Dopey d. Lefty e. Sleepy
14. In the Disney animated film ALADDIN, Robin Williams: a. Improvised all his own dialog. b. Improvised all his own dialog, wrote the songs, scored the film, played all the instruments in the orchestra, drew most of the animation, and ran the projector at your local theater. c. Received a rare and valuable Picasso from the studio as a big 'thank you' for his work. d. Insisted that the studio re-design the Genie more to his own likeness. e. Improvised a lot of dialog because he couldn't remember his lines.
15. Which of the following is not a term used in writing for an animated feature: a. X-sheet b. Layout c. Pencil test d. Off-model e. Residuals f. In-betweening g. Line-up sheet
16. Animated features often portray the family unit as fractured, with no parents or only one parent. This is because: a. Animated films are quite expensive to produce. b. The people who make animated films come from dysfunctional, single-parent families. c. It creates sympathy for the characters if one parent is missing. d. Whoops! We forgot to put in the other parent! e. Part of a conspiracy among all Hollywood film studios to undermine the traditional family values of all Americans.
17. Everyone knows SNOW WHITE was the first feature-length animated film. What was the second? a. PINOCCHIO b. ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP c. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS d. BAMBI e. COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBIN DWARVES
18. As a screenwriter on an animated film, you'd rather: a. Write the first draft, that way you get to see your vision make it up to the screen. b. Come in at the last second and write under the gun during production, with storyboard artists and animators waiting for the pages.
19. Which of the following projects is currently in development or pre-production at a major animation studio? a. SPIRIT b. SHREK c. SINBAD d. FANTASIA 2000 e. TREASURE PLANET f. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO g. A PRINCESS OF MARS h. CHICKEN RUN i. UNDER THE BED j. TUSKER
20. The best way to break into feature animation writing is: a. Write an animated feature script on spec. b. Read WORDPLAY every week. c. Pursue a career writing live-action features. d. Write musicals. e. Memorize all episodes of MAYA THE BEE. f. Learn to throw push-pins so they stick into the storyboards.
21. A 'sweatbox' is: a. A term from the old days, meaning Walt Disney's office. b. The theater booked for the screening of an animated feature to the very first preview audience. c. The film bin where you put the clips cut from the movie. d. The room where the editor works. e. Jeffrey Katzenberg's brain.
22. A 'machette' is: a. A long sharp blade used to cut though the tangled storylines in a story meeting. b. A kind of cute, diminutive 'mach.' c. A sculpture of a character used by the animator to view the figure at all angles, and in different lighting situations. d. The armature that holds the figures in place in the Claymation process. e. A particularly valuable item given by the studio to development executives, but rarely to writers.
23. Which of the following is not an animation process? a. Go-motion b. Rotoscoping c. CGI d. Claymation e. Rear-screen projection f. Motion capture g. Stop-motion h. Puppetry
24. The three basic design choices in animation are: a. Funny, sad, dramatic b. Normal, miniature, animal c. Line, shape, form d. Color, light, shape e. Cartoon, realistic, stylized
25. The 'nine old men' are: a. DreamWorks investors waiting for the company to turn a profit. b. Ron Clements, John Musker, Roger Allers, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Don Bluth, Peter Schnieder, Roy Disney c. Friday night poker group at Eisner's house. d. The original concept for the seven dwarves, before budget concerns. e. Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston
BONUS: There's a high chain link fence surrounding the Disney animation building in Burbank, with prison-style barbed wire along the top of the fence. The barbed wire slopes: a. Outward, to keep curiosity seekers from getting onto the lot b. Inward, to keep valued animators from escaping to other studios.
1. c. No more than 85 pages, tops.

On ALADDIN, we begged for five more minutes of screen time to tell the story -- until we were told it would cost the production another $7 or 8 million. (To get more footage they'd need to hire more animators, or pay the existing animators huge overtime.) This shorter page limit forces some story structure changes -- it's all the more important, for example, to get the story going quickly, and for scenes to serve dual, or even triple purposes.

Give yourself 3 points if you picked 'e', no script -- before LITTLE MERMAID, there was no such thing as an animation screenplay. And give yourself 3 points if you picked 'f', over 4,000 pages. On a Katzenberg animated feature, each scene is written 40-plus times. That's 4,000 pages of screenplay for an 80-minute movie.
2. b. Howard Ashman

Make no mistake about it, the man was a genius, with story structure and characters as well as music. His talents and abilities are sorely missed, and may never be replaced. The songs he contributed, with Alan Menken, to LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN revitalized the entire animation industry. Give yourself 2 points if you picked 'a,' Jeffrey Katzenberg -- we put him on the list to keep the question tough.

