Friday, December 24, 2010

Amateur Friday - Dear Santa

Genre: Christmas Comedy
Premise: A disenchanted hotel executive's life is turned upside down after he drops a Dear Santa letter in a mysterious "Letters to Santa" sack -- then must live with the consequences when his wishes come true.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writer: Bryan Dunn
Details: 112 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Ho ho ho! Santa Carson is here. Before I get to the script, I’ll quickly run down my favorite Christmas movies of all time. First on the list is….drum roll please….It’s A Wonderful Life! Cliché choice? You bet. But I absolutely love this movie. Gotta love how they don’t unveil the hook (Seeing what the world would be like if he was never born) until ¾ of the way through the movie! A studio executive would just as soon kill you before allowing you to do that these days. Next up is the original “A Christmas Carol.” That’s also a great one to study as it has one of the most unlikable leads of all time. Study how they make you care for that character and use it for the next time you write an anti-hero. Following that is “A Christmas Story.” I mean dur. No explanation needed there. Finally you have “Miracle on 34th Street.” Yeah yeah it’s a little cheesy and on the nose, but it’s a well-executed script.

So how does today’s amateur script stack up? Well, I don’t think it’s fair to compare an amateur script to the four best Christmas movies of all time, but is it at least a worth entry into the genre? Let’s find out.

“Boyishly handsome” Ray Kincaid is a hotel manager at a posh Beverly Hills-ish hotel. Things are going all right for Ray. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend in Maggie. He’s well-respected for the job he does. In fact, his boss, Phil, thinks he’s vice-president material. The only blip on Ray’s radar is his nemesis, the perfectly plastic OTHER manager of the hotel, Chip.

They say you should never count your sugar plums before they’re hatched but Ray is skating towards that promotion faster than Christi Yamaguchi. Imagine his surprise then when his boss, Phil, chooses Chip instead of him! Humbug? More like humbullshit.

Ray is so furious that he flips out Jerry Maguire style and moans to anyone who will listen about how much his life sucks. His girlfriend doesn’t act sexy enough. He never has enough time to do anything. His hair is thinning. Chip’s an asshole. And on and on and on. In one of those crazy moments we all have when we’re not flying straight, Ray scribbles together a “wish list” addressing all the things he wishes he had in life and drops it into a “letters to Santa” bag.

And the next day, everything changes.

First, he has his hair back! It’s a little thicker than he would’ve liked but beggars can’t be choosers, right? Next, Maggie’s slinked out in a nice expensive piece of lingerie, ready to rumble Tiger Woods mistress style. At work, Ray is shocked to find that there’s…ANOTHER RAY! Ray 2! But how could that be? He starts to put everything together. Asking for more hair. Asking for his wife to be more sexy. Asking for two of himself so he has more time. All his wishes came true!

Of course, what would a wish-fulfillment movie be if the wishes turned out exactly the way you wanted them to? While Ray tries to manage the big “end of the year” hotel event, everything he wished for starts working against him. His hair gets REALLY poofy. His girlfriend starts dancing at a strip club. And his doppelganger is a moron who’d rather party with the guests than get any work done.

Ray changes his mind. He wants to go back to his old life. But is it too late?

It’s Christmas. I don’t want to be a scrooge, but I don’t want to *not* help Bryan get this script into better shape either. I thought Dear Santa was well-written, had some funny moments, and showed a strong command of the three-act structure (except for one part, which I’ll get to). However there were a few things going on that prevented me from recommending it. The first thing that popped out was the “buying of the hotel” storyline. The current hotel is being bought up by new owners which means there’s going to be a transition at some point and somehow that’s going to either help or hurt Ray’s job, which of course has nothing to do with Ray currently being promoted, as that’s up to his current boss and….Well, you can tell just by that sentence that I was utterly confused by that storyline.

The problem is it’s too complicated for this story and prevented me, in a lot of places, from just enjoying Ray’s predicament. I would take all that transferring of the hotel stuff out and make the story simple. They have some huge Christmas-related event that accounts for a ton of money for the hotel at the end of the year and Ray’s gotta nail it to get the VP job. He makes all these wishes, which he thinks are going to make that goal easier, but they actually make it harder. There’s your story. You don’t need to get any more complex than that.

Another problem I had – and this is something I’ve been seeing way too much of lately in amateur scripts – is that the 1st act turn (in this case, where Ray makes his wish list) doesn’t happen until page 36! That moment should be coming on page 25 at the latest. I can understand this turn coming late in a gritty drama or a thoughtful period piece. But this is a high concept comedy, the genre best suited for the three-act structure, so it’s probably a good idea to follow that structure closely.

My third problem is in reference to the concept itself. Is this concept too spread out? The brilliance of Liar Liar is in its simplicity. He can’t lie. It’s one problem so everything about the script is centered and easy to understand. In Dear Santa, the elements are many. His wife is a stripper, he has this copy of himself running around, his adopted parents (another wish) come back into his life. So everything’s kind of haphazard and unfocused. I’m not saying it can’t work, but the randomness of it all did give me pause. I remember when he first saw Ray’s double and I thought, “That right there could be its own movie.” Then again, if you did that, it might be too much like other “be careful what you wish for” movies. So I’m not entirely sure how to address this issue. Maybe some of you readers have suggestions.

Finally, I would’ve kept everything as Christmas-related as possible in the same way that the theme of “Love Actually” focused all of its subplots on love. For example, when we have this big Jane Austen convention in the end, I don’t know what Jane Austen has to do with Christmas. It felt like a different movie. Why not turn it into something where the hotel holds the biggest Christmas Eve soup kitchen in Los Angeles and it requires an amazing amount of planning? That would feel more organic to the story.

Dear Santa had a really fun exciting energy to it. It was definitely better than the other “hotel manager” script I read not long ago, “Tower Heist,” but the script complicates itself in some ways and loses focus in others. If it could fix those problems, it would be a fun holiday film.

Scrooge out!

Script link: Dear Santa 

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I randomly ran across this interview from comedy writer Adam Goldberg and really like the advice. It doesn’t apply to this review specifically, but since I only use this section to take on in-script problems, I thought it’d be fun to talk about your mindset BEFORE you write a script. “Write in your voice. Write what you know and what appeals to you. This is where you'll have the most success. My agent once called me and told me that studios were looking for Jackie Chan movies. He also said they were looking for the "new" Kindergarten Cop. So he said -- "Why not do both?" Now, who knows? Maybe I would've sold it for millions. But you should never write to what the town wants. Don't write a thriller just because you hear thrillers are an easy sell. Only write a script that you know you can knock out of the park. I wrote Fanboys because I'm a giant Star Wars Fan. I wrote Revenge of the Nerds because, well, I am one. They say "write what you know" and there's a real truth to that!”

Remember, this is Amateur Friday.  We're all in this together.  Try to give feedback in a constructive manner that will help the writer in his next draft.