TUESDAY'S BIZ TIP:

GLOBAL SCREENWRITING


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American film has *always* been a global business.

Lately we've had a handful of newspaper stories from lazy journalists blaming the current quality of Hollywood films on the sudden importance of the international market. Those journalists need to consider some other form of employment... then lose their jobs. My second article for Script Magazine back in 1991 was about the importance of the foreign market - and how 67% of an American film's income comes from overseas. Now? It's still 67%. There has been no change between 1991 and now.

Except for a sliver of time during World War 2, American films have been made for an international audience. The foreign market was so important in the 1970s that Made For TV Movies always shot extra footage for the foreign theatrical release (you've probably seen the foreign theatrical version of DUEL, but there were even MAN FROM UNCLE 2-parters that were cut into features for foreign release). When you watch those 1970s all star cast movies like Richard Lester's THREE MUSKETEERS movies, the reason for all of those European supporting actors was to help sell the film in each of their respective countries. Disaster movies and epics always seemed to have a handful of foreign faces in the cast, to help the film sell overseas. So the idea that this is some recent event is just poor journalism and a complete lack of the most basic research.

American films have always been tailored for an international audience.

They suck for other reasons.

But sometimes, even though they suck... they can make money. I have joked that some of my movies had much better acting in the dubbed versions! Sometimes there's even some "punch up" rewriting done before dubbing, so America ends up with the rough draft version while the rest of the world gets the new-improved version.

Many of those lazy journalists called PACIFIC RIM a bomb, because it made just under $100 million in the United States. That there wasn't a market for what is essentially an upscale Godzilla movie. Except, they seemed to miss that Godzilla movies are *very* popular in other parts of the world... and PACIFIC RIM is closing in on $400 million right now with still some major territories (countries) where it hasn't played. The film just opened in China - was #1 - with over $33 million. Hey, it could be #1 again next week, too. There will probably be a sequel!

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While PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES may only have made $240 million in the United States, it did gangbuster business overseas - over $800 million! Here's a snippet from Brandon Gray's article on Box Office Mojo from a few years ago...

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides reigned over the foreign box office for the third weekend in a row and extended its lead as the biggest movie of 2011 so far. Close behind for the weekend was X-Men: First Class, debuting in most of the world, and The Hangover Part II, which added some key markets."

"Raking in an estimated $69.4 million, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides slowed 45 percent from last weekend, but its foreign haul climbed to $600.4 million. On the all-time foreign gross chart, the supernatural swashbuckler ranked 16th, and it won't be long before On Stranger Tides exceeds the final grosses of Dead Man's Chest ($642.9 million) and At World's End ($654 million) and lands in the Top Ten. On Stranger Tides' top three single markets were Japan ($61.5 million), Russia ($57.1 million) and China ($53 million). Add in its domestic gross ($190.3 million), and the movie's worldwide take stood at $790.7 million, ranking 31st on the all-time worldwide gross chart."

Hey, that kinda makes it sound like all of the hit films in Europe and Asia and the rest of the world are American films. You know that can't be true! What about all of those arty European films? Why would some French dude want to see PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES when he can see some drama about French people wearing berets sitting around in cafes drinking wine and smoking? I'm glad you asked that...

BUT WHAT ABOUT FRANCE?

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There's this common misconception that foreign audiences like arty films - that because French films tend to be more dialogue driven and intellectual than American films, that the French audience likes those films. But foreign audiences are pretty much the same as American audiences - they go to the cinema for entertainment and escape. They just want to have a good time. Because the French *make* arty films doesn't mean they want to see them!

The misconception comes from the films they make, which are mostly funded by the government through cultural programs... so it's no wonder they are arty! When you look at films made in France that are *not* funded by the government? Well, you have TAKEN (yes, that was a French film) and THE PROFESSIONAL and a bunch of other action-based entertainment films. Some of my favorite films are from France - Jean-Pierre Melville (action & gangster films), Henri-Georges Clouzot (thrillers and adventure), Philippe DeBroca (comedy action), Luc Besson (action action action), Claude Chabrol (mysteries with humor) and Robert Enrico (thrillers and mysteries).

In fact, the Robert Enrico movie you have probably seen is OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, part of his Civil War Trilogy, and a film that "travels well" because it is told completely visually - no dialogue at all! There was a time when foreign films were "made to travel" because they were privately funded and the only way for the film not to lose money was if audiences all over Europe (and the world) could understand it. Films were made for mass audiences and made with minimal dialogue or strong visual storytelling so that it would not be limited to its home country.

While French films funded by the French Government (a ticket tax) are designed to promote and preserve French culture and deal with French issues, films made in the United States are designed for the entire world. We make films that are inclusive rather than exclusive - films that will be of interest to people from every country. American films tend *not* to focus on American culture, tend not to be about internal American politics, tend not to be about any portion of American society that is not also part of the society of other countries. Movies that would only interest American audiences... tend not to get made, or to get made independently. That means mainstream producers are usually looking for screenplays that "travel well", because America is only a third of the income of an American film... and the other *two thirds* of an American film's income is from outside the United States and Canada.

OKAY, BUT WHAT ABOUT BRAZIL?

Here's an excerpt from a Variety article about the very first SPIDER-MAN movie....

It's looking more and more as if "Spider-Man" will spin a sticky worldwide web, with Sony's burgeoning blockbuster set to cha-cha south of the border this weekend.

The studio continues to do what it can to manage through-the-roof expectations as the comic-book adaptation hits Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and other Latin American markets over the upcoming frame. But after mimicking boffo domestic bow recently in Asian territories such as Hong Kong, Korea and Malaysia, that's happily becoming tougher for execs to do.

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"A branded property can actually do better internationally than domestically, and we've been very encouraged by the early returns out of Asia," said Jeff Blake, Sony's marketing and distribution president. "So, the prospects for international look as good or better than domestic."

"It's generally accepted that films will gross over 60%-70% of their worldwide gross from foreign tickets. "Spidey" added Japan and South Africa to its box office web this past weekend. It holds No. 1 spot in all 20 territories where it's unfurled. In Japan, the picture's two-day total was $6.01 million. Added to last weekend's sneak receipts of $3.35 million, that delivered an opening weekend total of $9.36 million -- Sony's biggest ever, though just shy of the magic $10 million mark. In South Africa, "Spidey" reaped $467,000 in a record three-day bow.

Meanwhile, the picture held well throughout Asia, despite the territory's propensity to fast burn. The picture also remained dominant in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore in a bit less splashy fashion.

"Colombia is the only Latin territory to sit out this week's rollout tango for "Spidey" -- which will mark the region's widest-ever release. And though the picture unspools Thursday in Argentina, it will do so in more modest screen numbers due to local civil unrest and currency woes."

So that screenplay you are writing? Well 60%-70% of the audience is not living in the United States or Canada and probably doesn't speak English and isn't really interested in United States culture or social issues or politics or hair styles. So, what's a writer to do?

WRITE GLOBAL

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Film is an international business. That Johnny Depp movie you saw last night at the multiplex will play in Japan and Germany and France and be shown on a sheet in Zimbabwe... and it's expected to make money in all of those countries. Sometimes a film that flops in the United States becomes a big hit overseas - Depp & Jolie's THE TOURIST is a great example of that. The action and comedy and stunts went over much better outside the United States, and that film is a hit! The United States only accounts for only about 30%-40% of a film's earnings... the rest will come from places where they may not speak English, and as screenwriters we need to take that into account.

Films that are dialogue heavy and verbal comedies often "don't travel well". Things can get lost in the translation, and some countries have so many dialects that they can't dub or subtitle and rely on in-theater translators screaming the translation at the audience - all of your clever word play is turned into: "She hates him!" Even good dubbing often changes the delivery of a line so that it's not funny. Clever word play usually depends on what those words mean or sound like in *English* and once the film has been translated and dubbed they may no longer be clever. That is why dialogue driven films can be a gamble in non-English speaking countries... though it should be noted the new Woody Allen film is one of the top ten in France.