3. e. "Believe in yourself enough to make decisions based upon who you truly are, and value those true aspects of yourself enough to be willing to risk showing them to others."

Just your basic, ordinary everyday theme. You want subliminal messages, check out the many gay references in TOP GUN.

4. c. Gee, it's really hard to make an animated film.

There's too much work, too many meetings, too many areas of expertise needed on an animated film for just one director to be responsible for it all.

5. b. Disney

Who are we kidding? Disney's still the team to beat. They've got the most experienced people, the biggest talent pool all around. DreamWorks is coming on, a strong second.

6. a. Before the animation is drawn, but after storyboards if possible.

The animators match their drawings to the delivery of the voice actors. Sometimes they may even reference a videotape of the actor's expressions shot during the recording session. It's nice, though, if the storyboards are finished and at the recording session, so the actor can 'see' the context of the performance.

7. This was a trick question: give yourself full credit for 'a,' 'b,' 'c,' and 'e.' At different points Katzenberg argued for cutting all these songs down, or even completely out of the movie. Give yourself 1 bonus point for 'b'; Katzenberg was pretty steadfast on getting rid of that one.
8. c. Hey, many of these guys started drawing in the first place because they couldn't get dates, now you put 'em in a room drawing pretty girls all day, how do you expect the drawings to come out?

The curvaceous girl phenomenon, I truly believe, is due to the fact that most animators are male. The more months they sit alone in a small room drawing women, the more beautiful and curvy the women get. I suspect there's a lot of wishful thinking going on somewhere.

9. b. Xerox copy machine

All those dogs. All those spots.

10. Give yourself points for 'a,' 'b,' and 'c.' Each of those songs served as an 'intro ALADDIN' song, in different permutations of the movie.
11. d. All windows open onto a hallway, so nobody gets natural light.

Yes, somehow, the Disney animation building managed to get designed in such a way that the ping-pong players in the hallway get the best light. What were they thinking?

12. d. Plot, character, dialog, visuals, humor, action sequences, transitions, theme, music, tone -- in short, just the same as in a feature film.

Writing an animated screenplay is just like writing a feature film. And there's often the added complexity of integrating the music, and more than the usual need to come up with visual solutions. It's certainly more than just writing dialog. Give yourself a consolation point for 'e,' which is true for all pictures produced in Hollywood.

13. c. Dopey

Honest mistake or architect's revenge? Only Michael Graves knows for sure.

14. c. Received a rare and valuable Picasso from the studio as a big 'thank you' for his work.

There are some very significant lines and jokes in ALADDIN that Robin Williams improvised, and contributed enormously to the film. But nobody can ever spot them with accuracy. Most of the lines that are particularly Robin-esque were created by the directors, storyboard artists, or writers. Many jokes were a collaboration in the best sense. The story structure implies a situation, the situation implies an action, the action implies a line, and Robin Williams delivers the line with a particular accent or spin that makes it even funnier. There was never a point where Williams wasn't working from a script or storyboards.

Oddly, a truly significant contribution that Williams made to the movie is usually missed: his line readings in the dramatic sections. They were always perfect, heartfelt, warm and on-target, and essential to establishing the heart of the movie.
15. e. Residuals

Animation writing is not covered by the Writer's Guild. (If there were residuals, we probably wouldn't be doing this column.) Just to run through the other terms quickly:

- An 'X-sheet' is a kind of 'order form' that the animator uses, telling him how many seconds (frames) he has to complete the scene, how much air time between dialog, length of each word of dialog, etc.

- 'Layout' is the process where the storyboards are moved into the reality-world of the film, and attention is given to locking down camera angles, camera moves, etc.

- A 'pencil test' is when the rough animation is viewed real time, either on film, video or computer.

- 'Off model' is when a drawing of a character deviates from how that character is supposed to look. Keeping a character consistent-looking through a variety of poses, situations, and expresses is one of the key challenges of animation.

- 'In-betweening' is when the assistant animators draw each frame of action in between the major motion poses designed by the lead animator. Tedious work, but great training.

- The 'Line-up sheet' is a character design comparison chart, showing the relative sizes, shapes and colors of each character.

