Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made

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Macmillan, Oct 8, 2002 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 274 pages
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The most innovative and creative screenwriting book yet, from an author who knows first-hand what it takes to get a movie made.

Based on an award-winning website hailed as "smart enough for professional screenwriters and accessible enough for aspiring screenwriters", Crafty Screenwriting is the first book not only to offer a successful screenwriter's tricks of the trade, but to explain what development executives really mean when they complain that the "dialogue is flat," or "the hero isn't likeable." Fresh, provocative, and funny, Alex Epstein diagnoses problem that other screenwriting books barely address, and answers questions they rarely ask, like "Why is it sometimes dangerous to know your characters too well before you start writing," or "Why does your script have to be so much better than the awful pictures that get made every day?" As a development executive who has accepted and rejected countless screenplays, and a produced screenwriter himself, Epstein can take you into the heart of the most important question of all: "Is this a movie?" A crucial book for anyone who has ever wondered what it takes to get their movie made.

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User Review  - beccaelizabeth - LibraryThing

I liked this. It focuses right in on screenwriting, and ways it is different than novels. Lots of tips and keywords, lots of practical useful stuff. On the other hand it has a very depressing view of ... Read full review

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About the author (2002)

Crafty Screenwriting
1 HOOK What''s a screenplay? Good question. After all, if you''re going to write one, you ought to know the answer. Right? You probably already know an answer. A screenplay is writing intended to be turned into film. It''s a hundred-odd pages held together by brass brads, in which you have written down whatever you want the audience to see and hear in your movie. If it gets made, the director will come up with a whole new vision, the actors will change your dialogue, the editor will concoct another way to order the scenes, and it won''t be "your movie" anymore. That''s okay. A screenplay is not a complete work. It is not intended to be appreciated on its own. If a movie were a building, a screenplay would be the blueprint. Nobody settles down in front of a roaring fire with her beloved, a bottle of Chianti, and a nice blueprint. Nobody takes a couple of good screenplays out to the beach--outside of show business, anyway. That means there is no point writing a screenplay if it isn''t going to get produced. We all know that, somewhere in the back of our minds, but most of the thousands of screenplays I''ve read in ten years as a development executive were never in any danger of being made into a movie. Fromthe moment the writer conceived them, they were doomed. They may have been well crafted or poorly crafted, but they were all missing what they needed in order to get made. This book is about writing movies that get made. Not just popular movies. Art films get made, too. Writing a screenplay that will make a brilliant movie is a good part of writing a movie that will get made, and that''s what most of this book is about. But that''s not all of it. So it''s important to understand what else a screenplay is, if you''re going to go to all the trouble of writing one, because if you don''t, the odds are you''re wasting your time. A Screenplay Is Part of a Package A screenplay is the first element in what the movie business calls a package. A package is a combination of • some material--a book, a screenplay, even just a concept, plus • a star actor and/or a star director that movie people are betting the audience will want to see in movie theaters or on their TVs. A screenplay is an element in a deal. Show business has a split personality. It is a business, which means people are not in it for their health. When movies flop, people lose their jobs. Unsuccessful directors have to go back to shooting commercials. Unsuccessful actresses have to go back to waiting tables, or marry carpet salesmen. Unsuccessful producers have to go back to selling carpets.1 It''s not surprising how crassly commercial the movies are. What''s surprising is that they''re not more crassly commercial. Very few people go into the motion picture industry because they want above all to make a lot of money. The money''s great if you''re working, but really, if you just want to make money, you might aswell be selling Porsches or oil-drilling equipment. Practically everyone in the business got into it because they love movies. Screenwriters want to tell stories. Producers want to put good movies on the screen. Actors want to indulge their most extreme emotions in front of a crowd of people, so think twice about dating one. Practically everyone in the motion picture industry is trying to make good movies. They''re not all trying to make great art, but if they had the choice, most of them would rather make a movie that will last. Every motion picture project starts with a bit of commerce and a bit of art. In theory, a motion picture project begins when someone working in development at a motion picture studio or