Sunday, July 21, 2013

Screenwriting - The Basics

I'm not a screenwriter, nor am I a "writer." I spend a lot of time writing and I have spent a lot of time editing screenplays and reading screenplays. I have studied one book on screenwriting quite a bit which I credit in helping me form 2 finished feature length screenplays which I've gotten a ton of feedback on from Triggerstreet and American Zoetrope forums.

The Tools of Screenwriting is an amazing book that presents the nuts and bolts of screenwriting and also then compares all those elements to actual movies you've probably seen in an attempt to drive an understanding of it all home.

In my years as a filmmaker I've pored over many drafts of many different screenplays in an attempt to make them better. One thing I would say to anyone writing or who wants to write screenplays is - read "professionally written" screenplays.

There is SO much to be learned from reading actual screenplays that got made into successful movies. Especially with regard to formatting and the manner of writing that is most accepted for screenplays.

As for my meager contribution to the craft of screen writing, please take these items to heart:

What a screenplay is and is not

A screenplay is not a series of events in which characters do stuff.

I've had film stories explained to me in those terms multiple times by filmmakers, and each time I had to inform them that they in fact had NO story.

A screenplay in simplest terms is a A) Protagonist struggling against opposition in the form of a B) Antagonist in order to C) achieve something and during the course of this struggle, the Protagonist experiences "growth," better known as a "character arc."

That, in a nutshell is what you need to do with your film story. All the gun fights and carnage in the world will not mean much if you don't have these elements firmly established in a written script and depicted in your film story.

Save the drama for your mama

Beginner or untrained or inexperienced screenwriters tend to write stories that involve primarily arguments and similar conflict between characters. This in itself is fine, but when it's essentially all you have in a script, it can get very tiring for an audience.

Many of the feature length films I worked on as DP early in my career featured primarily characters bickering and arguing, with little else of interest. Constant melodrama in a film can work IF the script is crafted by a skilled writer. If you're a neophyte writer, do yourself a favor and steer clear of melodrama.

Start with an outline and an ending

It makes very little sense to just start writing, believing that it's somehow going to all work out by the time you reach page 90. Nobody ever sets out on a journey without a map unless they don't mind a high probability of failure. Without a guide, your script (especially if it's a first script) will more than likely end up a meandering mess or you'll spend far too much time re-writing.

Half the battle is a good outline. Think about that. Having all the major points of the story laid out in order will alleviate a lot of frustration during the crafting of scenes in the screenplay. Do it.

Don't ever start writing without an ending already determined. Again, nobody sets out on a journey without a destination in mind, unless it's only the journey that's important. To you, the screen writer, if you want something to show for your work - have the ending in mind.

Consider the names of characters

Use character names that are easy to remember and that don't sound or look similar. Even if your story is very well told, confusion can creep (for a reader) in when lapses in scene descriptions occur or non-linear story telling technique is employed. Confusion will ruin your screenplay especially if added to those shortcomings - you also have a high number of characters in the story. Pick names thoughtfully, as you would for your own child so that they're not distracting and not adding to the potential confusion a reader might experience.

Don't leave out scene intros

Consider this scene & character intro:


COLIN is wild eyed.  He stands over with a gun aimed at man on
tied to a chair.

OK... so as we're reading this, we're trying to form a mental image of the setting where the scene is taking place rather than just concentrating on the story, most likely based on the action(s) of the characters depicted.

The scene intro should set the stage for the scene with just enough words. Adding descriptive words that characterize the space is helpful. What size is the warehouse? What condition is it in? Is it dry? Wet? Clean? Dirty? What else is in it? Cars? Boxes? Nothing? Is moonlight streaming in through the skylights or is it completely dark except for a single nearby light bulb?

You don't want to write a book here, but a lot could be said in one sentence about the setting your characters are in and it helps to frame the scenes so a more complete picture unfolds in a readers mind.

Don't leave out character descriptions

As in the above scene and character intro, COLIN is not described at all. So this leaves the reader to forced into using their intellect to uncover who this person might be. THAT is not what you want a reader to be doing while reading your screenplay.

COLIN is holding a gun, so we know he's probably a male with at least one functional arm and hand, and two legs...

We don't know if this is in fact a male just because COLIN is a males name. We don't know the age of this character, the race, and nothing about them except that this person is "wild eyed."

