Artists want control. Really? How refreshing! Or, are we just making up new ways of defining independent? Perhaps. If a green light comes from independent financing and not a studio, you’ve got an independent. In 2009, 36% of the total film market was created by independents (showbizdata.com). In 2010, the number was slightly less at 32%. The remaining 63 to 68 percent of the market was split among WB, Paramount, Universal, Buena Vista and Sony. So, what does that mean for screenwriters? A lot. It means everyone is looking for the next Juno, The Kids Are All Right, Slumdog Millionaire, The Fighter or 127 Hours. The last few years of Oscar line-ups is clear testament to the power of the independent movie rising from the regional film festival to great international success. And it is primarily due to two main elements: character and story; characters played by known actors, as in the star power of the casting, and story, which is where you come in.
Enter the screenwriter: on top where you should be. It all starts with you. Take back your power. Own it. None of this entire Hollyweird would exist without you. It’s open season, and you have as good a shot at getting a star to say “yes” to your film as the next writer, provided you have something a star wants to shine in. Stop waiting around for a director to find your hit script. Take the reins and become your best advocate: learn to produce. Follow the example set by the writer/producers and writer/directors who are nominated for the big awards. Lead by example.
Yes! Just say yes! Enough with the red lights. You’ve got a great story, with great characters, a solid obstacle to overcome and it’s tidy and gets in and out in fewer than 90 pages. At about 88 pages, it will get a producer’s attention for a comedy. The perception is that the collective attention span is shrinking, unless you’ve got an epic Merchant Ivory saga that really needs 127 pages, which could look really good for a period piece, or a regency romance with an Oscar-winning costumer like Colleen Atwood.
So, why not write for celebrities? Carve your story or adaptation around the talents of known actors. You do want to sell a script, don’t you? You do want to see your film made, don’t you? So forget these competitions that seem to only want your entry fee. (Did you know that many script competitions in Europe are free to enter? Yes, question it when someone wants your entry fee!). Be the cream and rise to the top.
To write for great actors requires you to look closely at what makes great acting. And it is in the magic moments of action. A great actor understands that the soundtrack and the editing are there to back up what is in their eyes. And what is in their eyes, the thought in the mind, comes from the text. It comes from the consequences of the action, from empathy for the character, from breaking down any barriers of self-consciousness, from laying the soul bare for the entire world to see. You, the writer, create the context for these moments to happen. It’s the magic we strive for at the intersection of character performance and transcendent writing. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot comes to mind. Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, or more recently as Julia Child; Johnny Deep as Captain Jack Sparrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, Jamie Foxx as The Soloist or as Ray Charles, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. These actors went deeper and created these amazing screen moments of raw human condition and consciousness.
Start from Scratch
Write the moments through your use of verbs. Actors work with the action parts of speech, and verbs are the action words: Actions and objectives. For example: She looks at him then slaps his face. He kisses her. Change it to: She studies his face. She smacks his cheek. They kiss. The difference between looking and studying will speak to the actor. They search for verbs. It’s up to you to put them in there.
Write with a particular known actor in mind. Make a list: what actors do you really admire? Create a vehicle for them. Somehow, Lisa Cholodenko got Julianne Moore interested in The Kids Are All Right. Then Julianne got Annette Bening, and so it goes. Can you imagine anyone else starring in Thelma and Louise? Come on. You’re a writer. You’re smart. You can navigate the Hollywood highway. Write to Callie Khouri and ask her how they got Sarandon and Davis on board. Follow the leader. Call the SAG office and find out who represents the star you want in your movie and get that script submitted. Just be sure it is perfect. And follow the submission guidelines for each agency. They’re hunting for the next hit indie script. So, why not you?
Remember where Brokeback Mountain came from? Apparently, Ang Lee was on a flight and read the Annie Proulx short story in the New Yorker and thought it would make a great film. The rest is Oscar history. So, lesson learned: Read short stories, call the publisher, and get the film rights. Each year there are short story competitions, winners, literature prizes for every category of fiction. Learn how to secure rights to fiction winners and get busy on adaptations with a particular star in mind. Where do you think studio executives are looking for the next great story? Award-winning novels and short stories. They secure the film rights, so why not you? Embrace your power and start using it.
Exercise for Fun and Profit
Make a list of the top 10 movies you wish you’d written, and probably could have if given half the chance. What do these films have in common? What is the best genre for you to be writing? Are you clear with your genre and the elements that hold that genre true to form? Your task is to match actors to the style and genre you most like to write. Be sure you have your script proofed and covered before submitting it to the agents of these potential leading A-list actors you’ve poured all this time into writing with them in mind. Include copies of professional coverage with your submission packet. And never give up.