A lot of spec script writers dismiss writing for low-no budget movies. They dismiss this kind of filmmaking because they either believe their ideas are too good to waste on alt-cinema projects or that low-no budget is the hallmark of failed writers. Neither is true. The skills that experienced low-no cinema writers develop out of necessity, are also precisely the things that make a spec script pop for industry readers. They also happen to be the skills 98% of spec writers struggle to acquire.
In this article are three techniques which are absolutely vital to good alt-cinema writing. They are also techniques which will sharpen most spec scripts.
It’s About Right Now
Spec script writers are always being told how important the first ten pages of their script are for grabbing the reader’s attention. That if you don’t nail your opening, your script will never make the grade. However, there is a problem with this kind of advice. The people who tell you this aren’t giving you the whole truth. You don’t have ten pages. You have the audience/reader’s attention right now, for this moment, and they will make decisions about your project based on what you show them in the next ten to fifteen seconds.
Experienced alt-cinema writers know that attention loss is a very real issue in writing low-no budget films. With alt-cinema the audience’s expectation is often pretty low. They’re not deciding whether the film is worth buying, they are figuring out whether it’s worth ninety minutes of their life. Unlike a Hollywood popcorn and multiplex audience, alt-cinema audiences are more likely to bail before getting to the end of your film. This has to do with both confidence in the product and the investment the audience has made. Basically, if you’ve driven to the multiplex, invested in snacks and paid too much for your ticket, you are more invested in going the distance with the movie. Even if it’s a pig. Of course, the other factor is that big budget films usually deliver on the basics of story, production values and acting, unlike some alt-cinema.
As writers, spec or alt, we should be constantly aware of how quickly audiences can and will bail on a film. Alt-cinema writing teaches you that you that you really don’t have ten pages. At the most, you have two or maybe three pages to persuade the audience to give your movie a shot. After hooking them in, you hold their attention in increments of ten to fifteen seconds, at the most. Fifteen seconds is about quarter of a page of script. So, when you are writing, what happens in the next quarter page is what matters. It’s not about the scene as a whole, the story arc or any of the other things you’ve been taught to pay attention to. All that matters is that you delight, engage and/or entertain the audience right now. Alt-screenwriters learn to constantly ask the question, “is what’s happening right now interesting?”
As it happens, spec script readers are about as judgemental and harsh as alt-cinema audiences. They go in to scripts hoping the best, but expecting the worst. They also have the attention spans of gnats. Just like in alt-cinema, specs scripts don’t get the luxury of ten pages. Most readers have made up their mind about the writer and the script by the end of the first paragraph. The first victory for a spec script is getting the reader to turn the page one… and after that, the battle for the reader’s attention is fought sentence by sentence, page by page.
In alt-cinema only the tightest of scripts have any chance of creating real impact in the market. The real question for any writer is this: if you open your script at any page at random, is it tight and interesting enough to force the reader or the audience to the next page/minute. If it isn’t, think like a good alt-cinema writer and fix it now.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our ideas for movies spring from the things and ideas we are exposed to. If you only consume the current blockbuster movies, if you only get your daily fix of news from the major TV channels, and if you only watch the most popular TV series, chances are the ideas you have for movies will be the same as every other writer who is consuming exactly the same media.
Ask anyone in the industry and they will tell you the same thing, concepts arrive in waves. If one script about terrorists trying to bomb a nuclear power plant arrives on Monday, twenty more will arrive within the week. This isn’t down to idea theft, nor is it a mysterious or spooky coincidence, it’s what happens when all the writers submitting specs are filling their brains with the same input. The sad truth is this, we are all a lot less creative than we think we are.
In alt-cinema an original and interesting concept is massively important. If Hollywood movies sell on genre and who is in them, alt-cinema movies sell on almost completely on their concept. In the advertising industry, a concept that sells your product is called “the hook.” The hook is the idea that creates the audience’s desire to see the film and makes them rave online about wanting to see it. If you can’t use a major film star’s name to hook the audience, or the CGI robots, or massive set-pieces of gun fire and explosions, then your core concept has to be outstanding. It has to be the kind of idea that when you tell it to ten people picked at random, they all react the same way. They go “Wow, I’d really like to see that!”
The real question for any writer, is how do you come up with great “hook” concepts? My primary advice to alt-cinema writers is to limit their exposure to mainstream media and instead to explore cinema history, world cinema, history books, biographies, science journals and other non-fiction. By all means, keep one eye on what’s current, but move your head away from what mainstream audiences are watching and find something in the real world that hooks you. Find a fascinating fact, pin it to a “what if,” and you’ll start to generate ideas that other writers aren’t even considering. So, for instance, it’s just been discovered that identical twins aren’t actually genetically identical, what kind of stories could you create around the idea where twins appear to be identical, but where one of them has a dark or dangerous genetic trait? This is a fact I found in about 30 seconds of online research. What’s important is that I haven’t seen any TV news coverage of this or any documentaries about it. In the time it’s taken me to write this paragraph, I have mentally developed three ideas based on that one fact. At least one of them would be interesting enough for me to develop, if I was looking for a new project.
