Film, Radio and TV - 11
A Film Idea
How does a story idea end up on the "silver screen?" In this module we'll see how a film idea is launched.
The major hurdles in doing any film are getting the script picked up by a producer or studio and getting it financed.
Films are expensive to produce—normally, tens of millions of dollars—and people don't hand out that kind of money unless they think they have a good chance of getting a return on their investment.
This means that people with film ideas must develop effective ways of selling prospective investors on the merits of their story idea.
Just sitting down with a studio executive—assuming you could even do that—and starting with, "Hey, I've got this great idea for a film...." won't do it (unless that person happens to be your father and he owns
a film studio).
Pitching Your Idea
Fact is, in most cases you won't even be able to get an appointment with anyone to pitch (sell) your idea. That will be up to your agent.
You don't have an agent?
Well, that's not easy either. Normally, agents only represent writers who have proven themselves. This generally means that the writers have done several screenplays (to prove their talents), or have a track record of getting things published.
There are tens of thousands of self-proclaimed writers, just as there are tens of thousands of wanna-be actors. Agents don't want to spend time and resources promoting someone who doesn't appear to be on a sure track to success.
For one thing, promoting a person who isn't a strong candidate weakens their own credibility. There are a lot of agents struggling to pitch ideas to producers and studio executives. This means that agents must constantly prove their ability to represent projects that have the elements of success.
Of course, if agents are successful, they get a cut of money that's paid to a writer.
If you are beginning to catch the drift that breaking into screenwriting is a highly competitive and difficult path, you're right. However, youth (and the youth perspective) has its advantages.
At this point we've left out some important steps (hurdles?) in getting your idea to "see the light of day." We'll get to some of those in a minute.
But, keep in mind, for the few that are successful, the rewards can be great.
This does not necessarily mean they are bad.
The original Star Wars script was rejected by every major studio in Hollywood before eventually being produced by 20th Century Fox. The film went on to make that studio a ton of money, not to mention launching several sequels and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for ancillary products.
ET, The Extraterrestrial, another highly successful film, was rejected by Columbia before being produced by Universal. Other successful scripts that at first were rejected were Gone With the Wind, Forest Gump, Home Alone, Speed, and Pulp Fiction. On the television side, the
pilot (initial) script for one of the most successful TV shows of all time, All In the Family,
was repeatedly rejected by the TV networks.
Optioning the Script
If a studio or producer likes your script, it can be optioned (exclusively reserved for their consideration for a set period of time). This doesn't mean they have "bought" the script and plan to turn it into a movie. Most optioned scripts never make it to the screen. It only means that they like it well enough to invest some "earnest money" in it and keep it off the market while they consider it.
What the option buys them is exclusive rights for set period of time—probably a few months—to see if they can interest some major stars, if that's their goal, and get financing. They also have to sell others on the worthiness of your project, which, of course, is easier if they have some major stars interested.
If they don't proceed on the film project, at the end of the option period the writer is free to offer the script to someone else
(and keep the option money).
Purchasing the Script
If your script is eventually purchased, payment can range from $40,000 to tens of millions of dollars (for the really successful writers with blockbuster ideas). For most of us, any of these figures would balance our checkbooks for quite a while.
And, of course, if you script is turned into a film, you may eventually get to see your name on the silver screen—not to mention the possibility of walking up on that stage in Los Angeles, taking your Oscar in hand, and starting your acceptance speech with, "I'd like to thank...."
Once you get a script accepted, getting more
scripts accepted—or at least getting them considered—becomes a
lot easier, especially if the film does well.
Preparing A Treatment
Although there is no single route from story idea to silver screen, film ideas are typically represented by a treatment, which is a summary of what a proposed film is all about.
A treatment, which averages about 60 pages for a 90-minute film, covers the basic story line of the film, the actor roles, and the key locations. It will also contain one or more complete scenes.
The treatment has to engage the interest of readers and prospective backers, and go a long way toward convincing them of the probable success of the production. Anyone reading a treatment should be able to get a clear idea of the whole production and what it will take to produce.
With established writers a treatment will often precede the writing of a script. It is at the treatment sage that the story can be easily changed as interested parties review it and make suggestions (which studio executives seem to have an unending need to do).
Once there is agreement on a treatment, a script (screenplay) can be commissioned—assuming the full script doesn't already exist
As various key people involved in the proposed film make their suggestions during story conferences, scripts often end up undergoing "major surgery."
Writers have thrown up their hands in frustration during this process and abandoned projects after their script was altered so much they could hardly recognize their original story.
But, assuming this doesn't happen, writers are paid—generally paid very well—for whatever revisions they are asked to make.
Or, other writers may be called in to make revisions—people who are seen as being closer to studio thinking or have a track record with the particular subject matter. This is one of the reasons many films end up with several people listed as writers.
When a script is finally approved, it doesn't mean that it won't continue to be changed. Script changes take place right up the moment scenes are shot; and, in fact, the story keeps changing right through the editing process.
In the next module we'll look at the basic structure of scripts.
The next matching quiz will be after Module 12.