BIZ TIP TUESDAY:
WHY READ THE TRADES?
When I graduated High School and wanted to get into the movies, but lived hundreds of miles away from Hollywood, I would go to the main branch of the public library once a week to read their copy of Weekly Variety. It made me feel like an industry insider, and I ended up learning all kinds of things that I might never have known. Eventually, I got tired of driving to the main branch of the library and decided to subscribe. Once a week I'd get the paper and pour through it, looking for clues on how to get into the business and what kinds of things I should write. And at least once a month there was a big special edition - for the Cannes Film Festival or the Oscars or the big Year End Issue that listed every movie released that year and how much it made, *plus* the all time box office champs broken down by decades. All of that great information, plus a list of films in production and pre-production and post production! It was like working at a studio!
Once I moved to Los Angeles, I had a subscription to Hollywood Reporter (daily) for several years - and a couple of years ago I realized I was getting most of that same information online, so I stopped subscribing. But a couple of screenwriting classes I took decades ago suggested subscribing to the trades (I think Michael Hauge suggested it in his great class) and now it's my turn to suggest reading the trades. The great thing about reading the trades now is that you don't even have to subscribe - you can read them online. Free.
Though every so often either Variety or Hollywood Reporter decides to restrict or limit what you can read online for free, and there seems to be a move to charge for magazine and newspaper content online, you should be able to read one of the trades online for free - and there are websites with other information that are free. But if you read the trades, what should you be looking for?
The obvious thing to look for are recent screenplay sales. Who is buying, what are they buying, and (just for fun) how much they paid. You can spot trends, and if you have a screenplay that matches that trend, get it out there. Last year when I wrote this tip, one of the trends seems to be Contained Thrillers - companies are buying them because they are relatively inexpensive to make, and if they work - they sell tickets. If you have one of these on your shelf, this would be the time to get it out there. But other things you can learn from what sold is what is not selling - trends go both ways, and when one subgenre becomes popular, another fades away. If you were getting ready to write a new script in a genre you think is hot, wouldn't it be helpful to know that it has faded away and isn't hot at all anymore? If you are *driven* to write that script, write it - everything is a cycle. But knowledge is power.
Another element of what sold is who sold it - the agents and managers involved. If you write crazy comedies and you notice that a certain agent seems to sell a lot of crazy comedies, you might target them with your scripts. Same with production companies and managers and anyone else involved in the business. As screenwriters, a very important part of our job is getting our scripts sold or landing assignments where we are paid to write a screenplay based on a novel or comic book or board game or drier lint. Knowing what kinds of scripts are selling, who those scripts are selling to, and which agents are doing the selling is valuable information.
The trends that influence the trends. What movies are making money? Every weekend is a horse race between movies, and who wins and who loses will trickle down into what type of screenplays they buy. You may think the Box Office Charts are only about the money, but they are really about tickets sold. The first weekend's box office for a film is about the *concept* - did it interest the audience enough to buy a ticket and take a chance on that film? The second weekend tells us what the audience thought of the movie itself - the execution - did this film deliver on its promise? It's not uncommon to see the second weekend for a summer tentpole movie plummet over 50% because the first weekend viewers told their friends the film sucked. If a film does not open well - the audience was not interested in the concept - and that is valuable information for a writer to have.
People do not want to see movies like that one! If the movie does great opening weekend business then dies, as a writer we know that concept is not enough on a story like that - it really needs good writing to back it up. (Um, if you didn't already know that part, you're in trouble! The most amazing high concept still needs great writing to back it up.) Over on the ALLIGATORS ON A HELICOPTER Blog, my friend Scott tries to pick the winners of this horse race every week just for fun. I think this is a great exercise in tuning in to the ticket buyers. The Box Office Top Ten is part of my local TV news on Sunday and Monday, and is all over the entertainment TV shows and newspapers - folks who are not trying to break into the business know what movies were 1-10 in ticket sales over the weekend... so a screenwriter, someone who *is* trying to break into the biz, better know this stuff! Read that Box Office Chart and use that information!