16. a. Animated films are quite expensive to produce.

Characters cost money. They have to be designed, modeled, clothed, color-schemed, etc. Many animators have to become expert in drawing that particular character with different expressions and in different situations. So if you can lose a character, you will -- which is why so many animation characters have just one parent.

One of the challenges in writing for animation is that you can't just create a character to solve a problem -- it's too expensive. You have to come up with solutions using the characters you have.
17. c. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (by Max Fleicher at Paramount)

Give yourself 2 points for PINOCCHIO, which was Disney's second animated feature, and 2 points for ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP, which was planned by Walter Lantz at Universal but never produced.

18. b. Come in at the last second and write under the gun during production, with storyboard artists and animators waiting for the pages.

Yes, do the revisions. For some reason, the first draft of an animated film almost always gets tossed. Ted and I call it the deep fly sacrificial draft. If you want to see your work up on the screen, you need to be in the building, working directly with the director, the storyboard artists and the animators, as the picture is being drawn.

19. Trick question, they're all in some stage of development, production, or pre-production. You get a score for any answer.
20. Okay, give yourself 5 points for 'b,' "Read WORDPLAY every week." But the real answer is 'c,' "Pursue a career writing live-action features." Pursue your career with an eye toward moving over to animation if the opportunity comes up.

I include this question to dissuade writers from attempting 'a,' "Write an animated feature script on spec" (check out Column #22, "Ink and Paint," for more animation-writing caveats). I've yet to hear of any animated film project that began as a spec script. Animation films are so few and far between, so time intensive and so important, they're almost always developed in-house.

21. d. The room where the editor works.

In the old Disney days, the editing machine was tucked under a stairway. Animators had to crowd in tight to see their pencil tests. Not only did it get hot and sweaty, but that was where Walt criticized the work. Nowadays the rooms are bigger, but the tension is still there, and 'going into the sweatbox' to work over footage is a phrase still in use.

22. c. A sculpture of a character used by the animator to view the figure at all angles, and in different lighting situations.

Machettes are usually made out of clay. Expensive and beautiful, only a limited number are made, to be used by the animators as a drawing aid. Give yourself one point for 'e'; the machettes are highly coveted by all, and yet rarely given to writers and animators.

23. e. Rear-screen projection

It's possible that it could be used in animation, just pretty rare. But all the other techniques are part of the growing animation field. The flat, 2-D animation style is called, 'traditional animation.' Then came NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and TOY STORY, and now more and more projects make use of the computer, and a blend of techniques.

24. c. Line, shape, form

I'm just a writer, so I'm not sure if I have this exactly right. But the idea is, stylistically, each animated film emphasizes one or two of these three elements. You can choose to have a clear 'line' to your characters (like in HERCULES). Or you can emphasize 'shape' -- each of the characters in ALADDIN, for example, had a distinct and clear shape (imagine a silhouette of the Genie, or the Sultan, Jafar or Jasmine). Or you can chose to push the 'form' of the characters; use light and shadow to emphasize a three-dimensional look (as done so effectively in SNOW WHITE).

25. e. Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston

The 'nine old men' are the founding fathers of animation; men who worked in the early days of Disney; pioneers who discovered, defined and refined the basic techniques of the genre.

BONUS: b. Inward, to keep valued animators from escaping to other studios.

Yes, amazingly, the barbed-wire fence slopes inward. Drive by the building on the 134 Ventura freeway and check it out. I guess Disney is pretty serious about making sure their talent stays put!

0-40: Poor........Back to the drawing board.
41-60: Fair........What, you actually read books as a kid?
61-80: Good........Clever of you to buy that Disney stock.
80-100: Excellent...You are indeed a product of the times.
106: Perfect.....Okay, you write the damn column!


"When we are reading a book and come across an idea or theory that appeals to us, that 'rings a bell' with us, we 'recognize' it to be true. Yet this idea or theory may be one of which we have never before consciously thought. The word says we 're-know' the concept, as if we knew it once upon a time, forgot it, but then recognized it as an old friend. It is as if all knowledge and all wisdom were contained in our minds, and when we learn 'something new' we are actually only discovering something that existed in our self all along." -- M. Scott Peck

Truth is one of those movie elements that seems to matter mostly to screenwriters, and just one other group. It can become a low priority throughout the development and filmmaking process, in favor of plot and character and action and effects --

And then, at the end of it all, it suddenly becomes important again... when the audience watches the movie.

