Screenwriting

Writing for the Green Light – Hollywood’s Biggest Secret

The big secret that almost never gets told to anyone outside Hollywood’s professional walls: Most films are green-lit before a final script exists.

Think this is crazy? It’s not; it’s absolutely the truth. If a studio or an independent production company knows who their audience is, knows what channels and platforms will showcase their finished film, and understands how much such a project should cost, don’t you think they’d also know in advance how the story should be written to best meet the expectations of the clients? And if these professionals can successfully sell movies before they’re completed, don’t you think they can sell the same film before a script has been written?

The answer is yes, we can. . . . And we do it all the time.

One of my favorite films sums up this process better than any other: Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood (1994). In the early part of the movie, an energetic Ed Wood enters the office of producer George Weiss. Wood is ready to pitch himself as the ultimate writer/director combo; Weiss couldn’t care less but is in need of a director for his latest picture. Wood asks, “Is there a script?” to which Weiss replies: “Fuck no, but there’s a poster!”

It might sound absurd, but this is how the real business of Hollywood operates. But before you go judging Hollywood execs for being callous or superficial, let’s illustrate this in a more down-to-earth way. . . . It’s Friday night and you’re browsing the shelves of your favorite old-school DVD rental store (or perhaps you’re kicking back at home, logged onto one of our outlet companies like Netflix or Hulu Plus). You’re scrolling through looking at films, debating which one to watch. How are you making the decision about which film is worth your time to watch? Are you first searching the internet for pirated copies of the scripts for each film one-by-one and reading them to decide? Or are you using signifiers, such as title, artwork, cast/director names, or genre, to make your selection? We’re human! We get overwhelmed with too many selections and we like assistance on finding the right type of film that really meets our needs. And if the artwork alone isn’t doing it, we’re always open to hearing the suggestions of the guy working behind the counter who’s made some good recommendations in the past, or simply following what suggestions Netflix and Hulu have algorithmically calculated on our behalf. That artwork/trailer is “pitching” the film to you, selling you that it’s the one most worth your time on this particular night. Do you fall for it? We all pick a dud from time to time, but overall I suspect you’re quite savvy at seeing through gimmicky artwork.

Distributors (like me) use the same technique when selling (and preselling) films. Unlike studios that have the leverage of A-list talent and mega-franchises to secure guaranteed placement, in the indie zone we have to hustle.

PITCHING THE MOVIE, NOT THE SCRIPT

The best way to presell a property is not handing a client or financial partner a 100-page stack of paper to read. . . . It’s to show them what the film will look like once it’s completed, by presenting the marketing elements such as a one-sheet, poster, or sizzle reel. We’re pitching the finished movie to them, not the script. This allows the client to see the film in his or her own mind so that he or she can sense the scale, the style, and the look of the production. He or she can quickly assess how much money the company can earn from such a title, and thus how much money is worth investing—and he or she can just as quickly decide such a project is not worth their time and simply ask, “What else do you have?” Once a potential client or financier is intrigued by the idea, then we can give him or her a script—but if no script exists, it’s not exactly a deal breaker for us (nor for the movie’s future). In fact, some companies prefer working with production companies on “concepts” that they sketch out together. If a company knows what works best for its audience, it’s more advantageous to craft a film to their needs versus spending large quantities of time chasing leads and hoping to find something good enough to fill the void.

PRESALES: THE ART OF REVERSE ENGINEERING

INT. HOLLYWOOD PROD. OFFICE — CONF. ROOM — DAY

Two executives, SCOTT KIRKPATRICK, a mid-30s very handsome sales executive (you’d do the same if it were your book) and his BOSS, are reviewing a detailed spreadsheet report titled “Cannes Film Festival — Buyer’s List.” The list has hundreds of names and contact details neatly categorized. The walls of the conference room are full of framed movie posters with recognizable stars.

BOSS

Oh look, our top pre-buyer from Japan is attending. Be sure to schedule a meeting with her.

ME

Already done. I have her scheduled to meet at our booth on Thursday.

BOSS

Perfect. We need to figure out something we’re going to sell her though. We already secured her with the volcano disaster film?

ME

Yes, they pre-bought it.

BOSS

Tell her that we’re in development on a new one, something with a giant tsunami, something simple, like Mega-Tsunami. I scribble a note on a sheet of scrap paper.

ME

If she asks for the script or cast, I’ll just say it’s confidential for now.

BOSS

However you want to handle it. Call Michelle in marketing and have her whip up a poster. Actually, title it something with a number: 9.6 Mega-Tsunami, that way it’ll show up at the top of all the lists on the digital platforms. Put a bunch of fire and a collapsing building on the cover.

(skimming list)

Okay, next . . .

The above conversation happened almost word-for-word. . . . And similar conversations happen across Hollywood in conference rooms every day.