Many articles in the trades either focus on trends in the business or might be about something else entirely and have hidden nuggets of information about trends. Are budgets going up or down? Which studios have decided to make more movies and which have decided to make fewer movies? What kinds of movies are a specific studio going to focus on? Which stars are on their way up? Which stars are still stars? Which stars are on their way down? Which studio has decided not to use top tier stars for a while? The film business is always changing, and studios and producers are always trying to find new "formulas" for a successful movie. You may have noticed the increased importance of "branded" and "pre-sold" concepts in screenplays - they are making MONOPOLY: THE MOTION PICTURE because *everyone* knows Monopoly the board game. Disney is *all brands* - they have decided *only* to make movies based on some existing pre-sold property, to the point of *not* making sequels to their own hit movies in some cases! Disney has Marvel and Pixar and Bruckheimer and Hasbro - and any original spec that goes there will end up a sample for an assignment to adapt some Hasbro toy. Knowing that in advance will help you market your script.
Another big picture trend that a bunch of writers on message boards seem to have missed is the death of the mid-range picture. Today the studios are focusing on inexpensive comedies with great concepts like HANGOVER 2 and big event films. Summer now lasts almost the full year! They have discovered that the momentum of a big film like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL will not only make a bunch of money in the cinemas, a big event film is more likely to sell well on DVD/Blu and more likely to sell for top dollar to cable networks like HBO and Showtime. Even if the movie sucks, the event aspect of a film is important. The target audience - those people who go to the movies every week - will have to pick one of the two or three new movies being offered, and the one that looks like the most fun will win. The folks who do not go to the cinema regularly need a *reason* to get out of the house and go, and if the film is a big event - that's a good reason. People are less likely to wait for DVD on an event film... so studios want to make all event films all the time. That is the current trend... but like everything else, it is subject to change, and if you are reading the trades you will know when that change begins.
EXECS ON THE MOVE
There isn't much job security in Hollywood - greenlight a couple of flops and they show you the door... and some new guy or gal takes your job and has their own agenda. It's good to know who just got canned, who's the new sheriff in town, and what executive just got demoted to a production deal on the lot... and may instantly need a bunch of scripts to develop. Maybe even yours. Development people also move around, and you may have a great relationship with a Devo who is now working at some other company. Good to know where the people who like your work are working - if they move up, maybe you can follow them. Hollywood Reporter has a whole section on Execs On The Move, and Variety has something similar. It's also great to know who got promoted - an Agent's Assistant at and Agency gets promoted and now needs clients... maybe you.
And look for Dead Executives - not actually dead, but being squeezed out or coming to the end of the contracts which will not be renewed. When a new executive comes in the first thing they do is get rid of all of the old exec's projects... and you don't want to set up projects with a lame duck exec. I have had this bite me on the butt *three times* at Lifetime with the *same script*! Old exec loved the project and wanted to make it, new exec says "we aren't making that kind of movie anymore" and shelves the project or allows the option to lapse.
Another thing to look for is personal information on executives. Are they new fathers? Did they just get married? All of these things may provide you with background information that might help you in a meeting. In the Guerrilla Marketing Class I talk about "Flashcards" - file cards with information about an executive on one side and their photo on the other, so if you spot one at the grocery store, you'll know it and know enough about them to start a conversation. But the great little gems of info on execs are often buried in other stories - maybe they went to a Basketball teams away games? Maybe they go to Formula One races? Things that give you a personal connection with that exec. The real gold is the "home town" connection - people in Hollywood are really from all over the place, and if you can find someone that comes from your home town and maybe even went to your school, that might be a way in.
NEW INCENTIVES & COMPANIES
My friend Jeff is a genius when it comes to reading the trades to find new companies and incentives. He has sold scripts just by paying attention to what is going on with film incentives worldwide. Because every state and every country wants producers to make their movies there - and spend all of that production money in their state or country and hire their crews and then have their crews spend their paychecks there - they come up with financial incentives for producers. Tax rebates, sometimes even funding for the film! When this happens, producers start looking for scripts they can film in these states or countries. Jeff read about a country that had just begun a program to co-fund films shot in their country... and wrote (or maybe rewrote) a script that took place in that country - and sold it. The spec I'm finishing up right now takes place in Michigan because they have a great film incentive program - some producer will read that script and realize they can make the film for much much less that it would normally cost them because the story takes place in Michigan.
