Why Screenwriters Should Write With A Producer’s Cap On
Screenwriters need to think strategically about what they’re writing and why they’re writing it. Are you writing for yourself, a screenwriting contest, or are you looking to position your work in the marketplace? Charles Borg talks about how screenwriters might adopt a producer’s mindset to consider how their screenplay may be perceived in the marketplace.
As a working screenwriter, specifically a ghost-writer, I am tasked with developing and writing content for a third party.
But even when writing content for myself it’s essential to ask two questions. One, “Is this an idea you simply want to get out of your head?” Or, two, “Is this a project you want to develop and write so you can MAKE IT?” The answers to these questions aren’t mutually exclusive. Often, they are a combination, but creative parameters must be set in order to understand what it is you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Every screenwriter’s goal is different, influenced by their level of experience and the content’s main objective.
In the end, the goal is to produce content for yourself or a client that’s ready to be produced and pique the interest of an agency or production company to get it off the ground. Let’s talk about how a screenwriter can approach this strategically.
What’s Your Strategy?
Typically, I work with producers and directors – independent, as well as agency- repped, that lack the bandwidth and/or the creative scope to bring an idea to fruition, so they come to me. In this capacity, I’m a consultant and a facilitator; an agent of thought that inspires and forces that “idea” (a fleeting thought or topic) into what I like to identify as a “concept” (which always includes a character and existing opponent force). The “concept” is used as a jumping off point to cross that fine line into the territory of a working “premise” (which differentiates itself from a ‘concept’ because stakes are identified). That’s the key, the driving force of any story. Understanding this enables you and the client to better identify with what’s really trying to be communicated. I refer to this as content versus scope.
The vision is, essentially, dictated by the medium; feature film, TV episodic, Reality, or web-based series, as it usually determines the budget. For instance, if you have a strong premise for a dramatic TV series and the plan is to develop a bible and pitch package, along with a pilot episode, then a web-based project is more practical, especially if the plan is to make it yourself.
A strategy must be put in place for shaping the package from the word go. If the show idea is originally conceived as a TV series consisting of 12, one-hour episodes, the smarter move might be to re-imagine the shows as a web series with 8, six-minute episodes. Does this mean you are sacrificing your creative vision? Not necessarily. These are simply alternatives to consider, no more, no less – but, most importantly, a consideration to be made prior to the execution of content. In this instance, the ladder would make more sense if the goal was to produce/show run a series independently. This answers the aforementioned, question two -developing a project so you can make it on a budget. Conversely, if the goal is to only pitch the idea, knowing you could NEVER make it and you couldn’t imagine it being paired down, then you’ll likely develop the series without limitations. What all this boils down to is that, as screenwriters, it’s our duty to remain objective and consider all storytelling facets before pulling the trigger, even if they seem outside-the-box.
I’ve been at a crossroad with a client before, conflicted about whether to hire me to develop his animation concept as a feature or make it into a TV series. He had long imagined it as a feature, but with limited resources at his disposal to get it made. But, after disclosing he had a foot-in-the-door to pitch to the VP of a major network specializing in animation, I encouraged him to hire me to develop the project as a series. I saw a means to an end and it made the most sense.
In a similar vein, I was once tasked to help build a pitch deck for a fully developed reality show concept for a network who specialized in making TV series, not a reality show. The producer’s goal was to pitch something he could produce with his team. After discussing the project and why he wanted to do it, he admitted that the reality concept originated from a pie-in-sky-period piece series he had toyed with for years. I told him to scratch the reality idea and stick with the high concept premise. Despite it being impractical to make independently, he was truly inspired and, together, we developed it. I helped him bring a truly unique series concept to life.
The strategy here was all about delivering on expectation and pitching to a network a series idea that was in their wheelhouse. To get to that point required patience, work-shopping the idea, staying objective about who would embrace the pitch, and staying true to one’s own creative disposition. Speaking of already developed content, what do we do with projects/scripts living in our desk drawer, or saved on our hard drive – that we once like but are now disenchanted with? It’s likely that the content was written prematurely; without an endgame. I refer to this as ‘scripts in limbo.’
For all intents and purposes, let’s say your script’s been workshopped to some degree and/or has undergone coverage; meaning time and money has been invested into the content, but somehow the story still isn’t working on that higher level. These types of projects are the most difficult to address because the project’s writer and/or producer often believe that, despite the story’s shortcomings, the sum total is greater than its parts. Assuming this IS the case, it becomes almost impossible to identify where the problem begins and ends. Taking a step back and starting from square one is sometimes necessary. As a ghostwriter, that’s where I come in. Objectivity is necessary to re-evaluate existing content so it can be rewritten and, ultimately, repackaged, enabling it to get one step closer to being produced, or at the very least, optioned.
