Bad Loglines = Bad Screenplays?



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  • Bad Loglines = Bad Screenplays?

    Gotta/Wannabe had me laughing with his logline for CHINATOWN, and I thought this question was worthy of its own thread.

    Last week I got a call from Gary at Sherwood Oaks College. He does this course where students go to 5 studios in 5 days and meet about 8 producers at each studio. I have an article about it on my site. You usually get to pitch your script... and to the top guy! Doug Wickes (producer of GLADIATOR) and Mike Medavoy (Phoenix Pictures) heard pitches at the class I attended.

    Gary had a problem: Many of the people in his class can't pitch their way out of a paper bag. He wanted me to meet the class and run a pitch clinic before they go off to the studios.

    1) I hate pitching.
    2) I'm not very good at pitching.
    3) This would take 3 hours out of my life, and there's no pay. Not even gas money for driving over the hill!

    So I agreed to do it.

    I figured by listening to pitches that don't work, I may figure out why... and improve MY pitching in the process.

    You could break down the class into two groups:
    Those who had good stories but were pitching them all wrong and those who had not-good stories and there was no way to pitch them so that they sounded any good.

    By "not-good" I mean BORING. Stories that would only be of interest to the screenwriters and maybe their moms... but the moms would by lying. All of the boring stories had one thing in common - they were based on actual events in the lives of the screenwriters. Because they were actual events, they were not "spiced up" in any way.

    You want the frightening truth? Writers are boring people! No one wants to hear about what happened to us! And 99.999999% of reality is REALLY boring! Unless you're on the bomb squad, no one cares about your day-to-day life. No one cares about your broken heart, failed marriage, personal tragedy, trouble getting a date because of your scars, your ungrateful kids, or relationship with your dog. And they REALLY don't care about your political beliefs!

    They're paying $8.50 to be entertained.
    They want to ESCAPE from the boring events in every day life. They want LARGER THAN LIFE conflict.

    I brought the entertainment section of the LA Times with me (the big, fat Sunday section) and asked the folks to find a movie that was similar to theirs in the paper. (Lots of full page ads.) The people with interesting stories could either find a similar movie or had no problem giving me some recent examples...

    So here's a good exercise: Write down the last 5 films you saw in a theater, and write down the names of 3 recent films that are similar to your script.

    I used this analogy: Hollywood is like your favorite restaurant. When you go there, you usually order the same dish or dishes. You find something you like and stick to it. (I have an Italian restaurant I go to where I usually order spinach ravioli.) You expect that dish to be "the same" every time you order it. You don't want it to be out of a can! You want it to be made specially FOR YOU (originality)... but you don't expect to find marshmallows or jalapeno peppers in your ravioli. The same is true with movies.

    If your script is too different than other movies, the audience won't want to see it. But if it's "canned" and bland they also won't want to see it.

    If you can't think of any recent films like your script, there may be a very good reason... they don't make movies like that! If that's the case, I'd start looking for similar stories in other media... maybe you wrote a movie for Lifetime!

    The best part about this group at Sherwood Oaks is that they were open to the idea that their script may not be a big studio film starring Tom Cruise.

    But there were stories that didn't match anything at all. Not a movie, nor a cable film, nor a TV film, nor a direct to video... nothing that people would pay to see.

    When those people tried to pitch their scripts, they rambled on and on, but there was nothing INTERESTING in their pitch.

    The other pitches could be fixed. They could take out the detailed back story stuff, focus on the conflict, etc. In one case a woman pitched a script about a 50 year old widow that was turning off the young development people. When I asked who would play this widow, she said Bette Midler. The solution was to never mention the widow's age, just say "a Bette Midler type".

    I think if you KNOW WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT you can figure out how to pitch it... but if your story isn't interesting, who would want to hear it?

    - Bill

  • #2
    Bomb squad is also boring...

    Not that I am on one but when there are no bombs (or fires, if you are a fireman) then life is boring.

    Just like TV cop shows - the action is not there in real life... the goal of the screenwriter is to combine and embellish.

    My current work in progress is based loosely on a situation I lived... and the keyword here is LOOSELY. If I wrote that situation I would fall asleep at the keyboard. By extending it to "And then I planned how to kill him and went for it... and then he died... but I didn't do it" and so on. With that I have taken that basic story and embellished to a point where it is interesting (inshallah). At the time the idea came to mind to kill the guy... but like most people in the audience at the theatre it was a fleeting thought. By writing the story as someone who then went on to plan the killing, etc. I am moving the audience into the world of realising what they may well have wanted to do (also as a fleeting thought) to someone at some point in their lives.

    I am writing what I know and people I know... but the best friend character in my life was not 1/10th as weaselly in real life as in my story - but he certainly is not boring anymore.

    As for loglines, well, bad ones may not make bad scripts but they certainly make for reading decisions.

    On the other hand, naive may I be, I have not found a single movie/story that is similar to mine beyond the very surface. They say that there are no original stories to tell but I disagree. I think I have two that have never been done (one in progress, one in massively immature outline form). Time will tell if they haven't been done for a reason or if they are actually orignal & good.