"Wild eyed" is not nearly enough of a character description. Not even close, and again ONE sentence of carefully worded writing can provide a suitable mental image of this character so the reader doesn't have to waste brain power putting clues together to do it themselves.

Proof read - please

Nothing says "I don't care" to a reader more than poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, and diction. It's very hard to have a 100% correct screenplay, but if you have typos, misspellings, and odd phrases throughout a screenplay, you'll lose the reader and chances are you'll be asking for feedback on your work so don't make it harder for readers to get through your screenplay.

Take the time to proof read because not only will you look like a dumbass if you have more than a few dozen instances of the above shortcomings, but the reader's interest will wain if they sense you rushed through the writing.

The writing happens in the rewriting 

Don't ever think you'll write a script and then take your first draft and produce a film from it unless you don't care about anyone ever liking your film. Rewriting is what separates the men from the boys and it's where the story and dialog is made to really work for an audience.

If you're so enamored of your own writing that you don't feel rewriting is necessary, please stop writing.

If you're unable to improve a script through rewriting and aren't willing to pound away at the writing until it's perfect, please stop writing.

The writing really happens in the rewriting.

©2013 Chris Santucci

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Case study in independent film failure

Many years back I sold an Eclair Super 16 film camera to some guy from the New England area who told me at the time that he was planning on shooting a feature film with it.

As it turned out - he did.

His film went nowhere and he ended up posting it online for people to watch for free, which is really the only thing left to do when you discover nobody will buy, rent, or distribute your film. You're better off having people see your film than not ever see it, even if you give it away.

What good is a film if nobody can see it?

Anyway, this guy kept a pretty detailed and amusing journal of his entire filmmaking journey and it shows how all the good intentions in the world won't result in a film that will find an audience:, an independent film

©2013 Chris Santucci

Monday, June 3, 2013

The New Style

The internet obviously has supplanted television and now even movie theaters to some extent. Is the internet the new television? I'd say it is - and more. If the way I use the computer is any indication, I'd guess that people watch onscreen entertainment in conjunction with doing other business online on a regular basis.

I generally have one window playing a movie while I email and/or research, and anything else I might have going on (ordering gear, paying bills, etc.) I rarely ever watch a movie or web series while not doing anything else, and I'm sure I'm not alone. I often also have a 2nd computer working for me as well.

The computer is a multi-tasking machine. Other devices are less so, obviously, due to small screen size. And people are more than adept at multi-tasking and are expected by employers to have the ability to multi-task, so it's more than a personal preference - it's a necessity for survival in the work place.

People have become accustomed to watching onscreen entertainment in smaller and smaller sizes and in  smaller increments of time.  Viral videos are generally never longer than a few minutes and more and more filmmakers are turning to the "web series" format to tell stories, which in essence is a feature length film broken into smaller pieces or basically an episodic television series.

Asking a potential audience to sit still for 90 minutes and watch your movie is asking a lot, which is why films with no "name" actors get such little response.

Viewing tastes have changed as well as delivery methods. People are used to watching short video clips  all day long that deliver brief moments of entertainment and inspiration. People are well used to watching episodic television shows. And people, I believe enjoy the added dimension of being able to comment on what they are watching, which is almost always a feature of online video.

People spend most of their time facing the screen of a computer or a tablet or a smart phone. These machines are ubiquitous in our lives and will become the primary delivery methods for onscreen entertainment. And I fully expect interfaces to come about that display multiple streams of various kinds of information concurrently with entertainment.

As such, I'd say it's well past the time to start thinking about delivering films for viewing on small devices to people who'd rather watch in parts, especially when you consider the fact that the 2nd largest movie audience is the 18-24 year old Caucasian demographic who spend every waking hour staring into the screen of their smart phones and tablets and not concentrating on any one thing for very long.

Another aspect of delivery that I find important to think about is the fact that more and more are not watching films and small screen entertainment in darkened rooms anymore. It's becoming crucial to deliver a final piece in such a way that it will be viewable in open windowed rooms during daytime. When once a filmmaker might create dark scenes in a film which would normally be viewable in a dark theater, details would become lost when viewed in the more normal surroundings of todays viewing public.

