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The Making of a Hollywood Film: A Guide for Screenwriters

by Elizabeth English

OK, what is a screenplay? A screenplay is an instrument or blueprint by which words are transformed, by a collaborative effort, into images and sound in film.

What is the most important part of a screenplay? According to William Goldman, it's the first fifteen minutes, and/or the first fifteen pages. Screenplays should snap, crackle, and pop on page one! Start with the story in motion, and that scene should foreshadow the story and the ending. And the most important part of a movie is the last fifteen minutes, as noted by the actor, Paul Newman.

First, write a high-concept logline, telling the story concept in no more than two sentences. Next, write a one-page synopsis, which is a selling tool, not a telling tool. Now write a treatment, three to ten pages, double-spaced, present tense, telling each and every scene, little or no dialog. Whose story is it? What happens? Some studios also want a step outline, which describes each and every scene, one line each scene. You may also want to write up a character list, with lead roles, supporting roles, speaking/action parts listed.

Screenplay story components

  1. Most important element? Structure! Act I, II, III. Beginning, middle, end.
  2. Protagonist, bigger than life, someone with whom the audience can identify.
  3. Conflict (vital, early on), well-defined.
  4. Protagonist changes by end of Act I.
  5. Antagonist(s) should be equal to or greater than protagonist.
  6. Focus of story, start story just before most interesting part.

Screenplay Story structure:

ACT I: who is protagonist and what is his/her story? Set up dilemma for protagonist. Introduce characters.

End of Act I, most conflict, protagonist is ready to change to new direction.

ACT II: This is where the real story begins, and is the longest part of your screenplay. "A story is built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality." (From Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting)

Screenwriters sometimes have a lot of trouble with Act II. It can seem monotonous, episodic, or aimless. This may be because they've conceived of it as a series of obstacles to the hero's final goal, rather than as a dynamic series of events leading up to and trailing away from the central moment of death and rebirth. (Chris Vogler, The Writer's Journey.)

OK. End of Act II. Crisis at high point, realization has set in for protagonist, confrontation with antagonist coming up, moment of truth about to occur, movie moment happens.

ACT III, no more than fifteen minutes long, resolving all conflicts, yadda, yadda, yadda. What's the hardest part of the script to write? The ending. The climax usually happens about one to five pages from the end of the script, followed by a short resolution that ties up all loose ends. The big finish, the problem is resolved, the question is answered, the tension lets up, and we know everything will be all right!

Using a standard Hollywood-required screenplay format will help get the screenplay read. 12 point Courier font is a necessity. Two brass brads in white, three-hole-punch paper. 90-120 pages. Title is important, although not always. I mean they made The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, didn't they?

Other things screenwriters need to know:

The five phases of film production:

1: Development, from script to package, takes up to three years. Five to seven years for an independent production.

OK, let's talk about development hell, OK? Three words: money, money, money... and packaging. Don't forget packaging: getting a screenplay, attaching stars, a director, producer, editor, distributor.

What kinds of movies will the typical big-studio exec greenlight? Formula movies, targeting their main audience: 12-to-24-year-old males. Hot package deals, with major stars, and/or an A-list director/producer.

Where big-studio execs get their material:

  • Adaptations of best sellers,
  • re-working of old films,
  • sequels,
  • copy-cat films,
  • TV spin-offs,
  • comic books,
  • foreign re-makes.

Why? Audience recognition.

What? No original work? Not usually.

Why? To minimize their financial risk!

2: Pre-production, which is the most critical part of making a film. Pre-production takes up to four months, and involves location scouting, story boards, production boards, production schedules, getting permits, setting the budget, the director, producer, editor, production designer, art director, costume designer and screenwriter all sitting down together and making sure they all have the same vision for the film. Rewrites and more rewrites. Purchasing film stock. Getting a film crew together, hiring a caterer. Renting sound stages and equipment. Casting the parts. Rehearsals. Everything but shooting the film and editing it.

3. Shooting phase, takes ten to twelve weeks, if you're lucky. This is just one of the creative phases in making a movie.

4. Post-Production can take up to six months. OK, what happens in post? Post is where many, many people try to fix the holes in your script, and try to make a film out of the director's coverage (filmed footage). Post-production phase: Editing, sound, Foley, dubbing, special effects, background ambiance, music, lab work, color, title, trailers, ads...etc. The most pressured, most expensive and most complex part of film-making.

What can go wrong in post? Everything. Not enough coverage, too much coverage, not enough usable coverage, artistic differences, money problems, bad performances from actors... you name it.

5. Distribution. You must find a distributor for the film, or nobody but you and your friends and family will ever see it, and you'll be broke.

OK. What else can go wrong? From initial concept, to writing the screenplay, to the pitch, to development and packaging, to pre-production, to production and shooting phase, to post, to distribution?

"Murphy's law": whatever can go wrong, will. And it takes forever. And costs money.

Pitching your screenplay:

And now, for the moment of truth. Pitching! You gotta pitch this baby to the Big Suits! You gotta grab 'em by the throat and tell the story, tell them why they should produce this film, convince them to love it, hope they'll pay attention, and give you money, but you gotta be willing to change everything, re-write! Learn to say this phrase: "What kind of ending did you want, sir or ma'am?"

And while you're sweating out the pitch session, what are they thinking about? Let me spell it out for you: b. u. d. g. e. t.... the film budget. A screenwriter needs to be aware of budgets, production schedules, and production boards. You sit at your little computer and calmly write: "EXT. VIETNAM-OLD BUS-NIGHT". Right? "The old bus is bumping along the dirt road, and is full of families and children and pigs and chickens. Jets are flying overhead and bombing the road. Explosions are everywhere. The bus driver is trying to avoid bomb craters in the road."

Budgets:

Do you have any idea how much that little one-minute scene costs? Salaries and perks for your stars, director & producer. Vehicles, airplanes, stunt men & women, location scouts, transportation for talent, cast & crew to Vietnam or Florida even, extra insurance, pig & chicken trainers & wranglers, special effects, explosives experts, sound effects, steadicam, greensman, costume, makeup, hair, script supervisor, stills photographer, special permissions, translators, crowd control, craft services, parking permits, shooting permits, electricity, weather reports, what else? Honey wagons! Last-minute rewrites of the screenplay.

And we haven't even started shooting yet! We still have lighting set up, camera set up, rehearsals...all that boring stuff. And your little one-minute scene, shot out of sequence, of course, takes at least three days to shoot, costs a minimum of a million dollars, and that doesn't include post!

Making a movie:

See all those people out there? All that equipment? Each and every one of them cost money. You wrote a screenplay, didn't you? It got the greenlight. We're making a movie here. OK? Quiet on the set! Rolling!

Director, assistant directors or ADs, Cinematographer or DP, focus-pullers, gaffers, best boy, key grips, script supervisor, body doubles, sound and light, still photographer, videographers... actors!

Production assistants or PAs, studio execs, wranglers, extras, location manager, Foley, prop master, special effects, stunt coordinator, tech advisors, book-keeper/accountant, fire Marshall, production designer, art director, story board artists, line producer, editor... catering...

How many people are we talking about? 300 below the line, maybe 50 above the line. Budget for this pic? Anywhere up to a hundred million dollars, give or take a million or so.

Now, the director's goals here are two things: to get the best, most believable performances from the actors, and to get the best visual images on film. The producer's goals, however, are to solve problems, give the director everything he or she wants, and to spend the available time and money properly. Of which, 70% goes to above-the-line costs, and only 30% go to below-the-line expenses.

But what do the studio execs want to see? They want to see their money up on that screen, baby! A movie is the most expensive entertainment production ever devised, other than the 2000 US presidential elections!

Directors strive for a certain, "harmonics", a balance between the story components in your screenplay and proper production values. They want the story to be authentic: believable even. And entertaining!

Production Values:

All those elements that make the world of the film believable to the audience: set design, lighting, sound, special FX, continuity, locations, props, extras, stunts, costumes, hair and makeup, music...

Stars:

What about the acting, the movie stars? What makes a star? The power and ability to sell a film to an audience. A star is someone who "opens", and is a hedgeagainst disaster. It's whomever a studio exec thinks is a star. A superstar is someone they'll all kill for. It's also wonderful if they can act.

Story:

But what about the story? What does the audience want for their money? What do they expect? They want their dreams and fantasies to come true. They want to leave happy and satisfied when the house lights come up. It's a lot like sex.

Editing:

Film editing 101: In simplest terms, editing, or cutting, is about juxtaposition of elements in filmed coverage. The key part of a film editor's job is to make his or her own contribution as imperceptible as possible. The film should be seamless. How long does it take to edit a film? Two to three times longer than the shooting phase! Editors select, tighten, pace, embellish, arrange and translate the director's vision into a movie; taking a mess of chaotic bits and pieces that seem to defy continuity, sometimes 20 to 40 hours of raw footage, and turning it into a cohesive story, letting the director's filmed material guide the editor. Film editing should not call attention to itself or strive to impress.

