BREAKING IN: No Commercial Concept For Your Script? No Problem!

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Most aspiring screenwriters hope to write a script that will make them more money than the combined box office takes of Avatar, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hangover, and Godzilla.  So they come up with what they think is a sure-fire “high concept” (“catchy” and obviously commercial) idea, then write their spec script.  And what do they get?  Most of the time, a mess!

Think about it: how many of the greatest and most profitable movies ever made started with a “high concept” idea (or at least what at the time was considered a high concept idea)?  The answer is: very few.  Except for movies based on best-selling books and comic books, or hit plays, most of the films that were both critically acclaimed and made lots of money didn’t have a “slam dunk” commercial premise.  They were each the passionate, original vision of a screenwriter and director, with great roles for stars.  Maybe they started a trend (as “Star Wars” did), but they certainly didn’t follow one.

conceptWhat does this mean for you as a screenwriter?  In order to write a spec screenplay that gets produced, you don’t necessarily need to come up with a “high concept” idea–  especially if it’s not your style to write that kind of obviously commercial film.  Instead, write a dramatically and structurally viable concept that would make a great movie.  That’s an important distinction to make and to understand.

Any great script or movie has a concept at its core that contains all the necessary ingredients for drama (or comedy; which actually is pretty much the same).  This means that there will be a main character we care about who has an urgent and compelling external goal, and obstacles to achieving that goal, as well as a personal conflict, with high stakes.  The hero of the story– and perhaps others–  will be in serious jeopardy if he fails to achieve his goal.  The concept works as the basis for a story for film.  It’s not necessarily an obviously “commercial” or “high concept” idea, however– and it doesn’t have to be.  Of course, if you can come up with a great concept for a movie that also happens to be a slam-dunk commercial idea–  great!  More power to you.  Some writers not only can come up with commercial movie concepts that will get producers and movie audiences all in a tizzy, they’re also capable of executing them with passion and enormous skill.  This is especially true for great screenwriters of commercial thrillers and comedies.

If that’s the kind of screenwriter you are, you already know it, and you probably don’t need my help.  You’re already spending your winters on the beach in St. Barts and your summers in the Hamptons or Cape Cod with the rest of the Hollywood glitterati.  As for me, I had to look up how to spell St. Barts, which gives you some idea of the crowd I hang out with.

But for most aspiring screenwriters, my advice is: Don’t try to write a “commercial” spec script based on your high-concept idea unless you know you’re a master of the genre, you really care about your story, and are capable of executing it at the highest possible professional level.  Instead, come up with a dramatically and structurally viable idea for a story that you’re passionate about and that you’re uniquely qualified to write–  whether or not it’s obviously “commercial”.

When pitching your script, you do need to know how to present your story concept in a way that makes your story sound as unique, exciting, and intriguing as possible (and, hopefully, it actually is!).  But your script doesn’t have to be an end-of-the-Earth epic, a teen horror movie, a romantic comedy with a gimmick, or a high concept gross-out comedy, in order to find a producer who wants to option or buy it.  It’s true that it’s harder to get producers interested in reading scripts that have concepts that aren’t “commercial” in obvious ways.  But your job is to write a great script, and then craft your concept/pitch so well that it reflects the high quality and excitement of your screenplay.  You can always find a way to get your script read– without kidnapping an agent or producer.

When they do read it, though, it can’t be a ho-hum experience. Your story has to wring powerful emotions–  laughter, tears, excitement, or all three– out of the person reading it (and, ultimately, the film audience).  The fate of the world doesn’t need to be at stake, and you don’t need to make things blow up–  but, at minimum, the emotional fate of your hero must be at stake.  Great screenwriters know how to create huge emotional stakes for their protagonists, and get film audiences on the edge of their seats, rooting for them with every fiber of their being–  even when the stakes aren’t literally “life or death”, but only feel that way.

