TUESDAY'S SCRIPT BIZ TIP:

WHY MAKE BAD MOVIES?

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People in screenwriting groups always complain about all of the terrible movies with terrible screenplays and wonder why nobody is buying their masterpiece. I mean, is the business rigged? Do you have to know a secret handshake to get people to read and buy your screenplay? They have all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories, and point to some terrible film as an example that proves their theory. One of the things that I always say is that you can’t judge a screenplay on it’s movie - so often a the screenplay that sold bares no resemblance to the film that was made. If you read the original screenplay - the one that they paid a ton of money for - it was worth all of that money. But along the way this changed and that changed and soon it became something unrecognizable by the original writer.

I have been there. My original screenplay for the movie CROOKED got me a bunch of studio meetings based on word of mouth. That was one of several of my screenmplays that got passed around town by people who read it, and landed on the desks of production companies at Warner Bros and Paramount and Sony... leading to meetings at all of those places. It was written to be made on a budget, and dealt with post 9-11 trust issues - in an action packed cop story that had its roots in film noir. Heck, even the characters were named after famous film noir screenwriters! Though I had all of these meetings at studios, the script was “too small” for them - which is fine, it was written to be made on a budget - and most places asked what else I had and I got to shovel through screenplays for a while until things just kind of petered out, as they do.

When a new low budget company (people who I knew) was looking for a screenplay, I sent them a list of loglines and they read a couple of screenplays and picked this one... which worried me a little. I would rather have an established company make it, because it had already gotten me studio meetings. But I took a chance on this new company and sold it to them... and that ended up being a mistake, because they changed *everything*. They changed the *concept* of the story! All of the very things that the studio based producers loved about it... were the first things to go. It’s as if they ate my good screenplay and pooped out this film - which stank. Anyone seeing it would wonder why they bought this terrible screenplay instead of their great one... heck, I even wondered that!

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I wasn’t there for any of these changes, but I suspect that many had to do with casting. Someone - not me - did rewrites to make the casting work, and those rewrites changed important parts of the story. I did one rewrite for casting that I *hated* when they cast a name in a small role, and either the name or the producer wanted more scenes with the name... who died on page 3 or 4 of the script. So they had to live a little longer - which screwed things up. And with every bit of casting the story evolved to fit these people and soon it wasn’t anything like what I wrote. One of the more amusing parts of this was the actor cast as the villain - who I was against because they always played villains and this script (used to) have a mystery element in it. So the mystery element went out the window... which meant the story didn’t work at all... which meant they tried to prop up the story in another way... and soon everything is different. And worse. And that name actor who usually plays villains? I guess they had problems with him - and killed his character off halfway through the film just to get rid of the actor. So someone else had to become the villain and it didn’t make any sense....

And this happens on big Hollywood movies, all the time. Check out my blog entry on the flop version of ROBIN HOOD by Ridley Scott... which began as a screenplay that wasn’t even about Robin Hood that sold for a pile of money. I have read that original screenplay - it was worth the money. Or look up the history of DEAD DROP (hot screenplay) to CHAIN REACTION (flop film) or even PREMONITION (hot screenplay) to ARMAGEDDON (completely different story!). What goes in one side isn’t what comes out the other. The constant changes can turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear... it seldom works the other way. When they buy a screenplay because it is the best version of the story, when they change it again and again it usually doesn’t get better. There’s a Script Tip on how *casting* often changes the story - if the character is a shy brainiac who solves problems with their mind and they cast The Rock? He becomes an action hero and that only changes everything. That happens constantly with Studio films.

So let’s look at another way that bad movies can be made...


LET’S WORK TOGETHER!

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Let’s get into the Delorean and get it up to 88 miles per hour and 2001 when I first wrote this Script Tip....

At Cannes in 2001, Tom Cruise (promoting THE OTHERS which he produced) bumps into (the late) John Frankenheimer (promoting his BMW commercial AMBUSH written by Andrew Kevin Walker). Cruise loves SECONDS and BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ and really loves THE GYPSY MOTHS (1969). The two hit it off. "We ought to work together someday!" Frankenheimer tells his agent he'd love to do a sequel to THE GYPSY MOTHS... and that Tom Cruise is interested in it. "It" isn't a script at this time, it's a conversation in a bar at 2am between an actor and a director. This is one of the way that movies get made - two people who can get a film made decide to get a film made... even if there is no screenplay to make.

The studio realizes GYPSY MOTHS was about sky diving, and they already *own* a sky diving action film script! In fact, they've spent millions on a bunch of writers who still can't get it right, and this may be a way to recoup some of that money! Now, if you have seen the Frankeheimer film, it is not an action movie - it’s a drama where the characters have an “active lifestyle” - to make the drama exciting, the lead characters are a band of daredevil sky divers who go from town to town putting on exhibitions... kind of like a carnival. They often find a family to stay with to cut down on expenses, and this story is about the interactions between the daredevil sky divers and this small town family on the days leading up to the big exhibition. Because these are exciting people, wives often cheat on their husbands with these guys... and this creates all kinds of drama. It’s a swell movie, but it is in no way an action film.

But the studio owns an action script about skydivers.

And, let's face it - Cruise & Frankenheimer = HIT!

So they get the script to the actor & director... and have a "go project".
The film is now put on the release schedule for July 2, 2003.