That's the other group that cares about truth: the audience. Audiences do want mystery, and excitement, humor, romance and all that. But the best of movies offer an additional feature. The frosting on the cake. The thing that can elevate a movie from good to the status of classic --


Call it truth, wisdom, insight, epiphany, revelation, or theme... truth always works up there on screen. It may never show up on a response card, but an audience hopes for the story to be 'right,' for it to resonate within them, for it to be 'about something.' The audience eats up truth whenever it's presented -- truth about the human spirit, truth of the world, truth of a particular character, or the truth of an ideal. It's never overlooked; in fact, the audience is searching for it. And when they find it, it's the ultimate way for the audience to connect with a story.

Jeffrey Katzenberg cares about truth. In story meetings he looks beyond the flash, the razzle-dazzle -- what he refers to as 'tap dancing' -- of the pros. He doesn't get caught up in the clever plot twists, funny lines, eye-popping special effects, spectacular storyboards -- or the compelling personality of the artist giving the pitch. Katzenberg expects all those things to be there. He knows that at his level, the film is going to look great and it's going to sound great and the story will be clever and witty and impressive. He knows that if those elements don't happen to be there yet, as time goes on, the pros that work on the picture will be able to find them. So he ignores the tap-dancing, and focuses on one thing that isn't a guarantee:

A unifying, worthwhile theme. Some compelling powerful truth that makes the movie worth making. Quite often, even the pros don't get this right.

Most readers here are aware of Samuel Goldwyn's maxim: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." We're supposed to entertain, not teach -- and I seem to be saying the opposite.

It's true; I am.

I think the Goldwyn quote applies more properly to heavy-handed clunky 'state the theme' moments than to overall stories.

Theme is more than just one character undergoing a change, or 'learning a lesson.' Ideally, the theme or 'truth' of your movie is the heart of your movie. Imagine Yoda speaking in that grave, sing-song tone to Luke Skywalker: "Theme is not an element added. It is the well from which all other elements spring." Yoda closes his eyes and nods his head sagely. "Yes, plot, story, character, tone... theme in motion sets them all, theme defines them all... and theme unifies them all, a reason it provides for elements to be together all in one movie."

Contrary to Goldwyn, I believe a powerful theme, properly executed throughout a story, is an excellent form of entertainment.

Let's run through a few story elements with an eye toward theme:


Katzenberg takes the 'protagonist-learns-a-lesson' technique a few steps further: he explores whether each character can, in some way, reveal a facet of the overall theme. One technique is to shape the villain's character to illustrate the dark side of whatever positive theme the protagonist's journey reveals.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is an example. When Gaston spies Belle and declares, "She's the prettiest girl in town. That makes her the best..." he's mapping out the movie's moral landscape ('You can't judge a book by its cover' & 'Beauty is only skin deep') by giving voice to the opposite view.

Finally there's a partial answer to the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" Sometimes the desire to express a theme (or shout it from the streets) is the original inspiration for a story. This is especially true for 'idea' films, where theme is so prevailing a story element it becomes the organizing principle of the movie.

In the film SIRENS, the Hugh Grant character and his wife try to talk a painter into withdrawing some of his (perceived) lewd paintings from a church-sponsored exhibit. This plot is then pushed far into the background, freeing the characters and situations to explore the topic of sensuality. One of the themes that emerges (there's probably a better way to put it) is: "Proper behavior is often what is personally fulfilling, not only what is socially mandated."

In the great movies, the story exists as a tool to create situations that will reveal the theme. CASABLANCA illustrates the emotional fulfillment of altruism. What better story to support it than that of a cynical man... who has a love so deep and true that nothing else matters... and who chooses to give up that love to greater purpose.

In STAR WARS, when Han Solo returns to aid Luke Skywalker, the satisfaction the audience feels is not just from the clever plot twist that resolves the film. Han's return is the thematic high point of the movie: the forces of good have reached even Han Solo's heart, and have caused him to take action, action that directly results in the conclusion of the film.

In the upcoming THE MASK OF ZORRO there's a scene that underscores this point -- by doing it wrong. Zorro engages the villain in a sword fight -- but it's just a sword fight. It's not exactly boring, but the audience just sits there watching, not all that involved, because the fight has no larger moral or thematic purpose. Action that isn't imbued with some kind of greater meaning can get dull pretty quick. The original scene had Zorro fighting his way to achieve a greater objective: to save people in danger. This would have illustrated an aspect of the theme, that one must move past revenge to achieve redemption.