For example, Meet Me in St. Louis, the enduring classic 1944 MGM musical directed by Vincente Minnelli, based on Sally Benson’s stories and set in turn-of-the-century Missouri, generates so much suspense about a father’s impending decision about whether to move his family to New York– and invests our emotions so heavily in the outcome– that it’s as if the fate of the whole world depended on his decision!  That’s what great screenwriters, gifted actors, and a great director can do.  If you haven’t ever seen this charming movie, wait till the Christmas holiday season and see it– you’re in for a treat.  When producer Arthur Freed first pitched “Meet Me in St. Louis” to exasperated MGM executives– who were apparently mystified by what this seemingly “thin” story’s commercial appeal could possibly be– they demanded to know the source of the proposed film’s dramatic conflict.  Freed’s answer?  The villain in the story is New York!

When I read your script I want to see your unique, juicy, highly specific and surprising vision of the world–  in the context of a great, tightly focused and constructed, high-stakes story with characters who seem like real human beings.  Choose a concept for your movie that will give us a protagonist we care about (even if he’s an antihero) with a clear external, high stakes, urgent and compelling goal, many obstacles to achieving that goal, and a lot of suspense, forward momentum, and dramatic tension in the framework of your story.  All of this is essential to map out before you start writing.  But an idea that has all the tenets of a successful story for film isn’t necessarily the same as a “high concept,” obviously commercial idea.  The King’s Speech, for example, certainly fits all the dramatic requirements I’ve listed above (which explains in part why it’s such a good movie), but for a number of reasons isn’t an obviously “commercial” idea, either.  And yet it was critically acclaimed, won Oscars, and grossed nearly 140 million dollars in the U.S. alone (it cost 15 million dollars to make) because it’s the kind movie that audiences love.  In a high-stakes situation with the Nazis on the march, in The King’s Speech we are rooting for the underdog, who just happens to be the King of England, and whose most important weapon in the war– the power of speech and its ability to motivate the British people– needed remedial work.  I believe that any great script is salable, and that any truly great movie, if marketed properly, can make money.  With the possible exception of movies that were based on best-selling books or comic books, most films that are critically acclaimed and also made money were the unique personal vision of the writer and director, not a “get rich quick” scheme.  They were made as a labor of love (even if the goal was also to make money), and it shows.

Every “rule” Hollywood has about what kinds of movies they’re not interested in producing is frequently broken when it comes to which films actually end up getting made and prove to be a hit. These films always seemed like a somewhat daring gamble at the time.  Whether it’s Shakespeare in Love, My Big, Fat Greek Wedding (based on a play which happened to catch the notice of Tom Hanks’s wife), Little Miss Sunshine, The Artist, or the many more recent hit films that weren’t based on well-known books, the movies that get great reviews and do well at the box office are almost always “sleeper hits.”

What do they all have in common?  Great characters, and great stories for movies.  What don’t they have in common?  A slam-dunk commercial concept.  Great, dramatically viable concepts that are also very appealing or funny?  Yes.  Obviously commercial ones?  No.  Sure, it may seem obvious now that all the films that became big hits were “commercial”.  But, believe me, it wasn’t as obvious at the time as it is now.  It’s almost always very difficult to get good films made, even with filmmakers who have a great track record at the helm.  Even original film scripts that eventually led to blockbuster franchises, like the first Back to the Future screenplay (by Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale), which had a zippy, original, and clever– but perhaps not obviously “commercial”–premise, were surprisingly hard to get made.  Listen to Bob Gale talk about this in the film’s fascinating DVD commentary.

As William Goldman once said about Hollywood and predicting which films are going to be hits, “Nobody knows anything.”  Maybe the reason that’s true is that what was successful in the past isn’t necessarily going to be successful again.  It’s also true that every film is a unique alchemy of many unpredictable factors– including the chemistry of the cast and director– that sometimes creates magic (or doesn’t) in unforeseen ways.  But a great movie always starts with a great script.  That part– and how you market your script– is the one thing that you as a writer can control.

The best approach for you as a screenwriter is to write a great story with a solid structural underpinning and an appealing and/or fascinating protagonist, but write a story you really care about– regardless of whether it’s in a commercial genre.  Write real people, not “movie characters”.  Choose a concept, plot, and characters that only you could write that well.  Screenwriting is a combination of the new and the familiar.  The structure of your story should not be new.  You should follow the tenets of good dramatic structure, and you must know your genre.  But your characters, your dialogue, and your view of the world, must all be uniquely your own.  And therein lies your best chance of writing a script you can sell.  Honest.