production company reads a wonderful screenplay. Development is the stage of the movie-making process when screenplays get optioned, bought, rewritten, rewritten, rewritten, and usually buried. This reader is likely someone called, believe it or not, a "reader"--often a recent film school grad who gets paid $40 a pop to write two to five pages of synopsis and scornful commentary. If the reader likes it, he might alert a story editor, who brings it to the attention of a development executive, who gives it to a production executive at a studio or a producer at a production company. Once a deal is struck, the production exec or producer sends the script out to a director, who, hopefully, sparks to the material and agrees to direct the script. Then the script goes to stars. Once a big enough star agrees to do the picture, the studio agrees to fund the picture, and we''re off to the races. Your screenplay does not get made into a movie until all of these people say yes: the reader, the story editor, the development exec, the production exec, the director, and the star. If the production exec, the development exec, the story editor, or the reader got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, your project is dead at that studio or production company. (If Tom Cruise sends in a friend''s screenplay, then it skips to the top. The production exec reads it and automatically likes it, it gets optioned, and if Tom agrees to star in it, it gets made. More about that in a bit.) A screenplay is a selling tool. It is a salesman for the movie. It sells your story to people you''ve never met, whom you''ll never meet, some of whom are in a permanently bad mood because you can write and they can''t. It has to sell to a twenty-two-year-old reader who thinks he knows everything about what makes a great movie. It has to sell to a story editor up past midnight trying to finish her stack of scripts so she can make love to her boyfriend before he goes into REM sleep. It has to sell to a production exec who brought home two scripts: yours, and one Tom Hanks wants to do. It has to sell to an actor who is terrified of getting old. It has to convince all of these cranky people that it is a movie just dying to be made. So, a screenplay is a blueprint, an element in a deal, and a sales tool. What gets your screenplay through the gauntlet? If you read most screenwriting books, the answer is something like this: Nah. These things don''t get you past the gatekeepers. Sure, you''ll want to have ''em in your screenplay. But what actually gets you through is a great hook. The Hook A hook is the concept of the picture in a nutshell. Not just any concept. A hook is a fresh idea for a story that instantly makes show business people interested in reading your script, and then makes the audience want to see your movie. Here are some good hooks: • A man is about to commit suicide when an angel shows him what his town would be like if he had never lived. (It''s a Wonderful Life) • Two people who hate each other meet anonymously and fall in love. (The Shop Around the Corner, You''ve Got Mail) • A bunch of unemployed Brits decide to put on a striptease act to earn some money. (The Full Monty) • A cynical advertising executive suddenly develops the power to read women''s thoughts. (What Women Want) • A lawyer suddenly loses his ability to lie. (Liar Liar) • Some Jamaicans decide to enter the Olympics as a bobsled team, although there is no snow in Jamaica. (Cool Runnings) • A strange genius discovers a number that may be the name of God. (p) • Three filmmakers went into the woods to tape a documentary on a legendary witch. These are the tapes we found after they disappeared. (The Blair Witch Project) • A puppeteer finds a secret tunnel into John Malkovich''s brain. (Being John Malkovich) • There''s a bomb on a crowded city bus. If the bus slows below 50 miles an hour, the bomb will go off. (Speed) • A man discovers he has been replaced by his clone. (The Sixth Day) • A journalist finds a heart-wrenching love letter in a bottle. She tracks down the man who wrote it and falls in love with him. (Message in a Bottle. I didn''t say a film with a great hook had to be good, did I? I only said you need a great hook to get your screenplay made.) Some of these were made into big Hollywood productions, and some were independent pictures. ("Independent" is a huge misnomer. "Independent producers" are dependent on practically everybody. A better term might be codependent producers.) What all these movies have in common is that you want to see how they''re going to turn out. What happened to those kids up in those woods? How do abunch of gnarly, inhibited British guys put on a striptease show? You have to read the screenplays to find out. Sometimes the hook is not even what the movie is really about. The hook for Free Enterprise might be, "two aging Trekkies bump into William Shatner, who longs to write and star in a rap version of Julius Caesar." The story is mostly a romantic comedy about an aging Trekkie who meets the perfect Trekkie girl and almost screws it up. But if that were the only hook, the movie wouldn''t have got made. "Trekkies meet Captain Kirk" sells the movie. At this point, you may be thinking, "But most movies don''t have great hooks." In fact, if you look at the Internet Movie Database''s list of the top 250 movies according to viewer ratings (see http://www.imdb.com), almost none of the top