Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Chasing the Squirrel

I’m making a list of all my potential projects and asking myself what I want to shoot next. They’re all good, some cheaper, better and funnier than others. I try to visualize the movie. And then I realize, there it is again. That word. MOVIE.

In my tiny, insignificant corner of the movie business, I’m a studio executive because I hold the checkbook. I decide what to shoot, for how much and when to shoot it. When I first think of an idea I get very excited, start writing and end up with masterpieces. Then the studio exec takes over and tells me “Those are not movies. They’re scripts. You can’t throw away good money and valuable time on a script.”

I wonder how many aspiring screenwriters actually ask themselves the business questions like “Who wants to see this crap?” The pros do it all the time. They have to if they want to get the assignment or if they want to sell a spec. If you want to become a professional, you have to write like one. And you won’t write like one until you act like you’re in the movie business and ask yourself the questions the people with the money ask. You’ll be getting paid to write MOVIES, not screenplays. To put it bluntly, a mediocre movie writer gets paid, a brilliant scriptwriter doesn’t. Scripts get sent to the drawer, movies get on the screen. (Yes, there are brilliant screenplays that are not movies. Yes, I know, some screenplays get to be movies when they shouldn’t. But those are conversations for the coffee house.)

So you’re writing a script about the European road trip you took after your divorce. I’m sure you’re loving the wacky, witty, one-liner filled screenplay you’re writing. Screenwriting is such fun, isn’t it? Try pitching it to a civilian and see if her eyes light up when she says “I want to see that movie!” Remember the dog in Up? The movie is the squirrel. That’s how you know if you’re writing a movie. People react like the dog in Up when they hear your idea.

I will illustrate with a well known film’s pitch (as we were told it happened).


A writer holds up a model boat with one hand.

A bunch of fisherman trapped
in the middle of the sea.
A big wave is coming.



Nobody knows where the squirrels are, but every body knows when they see one. Just make sure you’re okay with spending your whole life sending screenplays to the drawer while you try to come up with a squirrel. I’m not. That’s why I make my movies.

P.S. Here’s a link to my notes on the WGA Foundation’s Notes on Craft Premise & Concept panel which might be helpful. (This year’s is coming up and I highly recommend it. You can stream it if you’re not in Los Angeles.)

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