Music:

The power of music in film. We need 30 to 40 minutes of music, one of the most important elements in a film, which can be artfully used to arouse, to manipulate, to frighten, or to soothe & calm, to aid in transitions, to punctuate, to comment, to move plot along, to focus, to add sense of continuity, to add information, to heighten tempo, add dramatic tension, to change mood, to add character and to define, as well as to add dimension and give the film new or different meaning.

Distribution:

OK, we've just spent a hundred million dollars to make a movie! What do we do now? We spend even more money! We'll now spend double or triple the cost of producing the movie to distribute this sucker, folks! $10M for 3000 prints and shipping of the film, $30M for TV, newspaper, magazine & radio advertising, $15M for promos and publicity, $5M for press kits, trailers and spots, $15M for operating costs, plus 25% of the total spent for taxes, legal and insurance...and these are fixed costs, no matter what your production budget is.

"Wait! I'm just writing a low-to-mid-budget independent film!" you say. Well, in that case, you're going to have to spend even more distribution money! On what? On film festivals. Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto, AFM, the American Film market in Santa Monica, Austin, Selling to Hollywood, Moondance, etc.

Film Festivals:

So what happens at film festivals? You join crowds of people and mill around, giving each other air-kisses, shaking hands, sipping champagne, reading Daily Variety, and talking on your cell-phone. There are famous movie stars, directors, producers, and distributors. All are being photographed and videotaped, while they smile and schmooze and give interviews to the media. 

And you try to sell your films or screenplays to distributors, buyers, producers, investors, movie stars, directors; you promote and pitch your stuff to people like the Big 5 studios, foreign buyers, Miramax, Fine Line, DreamWorks; you try to find a better agent; you try to get an agent; you meet foreign filmmakers, you get publicity; you make important contacts; you get financing with the real players, and make deals at film festivals...that's all. And that'll cost you another million, at least!

Contacts:

Say, do you happen to know anyone in L.A.? I mean even remotely connected to Hollywood film biz? A friend from school who is the gardener for the shrink of the waiter who serves lunch to the assistant of the guy who sweeps the floors at the office of the personal trainer for Richard Gere's hairdresser's boyfriend? Contacts are all.

And get yourself a good agent, manager, entertainment attorney, and accountant, while you're at it, and that ain't cheap!

Hope:

But there's still hope. The Last Emperor, Derzu Uzala, Babette's Feast, The Color Purple, The Virgin Spring, Midnight Cowboy, Ryan's Daughter, The Remains of the Day, East of Eden, The Piano, Shakespeare in Love... really wonderful films that got made. But then why are all those other so-called bad movies made? Why does the audience out there pay money to see them? Or any movie? What about art?

Creativity cannot be comfortably quantified in intellectual terms. By its very nature, creativity eschews such containment. You see, in Hollywood, where it's everyone's job to de-construct creative work, the act of creation, and the work itself, is often met with derision and is usually not appreciated. The great independent director, John Cassavetes, once told a young director, "In order to catch the ball, you have to really want to catch the ball!" This means stop complaining about the lousy curves you get thrown and stretch; reach for what you really want! (from Julia Cameron, "The Artist's Way")

Zeitgeist:

The spirit of the times. The latest thing. Rebel Without a Cause, The Godfather, Caddyshack, Lion King, Rugrats, Casablanca, Scream II, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Antz, Forrest Gump! Most screenwriters and filmmakers are just trying to keep one step ahead of whatever it is they think the audience is going to pay to see. Nobody knows what the audience wants; even the audience hasn't got a clue to what movies they themselves are going to like this weekend. It's virtually impossible to predict what they'll like or dislike. But they know when they like it, and then that film grows "legs" (word-of-mouth)! And then a lot of people get rich and famous.

Now. Here's the Big Question: What makes a film successful? Uh.... I dunno. "Then who does?" you ask?

William Goldman replies, (in an echoing, God-like voice) the three words that ultimately define Hollywood: "Nobody... knows... anything!"

Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth English
Reprinted with permission from the Moondance International Film Festival Ezine (http://www.moondancefilmfestival.com/)

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Elizabeth English lives in Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She is the founder of the Moondance International Film Festival and competition. Elizabeth has written sections of four published books on creative careers for McGraw Hill and has written screenwriting articles for MovieBytes.com, EuroScreenwriter.com, and ScreenTalk Magazine. Elizabeth's screenplay, April Fool's Day was a finalist at the 2001 AFI Women Director's Workshops. Her stageplay The Mythical Journey was a 2001 finalist in the Alexander Onassis competition.

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