very film begins with a script and it is from this first moment that the rot of mediocrity begins. Attend any screenwriting course and before you’ve even put your fingers on the keyboard you’ll be asked what genre your film belongs to. So if your concept doesn’t fit neatly into a box labeled romantic comedy, action, drama, horror, etc you will be strongly advised to take out the elements that don’t fit, most likely the things that make your work interesting, in an attempt to make it more ‘saleable’.
More often than not a producer’s involvement may be contingent on making changes to the script with the end result of “too many cooks spoiling the broth”. The production will also need a director and they also could have requirements for script changes or casting decisions that may ultimately be detrimental to the film. Some directors have pet actors that they prefer to work with. Think of Ridley Scott’s preference to work with Russell Crowe, who was adequate in The Gladiator but as a romantic lead in A Good Year, totally unconvincing.
The next thing that they’ll tell you is that there is a formula for screenplays often known as the Hollywood Paradigm. Basically, and it is basic, there is a protagonist, the only really important character, who has a goal or mission which the antagonist is an obstacle to achieving, whether they know it or not. Occasionally the protagonist may be their own obstacle and by going through a journey, either physically or psychologically, they change and win their goal in the end. There should also be a few supporting characters but not so many that it gets confusing. These guys aren’t really important to the story other than as foils to the protagonist or maybe as some eye candy.
Now that you have the money, a director and an international cast ensuring global interest, even if their accents are all wrong, you’d expect that the film would be “in the can” (good). But should you run into numerous glitches like Terry Guilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote your film can still be “canned” (bad). The disasters that befell that production, were so extraordinary that they made a documentary Lost in La Mancha about them and even having Johnny Depp in the cast failed to bring in more funds to keep the production going.
That sorted, your screenplay should conform to a beginning, middle and an end. Deep isn’t it? Now it gets even more prescribed. The first 30 pages should set the scene and establish the character. The next 60 will show the fight to reach the prize, the girl, world domination, whatever, and don’t make it too easy, there should be a few setbacks. The last 30 pages are left for the protagonist to succeed and more rarely, not. Sound familiar? Now that you’ve finished your script it’s time to get someone interested in it. Most scriptwriters go through an agent, as it is virtually impossible to get anything read by a producer as an individual unless you have “wasta”. To get a reputable agency to look at your script isn’t easy either but if you manage to do this and they manage to sell the “option” this still doesn’t even ensure that your film will be made. An “option” is when a producer pays the writer for the exclusive rights to develop their script within a specified time frame. Should you be fortunate enough for your script to be given a “green light”, the go ahead for production, you will have the cash but you will not have any further creative control over your work. So why would someone want to change your masterpiece? Filmmaking is big bucks and most feature films these days involve more than one producer or production house as they all contribute the large amounts of finance necessary for making a film. So many producers are involved in individual productions these days that the Academy Awards recently limited 5 producers maximum, for any one film up for an award.
If you have been fortunate enough to have a finished film that hasn’t been pre-screened on a target audience that didn’t like one of the most important scenes, forcing you to cut it and making your film pointless, you need to actually get people to see it… phew. Marketing and distribution are the next hurdles and regardless of artistic merit and viewer enthusiasm, it can still end up dead in the water without a great strategy and a lot of luck. Distribution is a minefield and again if your film doesn’t fit into those tick tacky, all constraining boxes it may never reach the audiences it deserves. Accidents Happen, directed by Andrew Lancaster, a great, quirky, dark film, failed to be successfully distributed and marketed because it was an Australian production (they couldn’t get the money in the US) but with a story set in the states and shot in Australia, go figure. Of course there are films that escape the modifications that the Hollywood machine demands, but these are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. Director Julian Schnabel stood firm when his producers demanded he shoot The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in English, as they felt subtitles were too taxing for non-French speakers. Further from Hollywood it would be hard to get, with a main character virtually paralyzed, communicating by blinking his left eye. The cinematography is stunning, the acting peerless and the sound track perfect. It went on to win 47 awards and 34 nominations worldwide. Come on filmmakers show some cojones. We’re not all mindless viewers waiting for the next Pirates of the Caribbean. Although it does have Johnny…