Unfortunately, the scene was changed during the course of production to accommodate staging and blocking. It was only when the film was assembled and shown to an audience that the problem became apparent to all. (Hopefully, there will be time to fix this prior to the summer '98, release date.)

One trick Ted and I use is to let the villain articulate the theme. If the theme needs to be stated in the course of the film, somehow it's easier to take when it comes via the sneers and mockings of the villain.


Here's a clever technique that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale used in BACK TO THE FUTURE: let the sub-plot state the theme. Marty McFly's character issues find form in the movie through the sub-plot: the problems of his parents, who don't have the confidence to risk taking the action that is in their hearts.

Rather than load Marty down with a bunch of scenes to lay out the theme, Zemeckis and Gale covered that ground with Marty's father. This allowed the theme to be bluntly stated (by Marty himself, teaching his own father what he himself needed to learn), yet, because it was couched in sub-plot, it didn't land as too heavy-handed.

So -- how do you find a worthy theme? I can offer three suggestions. One practical, one pretentious, and one just plain silly.

#1. One step further

This is the practical suggestion. It's a test. Let's say you stopped someone on the street, and told them your basic set-up. What would their first response be?

Pretend you pitched a love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Most people would guess that the theme is, "Love conquers all."

Okay, that's your starting point. Now take it a step further. After all, you're the professional -- you should at least be able to do better than the average person on the street. So push the 'cliché' theme one step further. Do a story about the fact that sometimes love doesn't conquer all -- and how do you live with that?

#2. Critical thinking

This is the pretentious suggestion. As a writer, it's your job to challenge the status quo, to examine conventions, to be wary of social norms, to constantly question, and seek the truth. It's the Fourth Estate idea, writer as watchdog. You trade in the coin of ideas. Don't present the common, easy ones; search for the thoughts that are worthwhile. Challenge yourself, and your audience. Ruminate and meditate and ponder. 'Nuff said.

#3. A wisdom library

Here's the silly suggestion. (Guaranteed, you won't read this in any other book or article on screenwriting.) The idea is, if you're going to include wisdom in your screenplays -- well, then, you're going to have to gain a little wisdom yourself. So go out and buy some. Get a couple of those Famous Quotations books in your library. Aphorisms, proverbs, maxims, and sayings, etc. Read 'em and ponder.

Sounds lame, perhaps. But it beats getting wise the hard way, through thirty to forty years of brutal life experience.

You can add a volume of American Folklore, a book on Greek proverbs, quotable Shakespeare, etc. Collections of poetry, plays, analysis of great literary works (in addition to the works themselves, of course). Build yourself a little wisdom library.

In fact -- for the second half of this column, just for you, I'm going to list a collection of original aphorisms. Just some thoughts and observations I've jotted down randomly over the years. Some 'Deep Thoughts,' along the lines of Richard Bach's "Illusions" and Robert Heinlein's "Excerpts from the Notebook of Lazarus Long."

Also, I must confess: I have a hidden agenda. Just once, someday, somehow, I'd like to land a quote in one of those quote books somewhere. So if you happen to be inspired by any of these, well -- you can quote me on that!