    As far as pitching goes, can't say I've ever looked for or been offered the opportunity... I am still writing and not ready to think so much about the pitch... but when I finish the final fadeout on my final (??) draft I will know the story well enough to pitch the merits and answer the questions.


    • #3
      Jeez. My life is so interesting. Take that back, Martell.


      • #4
        Phone pitching

        B. Martell

        Enjoyed your pitch story. A couple of weeks ago a director of development had requested one of my screenplays. Later after reading the script he called to say how much he liked it and to make some minor slugline changes. In passing I mentioned another screenplay I was working on and he said "pitch it to me". I hit the broad strokes, main character, conflict, antagonist, love interest, etc..during the first minute. While I'm talking he's going yeah, yeah, and mentioned other movies it was similar to, and asked if I had seen them...said it was very commercial...blah, blah, etc.. the point I'm getting at with regards to pitching it seems that you are under the gun...time is valuable to these people...reminded me of a Jack Webb's Dragnet quote "just the facts please". Since he had called me ...I was caught off guard momentarily...Next time I'm going to hone my 60 second pitch so that it;
        1. flows without interruption
        2. sounds natural
        3. hits the main thrust of the story
        4. has a commercial ring to it

        I would appreciate your thoughts on phone pitches.



        • #5
          Agreeing with Steeves. The writer's life can be the seed that inspires the story. Where a writer may go wrong is trying to write the story as it happened verbatum.

          Two Weeks Notice: Jonathan Myers takes an herbal remedy for his fear of dying that will give him two weeks notice prior to his demise. He soon learns that the fear of death is far less painful then the repercussions of avoiding his destiny.

          Inspired by the fact that I hated my job and would have loved nothing less than to give my two weeks notice.

          My second completed screenplay. I'm so proud that I have just finished it. But it was inspired by my near brush with divorce. It was promising to be an ugly custody suit. But the movie is basically a thriller about a woman who's husband finds out she plans to leave him for her ex. She has a child by each. Her husband initiates a conspiracy with the ex to have her thrown in jail instead of killing her so that each respective father can be awarded custody of their children. Once they are successful the husband visits his ex-spouse and discloses the plan to the wife who now seeks revenge upon her release. I haven't written a log line for it yet because I am not very good at them.

          All of that to say. No my two weeks notice to my job would not make an interesting topic for a movie. Nor a messy custody suit filled with alligations from my husband that I hang out with drug dealers (in which the judge actually believed and I almost loss the temporary custody suit based off my ex being in jail for drugs, my ex of six years). But if you take those experiences as what they are, inspiration and not templates it's possible to end up with a very good movie for the big screen, cable, or DTV.



          • #6

            Martell---I admire your understanding of mass market stories, but I think I disagree with the underlying premise of commerciality as the basis of solid story-telling. Of course it's an old argument, art versus commerce, but I tend to feel that modern audiences are a lot like me. You may go to a restaurant and pretty much always expect a table, a seat, a knife and fork, and your food on a plate, but just as the cullinary arts thrive on diversity, so the film-goer may often desire spinach ravioli one day, lobster the next, Chinese later, and even try a few dishes he has never heard of, just for fun. It's the producers who are more conservative in their tastes, given that they rely on their own judgement concerning what will bring them the biggest profit. So I will continue to write my "non-commercial" stories, with the thought that the elements in them that appeal to me will also appeal to others. I'd be very happy to write genre pieces, and I have no contempt for the successful and creative action or horror writer, but the kitchen is a place to experiment with new flavors, and perfect dishes that have always been popular. And of course one desires to serve nutritious food, and not poison.


            • #7
              real life action

              >>>Just like TV cop shows - the action is not there in real life... the goal of the screenwriter is to combine and embellish.<<<

              While it's certainly true the screenwriter's job is to embellish and entertain, I must disagree with you on the above view. Truth is stranger than fiction, and although the action that occurs in TV or film is far from commonplace, the most entertaining stories are the ones you can't make up.

              I have a cousin who actually IS on the bomb squad and whenever he starts talking job tales, I just keep my mouth shut and listen. Same thing for another cousin who works for his Borough Commander's office on Special Detail. You can't make that stuff up. None of us are really that clever. Many of the most thrilling stories are the ones behind the scenes, the ones you never hear or see on the six o'clock news.

              Yes, even real life events must be embellished to hold an audience for two hours, but if you want a core story that's positively riveting, experience real life and meet as many people as you can.


              • #8
                Re: real life action

                Well what I think it comes down to is, writing scripts, writing treatments, writing synopses, and writing loglines are four different skills. That is the irony of companies that request treatments or synopses before they will read a script. They are asking for a different set of skills to determine whether or not you can write a script. Which does not make sense. A lot of people who write killer scripts cannot synopsize the script to save their lives, let alone logline it. But you can't get anyone to read a script unless you can at least logline it, put it in that one sentence that explains what the story is about. So you have to learn that. Just the way you have to learn to write a script. The upside is, well, loglines are a lot shorter. But who is it who said "brevity is work"? It really is.


