TUESDAY'S BIZ TIP:

CHASING TRENDS


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One of the big new releases over the weekend was HURRICANE HEIST, one of those HARD RAIN style action meets disaster film flicks, and maybe something like that would sell right now. I mean, I *hate* that kind of thing and would never even consider writing a script like this if it wasn't so hot right now. So, I'm doing a script called VOLCANO PRISON BREAK... That's the ticket, right?

The #1 film over this weekend a few years ago was IMMORTALS written by the Parlapanides Brothers - which made $32.2 million. From the producers of 300. The last time I thought about writing a movie like that was when BEOWULF opened at #1...

I think it's a mistake to try to follow trends - but critical to write MOVIES (which are mostly genre stories with interesting ideas that are told visually). Often it's close to impossible to tell what the trend is in the first place. Since the 20% of cinemas showing BEOWULF in 3D accounted for 40% of the box office, does that mean epic poems are in or 3D movies are in? And is it epic poems, or is it *animated* films based on epic poems? Or is it *motion capture* animated films only? Though Zemeckis' last motion capture film POLAR EXPRESS had a heck of a time making any money even with a cartoon Tom Hanks. They had to keep re-releasing it and find new cinema gimmicks (like IMAX) before it eventually made its money back. So maybe it's not motion capture... maybe it's the swords and muscle bound dudes that's the trend - after all, 300 was also a hit. And who starred in 300? Gerald Butler - not a movie star at the time... no one went to see PHANTOM, and he starred in that... so maybe it was the swords and muscle bound guys that made 300 and BEOWULF into hits. That's the trend! But if that is the trend, how come PATHFINDER flopped big time? How come the new CONAN movie wasn't a hit? What exactly *is* the trend?

And is there a trend? A trend requires more than a couple of movies. And a trend requires that the movies be wildly popular with the audience. When 3:10 TO YUMA came out, followed by THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, some people though Westerns were the new trend... except not only were both films completely different than each other, 3:10 did okay and JESSE JAMES completely flopped. Even if both films had been huge hits - it's only two movies. We don't have a trend, yet. A trend is when even the movies which aren't very good make money. When the public's appetite for the trend is stronger than the negative elements in each individual movie. When the audience lines up to see a *bad* western or can't wait to see the next Steve Reeves HERCULES movie because they loved SPARTICUS and the other sword & sandal films so much, you've got yourself a trend.

THE TRENDY SCREENWRITING

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After 300 came out, a bunch of people on the screenwriting boards thought the time had come for them to write sword & sorcery epics... until PATHFINDER flopped. I think there were several different elements that came together to turn 300 into a hit - the main one being that it was based on a really hot graphic novel. There were already built in fans for the film - you know, those people who complained about the scenes with the female lead which weren't in the book. Though I don't think the epic poem they forced me to read in High School accounts for BEOWULF, I do think that the general feel of 300 (the animated look) and the sword fighting violence and a cartoon Angelina Jolie nekkid all are factors in the film's success. That's the problem with trying to figure out why one film is a hit and another is a flop - when you get past the quality elements, it's often difficult to decide which of the other elements are the things got the audience to stand in line and which elements are dead ends.

So, I think the key is not to look try to replicate specifics of a hit film, but look at the big picture. I wouldn't watch THE MATRIX and think that the road to success is to write a computer-geek movie where reality isn't real... but I might write a high concept action film (if that's the genre of film I most enjoy). My action movie may have nothing at all to do with computers... or non-reality... or martial arts... or odd religions... or any of the other elements of THE MATRIX. The specifics are here today - gone tomorrow, but the broad strokes will be around for decades. The action film has been around since fiction film began - it's here to stay. I'd look more at the genre than the specifics of the particular hit film. In fact, I'd try to go in a different direction than the specifics - that idea has already been used, so I'd be afraid that the audience's "hunger" for those elements has already been satisfied. But some other high concept action flick? I would try to do something different and unusual within the popular genre... and LEAD rather than follow.

If the movies you can't wait to see are action films - write one. If you can't wait to see the next romantic comedy - write one. If you can't wait to see the next thriller - write one. If you love horror movies - write one. Write the same kind of movies you pay to see every Friday night. If you aren't standing in line and paying to see movies on a regular basis maybe you should rethink your goals - you aren't the movie audience.

RIDING THE WAVE

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If someone sells a Nudist Western for six figures and everyone thinks that's going to be the next big trend. Well, the guys who love Nudist Westerns and have written them even though they were currently out of fashion suddenly have producers looking for exactly what they have written. Bam! A sale. Bam! Another sale. Next thing you know there are all of these Nudist Westerns coming out. Now, if they all make money, you might have a trend that stays for a while. But if one flops, that might kill the trend.