Also films that deal with subject matter that is only of interest in the United States don't work well overseas. That seems obvious, but many writers fall into this trap. They write about American culture or American social issues that have no counterpart in the rest of the world, or American problems that no one else understands. One of the reasons why baseball films are a tough sell is that it is an American sport and that may limit the overseas box office. If a film like MONEYBALL fails in the United States it isn't likely to pull a PACIFIC RIM and make its money back overseas. A movie like 42 made $95 million in the USA... but no one outside the USA really cares about a social issues movie about baseball... and it hasn't even made enough overseas to be recorded! A writer has to be thinking not only of the audience in the USA, but the audience in the rest of the world. Movies don't have to worry "Will this play in Peoria?" as much as "Will this play in Peru and Paris and Pakistan and Pnom Pen and Portugal?" We need to find stories that are *universal*. Inclusive rather than exclusive. Consider the rest of the world when you are writing your screenplay. Make sure the audience in France can enjoy the film as much as the audience in America.

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You may wonder where that leaves a screenwriter. If dialogue driven scripts won't work for more than half the audience, what the heck are writers supposed to do?

Think in pictures. A screenplay is a story told in pictures. A screenplay is not just what people say, it's also what they do - their actions tell the story. Creating those actions that display character and tell the story visually is *our job* (not the director's job). Visual doesn't mean explosions or action... it could be comedy or drama. Mr. BEAN (British, I know) was a huge hit in Japan and many other places where they don't speak English. The most important part of our job is to tell the story through the actions of the characters. To write the picture part of the movie as well as the sound part.

Hitchcock's most character oriented film, VERTIGO, has long stretches without any dialogue at all. These aren't car chases and shoot outs - they are *character scenes*. There's a 14 minute stretch early in the film where Jimmy Stewart puts together that Kim Novak has been possessed by mad Carlotta. He figures this out through watching what she *does*. We also see in these 14 minutes that Stewart is falling in love with her (through what he *does*). A screenwriter *wrote that*. We are writing for the screen.

Character is action - what people do.

Screenwriting is writing for a visual medium - that doesn't mean dialogue isn't important, just that the picture portion of the movie is equally important.

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Because action movies like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES and X-MEN:FIRST CLASS are usually about people doing things (punching each other, car chases, shoot outs) they tend to be the big hits overseas. But if you wrote a drama that was told through the actions of the characters rather than dialogue which dealt with universal issues, that film could be a hit overseas, too (provided it was good). It's not about the genre - it's about the way the story is told. I'm not saying you should just forget dialogue - they still dub movies overseas. But just don't forget the picture part of the movie - that's the most important part when it comes to audiences who don't speak English. They will get most of the story from the actions of the characters. What our characters *do* is just as important (or more-so) that what they say.

And think globally when it comes to subject matter - if your story only appeals to the United States or relies on events or elements or issues that only concern the United States, you may be shutting out the rest of the world. American film producers are not making films for America... That would be like throwing away 65% of their income! They are thinking global, so writers need to think global. We aren't writing screenplays for the audience in the United States, we are writing screenplays for *everyone* in the world. So find the things that are universal in your story. Problems that *everyone* has, or adventures that *everyone* can fantasize about. Find all of those "points of identification" that make your story part of the *human experience*, not just the American experience. Focus on those elements. An American film needs to play in every single country... and appeal to the audience in every single country. Why will people in South Korea want to see your story? Why will people in Zimbabwe want to see your story? Why will people in Brazil line up to see your story? You need to think about 100% of the audience, not just the fraction who speak English and live in the USA.

Will your script "travel well"? Will your film be as popular in Japan and Germany and Pakistan as it is in Ohio and New York? Something to consider.



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Most screenplays are about a 50/50 split between dialogue and description - which means your description is just as important as your dialogue. It just gets less press because the audience never sees it, the same reason why screenwriters get less press than movie stars. But your story will never get to the audience until readers and development executives read your script... so it is a very important factor. Until the movie is made the screenplay is the movie and must be just as exciting as the movie. So how do you make your screenplay exciting to read? Description is important in a novel as well, and the “audience” does read it... how do we write riveting description?

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Should really be called the BUSINESS BLUE BOOK because it covers almost everything you will need to know for your screenwriting career: from thinking like a producer and learning to speak their language, to query letters and finding a manager or agent, to making connections (at home and in Hollywood) and networking, to the different kinds of meetings you are will have at Studios, to the difference between a producer and a studio, to landing an assignment at that meeting and what is required of you when you are working under contract, to contracts and options and lawyers and... when to run from a deal! Information you can use *now* to move your career forward! It's all here in the Biggest Blue Book yet!

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