Whether they watch while on planes, in cars, on trains, in school, at sports events, or at home, the key things to keep in mind are movie theatre attendance as well as DVD sales are declining. MOD streaming is the new delivery method du jour and YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, etc. are growing exponentially.

Consider the audience above all else or you will not have one.

©2013 Chris Santucci

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Film is Dead

It's almost impossible to get a distribution deal for an independently produced film anymore. These days, filmmakers are giving their films away to the public by posting them to torrent sites or putting them up on YouTube - just to get people to watch them. It's not even about getting into a mid level festival anymore which is nearly impossible, it's merely about just getting people to watch your film.

There are slews of bottom end festivals that you can get your film into, which not only gets your film seen by dozens of people, allows you to schmooze with other unknown filmmakers, and allows for the coveted laurel leaves to display on your website but the sad truth is, any distribution deal to be had through acquisition people attending those lesser festivals will generally not result in an advance, nor any real profit sharing potential.

I was party to a feature length film production where we secured a "distribution deal" that specified that once the distributor recouped their "marketing costs," (which were grossly inflated without a doubt) we would start sharing in profit from sales, rentals, etc.

Of course, that never happened.

These days, not only are there shady film "distributors" who are more than happy to try and wring a few bucks from your film while giving you a big donut hole in return (actually, deliverables are generally on you, so less than zero).

The dozens of low end "distributors" who handle no budget films do manage to get them into the rental realm and even into certain retail outlets for sale (until they get pulled for lack of interest from consumers), but the danger there is you are opening yourself up to the rage of hundreds of critics who will take the time to rip you and your film apart on any number of the online forums, especially IMDb, where the danger is - you end up on the Bottom 100.

There are also plenty of shady film festivals that similarly take advantage of filmmakers. And each festival you submit to generally means 35-50 bucks out of your pocket for the submission fee.

I once submitted a feature film to the New Mexico International Film Festival (now defunct of course) and found out they only accepted about 7 feature films, two of which were made by a buddy and working associate of the douchebag running the festival. Seems fair, right? Accept hundreds of submissions at 50 bucks a pop and only program 7 films, 2 of which were made by a guy you have a working relationship with?

I was DP on a feature film that managed to get into the Queens International Film Festival (now defunct of course) which as it turns out - was also a scam.

At the lower end of festivals, this is what filmmakers have to deal with. Withoutabox does not screen any festivals for the poor schmucks getting their email alerts every day about which of the 10 million festivals have a call for entries coming up. Why should they? The more festivals they can hawk to filmmakers, the more money they make. Plus, it's festival submission (not inclusion) that guarantees your film gets listed on the internet movie database (IMDb) which somehow legitimizes your film and seems to have become the booby prize for filmmakers everywhere who don't get into festivals of note.

There's even a "festival" that will charge you for an award!!! Want "Best New Director?" It's yours - for a fee. And, there's a "distributor" that offers "international distribution" for 2500 bucks (the last I checked - it's probably more now).

And when Sundance, the holy grail of film festivals, gets over 10,000 films submitted each year, you can expect that any of the top 10 domestic festivals are getting nearly as many submitted and those kinds of numbers do not make for good odds of ever having a film accepted, I'd say.

Kevin Smith said recently that if he produced Clerks today, it'd never get into a film festival and that, my friends means - it's over, because the odds are better that you'll get struck by lightning.

("Get you coffee?!?! I'm a director, man.")

So now the struggle has become to just get people to watch your film. That's what it's come down to. If you're OK with getting into a low end festival, and there's nothing wrong with that, and hanging out with a small number of folks who like independent films and with other filmmakers - there are an infinity amount of these festivals.

But it appears the recent explosion of cheap high quality cameras has resulted in an explosion of filmmakers which has resulted in an explosion of film festivals which more often than not are money making schemes which exploit the lofty aspirations of filmmakers who want to find an audience for their film. And desperate filmmakers are further exploited by bottom feeding "distributors" who offer that coveted film distribution, sometimes for a fee, and sometimes for the promise of actual distribution which generally means they make some DVD's and put your trailer on their website.

And so NOW, we've essentially come (back?) to - filmmaking for the sake of filmmaking, and that sounds kind of comforting and liberating in a way I suppose.

©2013 Chris Santucci