The bottom line is this, because alt-cinema is ALL about having interesting, original hooks to sell your movie, good alt-cinema writers tend to spend more time on their concepts than spec script writers. Now, the funny thing is, the one thing that will sell a spec script, even when the execution of the script isn’t 100%, is an original concept with a strong hook. Readers and producers love that stuff, because whilst a script can be fixed, a lazy concept rarely produces a script worth reading. Concepts matter.
The reason an experienced alt-cinema writer will take more time on developing and also discarding concepts, is because they realise that their investment in the project will extend beyond the script. Alt-cinema writers may have to self-finance and self-distribute their film. This is a potential time investment of about three years. On the other hand, a spec screenwriter can knock out a lazy concept in about twenty-one days and then fling it into the industry to see if it sticks. When it doesn’t, they can just move on to the next mediocre idea. No need to put in the extra work or to do any research because for them the cost or the investment is minimal.
As it happens, a lot of first time alt-cinema writers make the same mistake. They go in to their first film with more optimism than sense. As a result, the vast majority of alt-cinema writer’s first films are pretty poor. However, seeing what a pig’s breakfast you made of your first movie teaches you the value of better concept development in a much more forceful way than a rejection letter. Alt-cinema is a great teacher. Which is why writers who get the reality check of a poor film, often then go on to get 100% more serious about not making the same mistakes again.
The audience’s imagination
Far too many spec screen writers expect the industry to make up for their lack of vision or writing skills. They expect the director to take pages of characters talking and turn it into a visual spectacle and for the investors to pour money into financing CGI, explosions, gun fights and more explosions, to create the visual drama that is missing from the story.
Alt-cinema is different, you can’t rely on other people’s creativity and wallets to bail out your lack-luster story. In alt-cinema, more than any other form of screenwriting, if it’s not on the page, it won’t make it to the screen. What alt-cinema writers learn, if they want to survive, is to make sure that visual spectacle, cinematic sense, action and drama is on the page. A reader should be able to read the script and see the film in their mind, without having to fill in the blanks left by the script. This is all about learning to write cinematically. This isn’t about character arcs, plot points or exposition, it’s about controlling what the audience sees, by making sure it made it on to the page.
Some writers will have heard this before, because it’s often explained to spec script writers as: show don’t tell.
However, what many spec writer’s don’t get told is that “show don’t tell” is just stage one of that process. Stage two is: imply don’t show.
When it comes to screenwriting, it’s not just about what the audience sees, it’s about their imaginations. If cued correctly audiences will believe they’ve seen stuff that never ever made it onto film. I’m still amazed at how many people will swear on their Mother’s life that they saw the ear cut off in the seminal Reservoir Dog’s scene. But, the truth of the matter is, it’s never shown, it’s only implied. When you write well, the audience’s imagination will fill in the blanks. Not only that, the audience’s imagination will do a better job than any geek creating your CGI. The greatest scenes in film history imply what’s going on rather than showing it and the master of that art was Alfred Hitchcock. He referred to the creation of drama through implied danger as “the snake under the bed.” There’s a lot any alt-cinema writer can learn from Hitchcock. He was one of the great visionaries of modern cinema.
Another way to use the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks, is by the use of sound. Sound FX are cheap, and providing they are used intelligently, they can tell parts of the story that you can’t afford to show. Intelligent use of sound is the hallmark of an experienced alt-cinema writer.
Writers wanting to learn how to use sound to tell a visual story, need to turn off their TVs and listen to some radio drama. There is a reason why Douglas Adams “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” started its existence as a radio drama. It’s because nothing creates better pictures than sound. This is one of the reasons I tend to groan whenever I hear script guru mutter the mantra “cinema is a visual medium.” Cinema has never been just a visual medium. Even in the days of silent film, they had someone to hammer out a soundtrack on the piano! Sound matters and creative use of sound is cheap and effective.
Great alt-cinema writers only survive if they learn how to keep their scripts tight and how to sell their story fifteen seconds at a time. They hook their audiences in with intelligent, fascinating and factually based concepts, and they make sure that they control what the audience sees and imagines, by making sure that the movie they want to make gets onto the page.
Originality, truth, cinematic vision, tight writing and intelligent use of the audience’s imagination, these are the hallmarks of great alt-cinema writers… and they are also things any spec writer could use to raise their game and stand out from the crowd.
- Alt-Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script
- Alt-Script: Four Ways to Control Your Budget Without Compromising Your Film
- Alt-Script: What the Heck Does Independent Filmmaking Mean?
- Balls of Steel: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’ Journey… and Screenplay
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