Here are some of the main reasons why trying to write a “commercial” script is usually a mistake.

1) Do you really know what will be commercial several years from now?  That’s the market you’re writing for because it takes at least that long to get a movie made.  By the time you decide to write another script based on what’s currently popular in the marketplace, you’re several years too late. There are already other scripts in development that have beaten you to it.  Chances are, you don’t follow every blip on the radar screen about what’s in development, and you don’t know what producers are looking for right now.  Maybe even they don’t know what they’re looking for until they see it.  Don’t follow “trends.”

2) Your heart may not be in it.  If you hate romantic comedies or high-concept thrillers, and haven’t really studied how they’re put together to the n’th degree, are you really capable of writing a great script in these genres? You’re competing with writers who not only have a passion for these genres, but also have studied what makes them tick from a structural standpoint, and have fresh ideas of their own.

3) Just because you can come up with a high-concept idea doesn’t mean you can execute it on the high level necessary in order to sell your screenplay.  For the most part, film producers don’t buy ideas or concepts if the script’s overall execution is poor.  They buy screenplays.  I read scripts all the time that have a catchy, commercial central idea, but the writer just isn’t able to execute the plot properly, with enough imaginative twists and turns.

4)  It’s a lot harder to write a “commercial” script than it seems.  Very few writers have the skills to do this well.  This is why they’re paid so much money.

5) High-concept movie premises often run out of gas quickly, or are basically a one-joke idea.  Make sure the film idea or concept you come up with has enough potential to be explored for two hours of suspenseful screen time.

6) Many of the obviously commercial ideas that get developed and made in Hollywood are either created internally by film production companies (most feature animated films originate that way), or are based on comic book characters or best-selling books.  Chances are, you don’t work as a writer for the Story Development department at Pixar or DreamWorks, or (for other kinds of movies) can’t afford to option the film rights to properties like The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight— which are usually picked up when the book is still a manuscript, long before it’s published and available to the public, anyway.  Best-selling books become film fodder, by the way, not necessarily because they are great ideas for movies (though they sometimes are), but mainly because they have a built-in audience and are likely to make money for their producers.

The good news for you as a screenwriter is that you don’t have to write “that commercial junk” you hate so much in order to sell a screenplay.  You might as well write about what you really care about–  as long as it’s also a solid story concept with sufficient external conflict for the hero, high stakes, and you can be objective about this (or find a professional who is).

I do have one more tip.  If you have a great screenplay that’s not obviously “commercial,” try entering it in major screenwriting contests, where they have to read your script– or at least part of it– and it’s easier to get noticed.  And one caveat: While I don’t want to discourage you from tackling serious and important topics in your screenplays, try to make your story fun or emotionally uplifting in some way, even if (especially if!) it’s a drama– so that readers and film audiences don’t find it a depressing ordeal; and don’t let your script get bogged down in a preachy “message.”

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

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2 thoughts on “BREAKING IN: No Commercial Concept For Your Script? No Problem!

  1. Pinar Tarhan

    It’s not that I don’t want an obviously commercial idea. I’d love to find a great high concept that I could write well so I would appeal more to producers, but those are really hard to come by:)

    The problem with my current drama is that some of the actions of my main character comes off as too outrageous, and that’s what makes the script so compelling to me, at least. I’ve been in a similarly messed up position the character has, and I had even more outrageous plans/dreams/fantasies. So I relate. But readers don’t, not yet. I’m doing my best to improve on that. And it’s a bit depressing in parts. OK, I’ve to get to work:)

    Thanks for a great article, Staton!

  2. Clive Davies-FrayneClive Davies-Frayne

    Thanks a lot for this article. It completely echoes my own beliefs about what screenwriting is all about.

    The only thing I’d add to it, would be for writers to consider the possibilities of independent production. I say this because if you’ve a very personal script, one you’re passionate about, you’ll always be its most passionate advocate. That’s not to say that you can just write a new “Guardians of the Galaxy” and expect to also be able to make that happen on your first project. However, once you free yourself of the idea that whatever you write must inhabit the small circle of what popcorn vendors call commercial, pretty much anything is possible. Personally, I find that kind of creative freedom intoxicating.

    Thanks again. I’ll look forward to your next article.

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