Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Review: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” is one of the more interesting books to come along in the screenwriting community in a while. Its authors, the writers of such movies as Night at the Museum and Herbie Fully Loaded, seem to take the opposite approach when it comes to writing than mainstays such as Robert McKee and Blake Snyder. Gone are long chapters on how to develop your characters. Absent is any in-depth look at structure. In their place is a single core piece of advice: Write big fun family "four quadrant" movies and rake in the dollars.

Despite the actual screenwriting advice being some of the worst I've ever encountered, the backstage insider look into the business side of screenwriting is nothing short of amazing. Basically, the book tells you what happens after you break into the club. It's funny, it's sad, it's interesting, but if you ever wondered what it's really like to be a working screenwriter or you want to prepare yourself for when you finally make that big jump, this is definitely a book for you.

Before I get into some of the more interesting aspects of the book, I'd like to warn you about its biggest weakness - its unequivocally terrible advice when it comes to writing a screenplay. You see, these guys believe it's as easy as slapping together a bunch of funny scenes and making a $1 million sale. Let me tell you why they think this and why they're wrong. As the authors point out in their book, on most big projects there are a lot of writers. Oftentimes, new writers are brought in to beef up the weak portions of the screenplay. So if the dialogue is bad, the producers will bring in writers who are good with dialogue. Once they're finished, the producers may realize that the structure is sloppy. So they'll fire the dialogue guys and bring in some structure guys. What our authors seem to understand but not acknowledge is that they’re the "comedy" guys. They're the writers you bring in when you want jokes. But the between the lines message here – and I'm not even sure our authors are aware of it – is that when the producers want people who actually know how to write a screenplay, who understand the guts, the depth, how to add heart, and all those things that actually make a story resonate with people, they bring in writers who actually know how to write. So while our authors implying that none of that "deep" stuff really matters may be true for their own specific experiences, it has nothing to do with Joe Nobody’s approach to a screenplay. Joe Nobody still has to display an intrinsic understanding of the craft to impress a reader. It would be nice if all you had to do was tell a couple of jokes to make a million bucks. But that's simply not the case.

The good news is, none of that stuff is the focus of the book. The main focus here is the business end. And I have to give it to these guys. They taught me a hell of a lot about how things work once you're a highly paid screenwriter. Here are some of the highlights.

My favorite chapter (and probably the most terrifying chapter you'll ever read if you're a screenwriter) is the one that deals with the authors' experience writing Herbie: Fully Loaded. Now if you ask me, I'm not jumping up and down begging somebody to let me write another Herbie movie. But hey, everybody's got their thing. So these guys pitched Herbie to the studio president and she loved it. She thought it was the greatest idea ever and quickly made Herbie the most important movie on the studio’s slate. She then set them up with a producer who basically had zero interest in making a Herbie movie and therefore tried to make a version of what she believed a Herbie movie for people who don't like Herbie would be like. She then proceeded to make the writers change every single aspect of their story, even though those were all the things the studio fell in love with. And they couldn't do anything about it. When you're the writers, you can't just call the studio president and say, "Hey, this producer is making us change all the things you love.” There is a hierarchy. You're not allowed to go over anybody's head. So all they could do was stand on the deck and watch the Titanic sink.

This is what I don't get about Hollywood. It would seem to me that one of the more important decisions you would make as a president would be to match up a project with a producer who understands and cares about that project. It sounds like a producer was just randomly assigned to these guys. I don't see how good movies could consistently be made under that process (note to readers: the authors assure us rather proudly that that producer is no longer working in the business). But what should really tickle your noodle is that these guys also wrote Taxi – a movie in which the development process went as smoothly as newly churned butter. Now comparing Herbie to Taxi is kind of like comparing Jersey Shore to Basketball Wives. But in a close race I would still say that Herbie comes out on top. Which begs the question: How much does development really matter?

One of the big changes in your life after your first sale is that you'll now become a human pitch machine, pitching your own projects or pitching yourself as the best option for someone else's projects. This is an element of the business that very few people talk about outside of working screenwriters. And these guys do a pretty good job of preparing you for it. Probably the most important advice they give you is that whatever movie you’re pitching should have a main character a movie star will want to play. Because no matter how much movie blogs and Hollywood insiders are trying to convince us that stars no longer matter, the easiest way to get financing and confidence behind a project is to have a movie star attached. They also point out that your idea should be different but shouldn't reinvent the wheel. It should sound like a cross between two really successful films (they use the example "Die Hard" meets "Home Alone" but I'm pretty sure they were joking – although it's hard to tell – these are the guys who wrote Taxi remember). The rest of their advice about pitching is rather practical – be excited about your movie, don't be afraid to act out some of the parts, and keep it short (a typical pitch is 15 min. long). But the point is, this is the part of Hollywood that most screenwriters have no clue about until they're thrown into the fire. It sure is nice to get a look at the logs before the match is lit.

One of the more amusing chapters I ran into was in regards to page count and page formatting. For everybody who thinks that the length of their screenplay doesn't matter, wait till you start writing for a big studio. The studios are so obsessed with page length that they actually have their own specific formatting requirements. They give you specific indents and formatting rules you must enter into your screenwriting software when you write drafts for them. If you turn a script in that doesn't follow that formatting data, they will chop off your fingers. The reason for this is, obviously, every page is roughly equal to a certain amount of screen time, usually 1 min. And each of the studios have perfected a formatting template that allows them to best measure the length of a movie based on the length of the screenplay. So for those of you freaking out about page length now, wait until you have to start formatting a studio script. That's when shit gets real.

One of the most enlightening chapters in the book is the chapter about getting paid. I can't tell you how many writers have asked me how much they should expect to make selling their first screenplay, and then, if the screenplay gets made, how much they should expect to make on the back end. These are the details I've always wanted answers to and the book goes into as much minutia as I've ever seen on the matter. So how much is the minimum one can make from selling a screenplay? The short answer is, the Writers Guild requires a writer be paid at least $110,000 for an original screenplay. However, you aren't in the Writers Guild. And that means somebody could pay you 200 bucks. Where things get interesting though is on the backend. This is where the writing business gets messy. The reason that those writing credits are so coveted – even on total pieces of shit like Paul Blart 3 – is because as long as you have an official credit on the film, you'll be getting paid for the rest of your life. All those writers who worked on the script but didn't get credit? They don't get diddly squat outside of their rewrite fee.

The fight for that coveted credit has created one of the most highly controversial arbitration processes in any union. Without getting into too much detail, in order to determine who gets the credit on a screenplay, a bunch of your fellow writers read all the drafts from all the people who worked on the project, and decide who to give the credit to. Each writer is also allowed to give a written argument as to why they believe they should get the credit. Oftentimes, credit is given to the writer with the most persuasive argument. So Writer A may have done a lot more work on the screenplay than Writer B, but Writer B came up with a much better argument, so he wins. This has become such an intense process, that there are actually arbiters out there that you can hire for thousands of dollars who'll write your argument for you to give you the best chance at getting written credit on the film.

This has also led to some really shady practices in the screenwriting community, some of which actually encourage writers to sabotage a good script. If you're hired to rewrite another writer, and you want to make as much money as possible, it's in your best interest to rewrite as much of the story as possible, regardless of if that new story is better than the current story. If you know that the movie you're working on is already getting made, then it's practically demanded of you to change as much as possible so you can get final credit on the film. This is at least part of the reason why there are a lot of bad movies out there. The system is rigged to encourage writers to change what's working. There are actually standard tricks of the trade – like changing all of the characters names – to help it look like you've written the majority of the story. Arbitration is one of, if not the, most heated topic amongst professional screenwriters. I can't say I know how to fix it but from the way these guys lay it out, it's clear that the process is broken. Maybe some savvy Scriptshadow readers have some ideas on how to fix it and can share their ideas in the comments section.

What I've highlighted above is just scratching the surface. There are a ton of other topics that the book covers (including how to take notes from Martin Lawrence – well kinda). Despite some of the worst pure screenwriting advice I've ever read (please, don't listen to anything these guys say when it comes to the actual writing), I have to admit that I've never seen this kind of insight into the professional plight of a working screenwriter. Not all of us are going to hang on long enough to become screenwriting superstars, but for those of you who are in this for the long haul and expect to be looking at real estate in the Hollywood Hills at some point in your life, you'll definitely want to read this book. For those who have already bought it, feel free to offer your opinions in the comments section.