Because this is a business - and they have to choose a release date before they have made the film - ready or not, here it comes! July 2, 2003 Tom Cruise will be doing his own stunts in John Frankenheimer’s GYPSY MOTHS 2.

Wait! It's still a crappy script!

But at this point in time that doesn't matter. The studio has a huge star and a veteran director attached to the project. That's a movie, folks! Posters are designed. Teaser trailers are tacked onto the front of VANILLA SKY. Full page ads pop up in the trades. More writers are thrown on the script. They get it half good (which means half crap, by the way). It’s still an action script that has nothing to do with the original film - which starred Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr as the housewife who cheats and Gene Hackman and Scott Wilson and Bonnie Bedelia and Sheree Noth and William Windom. Though Lancaster starred in his share of action films, he was also a great dramatic actor who looked for challenging roles. So this 30 plus years later sequel has nothing to do with the original, except for the title... I’m sure that you have seen at least one of those.

But the screenplay is still half crap... and everyone knows it.


RUNAWAY TRAIN

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Okay, you're the head of the studio producing this mess. Start date for filming is two weeks away. Do you pull the plug because the script sucks? If you delay the project, you'll lose Cruise to MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 - he has a busy schedule. Frankenheimer has other projects in the works, too... a sequel to THE EXORCIST believe it or not. The problem is, if you stop the train you'll never get it started again. You *have* to ride it to the end of the tracks... even if the tracks go off a cliff! (you don't really *know* where the tracks lead at this time.) The project has also built up some weird momentum - Gene Hackman who was the young romantic lead in GYPSY MOTHS worked with Cruise on THE FIRM comes out of retirement and signs on to reprise his role. Demi Moore is trying to get back into the business and signs on as the female lead (she worked with Tom in A FEW GOOD MEN). The cast just keeps attracting cast!

So you put a bad script into production and pray that Frankenheimer can keep it moving fast enough that no one will notice how lame it is, and that Cruise will flash that smile and make the thing a hit. If you pull the plug, you have *nothing*. Plus you're out all of those millions of dollars you spent throwing writers on the project trying to make it work. If you make the bad script, it's possible that GYPSY MOTHS 2: TOO CLOSE TO THE FLAME will overcome the bad script to make $550 million worldwide, right? MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 made a ton of money ($546 million), and it didn't make any sense at all. The strange part about a movie is that sometimes a movie has all of the ingredients that the audience wants to see at that particular time... and what we screenwriters think of as “quality” doesn’t matter. It has the other qualities. Explosions! Tom Cruise smiling a lot! The return of Gene Hackman! Cool skydiving stunts! This train is speeding down the tracks!

Once a project actually gets started, no one wants to stop it!
Even if it stinks.
It's a runaway train.

Then we line up to see it on some hot summer Friday night a year from now and while the closing credits are rolling we're wondering how all of these talented people could make a film with a script that just sucks. Didn't anyone read the script?

If a film has enough momentum, enough names signed to the project, the script doesn't matter. It should matter, but it doesn't.


HIGH OCTANE SCREENWRITING

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Now let’s get back in the Delorean and head back to COVID country....

I made up GYPSY MOTHS 2 back in 2001 after reading about Cruise and Frankenheimer bumping into each other at Cannes... but there are plenty of real movies like that, and we will look at one in a moment,..

Here's our problem as screenwriters: We have to write a script that's so good that a studio will dump the all-star cast GYPSY MOTHS 2: TOO CLOSE TO THE FLAME and make ours instead... except that isn’t going to actually happen. The reality is that even if out screenplay is amazing, they are still going to make that bad script because it gets a big name actor and a big name director together. Do you remember that irritating remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) that starred Cruise and was directed by Spielberg? That came about because Cruise wanted to work with Spielberg again, and when Spielberg had a project stall out (INDY 4) he had a “hole” in his schedule and decided to make it. There was a screenplay that was in development - though it wasn’t supposed to be shot until 2007. Hey, star and director are available, let’s just make it now. We’ll fix the screenplay in the days before production starts!

That’s Hollywood, folks! When you see that terrible film, you can’t say “I can write better than that!” because of course you can, anyone can! That was a film that didn’t work - nobody is looking to make another one of those. They are looking for the great screenplay that can go through all of the crap that happens along the way and is still okay. The High Octane screenplay that can be watered down again and again on its way to the screen... and still get the car started and going fast enough to hit 88 miles per hour . My friends Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have a column over on Wordplay called CRAP PLUS ONE about seeing a terrible film and think ing that you can write better than that - when the goal isn’t a screenplay that is slightly less crappy, the goal is a screenplay that can have all kinds of crap done to it and still be pretty good. That’s what you should be aiming for - the screenplay that is so good that it can withstand all of the problems heaped on it along the way.

You can’t judge a script by it’s movie.

Now it’s time to get back to work...
I know my script needs a couple more rewrites!


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***

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copyright 2020 by William C. Martell


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Naked Class The NAKED SCREENWRITING CLASS ON CD! The 2001 London Class on 8 CDs! Recorded *live* the morning after the Raindance Film Festival wrapped. The two day class on 8CDs, plus a workbook, plus a bonus CD with PDFs.
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Each Blue Book is 48 pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
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THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The Market!

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My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER


Available Scripts

CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!