When you read about some country that is creating an incentive program, look at how that program works and how that country's film industry works. Your best bet might be selling a script to a company in that country. Another thing you can find in these articles and others are start up companies around the world. If Kafiristan suddenly decides they want a film industry and offers incentives, there will be new production companies popping up in that country to make those movies or to help US companies make their movies. The same thing happens in states with incentive programs - new companies blossom. New companies need new scripts.
Did you know Paramount has a new division making $100k ultra-low budget films? Did you know LionsGate has a similar new division aimed at making low budget comedy films?
So, what kind of market is there for an internet serial? Is there still a market for DVD sequels to theatrical originals?
Would making a film Direct To Red Box be a good idea? Is there any company currently making movies for the new 3D TV sets?
Now that HULU charges a fee, will they also be looking for original movies? Are studios looking to make more 3D movies?
What about 3D dramas? Will smell-o-vision make a comeback? Is there a market for direct-to-PSP movies? How about a
movie/video game hybrid? What about movies for iPads? Because technology changes every day, the entertainment
industry changes every day and you might see something happening that matches a script or project you are working on.
That new technology might be perfect for your new screenplay! Right now, someone is watching a movie on their phone - is that a new market for your screenplay?
Weekly Variety and Tuesday's Hollywood Reporter have great charts of what is in pre-production, production, and post production. The Hollywood Reporter charts list company, director, writer, cast, key crew members and contact information including phone numbers. One of the reasons why this is a great resource is that it shows you want is in the pipeline - and you can spot any trends and also be warned of any film that seems to have a similar story as yours. I used to look at the charts to see what actors were working in lower budget movies, and sometimes what actors I have never heard of who suddenly popped up in a bunch of big studio films. Think of Sam Worthington - that guy seemed to come out of nowhere and star in a bunch of big films all released in the same summer. But the producers are the real info, here, and the indie films that are made all over the USA are listed along with contact info. What if you found a couple of companies making movies in the nearest city to where you live right now? Why not call them, introduce yourself, ask if you can send them a script and if they need any rewrite work... or, if you have the time, ask if they need some good set P.A.s when they go into production?
You can learn a lot from looking at the adverts in the trades. Who is kissing whose butt, who has a bunch of money to promote their films to Academy voters, who wants to show that they are players, etc. Also - studios and service companies advertize, and sometimes those are interesting doorways into the biz. In another Script Tip I mention an employment company for film crew members that had an advert once a week in Hollywood Reporter, so I tracked them down, talked to the boss, mentioned that I had some great scripts and if he ever heard of any producer who was looking for scripts, to send them my way. Nothing ever happened from that (actually, I did have a couple of meetings) but it was a good chance. I know a writer who followed up on an advert for a start up special effects company with a nice big advert in the trades... and optioned a screenplay to them. I like to consider the adverts a puzzle - there is a hidden meaning in them and I need to figure out what it is. There is some reason why they spent the money for the advert, and knowing what that reason is can give me information that may help me sell a screenplay.
10 TO WATCH
Last - Hollywood Reporter does special issues with Ten To Watch - up and coming directors and producers and agents and film executives. This is great information to have, because it is about people moving *up* who are now not very powerful (which means you might be able to get them to read a screenplay) but will soon be very powerful.
If you can get one of these Ten To Watch people on your side, as a fan of your writing or just someone who knows that you exist, when they go up maybe you can go up with them. I have to admit that I have never done this, and came up with the idea while jotting down good reasons to read the trades - so it's wide open. As far as I know, nobody else is doing it. You can be the first.
So there are a bunch of reasons to read the trades, and as I said - often you can read them online for free (free being my favorite price), and here are some links for that:
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Also, when one or both of the trades are in that "You must subscribe online" mode, check the wire services like AP and Reuters for some of the information - you can usually find those stories on Yahoo News, which is free. Reading the trades is a great way to stay on top of the business side of screenwriting, and even use some of that information to create scripts with a better chance of selling or landing you an assignment. Knowledge is power.
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