Another client tasked me to rewrite a horror feature, one that she was happy with conceptually but wanted it cut down. You often hear, “I just need help slashing pages so I can meet a lower budget.” Technically, a shorter script will render a less expensive movie, but what’s the tradeoff? You don’t want to lose story at the expense of length, so the real question is, “How can I reconceive the project to fit my budget, but not lose the heart and soul of the story?”
Sentimentality aside, it is vital to not lose sight of what makes the story tick. I remind my clients that no matter how drastic the revamping of a story is, no matter how far left field you take it, you inevitably go back to the seed idea that inspired it. Screenwriters know this to be true. That said, it’s about preserving and re-tooling; that’s the task of the writer – to get the material one step closer… In this example, the producer/director wanted to make a film on a microbudget. He had recently gained access to a large home in upstate New York where the story could be shot. Here I had a screenplay the client liked, yet it was to ‘big’ to shoot i.e. too many locations and characters. It wasn’t originally conceived with the intention of being made independently. Now, with the opportunity to shoot in a secured locale, the goal was to retroactively reshape the story to fit the house. I knew that writing with my producer’s cap on was necessary.
Picking apart the story wouldn’t work. If there’s a true cause and effect that moves a story along, you shouldn’t arbitrarily lift scenes out and expect the story to work. On a side note, it’s our job as screenwriters, (during the process of development and the actual execution of the script) to identify the proverbial “fat that can be trimmed” but never think you can chop and dice a high functioning screenplay without the consequence of plot holes or severing a scene detrimental to a character’s growth and eventual arc. That said, I reconceived the story from the outline stage. I re-imagined the premise of the story for the new location and included minimal characters. This was going to be a new script not a Frankenstein version of the old one.
When retrofitting a story with purpose, it’s crucial that you communicate the intent. In the context of my anecdote, the producer/director explained to me that she had a particular vision for how the story would be shot and had decided that long takes would build tension for the story. Typically screenwriters don’t worry about the cinematography; however, in this case, it would be a driving force in the story. Movies like Rodrigo Garcia’s, Nine Lives (2005) are comprised of nine, single-shot segments. It wouldn’t be the same dramatically pungent story without this rigid, stylistic approach, and the script needed to reflect that.
In the end, I took all of the proposed project ingredients into account: genre, medium/aesthetic, location and budget, and produced a tailored treatment that conveyed the new and intentional story, as well as an 85-page script that could be made according to the strict budget. It’s important to understand that even though the screenplay came under the traditional 90 pages, that industry “standard” doesn’t account for the more artistic/indie approach to shooting that this director wanted to take. For anyone who is an aspiring writer and/or consultant, be aware that this anecdote serves as a prime example of how you can break the “rules” to your advantage, once you know them.
Lastly, let’s discuss treatments and story bibles because, as a screenwriter, “screenwriting” doesn’t mean just writing the script. It is also necessary to develop and write, or in some cases rewrite treatments and bibles – a daunting task. You always hope that your understanding of the content is at the same level as the client, or, conversely, you hope a prospective producer or agent/manager reading you material understands it and “sees” the project the same way you do. This requires clarity on your part. As a consultant, I will re-read material. An executive will typically not. He/she will likely scan the content. It’s our job as screenwriters to grab their attention, and quickly. Unlike writing a script, treatments and bibles share many common denominators; a story overview, character bios, etc., but they’re all compiled differently. This makes it tricky to master but the bottom line is… be intentional and be clear. I recently ghostwrote a TV series for a producer, which included a bible and pilot script that was then forwarded to an academy-award winning producer who optioned the material.
He wound up writing a one-page “character intro” for the show’s lead protagonist, in first-person. The story bible was accessible enough that he could assemble a document that not only reflected the appropriate tone but the hero’s struggle and desire which I had aimed to communicate, and clearly did. If I hadn’t, the project may have been a pass. It’s that simple.
When all is said and done, screenwriting is understanding how to translate ideas, yours or someone else's, into something dramatic. This extends beyond the screenplay, which is typically the finished product and begins with the idea which must then be developed with absolute intention and clarity. Ask yourself, is the content I’m aiming to write meant to be an exercise, (because there’s nothing wrong with that) or, is it being written with the intention of being made? And, if so, know why you’re writing it and who you’re writing it for, even if for yourself.