Friday, February 27, 2009

Now Playing: 365 Original Feature Film Titles, Loglines and Taglines

Has a movie ever changed your life?

I can point to one that absolutely, positively, irrevocably altered the direction my life has taken.

In the spring of 1992, as my junior year at UNC-CH was winding down, I went to see the new Robert Altman film THE PLAYER at the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I was already a big movie nut before seeing the film, but the majority of my knowledge about the movie industry came from SISKEL & EBERT, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and what I heard on the tram of the Universal Studios tour.

I'm not sure what it says about me that I felt a connection to the murderous sleazeball studio exec

THE PLAYER changed all that. I walked out of that movie wishing I could be Griffin Mill, the oily studio exec played so brilliantly by Tim Robbins. My mind reeled that someone's job was sitting at a desk, hearing writers pitch movie ideas and then saying "yea" or "nay." I loved the intrigue of the studio lot and the satiric look at the creative process that so often requires a deal with the devil.

That movie got me thinking about where I was going with my life and what my career path would be (the number one topic of most college juniors methinks). I had chosen my Poli Sci major because it was one of the top pre-law majors, but my feelings about law school had been steadily eroding for some time. I headed to Alaska the summer of '92 experiencing a real crisis of identity and generally feeling the fear.

Me, in Alaska, on the verge of an epiphany (and needing a shave + shower).

Long story short, you have a lot of time to think working the slime line of a salmon cannery, and my mind kept coming back to THE PLAYER. One day I had an epiphany of sorts at my campsite after a particularly long shift: no matter what you do you have to give working in Hollywood a shot. I graduated in '93 and by '95 I was living in Los Angeles and learning how to be a development guy as an intern Wendy Finerman Productions on the Columbia/TriStar (aka Sony) lot in Culver City.

As I was wondering what to do with this here blog, my thoughts came back once again to THE PLAYER, and one particularly funny and prescient scene. Larry Levy (played by Peter Gallagher) is the new hotshot exec at the studio where Griffin Mill works. Larry is bemoaning how expensive screenwriters are to the studio, and wonders aloud if maybe the execs in the room couldn't come up with ideas for features that are just as good....

I'm just saying there's time and money to be saved...
if we came up with these stories on our own.

Where are these stories coming from?

Anywhere. It doesn't matter.
The newspaper.
Pick any story.

'Immigrants protest budget cuts
in literacy program.'

Human spirit overcoming human adversity.
Sounds like Horatio Alger in the barrio.
Put Jimmy Smits in it and you've got

How about 'Mud slide kills hundreds
in slums of Chile'?

That's good. Triumph over tragedy.
Sounds like a John Boorman picture.
Slap a happy ending on it,
the script will write itself.

'Further bond losses
push Dow down.'
I see Connery as Bond.

(Thanks to for this excerpt, which I edited for clarity.)

This scene, in turn, reminded me of the many, many times I've heard my fellow wanna-be screenwriters worrying about protecting their script ideas from nefarious producers and studios. Always registering, trademarking and speaking in hushed tones about their precious ideas...

In my experience, ideas are cheap... it's the execution that's expensive. The days of the writer selling a feature pitch for millions without the accompanying polished, ultra-tight, already-written screenplay are all but gone, and besides, it's much cheaper for a producer or studio to option or buy a script than to "steal" an idea, develop and write it on their own and risk a lawsuit and bad publicity if the film is a success.

Unfortunately, the days of original screenplays (i.e. not reboots, reimaginings, sequels, adaptations, etc) being made into studio films also seem to be in danger (but I digress).

I am going to put my belief that it should be relatively easy for writers to come up with movie ideas to the test, and write a new one every day for the next twelve months, starting this Sunday March 1.

I am going to hone my abilities to write taglines on these film pitches because I think I would be great at it in "real life" and I want to put that belief to the test.

And finally, I am going to focus on what I believe is the extreme importance of a great title for a film that seeks commercial success. I read the following in the "eZine" that I subscribe to a few days ago and I think it hit the nail right on the head:

A spec script must have a strong concept and poster that is "primal" and easy to tell - and a title that "says what it is"!

I am a firm believer in the necessity of a title that, in some essential way, "says what it is." Quick, what was the movie BODY OF LIES about? That film was referenced in an article I was reading and I couldn't for the life of me remember. I had to look it up- it was the Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe-Leonardo DiCaprio flop ($70 million budget, $39 million domestic gross) from just last year. I haven't seen the movie, so I can't make any judgment on whether it was good or not, but I can say that a generic title like BODY OF LIES, that could just as easily be the title of a legal thriller or a woman-in-jeopardy film, did it no help. No one will have trouble remembering what the hell SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or THE SIXTH SENSE was about...

One final thought... if, by some chance, a producer or writer or actor or director reads one of my barebones movie pitches and happens to like it, I say "adapt away." As these pitches are my intellectual property, I fully expect a "Story By" credit and all the lucre that comes with it. That said, I fervently hope you take my pitch, spend a few months writing and polishing it and a year or two producing and marketing it, and make us lots and lots of money with it.

But wouldn't it be much simpler to hire ME to write it with you and/or for you?


Mr. Word Player said...

Took this crystallizing quote from an excellent post by screenwriter John August:

Derek Dauchy: If you can pitch and understand it as a title, it’s gigantic. If you can sell it with a logline, great. If you need a paragraph, you’re in trouble.

peter kavelin said...

one of the best pieces of advise a friend gave me was 'ideas come to you a million times a minute, its a story that counts.' Couldn't agree more.