Cinema Notes

By way of explanation:

The editorial staff began to look at the way screenwriters work in the entertainment industry when Braveheart was released to a fanfare of publicity proclaiming it the authentic story of William Wallace. The outrageous nature of this pretence has been examined elsewhere and some of the analysis held on the server can be downloaded, but our principal concern was to examine the nature of the pressures exerted on screenwriters to produce such travesties of history.

No films are made without a blueprint. The screenwriter produces the blueprint. Thus it is held that the screenwriter is a key player in the film production process. But screenwriters are not treated as key players. Traditionally they are treated as necessary evils who disturb the smooth running of the industry. Their job is to deliver exactly what the director thinks he wants that day ~ and then to get out of the way. (There is a traditional Hollywood joke about the intellectually-challenged actress who was so stupid she slept with the writer.)

Nevertheless, the screenwriters battle on, their morale boosted by the certaintly that without them the industry would die, and by the regular announcements of "spec" scripts being sold for six- or seven-digit figures. Spec scripts are those written speculatively in the hope that a studio or an independent production company (an "indie") will buy them. Many writers believe the sale of a spec to be the easiest way into the film industry, which is perhaps why about a thousand a week enter the marketplace.

A script is a commodity. Hollywood is a market. John Hill, a successful operator in this field who gives a lot of his time to helping newcomers understand the business, always stresses that commercial aspects must be given the first consideration. So we asked him to set out the principles that should guide the aspirant screenwriter. He replied that in Hollywood writers should lead with their heads and follow up with their hearts, and then went on to expand his views in the context of an analysis of last year's top films (explicitly, last year's top twenty at the American box office) .

John has written over 50 screenplays and has been a full-time professional Hollywood screenwriter for over 25 years. His produced credits include Little Nikita in 1988 (starring Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix) and Quigley Down Under in 1990 (starring Tom Selleck). As a writer-producer he has several TV successes, including Quantum Leap and L.A. Law (for which in 1991 he won an Emmy). As a thoughtful businessman he ....... Well, if you have ever thought of writing a filmscript, really wanted to create an historical epic based on how it truly was, just read on.

John Hill's Review of 1996

The year's first issue of Weekly Variety offers the list of the previous year's Top 20 (domestic) Grossers at the box-office. These hits, and any trends or patterns they display, are significant because they greatly influence agents and the buyers of our scripts (along with whatever current new movies are hits, plus recently announced spec script sales, etc.)

I'm going to offer my interpretation of what can be gleaned from this data by those who want to write spec screenplays.

The organizing principles I use are based on:

  1. Most movies are NOT derived from our spec scripts. Instead, most movies are:

  2. In this Blockbuster-greedy era where marketing a movie is so all-important (and expensive, and has to create a hit the first weekend), the PROMOTABILITY of a movie's story/idea is now the tail that wags the dog.

    Terrific high concept movie ideas ~ "event" movies ~ are the odds-on best way to break in (and to stay in!) as a screenwriter.

  3. Tone defines genre, not subject matter. This is because tone = target audience ~ and that's exactly the key factor: WHO is the movie for? So, for example, technically, Mission: Impossible is a "spy movie," and The Fugitive is an "escaped convict" movie - but those (technically correct) genre categories won't help us any in deciding our next spec script. In fact, they mislead. (Studios may very well be looking for "a great thriller" but aren't looking for "spy movies" per se.) Again, our goal is to understand what will be influencing the buyers of our scripts within the next six months as we choose our next premises for our spec scripts.

My definitions for tone/genres, and what I think these are today, include:

(This preface has been necessary to define the terms I use, and also to explain the operating paradigm underneath our analysis. Some may disagree with the definitions, but this interpretation is skewed towards the spec writer alone.)


1. INDEPENDENCE DAY - $306 million domestic ($718 million global!!!) The business origin of this movie is CLOUT - the writer and directing team had made Stargate cheaply, but it grossed over $50 million. So they sold this idea. Tone/genre? I suggest it is a "disaster" movie inside the "adventure" category. Of course it's a science fiction movie - but that doesn't tell us anything helpful as we write our spec scripts in 1997 to be sold in 1997. Just writing a "sci-fi" doesn't narrow it enough; after all, Mel Brooks' Spaceballs was sci-fi too, and Screamers (which flopped). What is helpful to know in this context, for us, is that the graphic, mega-destruction of the landmarks and the panic-stricken cities is the main tone/genre. Viewed this way, we can understand the studios buying and making tidal wave and other disaster scripts. Yet this is also a "high concept" movie too! ("15-mile-wide UFO shadows over Earth's cities, then destruction begins and Earth has to fight back or die!") Another lesson: special effects can do ANYTHING now - and audiences love them.

LESSONS FOR SPEC WRITERS? ~ While this "event" movie originated from two successful film-maker partners with clout, as a high concept spec script it might have been purchased as well - as a "disaster" movie. And disaster movies haven't peaked yet either. Don't shy away from doing a 90's spin on old genre/plots - everything about ID4 is familiar ... and yet it's new too. Remember ~ coming up with hot spec scripts is not an originality contest.

