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How To's | Screenwriting

Indie Success

1 Dec , 2000  

Written by Raúl daSilva | Posted by:

The Screenplay, Part 2
In Part I (NewEnglandFilm.com issue August 2000), we saw a broad plan for succeeding in Independent feature filmmaking by recognizing the basic elements of a film-worthy screenplay. Here, we will begin to review the influences of the modern-day screenplay as well as the importance of its length as it relates to distribution (theater releases). We will also examine how both these elements affect the development of character and conflict.

The screenplay structure, though often taken from the published novel form, is actually, by virtue of its time limitations, a short story. The time limitation of a feature film has to do with one thing and one thing only, box office turnover. The exhibitors (theater owners) want to maximize the number of times that a film is run in effort to sell a maximum number of tickets (seats) each day. At the end of the day, a film that plays 85 minutes will be run more times than a three-hour film.

Exhibitors are predisposed not to take on long films no matter how engrossing they are unless they come with a great amount of prerelease baggage. The 1997 film, "Titanic," was indeed titanic at 194 minutes running length, but it brought with it a hot, "star" director, James Cameron of "Terminator" fame and an extraordinary amount of pre-publicity. The releasing studios started the publicity flack long before the film was in the can. With the entire prerelease fanfare, the 194-minute film was a shoo-in with exhibitor chains throughout the world. The film had pre-sold its entire reputed budget before release and went on to gross well over a billion worldwide. The combination of elements in the production overwhelmed everything, including a bad screenplay that had good story elements but terrible, often laughable logic.

Do not consider this anomaly a teaching device or archetype in any way. Lengthy films are difficult to sell. Feature films can play at amazingly short lengths. Most animated films, for example, turn out at roughly 85 minutes. Arguably Disney’s best-animated feature, the 1940 "Pinocchio," is only 88 minutes long. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), is 83 minutes and the 1941, "Dumbo," is only 64 minutes in length. These are noted since they are of such story value that they can today release in theaters and still earn money although they are now well over half a century old. At the bottom line, the feature film is most closely related to the short story.

If a successful screenplay is based on the format of a short story, does that mean that the development of character and conflict leave something to be desired? In a word, yes, where we are concerned with the pure meaning of story. However, as with the short story, in a feature film screenplay, there just is not much room for description or digression. Nor is there much time allotment for many fully developed characters. What makes this form successful is the fact that there is only one conflict in the telling. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), some say, invented the form. This is doubtful, but certainly he was the first recognized master of the short story, followed a century later by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and many others.

Some feature film screenplays, like the brilliant 1947 Vittorio DeSica European film, "Bicycle Thief" are actually short-short stories where the composition is an idea or a theme and with no substantial plot. The plot is the chain of cause and effect, in the novel, structured with a tension release or climax. Obviously there is no time to develop a real plot in a short-short story. The short-short story has not been exploited much by Hollywood but there are some rare exceptions such as the 1981, "My Dinner with Andre." Here, we see an idea or theme played out instead of a plot. The theme or idea film falls into the realm of the experimental genre. There, risk looms no matter how low the budget. If no one shows up at the box office, even the lowest budgets will not pay print cost in release. Another key to a successful screenplay is the element of conflict. What makes up conflict is the protagonist against antagonist concept. An antagonist is a force adverse or in opposition to the protagonist. It can be anything from a bad dinner in a restaurant to the martinet police officer, Javert, who stalked Jean Valjean throughout most of the timeless 1862 novel, "Les Miserables," by Victor Hugo.

In the unforgettable biopic, "Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet" (1940), we see the protagonist, brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson, against layers of antagonists. He is a microbe hunter in the 19th Century when most of medical science had no concept of microbes. His first antagonist was the prevailing establishment of physicians who scoffed, and ridiculed him, eventually ostracizing him. He second was the various microorganisms he was doing battle with, and his third was his health, as he succumbs to the very diseases he is fighting in the laboratory. The stepladder of antagonists, sometimes called the "chain of promises" are what keep people turning a page or sitting at the edge of a theater seat. This component works best when the protagonist does not solve the first problem until the second problem is already introduced. Each problem represents a promise to the viewer that there will be suspense, excitement, and adventure in solving the problems.

It is these elements that are behind the success of a feature film whether made in the pressure cook-pot of a Hollywood studio or as an independent feature film.