Brian Herskowitz: A Unified Theory of Screenwriting
Brian Herskowitz, whose lecture Crafting the Outline for Your Feature Film is available to purchase, and who has recently released one of the most pragmatic books on the craft of screenwriting: Process to Product.
Besides writing, producing and directing dozens of projects, from low-budget horror films to network sitcoms, Brian is the leading faculty member for the prestigious Boston University in Los Angeles Writer in Hollywood Program. And in case that wasn’t enough, he’s a national judo champion.
In this, the second of a two-part interview, Brian discusses his latest book Process to Product, screenwriting guides, and his Horror Equity Fund. This interview has been edited for clarity.
What makes Process to Product a must-buy book?
As somebody who has studied screenwriting from both the academic and the practical side for a long time, there were two things that I wanted the book to accomplish.
I wanted to write something that, firstly, was clear and specific about the process of writing a screenplay. But that, secondly, left the reader with enough freedom to still have imagination, have inspiration. So that they could both go off the path, and know that there was always a safety net to bring them back to the story if they needed it. That was kind of my goal.
There are a lot of books that are excellent at the technical side, with regard to the structure, and format. And then there are other books that are extremely good with regard to the overall nature of screenwriting. In fact there’s some really wonderful material out there. But there wasn’t, that I could see, a unified theory of screenwriting.
Do you feel that Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat is held up on a pedestal?
You know, things go in kind of waves. When I first started writing, it was all Syd Field. He would walk into a meeting and people would say, “what’s your three act story? “Well, at page 30 this happens. Page 90 this happens. Then immediately after Star Wars, it was all Joseph Campbell. The hero’s journey, and who’s your Obi-Wan Kenobi, or who’s your wise old man who brings you guidance? All of that stuff became the norm. And now Save the Cat is the new trend, because Blake Snyder had some great ideas and set out a clear path.
The problem I had with Save the Cat, however, was it micromanaged the writer, whilst this idea of it has to be ‘similar to but different from’ is problematic to me.
Please believe me, I don’t want to trash Blake Snyder because he’s done a lot of awesome, amazing and positive things, and in fact I borrowed from his book on screenwriting and utilized much of what he said. But when you start talking about having to do something: “you have to do this on this page and you have to do that on that page,” everything becomes the same.
In my book, Process to Product, I wanted the reader to be free to concentrate on the question: “What will that character do at this point?”
I allow the writer to make the best script they could possibly make, without making them feel like they’re a part of a machine or a factory process. Because you have to allow for genius. You have to allow for inspiration. You have to allow for the possibility and ability to be able to come up with something that is entirely different.
Of course there is a basic universal structure of story, and generally, the further away from that structure that you go, the smaller your audience. But if that’s OK with you, if that’s what you want, go for it. When we last talked, we discussed the ladder of success. And one of the rungs of the ladder might be making the movie you want to make.
Talking about allowing people to make the movie they want to make, let’s discuss your Horror Equity Fund, which is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before in the film industry.
It is actually, at the moment, 100% entirely unique. There’s no one else in the world doing or attempting to do what we are doing.
We provide a two-part approach to helping films get made.
Firstly, when a film comes to us, we help with the development in terms of the story. We talk through the marketing concept and theme for it, and then we reverse engineer it. By which I mean we talk to distributors and sales reps, and we say “Here’s a project we really like,” and “What do you think of it?” “What would it take for you, as a distributor, to get on board with it?” Approaching them at this stage the distributor has the opportunity to say “Well, this is a film that would be too violent for us because we’re in Europe, and Europe likes things a little toned down,” or “If we could have some German actors in this part, we could have a little bit more bang for the buck in the European Union,” etc.
We then go back to the filmmaker and say “Look, here are some things that might help the film on the commercial side. If it doesn’t infringe on your artistic vision, do you want to make those changes?” And they say yes, we then can potentially lock in distribution, or at least an option for distribution.
This gives the film a huge advantage. A lot of filmmakers gamble, by thinking “When I’m done, my film is going to be so great that I’m going to get distribution. Lionsgate is going to pick it up or Sony, Universal, and it’s going to be a huge box office hit.” But that is very risky.
So that’s one of the first steps we take. Beyond that, we then go to individual private equity investors and say “We have a film, we have a letter of intent or a memorandum of understanding, or a contract with minimum guarantees from a distributor, and we believe in this project. Here’s how much it is.”
We help and create and maintain the marketing campaign to bring eyeballs to your project about to get funded. Because filmmakers are not marketing majors, they’re not geniuses in marketing, so they don’t necessarily know how to do that. The other thing is that it’s a ton of work. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do a Kickstarter or an Indiegogo, but it’s a 24/7. It’s a hanging on the street corner with your hat in hand saying, “Hey, give me a dollar.”
We’re hopeful that we’ll be in a position to help a lot of filmmakers launch their career, and help with the problem that “I’ve got a great film, I’ve got a great story, but I cannot get any money, I can’t get any way of getting it to the market.”
Have you received many scripts?
We have, though we’re not soliciting scripts at the moment, so I’m not sure how people found out! But people have found us and we’ve probably received 150 scripts since last November.
So how did your film Star Leaf come about?
When Star Leaf came to us it was a different story, they had a distributor first. That’s what’s kind of interesting about this story. As distributors are hearing about our model and what we’re doing, instead of us going to them with projects and saying “Hey, would you take a look at this and see if it interests you?” they’re coming to us and saying “We have a script we’re interested in, would you take a look at it and see if you can help fund it?” Star Leaf was a project that came to us through a distributor who wanted us to get involved, so we did.
The marketing for Star Leaf was really extraordinary. The film is about a mythical, magical marijuana leaf called Star Leaf. So the filmmakers approached a legal medicinal marijuana distributor, who agreed to make a hybrid leaf named after the film. There’s actually a Star Leaf that will be marketed and will be in marijuana stores!
That’s probably the most California thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Isn’t it, though? And here’s the thing: there are 8,000 medical marijuana facilities or pot shops around the country. And each one of these becomes a point of sale, just like what they do at Starbucks with music now.
Looking to the future, in time might the Horror Equity Fund become like a studio?
In essence, we might. The end game is that we start to generate enough profit that we don’t have to wait for our investors. We become the investor ourself. So we become a true film fund.