Friday, May 20, 2011

Amateur Friday - Real Men Play Futebol

Genre: Drama/Sports
Premise: A teenage boy hoping to escape the poverty of his West African village finds the opportunity when a professional futebol scout comes to town.
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 (feel free, however, to use an alias and a fake title).
Writer: Andrew Bumstead
Details: 106 pages

After reading dozens of contained thrillers, goofy comedies, zombie flicks, and white male 20-something coming of age stories, I often need a giant helping of “different” to get the juices flowing again. “Real Men Play Futebol” fit the bill. Usually these scripts get passed over by the Hollywood elite (I’ll get into why later) but on this particular day, when I was rooting for the underdog, I decided to give this potentially uplifting tale a shot.

14 year old Ze lives in a small West African town where the average family consists of single mothers who’ve been left high and dry by the men who fathered their children. Why take care of others when you can go out and continue to nail other women and get them pregnant too! To cope with this reality, Ze finds solace in his favorite sport, Futebol, of which he’s become quite good at. His hope is to one day play for a professional team and leave this dark depressing town behind.

So imagine his excitement when a professional futebol scout announces he’ll be flying in to find the town’s best player. The “winner” will receive 50,000 dollars and head back with him to the national team. It’s that once-in-a-lifetime lottery opportunity. And Ze is going to do anything to win it.

His training is interrupted, however, when his mother’s ex-boyfriend (the father of Ze’s little sister), Carlos, comes back into town. Despite leaving them high and dry for years, Carlos waltzes back in like he’s just come back from a Sunday stroll.

Ze is furious. Not only does he hate this man for taking advantage of his mother. But he hates his mother for how easily she gives in to him. However, Ze senses an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He knows that Carlos is a good futeboler, and so offers him an opportunity to train him. If he wins the national team spot, he’ll give Carlos half of the 50 grand. The only catch is that Carlos can never talk to his mother again. Seeing dollar signs, Carlos agrees.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Carlos teaches Ze everything he knows, and despite Ze’s rival being favored to win the spot, it’s looking like Ze can pull off the upset. In the end, however, he will have to decide whether to leave this crumbling world behind, just like every other man from this town, or stay with his family and make it a better place.

Okay first the good stuff. Dramatically, this is very well-structured. We have a clear goal for our protagonist (Win the futebol contest), a solid ticking time bomb (only 2 weeks to prepare), some nice conflict (the push and pull relationship between him and Carlos) and a strong theme (selfishness vs. selflessness – does he stay and help others or leave and help himself?). The writing speeds along and has plenty of plot points to keep the story fresh (I particularly liked Ze’s attempt to leave early, ultimately getting conned), so just as a pure reading experience, it was solid.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this script had a lot of hills to climb before even a word was written. Dramas are hard sells. I don’t state that in a mean “Don’t ever write a drama” way.  More in a "Know what you're getting into" way.  The fact is dramas don’t make as much money and are therefore harder to get off the ground. For that reason, many producers avoid them. Jewerl Ross, a manager who sold Father Daughter Time to Warner Brothers a couple of weeks ago, had this to say about the subject: “Please know that 90% of new writers are writing dramas. That is ok if that is all you can and want to write. However, your chances of breaking into the screenwriting biz writing dramas are so very, very slim. Most people break into the business writing genre material: comedies, horror, thrillers, etc. If you expect to break into Hollywood writing a period piece about Abraham Lincoln and his obsession with calligraphy, that script is not going to be read by a lot of people. Also, so few of the jobs that I can get for writers are dramas. Most drama jobs go to super A-list writers. Temper your passion with the wisdom of what people are actually reading and buying.” (you can read more from his interview here)

On top of this, “Futebol” is a FICTIONAL sports movie. It doesn’t take much research to find that, these days, the only sports movies studios make are comedies or “based on real life” stories. I don’t know why. I loved Field Of Dreams. I loved Rocky. But they just don’t seem to be interested in these kinds of movies anymore.

My point is that as an unproven screenwriter, you’re stacking the deck against yourself. These dramas (or sports dramas) can still sell. But the margin for error in the writing becomes considerably slimmer. They don’t just have to be good. They have to be GREAT. And it’s hard for even seasoned professionals to write great scripts. But hey! Every once in awhile someone breaks through and writes that great script that proves the world wrong. So was “Futebol” that exception?

While “Futebol” had some great things going for it, I had a lot of problems with the screenplay. Usually in sports movies, the hero has some defining clearly labeled problem preventing him from becoming great. So in The Karate Kid, it was discipline. Daniel Son thought you could learn a couple of cool punches and kicks and be able to effortlessly take down the bullies. Mr. Miagi had to teach him discipline by making him paint the fence and wax the cars. I never got a sense of what Ze was missing in his game, and for that reason, all of his practice sections with Carlos felt empty.

Carlos was a huge problem for me as well. First of all, making it so that Carlos wasn’t Ze’s real father was an odd choice. To me, if your father left you then came back a dozen years later, I’d imagine that would be an emotionally confusing experience, particularly if you weren’t sure he was there because of you, or there because he wanted the money you could make him. So making Carlos unrelated to Ze was a huge missed opportunity. Now he’s just some guy who dated Ze's mom, lessening the conflict between the characters a hundred fold.

The reward money was also an issue. My favorite aspect of the story was these two characters (Ze and Carlos) developing a friendship, while we wondered whether Carlos was in it for Ze or in it for the money. As long as that question hung over the story’s head, every scene between Ze and Carlos would be dripping with conflict. By having Ze offer Carlos half the money right off the bat and Carlos accepting, we now know for sure that Carlos is in it for the money. So where’s the tension? Where's the conflict? Where’s the mystery? Not only that, but the choice didn’t add anything to the story. It’s supposed to raise the stakes by getting Carlos away from Ze’s mom. But Carlos ignores this agreement right away anyway (continuing to hang out with the mother), leaving me to wonder what the point of the agreement was.

Another issue I had was the confusing nature of the climax. The great thing about sports movies is that the finale usually comes down to a clearly identifiable “win or lose” scenario. Hoosiers, Karate Kid, Rocky. We understand exactly what’s going on at the end. Here, the vague-ness of this tryout and the randomness of the drills and activities led to an anti-climactic resolution. I guess you could make the argument that a final game would be too cliché, but this is a movie about futebol so a pure game scenario might be a better option.

On a more nit-picky front, people tend not to like scenes where characters brutally murder animals. Even if it comes from your villain. The scene where Bruno puts a cat in a bag and violently bashes it against the wall until the bag is bloody and the cat is dead is just going to disgust a lot of people (even if it comes straight from real life). There are a lot of more creative ways to get us to hate your villain, and I’ve just found that the majority of people don’t react kindly to animal violence unless it’s absolutely essential to the plot.

Real Men Play Futebol is an example of strong writing with some missed opportunities. In particular, I think reconfiguring the “father-son” relationship here (so that Carlos is his real father) would help a lot.

Script Link: Real Men Play Futbol

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

What I learned: As is evidenced here and in a lot of scripts that I read (but not all! I’m not making a declarative statement!), 1-2 weeks seems to be the perfect time frame for most stories told in movie format. It’s short enough so that the story’s forced to move quickly, yet long enough to give the impression of passing time. For most scripts, particularly genre material, I would suggest keeping your storyline within this 1-2 week timeline.