                • #9
                  Spicing + More Pitching

                  >>With that I have taken that basic story and embellished to a point where it is interesting (inshallah).<<

                  Steeves - You spiced it up. These people didn't. They had scripts that were EXACTLY what happened to them. Would you really want to hear GIG describe the day she got caught in traffic on the way to a meeting? This stuff was like watching paint dry.

                  Because it was about 3am, I think I didn't make my point very well. Though you can't tell from a pitch whether a script (and story) will be any good, sometimes a bad pitch does indicate a weak story.

                  MORE PITCHING:

                  It was strange to be on the other side of the desk. Here's some more stuff I noticed...

                  Whenever I was confused, I asked a question to clarify... and several people had no answers. I'm not talking brain teasers, here, these are just basic questions about their script.

                  One of the writers kept introducing characters and funny bits, one right after the other. After they got to the 20th character, I asked them who the story was about. They didn't know. It sounded to me like a bunch of unrelated comedy skits. I asked how these characters were related - they all live in the same town was the answer. How well do they know each other? The writer didn't know.

                  You should know who your lead character is.

                  Another writer had a "canned" pre-fab script with a villain from one genre and a hero from another genre and a location that had nothing to do with anything. I asked them what the relationship was between hero and villain... There wasn't one. Why pick these archetypes from polar opposite genres? The writer was combing two commercial genres. I asked some basic questions about the hero's characater... the writer didn't know the answers.

                  Other writers didn't know motivations for their characters, too. Several pitches had characters doing really stupid or unusual things to launch the story... but the writers didn't know why they did them.

                  You should be able to answer basic questions about your script to clear up any confusion the person on the other side of the desk may have. You might try pitching your script to people who don't know what the story is and see if they "get it".

                  ALSO: Listen to what the producer says. I tagged along on one day and a producer at MGM said they were looking for "realistic idea oriented sci-fi"... so one of these writers pitched their horror script, and a couple of others pitched their overly-true-life stories. If they aren't looking for your script, no amount of pitching is going to convince them otherwise!

                  - Bill


                  • #10

                    >Would you really want to hear GIG describe the day she got caught in traffic on the way to a meeting?

                    I will have you know Mr. Martell when I tell about getting caught in traffic on the way to a meeting it is funny.



                    • #11
                      Re: Hey!

                      I almost mentioned that you could probably find a funny way to tell that story...

                      But if I saw a trailer for a movie about a really funny woman stuck in traffic, I don't think I'd pay to see the movie. If you were the funniest person in the world and the camera followed you around for a typical day and you cracked jokes about everything, it might be amusing... but where's the story? I could just hang out with my friends and experience the same thing.

                      And I've seen indie films that were just that: A bunch of guys sitting around making fun of the world around them. Funny for ten minutes, absolute torture after 90 minutes.

                      By the way - don't be fooled by movies that seem like they are from real life like TAO OF STEVE. That's a fine-tuned peice of entertainment with a larger-than-life lead character who we see at the defining moment of his life. It's plot driven! Every scene in that film is there for a reason, every character has a purpose, and it's designed to please the audience.

                      - Bill


                      • #12
                        Re: Hey!



                        • #13
                          Re: Hey!

                          This has been wonderful. Lots of things to think life IS interesting!!! All kinds of people would be dieing to hear about it. Now, let's see, where are those people...????

                          When I wrote Sign Language, I had no intention of including anything about my own life into the main character. For one thing, all of my friends and family might recognize it and think I'm really kind of whacked. However, parts of me made their way into the female lead...not the b|tchy parts tho (I have my own style of doing that )

                          Thanks for sharing!



                          • #14
                            Re: real life action: Truth CAN be stranger...

                            But often it is not.

                            Talk to your bomb-squad buddy again and have him tell you about all the days in between when there are no calls. What they do, the reading, training, coffee-drinking, shooting the breeze around the water cooler stuff. That is NOT interesting.

                            Of course he has a multitude of tales to tell, based on the interesting stuff that DOES happen. But it does not happen continuously, a fact for which I am sure he is grateful.

                            Air-traffic control is a job constant stress and pressure - but it does not equal a good movie until a "DieHard2" or "Airport" situation ensues. Constant action and stress, yes... filmability: no.


                            • #15
                              Re: Bad loglines

                              Very interesting, and so true. It's nice to see the complete thought laid out. And yes, even daily life on the Bomb Squad is BORING, except for ocassional moments of unbridled fear and stress. To make it as a movie, the bomb squad WOULD have to have a story, with a complete story arc containing dramatic conflict, character challenges, and a resolution. And would have to have character interaction on a level beyond the usual stuff of life, where concise (90 minutes folks), authentic dialogue defines characters. The realism of 'I don't know what I'm doing tonite Freddy... What're you doing tonite?' ain't gonna make it.
                              But the thing is, those 40,000 wga registered scripts a year, you know? I think most people really DO believe that their lives ARE interesting. And their scripts are more a cathartic exercise, or monument to themselves than they are entertainment. And that's fine, so long as I don't read em.
                              We are all of us, writers... yet only a few will be writers of movies (as in moving pictures, not inanimate scripts).