One who loves is easier to find than one to love. And it seems this way to everybody.
Self-esteem is the prize awarded by you to you for playing by your own rules -- in which case, you'd think it would be easier to come by.
Because a thing is free does not mean it is not also priceless.
It is a rare man who can prevail in the face of comfort.
Freedom is fragile and elusive, for rarely does the appreciation of it exceed the pleasure of being able to tell others what to do.
To prepare to do something is often merely to put it off. The preparation period ends not when you are ready, but when the time to prepare runs out.
It is nearly a universal quality of human beings to be able to recognize the Truth -- and that's Truth with a capital 'T' -- nearly always when it is presented to them. Yet it is a rare quality to be able to define the Truth, and to make those presentations.
A screenplay isn't so much a blueprint of a movie -- it's more like a travel guide. One can read about how wonderful a place is, check out the points of interest, and perhaps even the best order in which to view them. It helps to better plan a schedule and expenses. But realize that, when the travellers actually arrive at the location, their gonna toss the travel guide into the back seat and go out there and see the sights for themselves.
Grief's agenda is to make you into a new person, so your old self can be left behind, company for the one who has been lost.
You don't need to find a perfect person to experience a perfect love.
Confidence precludes the occurrence of some of life's most unpleasant and insoluble problems.
Compatibility ought to be defined by how often two people intensely desire the same thing, not how successfully they are at making compromises over their differences.
There is but one tick on the accuracy scale between 'optimism' and 'denial.'
There are no real choices in love. You simply come to realize what you must do, and then you do all that you can do.
Joy that ends before its fulfillment plays in the heart equal to sorrow, until time reveals the difference by bringing forth real sorrow, or joy again.
It is important to give people the opportunity to reject who you truly are.
Once learned, the ability to disagree with a smile pays valuable dividends for a lifetime.
Correctly interpreted, the phrase 'at the very least' means 'at the very most.'
When you start dating someone, there is one single top level of response: the one where you find yourself calling up friends to say, "This is it, I'm in love!" and all the songs on the radio have new meaning. Don't fool yourself -- any other feeling is less, and indicates it's just a matter of time till you move on.
I think there are two distinct human species on this earth -- no, not male and female. The distinction is between those people who hear God speak, and those to whom God chooses to remain silent.
Because a concept can't be proven by logic doesn't mean it can't be disproved by logic.
The heart forms emotional bonds faster than it knows a desire for permanence.
Faith, born of doubt, in seeking to erase it, cannot but confirm it.
Women will sacrifice love to attain their dreams; men will give up their dreams for the sake of love.
Solutions are poison to problem-solving. There are few greater obstacles to advancement than that which we already know.
Reject that which rejects you, quickly, and you will go far in life. The fox had the right idea about the grapes.
Would that happiness were as inevitable as sorrow!
Loss can live only in the imagination, and so by its own nature is false. Despite this, it hurts like hell.
A wise man learns to trust his foolish heart.
Time goes faster as you get older, nature's poor compensation for the curse of having kids.
A child should have every advantage -- including those taught by disadvantage.
Most tribulations are carefully selected, thoughtfully maintained and closely cherished.
Anger is a more noble emotion than indifference.
My lousy way of getting it done is better than your great way of not doing it.
The magic of a secret decoder ring lies not its ability to code and decode messages, but in allowing children the belief that they possess knowledge worth keeping secret.
You can tell ignorance from knowledge by this tell-tale sign: it is usually much, much louder.
True love requires that the loved one be fully known, in a way only their loving in return can reveal.
Unrequited love ALWAYS contains an element of self-hate.
Mistakes are the byproduct of action -- and thus an accurate gage of effort.
Most will choose to leave someone who can't bear to see them go.
A fool harvests his opinions in the spring.
Personal happiness is so important, most choose to let someone else take care of it.
Cowardice is a luxury of youth, which has time to spare. Age brings courage.
The search for joy leads to a doorstep.
Here's a theory: the difference between real life and theory is that in theory, real life and theory are the same, but in real life, they're different. Of course that's just a theory. I wonder if it's true?
Talent is truth on display.
Movies aren't made, they happen.
There has never been an example of a picture of a squirrel that was in the least bit interesting. This will not stop people from continuing to take pictures of squirrels.
We grow young from our graves, stretching our lives out like elastic, reaching back to grab one brief day of youthful joy, to dance in the sun, and then -- SNAP! -- it's over.
When your feelings are the strongest they can possibly be, then you must be in love, for though we have no proper definition for the word, we know there is nothing beyond it.
Human beings are compelled to adopt a belief system; some paradigm to provide meaning, purpose, and understanding to our lives. A quick survey of the world shows that pretty much any idea will do -- it need not reflect reality or truth, merely function to fascinate, distract, and compel. We are designed for belief, not for truth.
What brings the greatest joy may also bring the greatest sorrow; sadly, never the other way around.
In youth, no one wants your opinions, and in old age, there aren't any left you think are worth giving.
Hate, seldom justified, most often just reveals a desire to hate.
It's easier to be old than young. You make just as many blunders, but you've become much more adept at not recognizing them.
You are an adult when, faced with important decisions, you choose to have more faith in yourself than anything else.
Help somebody once, be ready to help them twice. Help them twice, and be ready to help them forever -- so don't help them twice.
Hollywood is a fantasy world filled with fake people telling lies to the world and each other. The only thing real is the money.
The resolve to diet is most easily summoned on a full stomach.
It seems quite proper to fear achievement, which, after all, is proof that you've successfully moved an experience from the delightfully anticipated future into the forever and sadly lost past. Avoid as long as you can the ultimate indignity: a lifetime achievement award.
We need two words to replace the word 'want.' One word for when you just want something, and another for when you want something strong enough to change in order to get it.
Give me a man who is brilliant, well-read, experienced, articulate, exhibits kindness, empathy and exquisite taste, who lacks just one thing -- leadership ability -- and I'll show you a writer.
There are millions to be made in telling people what they already know.
To be truly 'smart' is not to show cleverness, inventiveness, speed of thought, or the ability to quickly access vast amounts of information -- it's each person's varying ability to accurately and correctly observe and interpret the world.
It's not that Hollywood doesn't respect writers, it's that Hollywood doesn't respect good writing. After they throw out the great script, the powerful scene, or the well-written line (at the request of the director, studio head or star) they really do need and respect (and pay handsomely) the writer that they hire to come in and try to fix things.
A major drawback to being unmarried is an ever growing list of past lovers truly missed.
Permanent change happens only by finding something new to like.
"I can't" is how a child says, "I decided to quit."
Lying most often manifests itself from lack of courage, not a desire to deceive.
How do we not rue the many unchosen paths in life? A blessed lack of imagination. There are enough real glories along any path to swamp our meager ability to picture alternatives.
Where need exceeds knowledge, religion is born.
The 'Columbus Effect' states that knowledge is overrated; instead, the world rewards action. Better to strike forth in the absolute wrong direction than wait for the permission of certainty, which never comes.
If God offered you your whole life to live, and in exchange, all you had to do was die for a few seconds, would you take the deal?
There is no 'i' in partnership. Actually, there is, but the ability to not see things that are there is one of the keys to making a partnership work.
I understand the parameters you've laid out for the answer you expect, but they don't match the reality of the situation, and actually preclude the correct response you pretend to seek.
Some say success is determined by who you know. Others claim it depends on the quality of your work. The truth is, the quality of your work determines who you get to know.
No wonder screenwriters are so unhappy. They rarely get laid, but manage to always get screwed.
Hollywood films are shaped not by the hierarchy of talent, but by the hierarchy of power.
To be rational is to be terrified. To the degree that we are not terrified is the degree that we are irrational. Which helps explain why all those television preachers look so relaxed.
Wisdom is a fabulous thing... it allows one to take foolish actions with almost no confidence at all.
The writer is not blessed with a greater ability to know, simply a greater willingness to admit.
Some problems have clear answers and succumb to direct action. Others are solved only by embracing a process, and trusting to time, chance, and change to bring about the solution.