2. TWISTER - $241 million - "Disaster" genre. A developed project from producer Spielberg/written by Michael Crichton & wife/director of Speed - so while I don't know exact origin, it was a spec by an unknown writer -- but I suggest it could have been. Very high concept: "Two estranged professional storm-chasers spend 24 hours in tornado alley, dodging death, trying to launch a tornada-data-transmitter up inside a funnel."

LESSONS? ~ In case you believe ID4 is not a "disaster" movie, Twister as megahit disaster movie is the answer to why the disaster genre is back so ferociously. Another lesson: special effects can do ANYTHING now ~ and audiences love them.

3. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. $181 million. Thriller. Not high concept - yet totally "gettable" in promotional terms: Tom Cruise in a remake.

LESSONS? ~ The more over-the-top the stunts, the better for audiences.

4. THE ROCK. $134 million. Action. Written ON SPEC! High concept: "Paramilitary soldiers take Alcatraz, threaten to launch biochemical rockets at city so former convict and FBI man have to sneak on island, and stop them." Also: Die Hard on Alcatraz. Or, Speed on Alcatraz.

LESSONS? ~ When the formula (for action movies) works, it works great.

5. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. $128 million. Comedy. Remake. High concept.

LESSONS? ~ Between The Mask and this movie's special effects, plus Multiplicity, thinking up ANY wildly imaginative COMEDIC premise makes sense in terms of "whether it can be done on screen or not." It can.

6. RANSOM. $125 million. Thriller. Remake. High concept.

LESSONS? ~ Make sure thrillers really thrill (this one does.) And this one also benefits from exploiting a universal and primal human emotion - your child stolen by evil people.

7. THE BIRDCAGE. $124 million. Comedy. Remake. High concept.

LESSONS? ~ Like the other high concept, star-vehicle remakes, these arguably COULD have been spec script-type ideas. Notice how bascially SIMPLE each is.

8. 101 DALMATIANS. $109 million. Family film. Remake. Not high concept.

LESSONS? ~ Remake of a cartoon, so no great concept or lessons for us. But to remind us what studios want today ~ this was geared up as an "event" movie - and it succeeded - and it reportedly had 17,000 pieces of merchandising to boost the profits.

9. A TIME TO KILL. $108 million. Drama. Based on a book. Not high concept.

LESSONS? ~ None for us spec writers ~ A John Gresham book = a film start date.

10. PHENOMENON. $104 million. Drama. SPEC SCRIPT! High concept.

LESSONS? ~ Simple, charming, powerful idea. Very easy to cast.

11. THE FIRST WIVES CLUB. $103 million. Comedy. Based on book proposal. High concept.

LESSONS? ~ This is a rare movie FOR women that stars women without equally weighted male protagonists too; great example of a great concept-in-title. This was based on a novel, but also shows "if you hit the right cultural nerve end (even for the less likely target audience), the audiences will come." (That's what high concept means, by the way: hit a cultural nerve end that makes even non-movie-goers hear about a movie and immediately want to experience it.)

12. ERASER. $101 million. Action. SPEC script (?). Not a high concept.

LESSONS? ~ Schwarzenegger in a summer action movie still = blockbuster. I remain fascinated that this does NOT have some great, wild, oh-wow premise. Nevertheless, it is NOT a good gamble to NOT have a great concept in an action script.

13. HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. $100 million. Animation. Based on book. Not high concept.

LESSONS? ~ None, except that animation will continue to be successful at the box-office and therefore continue to use up studio development money and energies and distribution pipelines that otherwise might go to our spec scripts. Studios presently are not buying spec scripts in animation.

14. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. $86 million. Action/adventure? Sequel/based on TV. Not high concept.

LESSONS? ~ None. Sequels to sequels - franchises - like animation, only eat up development and production monies that could have gone to our spec scripts. However, this again demonstrates how great special effects help to make a movie a hit.

15. SPACE JAM. $83 million. Animation. High concept. Studio-developed script.

LESSONS? ~ Because it is a mix of live actors and animation, very cleverly blended, in the Roger-Rabbit school of fun conceptually, I believe a spec that in some great clever way blends animation ideas and live action could be a smart spec. It's a thought.

16. MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS. $82 million. Drama. Not high concept. Spec script.

LESSONS? ~ For anyone looking for a justification of non-concept, non-event, non-blockbuster mentality movies, here's a guy named Patrick Sheane Duncan who is now your patron saint. There should be plastic white dashboard statues of him. Now, are you ready for this? TWO of the top twenty domestic hit box-office movies of 1996 were spec scripts by this one writer (10%!), and neither is high concept, nor an "event" movie, nor with any thought of theme park rides or action figures at Taco Bell. He seems to just write "quality people dramas" - and they get purchased - and filmed - AND (and this is the unarguable part) become blockbuster hit movies. Plus, Mr. Duncan has time also to publish and write a great screenwriting magazine too, telling how he does it! It is Screenwriter Quarterly (call 714-693-1866 in the USA). He has also written A Home Of Our Own (the Kathy Bates movie) and Nick Of Time (the high concept thriller with Johnny Depp). Not an odds-on way to go for most writers, to not do a more commercial, more high concept script, but who can argue with success like this?

