Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: PSST! WANNA BUY A CHEAP SCRIPT? A good script must succeed on the strength of its plot, not the weightiness of its budget.Back when I used to run a touring theater company, there was only one rule regarding the amount of furniture and props for any given performance: If It Doesn't Fit in the Car, It's Not Going. Fortunately, I was also penning all the plays the troupe performed so I had some control over the situation.
This sense of economy carried over into my lectures and classes for aspiring scriptwriters, reinforcing the philosophy that if no one is going to mention why there is a moose head above the mantle, maybe that moose head really doesn't need to be there. Little did I know at the time that I was laying the groundwork for my eventual segue into writing for film...and the necessity to craft a good story that can succeed on the strength of its plot, not the weightiness of its budget.
A case in point was the recent adaptation of my Scottish time travel, THE SPELLBOX, to a feature length script for an independent producer. Aside from the challenge of compressing 400+ pages to 120, there were scenes that I purposely omitted in deference to what it would ultimately cost to execute them (i.e., a banquet in which the Great Hall is set on fire). Anything that involves destruction of sets, utilization of stunt people, or more insurance is going to drive up the price tag of a movie. Such items can be an immediate red flag to producers whose coffers are not quite Cameron-esque. While everyone hungers to write a cast-of-thousands epic with a wealth of elaborate sets and technical glitz, the reality is that the lower the author can keep the script's production costs, the higher the chances of a sale.
The bottom line here is that it's easier to add in the glitz later than to have the crux of your plot contingent on its being present in the first draft. If you're wondering how some of these truly lame movies get launched in the first place, sometimes it's just a matter of budget (or lack thereof).
Can your own script pass the following economy test?
1. Contemporary storylines are generally less costly than period pieces.
2. Fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, explosions-while many disasters can now be computer-generated, those that can't are going to cost money.
3. Do you really need those swarming crowds? Even though they're paid scale for just taking up space, they're still an expense.
4. Anything with animals-especially trained ones-could be a big-ticket item.
5. Exterior scenes leave the crew at the mercy of time, season and weather, as opposed to interior shots, which will look exactly the same whether it's 3 a.m. in the dead of winter or 7:30 on a summer night.
6. Night scenes are more expensive to film than scenes in daylight.
7. Are your car chases/crashes necessary or just gratuitous? Vehicular mayhem can put a sizable dent in the budget.
8. Going on location is pricier than staying on a soundstage, especially the travel factor.
9. Specifying that "Mel Gibson has to be in this movie or it simply won't work" probably isn't a compelling pitch.
10. Every time the equipment gets moved, the cash register dings. Try to minimize your locations so multiple scenes can be shot at one time. IT ALL ADDS UP
It's time to analyze your own film in terms of the following elements and give yourself points accordingly:
1. My film is (A) Contemporary; (B) Contemporary with historical flashbacks; or (C) Historical or Futuristic?
2. My film has (A) 0-10 special effects; (B) 11-30 special effects; or (C) over 30 special effects.
3. My film has a total of (A) less than 10 actors; (B) 11-50 actors; or (C) over 50 actors.
4. My film has (A) no animals in it; (B) animals that are strictly for atmosphere (i.e., grazing cows, sleeping cats, etc.) or (C) animals that have a defined role or do special tricks.
5. My film has (A) 0-10 interior scenes; (B) 11-30 interior scenes; or (C) over 30 interior scenes. (Note: If you have 3 scenes that all take place in the same location (for instance, a kitchen), count it as only 1 interior no matter how many times it is used.)
6. My film has (A) 0-10 exterior scenes; (B) 11-30 exterior scenes; or (C) over 30 exterior scenes. (Note: If you have 3 scenes that take place in the same location (such as a park), count it as only 1 exterior. If, however, you have a scene in a park, a scene at a beach, and a scene at an outdoor café, that would be 3 exteriors.)
7. My film has (A) fewer than 10 night scenes; (B) 11-20 night scenes; or (C) over 20 night scenes. (Note: Night scenes are those which take place outdoors and in the dark, not just evening scenes which are all shot inside a house.)
8. My film has (A) no car scenes or simply street scenes where cars are part of the background; (B) scenes in which my characters are traveling by car; or (C) car chases, crashes, or explosions.
9. My film primarily takes place (A) in a soundstage; (B) in an existing house or public building; or (C) in a specially constructed set (i.e., a 'Medieval' castle built from scratch for the production).
10. My film would be successful with (A) a cast of unknowns; (B) one name star; (C) three or more name stars.
11. Physical stunts in my film are (A) non-existent; (B) computer-generated; or (C) performed by stunt people.
12. For scenes outside a soundstage, the majority of my film takes place (A) in a small town; (B) in a major American city; or (c) in a foreign country.
To score: For every (A) answer, give yourself 1 point. For every (B) answer, give yourself 5 points. For every (C) answer, give yourself 10 points. If your total score is less than 40, you have probably crafted a story that comfortably falls into the "low" budget range and would be appealing to a small or independent producer. If your score ranges from 40 to 80, you have hit the mid-ranges, money-wise. This range gives you a lot of latitude since you can adjust up or down, depending on who you approach with your pitch. If your score is between 80 and 120, your vision may be too "big budget" for someone to take a risk on, especially if you're brand new at this. The fun part of this test, though, is that it's within your power to bring the higher numbers down by looking at your (C) answers and determining where appropriate compromises can be made without compromising the intent of your story.
Excerpted from Christina's upcoming book, "screenTEENwriters," which will be released in Spring 2002 by Meriwether Publishing.