And finally, one last inspirational aphorism, provided especially for all the readers of WORDPLAY:

Success is less rare than the courage to attempt it.


There are many four-letter words that come to mind when one attempts to write a screenplay; colorful, highly descriptive terms, often delivered out of pure frustration, and more or less unprintable. Let's skip that bunch, and instead focus on a particular four-letter word, much less used, and much more important.

For most screenplays, it's a key word you must consider, before even getting close to a keyboard.

It's so obvious you'll probably overlook it.

It lies at the heart of most films produced today.

Yet I've never read about the concept, or heard anyone put it into simple terms.

Is that enough of a build-up?

Okay, here's the word:


This is really important, so I'm going to take a little extra time here, and try to get this idea properly into words.

Imagine this: it's sometime in the indeterminately-near future. A film crew is on location, actually getting ready to shoot your story. You've got one of those on-location cardboard parking signs in your car, destined to become a cherished memento. Sets have been built, film loaded, gate checked, and tape is up to speed. Lights are blazing. The camera is locked down, the shot's been framed -- and now, right now, in front of that lens, an actor is going to have to DO SOMETHING.

All the clever theory, complex characterizations, thematic resonancing, plot twists, perfect structuring, inspiration and grand aspirations aside, filmmaking, eventually, is reduced down to just that: a character taking an action in front of a camera.

That's what gets filmed. That's all that can be filmed. That, as a screenwriter, is what you have to provide to the production.

A character doing something.

A task.

Now, the screenwriting books will tell you that your protagonist needs a goal, and that you're supposed to put obstacles in front of him, and that your story is about how your protagonist overcomes those obstacles, etc., etc.


As usual, they're only about half right, and they put it in terms that are, practically speaking, nearly useless.

Because -- and here's the important point -- the task that you invent for your protagonist is not at all the same as the goal. They're not even close.

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