17. BROKEN ARROW. $70 million. Action. High concept. Spec script.

LESSONS? ~ A great high concept, easily castable, stunt-filled action script can work.

18. JERRY MAGUIRE. $65 million. Comedy. Not a high concept. Clout of writer-director.

LESSONS? ~ A writer-director with portfolio, Cameron Crowe, made this movie happen. Had it been a spec script from the rest of us, well ...... we'll never know. Some may think of this as a romantic comedy, not just a comedy, but the trailers didn't emphasize the romance part, nor did the printed advertisements, nor was the female in the romance a known star. It also could be called that rare beast, a comedy-drama. But I don't think there is anything here to be emulated directly in our spec scripts.

19. THE CABLE GUY. $60 million. Comedy. Not high concept. Based on spec script.

LESSONS? ~ This was a spec script that went the distance - THE top comic wanted to do it. Try not to be distracted by the fact that it was disappointingly dark, or a let-down compared to other Jim Carrey big hits. For our purposes, it was a non-high concept spec comedy that 'worked' (it was sold and it was made, and it was the 19th biggest domestic box-office hit of the year).

20. COURAGE UNDER FIRE. $59 million. Drama. Not high concept. Based on spec script.

LESSONS? ~ This is Patrick Sheane Duncan's OTHER hit movie in the top 20 in 1996. See what I mean? Another "quality people drama" - and also, a very different type of movie as well. Does the success of this movie made it a little easier for others to try a "quality people drama"? Probably. A statistically likely path to success? No. But then, I'd have told Mr. Duncan that too, with graphs and charts and day-glo highlighted reasons why Mr Holland's Opus and Courage Under Fire were not smart spec scripts to take to this type of market, rather like the mathmeticians who can prove a bumblebee can't fly ......

That's it, Folks. In brief ~ it's great fun to write what you want, makes you feel good, impresses the family - but if you want to sell, you must study what the buyers are buying and then write what they are going to be buying the month you finally finish your masterpiece. No, you don't know for sure what that will be, and neither do I, but looking at the factors that will influence them (success and money), will improve your chances.

Here is a summary of what I believe we can learn.

Number of SPEC SCRIPTS from top 10 domestic hits of 1996 = SEVEN

Of those seven, in terms of genre:

Action = 3 ~ The Rock; Broken Arrow; Eraser
Drama. = 3 ~ Phenomenon; Mr Holland's Opus; Courage Under Fire
Comedy = 1 ~ Cable Guy

Of those seven, in terms of concept?

High concept? .. = 4 ~ The Rock; Phenomenon; Eraser; Broken Arrow
Not high concept = 3 ~ Mr Holland's Opus; Courage Under Fire; Cable Guy

Other lessons from all 20 top domestic hits of the year ~

  1. Business origins of the script/movie?

  2. These business origins, specifically are:

  3. Breakdown by genres of the Top Twenty

So the genres appear to be pretty evenly divided. However, here are some random observations on the genres in relation to us and our efforts:

  1. Only one comedy out of the five was from a spec script.

  2. All three action movies are from spec scripts.

  3. Only one family film in the Top Twenty - and that's a remake.

  4. Both thrillers are remakes.

  5. No westerns; no private eyes; no Tarantinoesque, etc.

What did I write near the beginning?

Terrific high concept movie ideas ~ "event" movies ~ are the odds-on best way to break in (and to stay in!) as a screenwriter.

High concept scripts require to be written so that superstars COULD play the lead roles (whether they are chosen to do so or not)? Of the 18 non-animation movies in the Top Twenty, although not all were high concept, all 18 did have "castable for bankable superstar" lead roles. And nearly all in fact had superstars in those lead roles.

(c) JOHN HILL 1997

So what is the consequence of John Hill's analysis for historians who would like to see films, and perhaps to write screenplays, that find the truth alone not only more virtuous but also sufficiently interesting? Is it necessary to have the body of the dead El Cid strapped to his horse and leading his men into battle at Valencia when in truth he died in bed many years later?

"Follow the money" is the adage that carries most weight. If the legend conflicts with the facts, film the legend; if there is no legend, invent one. Sadly, facts don't fill seats.

A FINAL WORD ~ If you would still like to examine the possibility of becoming a screenwriter (setting the facts straight and earning six-figure rewards!), check in with Lou Grantt, editor of Hollywood Scriptwriter and longtime script consultant. Just click her picture here, convert its hyperlink to a bookmark, and visit her when you've finished reading this issue of the Baronage magazine.

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