Wednesday 22 June 2016

Book Review: The Starter Screenplay

In a recent interview, Anne Lower recommended several books, including one I’d never heard of before: The Starter Screenplay, by Adam Levenberg. I know Anne gives good advice, so I bought a copy.

Adam Levenberg is a former Hollywood executive (Intuition Productions, One Race Films), and that is the entire point of his book. There’s no advice on formatting or screenplay structure or character development. The executive mindset—something most of us instinctively mistrust—is obvious throughout. Adam spent years as a Hollywood executive, and he’s still in his early thirties. That shows in his book. It is impatient, direct, and blunt. The tone is that of a youthful executive unwinding over a couple of cold ones with a group of peers.

There are three things you need to understand from the outset. The first is that Hollywood executives divide writers into two classes: those who have agents, managers and/or lawyers, and those who are unrepresented.

Get used to seeing references to the “unrepresented writer” because that's the person for whom this book was written.

The second thing is the concept of the “Starter Screenplay.”
  • A Starter Screenplay is a script that gives you a shot at breaking into Hollywood.
And what does a starter screenplay look like?
  • There is one hero.
  • Events take place in present-day reality, preferably in the United States, usually in a neighborhood or contained location.
  • The hero is provided a love interest, a ticking clock, a clear-cut goal, and depending on the genre, either life or death or family and career are on the line.
  • (It tells a story) that executives want to make and audiences want to see, featuring characters we'd like to be.

The third thing is this: a "movie" is that type of film which consistently makes money for the studio. Sure, there are other types of films—art house, foreign, doco, experimental, and so on—but to be a "movie," a film has to be of a style that has a track record of positive return on investment.

Executives have been studying the patterns of success and failure for a century. This book is a distillation of all that due diligence. It doesn’t tell The Truth, but it presents a version of the executive mindset that will probably decide the future of your next screenplay, should it get that high up in the food chain.

You probably won’t like what you’re about to read, but you’d be a fool to not want to know how they think.
  • Over 99% of unrepresented writers do not know how to write a movie.
  • Unrepresented writers ... often think any narrative they imagine or construct is a movie because they are writing it in screenplay format.
And that's why they remain unrepresented. The stuff they've been writing doesn't qualify as a "movie" in the eyes of Hollywood executives.

You need to read the whole book to get the full picture, but here are a few quotes from The Starter Screenplay to give you a taste of the POV of a Hollywood executive.

  • Movies are about heroes trapped in extreme situations. They are forced to do outrageous things and overcome impossible odds to achieve a particular goal.
  • Successful movies exploit an audience's desires.
  • The cliché "write what you know" inspires countless writers to depict the frustrations of breaking into Hollywood. This is awful advice for screenwriters.
  • Stallone ... took a visually dull job (writing behind a desk) and set it inside a boxing ring with people beating the shit out of each other.
  • Kiddie movies by unrepresented writers are usually awful. It takes a highly sophisticated expert to entertain kids and adults at the same time.
  • If you need more than 115 finalized pages to tell a story, you have not written a movie. Chances are you still have a lot to learn about what a movie actually is. Period.
  • Nearly every spec that sells takes place in current day reality.
  • Your hero should also be in trouble, behind schedule, and under the gun due to a ticking clock.
  • Until you sell a spec, do not juggle the beginning, middle, or end. Keep your movie out of the editing blender and write a linear narrative.
  • Heroes are dragged kicking and screaming into their missions.
  • Your hero must act. It's never a choice.
  • If you've written a thriller where life and death aren't on the line, you have not written a thriller.
  • In capers, which are usually heist narratives, freedom is at stake and incarceration is the price of failure.
  • Audiences tend to avoid exotic settings. Remember, 50% of Americans have never left the continental United States.
  • There is no such thing as a totally new concept.
  • Any high school movie needs to feature heroes who are intelligent, speak like adults, and are in the 11th or 12th grade.
  • If you can't find two interesting premises inspired by the content of a single random newspaper, you're not thinking hard enough.
  • Give your hero a romance, even if they’re already hitched!
  • A romance is the best way to prove the hero’s value to the audience. It also makes even the toughest heroes vulnerable and accessible.
  • And never forget, your hero must be awesome and memorable. Awesome and memorable. Awesome and memorable. Awesome and memorable...
  • Your hero should be 25-40 years old.
  • Action movies often show the hero failing at something during the opening sequence. What situation do you think he's placed in during the climax?
  • A final sacrifice followed by reward is what makes audiences cry.
  • The best villains represent a true threat to our hero.
  • We know the hero is going to win, so the only way you’ll convince the audience to suspend disbelief is to make it impossible for us to imagine how the hero can prevail.
  • Your hero must achieve their victory by using a specific piece of wisdom, lesson, or action they’ve learned during the events of the movie.
  • Screenplays sell if they have a strong concept, a memorable hero, competent execution, and multiple Ideas of Value.
  • Ideas of Value are original touches that bring life to your characters, excitement to your action, and creativity to dialogue and situations.
  • I'm always amazed when I ask aspiring screenwriters to identify the most memorable moments of their screenplay and they go silent. No wonder they don't get requests—what else are you supposed to list in a one page query letter?
  • Before writing a new script, you should read at least ten screenplays of the same genre that have sold in the past year or two.
  • Screenwriting is about finding the simplest way to get the point across and a professional can accomplish in one sentence what an amateur may spend pages establishing.
  • The best short films hit every beat of a feature.

Some Don’ts for Starter Screenplays:
  • Don’t adapt a book 
  • Avoid Biopics 
  • Don’t mock Hollywood 
  • Avoid parodies (write a broad comedy with a solid storyline, instead) 
  • Don’t mention 9/11 
  • No Native American stories 
  • Don’t invent a superhero (normal guys with impressive strength/stamina/survival skills are okay) 
  • No musicals (write a Broadway show instead) 
  • Skip the family Holocaust story 
  • No charity/good cause stories 
  • No epics 
  • No drug addiction/child abuse/domestic violence 
  • No sequels 

Ten Tips for Short Filmmakers:
  • The best genres to work in are horror, comedy, and musicals.
  • Keep it short. Two to five minutes is best, ten minutes maximum.
  • Show off! Limit the amount of shots and effects, so every single one can be perfect.
  • Stay away from character dramas!
  • Create impact! Make the audience jump out of their seats or laugh out loud. Do something shocking.
  • Don’t act in your own short if your primary goal is to be a writer/director.
  • Break out of the studio rules! Serve whatever audience you want to.
  • Keep it simple and film a contained sequence with an immediate problem that evokes intense emotion, such as humiliation, terror, or excitement.
  • You are filming an amazing short, not an advertisement for a feature.
  • What makes YOU special as a filmmaker? Make sure this is on display. Play it up. This could be your last shot.

This review of The Starter Screenplay barely touches the surface of the book, but it should give you a fair idea of what to expect. Highly recommended for any screenwriter who is pursuing the Sale-to-Hollywood route. 

First posted:  3 September 2012

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