I’ve always enjoyed blending genres, even though many of the great tomes of screenwriting wisdom caution against it. “From the first few pages of your screenplay, the audience has to know exactly what genre it is.” I’ve come to learn that it’s not the audience that needs to know what genre it is – the audience can adapt – but rather the studio executives who are reading it. It’s quite simple, really: they need to know how to market and sell the finished film to its proper audience or distributor.
I’ve been writing short film scripts for about ten years now. I’ve also written about five feature-length screenplays, which have all since ended up where they belong – the trash. Since 2007, however, I’ve been working on the first feature-length screenplay I’m actually proud to have my name on. It’s called A Beautiful Unlife, and I’ll get to what it’s about three paragraphs from now. I rewrote it a few times with the aid of Hollywood script analyst Michael Ray Brown, who went above and beyond his cost and call of duty to help me craft a winning script. He gave me invaluable feedback on numerous occasions, and even recommended I submit the script to a few studios and agencies in Los Angeles.
So I did. I sent it out, along with Michael’s initial coverage, to a bunch of big league and independent studios, as well as to William Morris Agency. Naturally, as a fledgling screenwriter, it was rejection central for Unlife, but I was surprised to see how generous the majority of the folks from these big studios had been with their feedback. I got an email reply from every company that David Ulery, my manager at the time, and I submitted to. I remember one email from Focus Features even suggested I re-submit Unlife to NBCUniversal because the screenplay, as they read it, seemed to require a larger budget than they usually handle. Another representative from a larger studio gave me some great feedback on where the script seemed to lose speed. And an agent at William Morris, despite his very severe thrashing of many of the elements in the script, offered up criticism that would later empower me to make the story even better. And now, in 2013, I have a stronger script than I had back in 2008 when the submission process began, one that may just be ready for an independent lens or perhaps the panels of a graphic novel.
But amid all the rejection emails and constructive criticism, there was one aspect of the script that was mentioned as a concern by almost every studio submitted to: the fact that Unlife plays around in multiple genres, which I can’t help but see as the future of truly independent cinema and storytelling.
Now for the brief synopsis: A Beautiful Unlife tells the story of a vampire named Basil who “unlives” in the future utopia of 2167, a time in which humans and vampires co-exist in peace. Suffering from an unknown malady, Basil seeks the aid of a time master to travel back in time to 2012 because he’s convinced that a young woman who appeared in his dreams holds the cure to his mysterious disease. Once he arrives in the New York City, Basil struggles to find a job that will pay his rent while at the same time keep his craving for blood in check so he can actively search for this girl before he’s summoned back to the future. Luckily, he lands a job that affords him the best of both –– answering phones at a suicide prevention hotline!
There’s a little more to the story, of course, but just based on this short synopsis alone, what we’ve got here is a:
- vampire tale (Basil, our protagonist) that’s got elements of
- science fiction (time travel) and
- dark comedy (Basil’s job in 2012), a bit of
- fantastical realism (dream sequences with talking rats) and by the end a poignant
- melodrama (turns into a relationship between Basil and the young woman) in a
- coming of age story like no other (big reveal in act three).
While the studios seem fine with screenwriters mixing up to two genres, six genres, in their eyes, is pushing the boundaries of what audiences can handle. However, in today’s social media age, for someone who knows how to tap into numerous audiences, more genres equates to more diverse audiences that will come together for a taste of something fresh and exciting, something that they’ve never tasted before in the movies. Most importantly to the folks who are in the business of screenwriting, it’ll get more butts in the seats at the theaters or clicks on the web. The problem I’m seeing is that studios have not yet fully embraced the marketing power of Twitter and Facebook as a means to bridge the gap that, in their eyes, screenplays that dabble in many genres unnaturally create.
A movie like A Beautiful Unlife, I’m convinced, holds the means to connect people who love zombie films with those who love a good stoner comedy. Imagine sitting beside your significant other watching a “chick flick” and then all of a sudden it turns into a slasher picture with blood and guts and gore galore! Burn After Reading proves a splendid example of going from dark humor to shoot-you-in-the-face brutality.
Okay, maybe those can’t quite work unless you’re the Coen Brothers; then, strangely, it sort of feels normal. There’s a subtlety that must be observed when blending genres, of course. As screenwriters, we’re taught to ease people into the worlds we’re creating, and once we shift from rom-com to melodrama, we have to make sure we’ve invested the audience in our characters and their story so they move along with them regardless of whether or not the mood feels different. It can’t be an earthquake, but rather a gentle tectonic shift that no one can feel sitting in the seats of the theater.
Granted, in the past it hasn’t work, especially for Hollywood – Star Wars: Attack of the Clones rings a bell, in which every Star Wars fan zoned out during the courtship of Anakin and Amidala. We live in a world of connection, and for years, screenwriters have been connecting stories to audiences; and today, many of those stories come at the audiences from multiple platforms, from silver screens to iPad Mini and smart phones. If truly independent cinema can thrive on stories that exist in multiple platforms, what says they can’t a single story can’t exist in multiple genres, as Unlife does? Then there’s not just an audience out there waiting for our content, there will be legions.
John T. Trigonis is a widely published writer, independent filmmaker, and author of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers: The Way to a Successful Film Campaign, published by Michael Wiese Productions. Trigonis launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for his short film Cerise, successfully raising $1,300 over his initial goal of $5,000 in only three months of active and innovative fundraising primarily through Facebook and Twitter. In fact, 70% of the funds he raised came from people he had never met before. Cerise has since screened at over a dozen film festivals across the country, was nominated for four awards, won an “Award of Merit,” and participated in the Court Métrage at the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival. He’s currently working with Indiegogo as the crowdfunding platform’s Manager for Film, Web & Video while continuing to work on his own creative projects.
Meet Screenwriters World Conference Speakers:
- Jacob Krueger: 5 Steps to Pitching Success
- Richard Botto: Staying in the Game
- Statin Rabin: Top 10 Lame-O Excuses for Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay
- Jeanne Veillette Bowerman: Balls of Steel – Checklist for Pitchfest and Conferences
- Charles Kipps: The Five Ws
- Meet Susan Kouguell: How to Succeed in Screenwriting Without Even Trying
- Meet Loren-Paul Caplin: The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey