WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THE PREMISE PROMISE


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Your script's premise is a promise to the audience. If your script is about a great white shark that attacks a resort community, you can't have the hero just move away. That doesn't resolve the problem. You can't change genres in the middle of the film. You can't change protagonists in the middle of the film (many films lack of financial success seems to prove this, PSYCHO is the exception). You can't sell the audience one story and then deliver something completely different. They'll feel like they were ripped off.

The first trailer for HANCOCK had me laughing outloud, The idea of a foul mouthed, drunk superhero didn't just turn the genre on it's head, it was one of those ideas that is so great you wonder why no one else ever came up with it. How many years have they been making superhero movies? The second trailer - with the prison scene - had me laughing even more. Aside from RICKY-OH I have never seen a superhero put in prison before... so that's kind of a funny idea, and add to that prison gangs are messing with him? What are those guys thinking? Then, the way Hancock deals with it - by turning a common phrase into an impossible action - a funny idea... and they were wise enough to use the "AIRPLANE spit-take" theory that reactions are often more funny than showing the action. I don't want to see what happens in that scene, so showing the horrified reactions is the perfect way to handle it... and the expressions of the other prisoners are funny! Great trailer! I can't wait to see this comedy superhero movie!

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Add to that: this was a hot spec script - on the Black List. I never read the script, but just the idea of a dysfunctional superhero is great - and like all great ideas, my imagination began looking at the possibilities. Being a superhero means you are responsible for other people's lives - and what if you don't want that responsibility? It also means when you make a mistake, people die. What kind of guilt caused him to become this foul mouthed drunk? There was a solid dramatic element underneath the comedy idea - and that's one of the requirements of a good comedy. If it's fake or all surface, it's not as funny as if your story is grounded in real emotions. Even fantasy films and silly comedies like AIRPLANE have real human stories at their silly cores. One of the reasons why I love THE INCREDIBLES is that it gets to be a comedy about retired superheroes, a movie about a family in crisis, and it deals with the real emotional repercussions of having superpowers and being responsible for even the smallest "super action". The great thing about a movie like THE INCREDIBLES is that you get to laugh at the conventions of the superhero genre... but you know that eventually the story will become an actual superhero movie so that our heroes can redeem themselves to the world.

So, that's what I was expecting from HANCOCK - a funny superhero movie that twists all of the conventions for laughs, but eventually Hancock really has to save the world and learns that his powers are not a curse but a blessing - he can help people. I was ready for a good time in the cinema. When the reviews came out and were mixed - and not in a good way, I hoped they were just cranky critics who didn't know what they were talking about.

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But I hated the movie. Okay, hate is too strong - basically, I didn't enjoy it. They took a great concept, and screwed it up. The thing about genre bending films is that the closer they stick to the elements we expect from the genre, the more effective the story twist. The more HANCOCK seems like a superhero movie, the better the drunken foul mouthed part works. We always want to believe that what happens in the film is *real* - even if it's a superhero comedy. The story starts out pretty good - although I thought the direction and music completely undercut the story - then, about halfway through... becomes some other story I did not pay for and did not want to see. HANCOCK becomes some sort of domestic drama... and suddenly it's dinner table scenes instead of superhero scenes... and then it gets worse! It becomes a serious drama! Not an ounce of fun at all! Instead of layering in the dramatic elements like INCREDIBLES did, it just does a complete genre switch. The premise of comedy about a drunken superhero is thrown aside for completely different story... in a completely different genre!

HANCOCK promises one premise, then halfway through delivers something completely different - not unexpected in a good way, more disappointing in a bad way. Part of the problem with HANCOCK was that it was completely rewritten from that Black List screenplay. The original script was much darker, much grittier, not a comedy at all. But, I suspect, when ths project was pitched to someone at the studio, the *concept* of the foul mouth drunken superhero sounded funny as hell... and they filed it under comedy... then had the script rewritten to conform. Problem is - no one would spend the money to make the *dark, gritty* version of this story. No one wants to see TAXI DRIVER meets SUPERMAN. I'm sure that's what got this script onto the Black List, but that tone isn't going to get this on the screen. When they make some dark, gritty movie it's a low budget indie flick like THE WRESTLER, not a big budget superhero movie. Just the thought of combining TAXI DRIVER and SUPERMAN kind of makes my head want to explode. Gritty and dark doesn't meet superhero very well. Those two don't run in the same social circles and probably wouldn't get along well. It's a credit to screenwriter Vincent Ngo that he managed to make it work so well on the page.

COURTROOM TERROR!

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THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE had a similar problem. The trailers were all about the exorcism elements, and it was sold as a horror movie. But the horror movie fans who flocked to the cinemas on the opening weekend were disappointed... because it's a courtroom drama. Instead of scares, they got Perry Mason! All of the horror clips in the trailer where pretty much all of the horror in the film - some flashbacks during the trial! Instead of the scares we paid to see we ended up with "I object, your honor!" and all kinds of ho-hum speeches and cross-examination scenes. Hey, I thought this was a horror movie! The *title* makes me think this is a horror movie, but they promised one premise and delivered something else.

If you look at PSYCHO, it has a shocking knife murder that *seems* to twist the story into some other genre... but when you look closer you see that the film *opens* with a sex scene that was pretty shocking at the time... and in a matter of minutes we are deep into a suspense situation where *our protagonist* is stealing a big pile of money and being chased by the police. The entire film maintains the "unexpected" element from the opening scene, and it is *always* a suspense thriller. It's consistent. It doesn't suddenly become supernatural or suddenly become a courtroom drama or suddenly become anything else. They promise the same movie they deliver.

In MISSION TO MARS the premise was that the first mission has disappeared, so they send a second group to investigate and rescue survivors. This creates an expectation in the audience that the film will be about the investigation and rescue... but that is completely forgotten. Instead, Act 2 is a survival story for the rescue mission. The scenes where they patch the ship and do the conga in space having nothing to do with the problem they have set out to solve... so it distracts from the story rather than adds to the story. Once they land on the red planet, they bump into the survivor of the first mission without any search, and he immediately spills the beans about what happened, removing any investigation. The story that has been set up is not the story the film tells, so it doesn't live up to audience expectations.

PAYING OFF THE PREMISE

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And sometimes a script can spend more time on the secondary idea and seem to miss its own point. That's one of the problems with Leslie Dixon's PAY IT FORWARD - when it opened in theaters several reviews mentioned the amount of time spent of the romance between Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. In fact, the script FOCUSES on the romance between the blue collar mom and the physically and emotionally scarred teacher. Two out of the three good deeds that Haley Joel Osment does in the film are to create that romance. The script ignores it's pay it forward concept to focus on the romance between Hunt and Spacey... which is a major mistake! Hunt and Spacey are the stars of the film - and they seem like obstacles! Impeding the story instead of adding to it. That's because the best idea in the film ISN'T the romance, it's "pay it forward" - that is the title, and the premise. But after we have been promised a movie about "pay it forward", and we pay to see that movie, it becomes a sappy romance. We want to see more of the "pay it forward" good deeds spreading across the country and less of Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey's romantic problems. A romance between a blue collar mom and an emotionally and physically scarred teacher would make a good movie... if it weren't fighting a much more interesting idea!

THE WATCHER, starring Keanu Reeves, also doesn't fulfill its promise to the audience. A serial killer sends a photo of his next victim to the FBI 24 hours before he kills her. That's a great premise! In the millions of people who make up the city, the FBI agent has to find the one that the killer has targeted. Searching for a needle in a haystack... but the FBI agent doesn't do much searching in THE WATCHER. Instead he releases the photo to the media and sits around by the phones waiting for someone who knows the victim to call. It's passive! Once they get a call, they race to save the victim... but that's reactive. The FBI agent never does any actual searching... it's all phone tips! The film doesn't fulfill the promise of its premise.

Take a look at the premise of your screenplay... does the actual script fulfill the promise of that premise? If you mix genres, are they fully mixed instead of half of the film in one genre and half in a completely different genre? Do you maintain tone through out? Does the logline match the finished screenplay? Does your script deliver on the promise within the premise? Let's hope HANCOCK 2 manages to straighten out the tone and story problems that plagued the first film... and is the same film they show in the trailers.


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