How To's | Screenwriting

The Secret of Indie Success

1 Aug , 2000  

Written by Raúl daSilva | Posted by:

Want to produce a film that actually gets sold or seen? Award-winning author, director and screenwriter Raúl daSilva will fill you in on how -- and it all starts with the screenplay.

The feature filmmaking game today is largely independent, yet only a tiny handful of the several thousands of films made in the United States each year are worth releasing. Less than those actually find release. The reason? Most independent hopefuls who go out to make a picture do not know how to write or even recognize a worthy screenplay. They believe, erroneously, that all one has to do is read a few screenplays from hit films and pick up on the format technique then go out and write one.

In watching the scene for the past 25 years, this is what I have seen. Indeed, I have been called in to save projects, often with poor results since the director or producer (who almost always has also written the script) is emotionally tied to the script he or she has written, mistake number two.

Starting with a Good Script

Starting out with a poor script is the single, major mistake in independent filmmaking. It is exactly like setting out with failure in mind.

Writing screenplays is not easy nor is it simple. Even those who study screenwriting might not be able to become good screenwriters. It is an art that requires a specific neural network. Not everyone who wants to be a physician is psychologically able to make it, and so forth. This is not a shameful thing, nor is it proof of a lack of intelligence. Some who cannot write a screenplay can use a camera like the paintbrush of a master. Others, cannot film an egg boiling in water.

The "Indie" filmmaker that wants to win should spend most of his or her time doing what Alfred Hitchcock used to spend almost all his time doing. Forget Hitchcock, every single name director must do it. What is it? Looking around for a good property. Yet, most of the Indies slam together 120 pages of what they call a screenplay, but is not, then raises money and creates his or her failure.

Examples that quickly come to mind are Joel and Ethan Coen’s "Blood Simple," made on the proverbial shoestring. Mike Figgi’s "Leaving Las Vegas," the picture that put the immensely popular Nicolas Cage on the fast track, cost only $3 million to make. Sam Raimi’s "A Simple Plan," with the underrated Bill Paxton was made independently and on a small budget. We all have favorite small budget, independently made films. Note: they are all based on well-crafted scripts.

So how does the independent FIND a good property? The inexpensive way, first try to find a good writer. Most WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) members have a dozen or so spec scripts languishing in a filing cabinet. Many will sell an option on their screenplays at Guild scale. This is not high, but it means that this is where your first raised money and attention must go. Secondly, it costs nothing to look at WGA member screenplays, just ask any of the agents on their signatory list (See for some examples of the kind of genre on which you wish to work. Many writers are happy to find a producer interested in their product and will not stop the development of their property with a request for option money.

Another way is to pour through the NY Times bestseller lists and approach the writer of a fiction book that made the list. The chances are the Indie will have to go through their agents to talk to the writers, which means up front money. Keep in mind that this is the first expense as an independent and take possession of the truthful mindset that a screenplay is exactly like the blueprint of a building or the design of an automobile. Unless the Indie is an award winning screenwriter first, he or she should not start out to make an independent picture using their own "screenplay."

Selecting a Genre

The first item is selecting a genre is the marketplace. Today’s theatrical releases are mostly action films, international (global) intrigue, or have some compelling reason for the expense of a theatrical release, such as an unusual concept for the film, a newsworthy story, a beguiling idea, or at some level, worthy of the funding that follows a green light. In this case, the Indie is the one who green lights the picture.

If what is sought to work on is a drama about a working man and his family, there must be some reason to make the film. It must be a clever, twisty idea (the man might be a new immigrant running without a green card one step ahead of the law, or a pea-picker who operates close to starvation and feeds his family before himself, etc.). Most good domestic dramas or melodramas are at least worthy of a made for TV movie release. There are many here that come to mind. The theater-released small drama is now limited to name directors, whether they make good films or not, or headline, box office lead so-called "A-list" actors who can open a film. Thankfully, today there is a bit less of the fiction floating around Hollywood that you need a box office draw to make money. This nonsense has been around since before most of us were born, perhaps spread by talent agents. It is simply not true. Comedy, which requires skill to write, is a good bet.

Good filmmakers who come up with good scripts win. If one traces back box office winners from independent ranks, one quickly sees the professional script at the core starting gate.

There are some exceptions to this. The recent Ridley Scott film, "Gladiator," for example, had a director working on it unhappy with the script, which kept changing like a chameleon right to the raw end. This happens more often than we care to believe. However, if one has a name and is a pro in the business, the filmmaker is surrounded by a prepared detachment of script doctors and writers, some who enjoy the same subtle nature of the director. While I found "Gladiator" somewhat flawed, it was a successful film and ultimately with a fairly good script, albeit obvious fiction. One can make a powerful period film and stay with the historical record, but that is another story.

The independent that takes the time to study the screenplay might well eventually qualify to recognize one. In seeking a good property, the filmmaker should ask the writer to submit a one-page, or a single page synopsis. In the synopsis, the following must be seen:

The Synopsis Hit List

  1. A fresh, unusual concept. A concept that is worthy of having hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, spent on it, and the energy and time of dozens of people.
  2. A good, page-turning story, one that keeps the viewer watching, hopefully with an open mouth.
  3. A structure. This is the set up, the introduction to the character (why would we be interested in a character if we do not know who he or she is, or why we would be interested in their experience with a conflict?) After the set up we should immediately see introduced —
  4. The conflict situation. What or who is the character pitted against? If there is no conflict, we do not have a story. Story means a protagonist or an aggregate, an ensemble, if you will, of characters in a conflict situation.
  5. The plot. We must see an actual plot hopefully with subtext and subtext characters who flesh out the story. The plot is the arrangement of the incidents of the screenplay story. As we have seen, some recent filmmakers have come up with smile-inducing plot arrangements and twists. Quentin Tarantino comes to mind but I do not recommend this for those new to filmmaking. There are traps along the way in the effort to be clever, the foremost being the risk of contrivance. Few things turn audiences off more quickly. There is also the risk of complicating the story to the point where the audience is lost.
  6. A solid, gripping resolution and climax. One of the best storytellers of the mid 20th Century was Rod Serling because of his consistent "moment of revelation" in the story resolve, something that always caused us to be entertained with amazement, surprise, or shock.

There is far more to the screenplay that may not come through in a synopsis. However, if the items in the above hit list are not seen in the one-page synopsis, then it would be best to take a pass and go on to another synopsis or to another writer altogether. The commitment to engage production affects many lives and in many cases, money that was hard earned. It is a serious concern.

The independent can succeed today. This critical first step in following the lead of the top professionals in securing the right property to bring to the screen is the best promise of success.