Although 9.6 Mega-Tsunami doesn’t actually exist, there was indeed a disaster film our company presold that year and later produced (and broadcast on major U.S. TV networks amongst many other channels worldwide), that was literally created on the fly exactly as stated above.

Why? Well in our case, the Japanese DVD/VOD market had very high demand for disaster films at the moment, and our company had a strong reputation in the business for producing them. To be honest, many territories love disaster films; it just so happened we were reviewing a list of clients from Japan when my boss realized we had a dearth of new disaster films available to sell.

A large foreign-based distribution company—like the one from Japan referred to above—will send their own acquisitions executives to all the major film and TV markets to find new content. Sales agents; distribution executives (like me) will schedule meetings with buyers and present our “line-ups” (or “slates”) of new films. As already explained, on strong potential projects—and after some healthy negotiation—the buyers will “pre-buy” the rights to these films for a set cost, usually a standard percentage of the total budget. The sales agent drafts an agreement with clear stages outlined for how the money will be dished out. But agreeing to put down a large sum of money on a project that doesn’t yet exist is risky business, so this practice is only done when a buyer is working with a sales agent he or she personally trusts or who represents a company with a strong reputation of delivering films as promised.

When our team secured presales in Japan, Germany, Russia/CIS, and Australia—plus a few smaller countries—the budget of 9.6 Mega-Tsunami was almost fully funded before a single frame was shot. Again, not anyone can just go into the marketplace blindly and pull a stunt like that; the company I was working for already had a proven track record of being able to produce such films at a certain anticipated quality level and we had presold and delivered several films to this client in the past. We already had a name, brand, and secure reputation in the business, which is why our clients were willing to front all the cash—no different than with the major studios.

But let’s stop and go back for a moment: After my initial sales meeting, I did exactly as my Boss asked. I walked over to “Michelle” in marketing and explained that I wanted a poster for a new disaster film called 9.6 Mega-Tsunami. When she asked how I wanted it to look, I shrugged my shoulders and gave a vague answer, akin to “a city scape with fire and crumbling buildings, the usual.” She didn’t even bat an eye at the concept. . . . That’s because drafting posters for films that don’t exist is a relatively commonplace procedure.

When Michelle gets to work playing with designs, back drops, and the level of intensity for the destruction elements in her new key art, she’s doing a big part of writing the film. She’s creating the image of the title, providing a storyline with the visuals—regardless of how indirectly she intends to—and she’s actually dictating the level of the film’s eventual budget.

After some more back and forth on 9.6 Mega-Tsunami with Michelle, she had put together a pretty nice poster. The team loved it. In addition to a flood-ravaged city, streets were split apart, buildings were crumbling to the ground, and an airplane was crashing while surrounded by lightning. None of us really had any idea what an airplane had to do with a tsunami, or why the airplane seemed to be getting attacked by lightning—the real reason was that Michelle needed to fill that space in the poster—but it looked great!

And those deals our team secured—the ones that funded the budget of a movie that didn’t yet have any actors attached or a director on board, nor even a screenplay—all of those presales were based on Michelle’s poster and our pitch to our international buyers. As already stated, our buyers trusted our company’s ability to deliver what we were promising them (and what we were promising was a film based on Michelle’s poster).

Several weeks after we returned from Cannes, we had successfully closed enough presale deals to green-light two new films into production. Obviously the first was 9.6 Mega-Tsunami; the other film was a family Christmas movie with a dog. We had a drama, with a very high-end name attached, but that one didn’t get any traction, so the film was scrapped. (The rest of the market was spent closing deals on other films, which had already been produced.)

The top executives scheduled our company’s official green-light meeting. Occasionally the sales and distribution team would sit in on these, especially if we had put together some presales or if we had to defend “estimates” we made on the value of a film in specific countries. Mostly, green-light meetings were for upper management, pulling in the heads of production to explain to them what films they would be producing. (Notice that it doesn’t work the other way—meaning note that production wasn’t out finding new material and then bringing it to management requesting money.)

Our CEO began his speech, with the CFO quietly sitting, arms folded, saying nothing. The CEO held up Michelle’s poster and congratulated the sales team on securing the money for the film; he then informed the production team that they were going to be “producing 9.6 Mega-Tsunami as this year’s disaster offering.” This was the first time the production team had heard about the project. The poster was passed around. A few made comments of “nice” or “that’ll be fun.” Then the CEO called on one of the development executives on the production side, Sherman, and said: “Sherman, this will be your baby, you’re EP [executive producer] on this one; find a writer and get me a script ASAP so I can pitch SyFy.” Sherman nodded his head and asked one question, “What’s the budget?,” to which the CFO spoke next: “450” (meaning $450,000).

Sherman made a quick note, and then our CEO went on to the next film.

Image via Flickr by Craig Cloutler

Excerpt from Writing for the Green Light: How to Make Your Script the One Hollywood Notices by Scott Kirkpatrick, © 2015. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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