A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
There you are, sitting in a comfy seat in a darkened movie theatre, munching popcorn and waiting for the film to begin. But first, you’re treated to Coming Attractions! A series of trailers for other films.
That’s their job!
To reveal what makes the movie cool, exciting, appealing. To entice you back into the theatre yet again.
There you sit, the perfect captive audience.
Film distributors sell “go to our movie” directly to people who go to the movies – the exact consumer they’re seeking. Plus trailers are paired with the movie you’re about to watch to ensure they are hitting their target audience. Family film trailers before Pixar and Disney fare, action trailers in front of a sci-fi action piece, romance stories ahead of rom-coms…
As I was writing this column, I got a call from my nephew to thank me for his birthday present. He enthusiastically gave me the run down of all his birthday celebrations, including plans to see a movie with his Nana and Pop-Pop. He wanted to see The Nut Job 2, because “It’s really fun,” but thought they might not be able to see it since it wasn’t yet in theatres. He was correct. The movie opens in August.
He went on to tell me what was so great about the movie; excitedly describing a scene with a squirrel in a truck, flying in the air in slow motion.
My nephew just turned nine.
He is the target audience for these movies, and the marketers have done their job of advertising to him very successfully.
To quote one of my favorite advertising executives of all time, the iconic Leo Burnett, founder of the hugely successful eponymous agency, during the height of the Great Depression, which meant that the odds were stacked against him:
Advertising says to people, ‘Here’s what we’ve got. Here’s what it will do for you. Here’s how to get it.’
It clearly worked on my young nephew.
Does all your marketing for your project achieve those same objectives? Are your loglines, queries, and pitches telling potential buyers, “Here’s what I’ve got. Here’s what it will do for you.”?
In last month’s column, Story Ideas – Catch Bigger Fish With The Irresistible Lure, I talked about creating marketing materials that make your story enticing to buyers. Now it’s time to focus on having your script deliver as advertised.
Deliver Trailer Moments: Here’s What I Got
“Trailer moments” is a commonly used phrase in film development. Execs refer to it frequently, as in “Where are the trailer moments?” Or, hopefully, “That’s a great trailer moment!!
These are the juicy bits that wind up in the trailer, as they are an effective commercial for the movie. They tell you what the genre is. They show you some of the coolest visual expressions of that genre, such as the death-defying chase sequence in an action flick, or tell you the tagline joke in a comedy. They give away a great moment that epitomizes the hook, which is what makes the idea appealing.
These moments say, “Here’s what we’ve got.”
But it’s up to the writer to create them in the first place.
Deliver The Memorable Line of Dialogue
“Go ahead, make my day.” Sudden Impact, 1983
“You can’t handle the truth!” A Few Good Men, 1992
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Jaws, 1975
These lines were so iconic that they became part of our cultural vernacular.
The Hollywood Reporter asked entertainment industry pros to vote on the most memorable quote from every movie ever made to create a list of Hollywood’s 100 Favorite Movie Quotes. They came up with some good ones!
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The Godfather: Part III, 1990
“The Dude abides.” The Big Lebowski, 1998
“Hasta la vista, baby.” Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991
“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946
“Show me the money!” Jerry Maguire, 1996
“Houston, we have a problem.” Apollo 13, 1995
“I’ll have what she’s having.” When Harry Met Sally, 1989
“The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” Fight Club, 1999
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The Wizard of Oz, 1939
“May the Force be with you.” Star Wars, 1977
And in first place…
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Gone With the Wind, 1939
I’m not encouraging you to cram a bunch of potentially pithy lines into your screenplay in the hopes that they will become a catchphrase recognized around the world. That would definitely feel forced and stilted, and would likely be a painful read.
What I am saying is:
Work toward lean dialogue. It often has the greatest impact, as indeed, less is most often more. And please, please, avoid telling us the same thing twice. Repetition is a waste of space and bores the reader.
Avoid mixing genres or stick to a single genre combination. Ensure that dialogue is in keeping with the tone of the story. While every line in a comedy should definitely not be a pun, punch line, or joke, a melodramatic line will be painfully discordant in an action comedy.
Create dialogue distinctive to the characters. Not merely unique or quirky, but their own voice that reflects who they are.
Aim for a single line that sums up the entire point of the scene – and accomplishes it in the least amount of words.
Keep dialogue focused – as with all good scenes, it either advances the plot, illustrates the arc for the hero or, in the best case, both.
When dialogue is emblematic of the character, the story, the tone and the theme, it makes your script a good read and ups the potential that it will resonate with audiences.
You can try valiantly to create iconic lines, but you can’t predict what will stick with audiences. I’ll let The Hollywood Reporter article prove my point:
“Wax on, wax off.” The Karate Kid, 1984
“I never imagined the ‘wax on, wax off’ would amount to anything,” says screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. “The crane at the end was the one. I wanted that to be the big moment. If I thought anyone remembered anything they’d remember that.”
A surprising number of some of the best-known movie lines were improvised on the set:
“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” When Harry Met Sally, 1989
Writer Nora Ephron’s first draft didn’t have Sally and Harry ending up together because she considered a breakup to be a more realistic ending. So when it came time to film the revised happy ending, Billy Crystal ad-libbed much of his dialogue with Meg Ryan, including this most remembered line of the picture.
“I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” Midnight Cowboy, 1969
Dustin Hoffman’s line was ad-libbed, and the scene was shot guerrilla style because they didn’t have enough money to shut down a New York street. The cab “almost hit us,” Hoffman once recalled. “I guess the brain works so quickly, I said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character …’ So I said, ‘I’m walking here.’ Director John Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and redid it two or three times, because he loved it.”
