Concerning the nominees for Best Original and Adapted screenplays and Best Picture, I was trying to look for some pattern in these categories that may be of some help to us aspiring screenwriters. My question was, regardless of their individual merits or shortcomings, what was it specifically about these individual and vastly differing projects that got them to the pinnacle of the Hollywood game? What do they all have in common that directly contributed to their success?
The answer is a two-parter:
1. Excellent Writing – writing that got readers (agents, producers, studio execs, directors, stars, etc.) excited.
2. A Champion – someone like a producer or director who were so excited by the material that they fought for it and protected it the whole way through, from gestation to finished product.
Put those two together and my conclusion is for any writer – beginner or otherwise – to get their screenplay not just bought (if a sale is your end-game, you’ll be playing one very short game) but actually seen in a real, live movie theater, the writing must be so engaging as to gain not one or two, but a literal army of Champions – all the people a film requires who will do the hard work of transferring your blueprint sketch into a complete, living, breathing work of art (or at least, cinema).
So when you’re considering your next writing project, and during the actual writing, always remember that many very smart, powerful and talented individuals MUST respond to your material in such a way that they dedicate 2 or 3 years of their very lives, perhaps even more, to seeing it through to fruition in as accurate an interpretation as possible (a real Champion is one who not just gets behind, but also protects the material).
Everyone’s different though, so what key ingredients will make all these different people with different agendas come together to champion your screenplay?
I believe the answer is a combination of superlative, unique storytelling coupled with a clear, distinctive marketing concept. There, the “M” word, I said it.
Now, you may not think of films like Doubt, Frozen River or Slumdog Millionaire as obviously marketable. But if you examine their loglines or overall concepts, I think they are all clearly distinctive from other films out there, and also share universal stories. “Distinctive” is a good place to be in any market, and in marketing terms “universality” translates to wide audience appeal.
Why am I focusing on marketability? Because in the end, you need to sell your work, and agents, creative execs and producers are basically all just salespeople. They need product, plain and simple, and in order to sell the most product that product must be familiar to the buyer yet also stand out as unique in the marketplace, an attribute I’m calling “original familiarity”. Think about it, these players want to take risks, but not if it means losing their jobs or industry clout. So they like different. But they need familiar. And that’s the trick in crafting your screenplay.
The classic actioner Lethal Weapon has ridiculously familiar plot – two cops team up to bring down a ruthless drug cartel. How many times have we seen that before, right? But it was the writer’s specific take on the details of the story – mainly the interaction and relationships of the main characters – that gave Lethal Weapon its uniqueness. It was the telling of the story that made it seem like an original. Try the original/familiar approach when looking at the concepts & premises behind 99.9% of “successful” films, I bet they’re all originally familiar.