Look at war movies - we had SAVING PRIVATE RYAN which was a hit... and that spawned a bunch of other World War 2 movies. Like WINDTALKERS (flop) and HART'S WAR (flop). HART'S WAR was bouncing around town for a while - and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was the excuse to get it made. Obviously WW2 movies weren't a trend to jump on... but if you love WW2 movies and want to write a script like that - go for it. Maybe the next time the trend pops up - Bam! You'll sell your script.

But if you see a bunch of World War 2 scripts selling and you don't like World War 2 scripts - why would you want to write one? There are plenty of other men-bond-in-dangerous-situation type stories you can write - from DELIVERANCE like thrillers to LETHAL WEAPON type cop movies to alien invasion movies like ALTERED to... well, action is a pretty big genre. As long as you are writing in a popular genre, you're okay.

WAIT FOR THE CYCLE

If you love writing in an unpopular genre, you're probably in trouble. I probably have 100 westerns in my DVD collection... and I'm not a big western guy. Others are. They love the genre and write stacks of westerns even though there really isn't much of a market for them... in fact, there's really no big market for them. Westerns were huge in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s... then they died off. If you grew up in the 1970s, you got the tail end of westerns. The last of the movies and the last of the TV shows. You may love that genre as you love no other... but they have fallen out of style. We can't write for the audience of the past, we can only write for the people who line up to see movies *today*. That means you can do two things: Write westerns anyway, because you love them, and hope that a couple of movie like 3:10 TO YUMA pop up so that you may be able to ride that wave and sell a script or two before the genre fizzles out. Or look at what you love about the genre and see if you can fit that into something that is currently commercial.

Genres do go in cycles - and the genre you love may not be popular now, but may be popular in a few years. If you are the writer with a stack of great scripts in that genre you'll have an advantage when it cycles back around.

CHANGE THE DETAILS

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3:10 TO YUMA was based on a story by Elmore Leonard, a great writer of western novels. I've got them all on my book shelf. Leonard wrote HOMBRE, turned into a movie starring Paul Newman, and VALDEZ IS COMING starring Burt Lancaster, and THE TALL T and JOE KIDD and LAW AT RANDADO and LAST STAND AT SABRE RIVER starring Tom Sellack. But when the popularity of western novels began to fade, Leonard took his western stories and dropped them into modern cities. He began writing crime novels... that were really westerns at heart. In CITY PRIMEVAL: HIGH NOON IN DETROIT he has a modern day marshal tracking down a modern day desperado. Both are actually echoes of the cowboy archetypes that came before them. The book ends with a typical high noon shoot out. Elmore Leonard continued to write the same kind of stories he had always written, just in a genre that had eclipsed the western in popularity. Think of it as the "urban western". You can do that, too. I often say - don't focus on the details of the story, focus on the *story*. That's often the best way to tell the story *you want to tell* in a genre that Hollywood wants to buy.

Look at the sci-fi film OUTLAND... it's basically HIGH NOON in outer space.

LEAD TIME & TRENDS

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One argument against following trends - or even considering which genre is currently popular - is that by the time they make the film that genre may no longer be popular. Let's face it, it often takes *years* from the time a script is purchased until the time it shows up at the multiplex. If you write a motion capture script that features lots of swordplay and female nudity based on an epic poem they made you read in high school, what are the odds that genre will still be popular by the time you finish the script?

Again - the specifics are here today, gone tomorrow... but a popular genre will probably still be popular when you finish the screenplay. Look at horror films. Every time they say that horror films are dead - the market is glutted and no one is going to see them anymore, moves like PARANORMAL ACTIVITIES 3 and INSIDIOUS become hits. The genre isn't quite dead, yet. I think any genre that is currently popular will also be popular in the near future. The reason why: movies in that genre are still in the pipeline, and if one of them hits the genre is back.

And producers don't buy scripts based on what will be hot in five years when the film is finished - they don't own a crystal ball - they buy scripts based on what films were hits over the weekend. That's the only "hit information" they have. And you have the same information as they do! You can know what genres the buyers are looking for. Just look at the top ten films for the past few weekends and the top twenty films of last year. That will give you a good idea of what kind of movies audiences lined up to see... and that's the kind of scripts producer's want to buy. They probably won't be looking for a script exactly like IMMORTALS, but they may be looking for a heroic action script with a larger than life villain. Do you have one of those?

Nobody lined up to see HURRICANE HEIST, so maybe my VOLCANO PRISON BREAK script is a waste of time?

Write the kind of movies you regularly pay to see - that way you are writing what is popular enough to regularly get made... and something that you love enough to stand in line to see.


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