“Here’s Johnny!” The Shining, 1980
All the script called for was for Jack Nicholson’s deranged writer, Jack Torrance, to break down the door to get to his cowering wife. But Nicholson added a little something to cut the tension — the production went through dozens of doors before director Stanley Kubrick was satisfied — and his improvised “Here’s Johnny!” made the cut.
Here’s a cool clip of Jack Nicholson preparing to shoot that famous scene.
“You talkin’ to me?” Taxi Driver, 1976
Robert De Niro improvised the line. The script simply said, “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.” Writer Paul Schrader told the actor his character was just “a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.”
No one can predict that a line of dialogue will resonate with audiences. The best writer can’t guarantee it. But your job is to create a blueprint for a film. The more dimension you build into the characters, the stronger a foundation you provide for an actor to take the leap to improvisation that hits the mark.
These lines stuck with us because the writer created distinctive characters, gave them a specific point of view, and placed them in highly charged scenes that laid the groundwork for powerful improvised dialogue.
Deliver On The Promise of The Genre
There’s nothing worse than seeing a great trailer and then going to the movie only to be disappointed because it didn’t deliver what it promised.
The trailer convinced you that there would be awesome action, but the movie turned out to be one long, familiar chase scene after another, filled with tired action clichés. Nothing new here.
The trailer persuaded you that you would be treated to thigh-slapping belly laughs, only to hit the same joke time and again, fail to escalate the comedic conflicts, and offer no variation to the comic tone. Meh.
The trailer lead you to expect a clever mystery, but the clues were so obvious that you were way ahead of the hero, and waiting for them to catch up. Yawn.
The same goes for digging into a promising script and discovering that it doesn’t deliver.
Those of us reading scripts hope that they will offer up enticing versions of the tropes inherent in their genres. When they fall short, we are let down by what feels like “bait and switch.” Our disappointment stems from the story failing to deliver on the promise of its genre. I’m certain you know the feeling.
In the action movie, we’re all eagerly anticipating “big bangs”: The rooftop fight, the “cool as a cucumber” good guy under pressure, the moment when the villain gets his well-deserved comeuppance.
Horror fans are in it for the scare that makes them jump out of their seats: The shocker we didn’t see coming, the tension of the unsuspecting hero and the lurking bad guy only we can see creeping closer, the disconcertingly evil, possessed child.
And for all moviegoers who believe in finding “the one” in life, we’ve simply got to have the meet cute, the first kiss, the proverbial “run to airport” in our rom-coms.
But these scenes only stick with us when they deliver on the conventions of the genre, and they provide the added delight of a fresh spin. It’s familiar, yet unique to your premise and your characters.
It could only be in your script.
In your rom-com, it’s that old but cherished chestnut – the run to the airport – whether in a station wagon packed with all your friends racing through the streets of London, astride a white limousine, or rushing to the top of the Empire State Building. It’s the enticement of the satisfying cliché combined with your unique vision that will make your script special and memorable.
It’s the one-of-a-kind variation you devise.
Deliver On The Promise of The Premise
If you believe as I do, from my experience as a production exec, a producer, and a script consultant, that “Concept is King,” then it goes to follow that you must deliver on Promise of the Premise – the expectations created by the conceit of the story:
Understand the anticipation you created for the reader and the audience in your choice of the concept.
Fully explore the characters to maximize the premise
Thoroughly exploit the story for a wide range of potential escalating conflicts
Deliver on the Promise of the Premise in every choice from the title to the theme
A foolproof example for examining how to deliver on the Promise of the Premise is Liar Liar, a tried and true concept that we’ve seen in everything from Pinocchio to a classic I Love Lucy episode, “Lucy Tells The Truth”:
The Title: This clever choice quickly sets the tone for a comedy, as well as teases the concept.
The Concept: A man who breaks his promises suddenly finds that he cannot tell a lie.
The Genre: If you were developing this idea, first you would look at genre. There is so much potential for comic conflict here that it has to be a comedy.
The Hero: What occupation is better known for their dishonesty than lawyers? Perhaps used car salesmen, but the stakes are not as high, and there aren’t as many opportunities to deliver big comic set pieces.
The Conflict: You want the hero to be faced with conflict on as many fronts as possible, internal and external. You want the stakes to be personal to the character. So, in addition to the plot of the lawyer trying to win the case while representing a lying client, the hero must also win back his son, who he has disappointed time and again by not keeping his word.
The Stakes: With this multifaceted conflict, the stakes go beyond the courtroom or even the lawyer’s career. The hero has a chance to win back his estranged family or lose them forever.
The First Half of Act Two: If you don’t give us Jim Carey finding himself incapable of suppressing boob jokes or the equivalent, you won’t have delivered on the Promise of the Premise – the big laughs we’ve seen in the trailer and are expecting to find in the roller coaster ride of the first half of Act Two.
The Second Half of Act Two: But if you didn’t also have his family hanging in the balance, with a “new dad” ready to take them away, you won’t have the escalated stakes of the second half of Act Two when the conflict must increase for the hero and the ride gets much bumpier. In the second half of Act Two, meaningful stakes, a character arc, a resonant message, and a satisfying ending add depth and dimension to a story. And, true to the genre, it is still packed with laughs even when there is more on the line for the hero.
With every single writing decision you make, you are saying, “Here’s what I’ve got.” Conscious decision-making is essential to deliver what you promise.
In Part Two of this article, we’ll step beyond how to deliver “Here’s what I’ve got,” to master how to deliver “Here’s what it will do for you.” This goes to the very heart of the moviegoing experience.
Please share your disappointing trailer versus movie experiences in the comments below.
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