Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
What an asshole! He just shorthanded me!
How’s this? What did he just do? Let me explain. Shorthanding is the oft-maddening Hollywood reduction of your effort to some lame and uncreative one-liner that juxtaposes two disparate titles to create a descriptor. Examples:
Castaway meets Red Planet = The Martian
Hunger Games meets Divergent = The Maze Runner
Boyz in the Hood meets Jersey Boys = Straight Outta Compton
Yeah. That last one’s pretty lame. But I’d bet big money some dude in a studio executive suite served it with a smile.
So here’s the scene. Imagine yourself in a pitch meeting at a movie studio. You’ve labored long and heavy over your presentation. So much so that the performance appears effortless. The story flows from you like glossy enamel at the end of a paintbrush. Smooth. Deliberate. Every beat refers to the next. The puzzle pieces fit with precision. Your beginning, middle, and end leave the room silent, yet stirred.
Then the producer you walked in with, slightly nervous by the onset of golden silence, blurts something out in order to, in his or her opinion, push the pitch over the top:
“Think of this movie as Mad Max Fury Road meets Twelve Years a Slave.”
Close shot on: You. Spun up. Mouth agape. Thinking, did I really just hear that? Scanning the other faces in the room, you note that the executives are equally gob-smacked. Discomfited. Embarrassed for you. You swallow what you really want to say. Three words, starting with the letters:
But no. Instead of spitting out invectives at your supposed partner and still chuffed about your pitch, you skewer the anxious producer with a rapier swipe:
“Know what?” you rip. “That might be the stupidest thing anybody ever uttered in a pitch.”
Though the producer looks obviously slighted, the team of studio faces busts into uncontrolled laughter. The tension has been released while the egg is left dripping on the face of the producer, who joins in the guffaws because he/she knows that selling is the only way the bread gets buttered.
Sounds like a preposterous moment? Indeed. But it happened to me. I even posted about the actual event in a blog called THE EGG MCGUFFIN, which involved partnering on a pitch with a big-mouthed producer.
But this post is about getting shorthanded. And love it or hate it, it’s part of the game.
Right now, as you read this, some exec or agent or producer is shorthanding some writer’s good work into a ridiculous sum. Or maybe, you’re doing it yourself. Prepping a pitch letter or email or presentation and thinking a good way to center the sales job might be with the descriptor, Movie X meets Movie Y.
Pssst. You know what I think? It’s ay-okay. Little secret. I do it myself. And here’s why.
First of all, it’s a communication game. Be it me wanting the gig or wanting the reader to buy my book, it’s about getting to the yes. The click. The commitment. I’m confident once I get the yes, the reader or buyer or whomever is going to be engrossed in the totality of my work. All my months of effort is there for their reading pleasure. But until that moment, it’s a sales call. And not every prospective customer is as creatively perceptive in understanding what I’m selling as I am in selling it. To be even more plain and simple, some folks are flat out conceptually illiterate.
So you ask yourself this: If what I’m selling is conceptual, then why is someone in a position of buying concepts when he or she can’t even grasp the concept of concept?
Answer. Because they are the buyers and you’re not. How and why he or she got there is anybody’s guess. Relatives. Politics. Street smarts. No matter. They are buyers and you’re the seller.
Another thing. Most buyers are students of popular culture. Either that or they respect blockbuster success. Marrying two iconic or beloved titles with each other is not just a cut to the chase or a punchline. To a buyer, the subconscious recognition of those paired movies or TV shows might even produce a dopamine release. It’s as if it leads them to imagine two gorgeous people marrying and making children. Or for that matter, two geniuses. We can picture the beautiful and/or brilliant children that might be birthed. There’s a primal excitement to it.
Yeah, I know. It reeks of the uncreative. But, hey. It works. It sells. So why not try reducing your own excellent effort to a magical movie pairing? See what happens.
In the meantime, the short handing of my own work continues. In reference to my franchise character, Lucky Dey, someone said he was Dirty Harry meets Ray Donovan. Regarding Lucky’s most recent adventure, Reaper, one reviewer said it tonally fell between Chinatown and The Wire. (Apologies for the shameless self-promotion.)
Pretty good company, huh?
Get Doug’s volume of Hollywood war stories in his new book
The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches