Genre: TV Pilot – Drama
Premise: A young Pakistani New Yorker stumbles into the best night of his life, only to have it fall apart in the worst way imaginable.
About: I don’t know where writer Richard Price has been hiding for the past 15 years. His last official writing credits include a bunch of episodes from the acclaimed HBO show, The Wire, back in 2002. Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that Price has come back to HBO for his current gig, Criminal Justice. HBO is high on this series and expects it to be the next “water cooler” show, which is a bold statement for a show that doesn’t include white walkers or zombies (none in the pilot at least!). Criminal Justice, which is based on a BBC show, was a passion project for James Gandolfini.  Gandolfini’s death led to Robert DeNiro taking the roll.  But a scheduling conflict led to the role ultimately going to John Turturro.  Strangely enough, the pilot for the series was directed by Steve Zallian, who wrote yesterday’s “Exodus.”
Writer: Richard Price
Details: 59 pages

ss-130619-gandolfini-career-tease.blocks_desktop_mediumGandolfini’s passion project

The great thing about reading is that one day you’re learning about queens from 1500 B.C. And the next day you’re riding shotgun with a character from Queens.

I was excited when I heard about this one. While I don’t always like the pilots coming out of HBO, I can’t argue that they’re often the deepest and most thoughtful in the business, even more so than AMC (which used to lead the pack but has been faltering as of late). And the buzz behind this one is big.

Criminal Justice introduces us to two Pakistani best friends living in Queens – Nasir “Naz” Khan and Amir Farik. Naz and Amir are as Americanized as it gets. They go to college here. They have an unhealthy love for basketball. At 19 years old, both hope to graduate, work hard, and do something with their lives.

But Naz is a little more experimental than Amir. And when one of the basketball players from their team invites them to a party in the city that night, Naz doesn’t hesitate.

Problem is, Amir backs out at the last moment and Naz doesn’t have a ride. So he steals his father’s cab at the last second. This leads to some funny situations where he keeps having to turn people away trying to get into his cab. That is until a beautiful young African American girl, Andrea Cornish, pops in.

Andrea doesn’t really have a destination. She’ll go anywhere there’s adventure. And after some flirty conversation, the two find themselves back at her apartment. Ecstasy is downed. Alcohol is consumed. And one thing leads to another.

After sex, Naz leaves the room and passes out. When he wakes up and comes back, he finds that Andrea has been stabbed to death. Naz freaks out, leaves, but is so drunk he crashes his cab. Over the next hour, police gradually put together that their DUI arrest may be Andrea’s murderer. And just like that, Naz’s life is changed forever.

I want to talk a little bit about structure today because we can learn a lot about structure from the Criminal Justice pilot. Remember that for every moment in your script, there needs to be an engine underneath the surface, something driving not just the story, but our interest in the story.

Here, we start off with an introduction to Naz and his life. Nothing technically needs to be happening at this point in the story. Readers will give you time to introduce your main character in his element (show us the world he lives in). You can’t keep this going for too long though. Sooner or later, an engine has to be added.

The first engine is when Naz gets invited to the party. Now we have direction – a place to go – something to look forward to. So we’re going to stick around to see what happens when Naz gets to this party. The next 10-15 pages are about that preparation, about the obstacles that pop up which throw the party in doubt, and how Naz overcomes them.

The next engine is when Andrea arrives in the story. You hear me talk about it a lot – a looming sense of dread. We get the sense right away that Andrea is a dangerous harbinger for things to come. I mean how many times do you meet a gorgeous girl in the middle of the city and she just throws herself at you? If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. So our curiosity for how this is going to end up keeps us reading.

The next engine is when Naz goes back to Andrea’s place. The car’s practically driving itself at this point. We’re at the climax of their adventure together. Of course we’re intrigued to see what will happen. And we’re not disappointed. What happens is murder.

The engine for the rest of the script, then, revolves around a question: Will Naz get away? As the police catch him and, piece by piece, put him at the crime scene, we’re wondering how the hell Naz is going to get out of this.

A lot of writers will tell you that they want to create a “slow build” with their script, but beginner writers will often misinterpret this to mean, “I can write 20 slow scenes in a row and you just have to deal with it.” There’s a lot more to it than that. This pilot may seem like a slow build, but as I’ve shown you above, there are carefully created engines running underneath every section of the story designed to keep you interested.

Despite that, Criminal Justice was still missing something. It was good. But something was keeping it from being great. I thought some missed opportunities may have been the issue. For example, early on, Naz uses Mapquest to map out his trip to the party. Since nobody uses Mapquest anymore, I thought this was a hint that the story was taking place in the past.

To that end, I thought Naz was going to get arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, then the very next day, the payoff would be that it was 9/11, 2001. And Naz was going to find himself going through a court system set on making an example out of him. Basically, the show would chronicle the worst time ever and worst place ever to become a middle-eastern man implicated for the murder of an American.

Once that wasn’t the case, I thought Naz was going to get away that evening, the cops missing the connective tissue that would tie him to the murder, and the subsequent episodes would chronicle Naz tiptoeing around his secret as the police investigation got closer and closer to finding him.

Instead, the end of Criminal Justice’s pilot has them realizing Naz is the killer and arresting him, which gave the pilot a finality that almost made you think, why do I need to tune in anymore? I suppose we’re meant to wonder if someone else killed Andrea. But for some reason, Price didn’t make that option exciting enough. I don’t know if it’s that he skittered past it too quickly or didn’t put enough emphasis on it. But this mysterious “other person” scenario wasn’t given enough weight.

Finally, I’m left to wonder why is there all this emphasis on race when race doesn’t really play a part in the story? Again, if this was happening closer to 9/11, the Pakistani angle would feel more relevant. But there’s nary a mention about Naz’s nationality by any of the characters except a random black witness. The main character just as easily could’ve been a white guy and nothing would’ve changed. If you’re going to play with race, go full steam ahead.

Then again, maybe these are questions that will be answered in the coming episodes. And let me reiterate that I think this is a good pilot. I’m just not sure some of the choices in the episode’s second half were as strong as those in the first.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: A slow build can work – even 20-30 pages of story where not a whole lot is “happening” – as long as there are engines underneath the story pushing our interest forward. Here we had a destination (the party), an impending sense of dread (Andrea) and a powerful question (would Naz get out of this terrible situation?). These are not the only engines you have at your disposal. But the point is, when you’re starting slow, have a plan for how to keep those slow parts interesting. You can’t just set characters up for 30 pages and expect the reader to stay interested. It ain’t going to happen.

Genre: Period
Premise: Moses takes revenge on his cousin Ramses after being cast off from the city he was supposed to help rule.
About: The biblical epic trend continues! We had Noah. Now we’ve got Moses. It’s a good bet that J-swizzle is getting his own movie soon. If you’re like me, you have no idea what any of this means. The Bible is one giant collection of words like “overfloweth.” Consider my cup confused.  Exodus comes out in three weeks, stars Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses. The film was directed by Ridley Scott.
Writer: Steve Zallian draft (previous drafts were written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage)
Details: 7/6/13 draft – 132 pages

exodus-gods-kings-cast

This wouldn’t be on my radar if it wasn’t for Steve Zallian writing this draft, one of the few screenwriters who’s worth the dough you pay him. The question is, can his writing overcome a film that has the special effects team that pixel-poked Dracula Year-Zero? I mean we know the guy’s a good writer. But you can’t write, “Don’t use bad green screen” in a slug line, can you?

Hey, here’s an idea for Hollywood. You’ve got this whole “Universe” approach going now. First it was Marvel superheroes. Then it was DC superheroes. Then it was Star Wars. Universal’s monsters are setting up their own universe.

Why not get some Bible Universe up in hurr!? You don’t even need the rights. I’m pretty sure the Old Testament is public domain by now (although I’m sure Disney’s trying to change that). Jesus was basically a superhero anyway, right? Came back from the dead if I’m not mistaken. Eat your heart out, Wolverine. Actually, I think I know why no one’s hopped on this chariot yet. The Bible’s stories don’t exactly lend themselves to Hollywood structure. As you’re about to find out with Exodus.

Exodus starts out strong. It’s 1300 B.C. The current Egyptian Pharaoh, Seti, is trying to decide who’s going to succeed him. On the one side he’s got his son Ramses, the hands on favorite. On the other, his nephew, Moses, who’s clearly the better leader.

One day during battle, Moses saves Ramses’ life, and because a prince is never supposed to need saving, Ramses doctors the history scroll to omit Moses’s act. This pisses Seti off, and has him seriously considering making Moses the next Pharaoh.

But then Ramses learns that Moses is the offspring of slaves! His whole life has been a lie. So Ramses casts him out of the city, and Moses goes on a spiritual journey where he becomes, of all things, a sheepherder.

One day while herding, non-believer Moses bumps his head and sees God, who tells him to go back and save all of Ramses’ slaves! Ramses threatens Moses once he arrives, so Moses uses his new God-like powers to turn the sea red, send disease at Ramses, rain down hail, and kill all of Ramses’ crops.

But it isn’t until Ramses actually gives Moses his slaves that Moses will face his most difficult test – getting all 400,000 of them home alive.

exodus-gods-and-kings-6

Whenever you write a swords and sandals pic, the danger is in getting lost in the grandiosity of it all. It can be scary stuff, trying to juggle so many characters and locations and subplots and passages of time. So your first order of business is to FIND YOUR CORE. You need to find what your story is REALLY ABOUT and place that front and center so the reader has something to grab onto.

With Exodus, that’s the relationship between Ramses and Moses. And Zallian (along with the earlier writers) does a really good job with this. All the cousins’ early interactions are laced with tension, a sub-textual jockeying for the throne. Remember that you want all your scenes to contain some element of conflict, tension, or suspense. We see that here.

And Moses was a really strong character overall. There’s this early sequence where he’s sent off to check on the slaves where he comes in contact with the slave king, Hegep. Hegep is a greedy car salesman type who has no respect for Moses and treats him like dirt the whole time he’s there. This is a writing trick we’ve talked about before on Scriptshadow. If you want to make us like your hero, put him around an asshole, someone who takes advantage of or disrespects him. We’ll immediately gain sympathy for your protag.

So things seemed to be going well.  Strangely, however, this is the last moment in the script that contained any structure. We had this clear goal where we knew what Moses had to do and why he was doing it. But once he got back from the slave trip, the script turned into one of those slip and slides you see in the heat of summer, the screenplay equivalent of a runny nose.

Moses is cast out of the city and then sort of wanders around for awhile. He eventually finds a small farm and hangs out there for ten years. Then there’s a storm where he sees a burning bush (why is a burning bush such a big deal by the way?  Isn’t it easy for a bush to burn?), and now, instead of clearly defined plot points guiding the story, we’re being pushed forward by symbols and ideas.

This is why clear goals and clear mysteries are SO IMPORTANT in screenwriting. When you tell us what our character needs to do and why, we feel a part of the story, like we know what’s going on. Seti says go find out why the slave owners are complaining. So we know that Moses needs to find out why the slave owners are complaining!

Where’s the goal in stumbling around on a farm and seeing a burning bush? It just felt… random. And I don’t know if that’s because Zallian was following the bible story or made the choice himself. But we needed structure here.

My guess is that Zallian was limited by the bible. 2000 years ago, they didn’t have 3rd acts with heroes overcoming their flaws right at the climactic moment of the story. Nor did everything end in an elevated battle. And that’s where Exodus really falters.

Ramses gives Moses his slaves and tells him to leave. And so the whole climax of the film is to… run away? Try to sell that on a modern-day project. I get that the climax here had to be the parting of the Red Sea, but even that was anti-climactic, as the parting was the slaves waiting for 12 hours until the tide made the sea shallow enough to walk across.

Satisfying character development also had to be sacrificed due to the Bible text. One of the storylines here was that Moses had no faith. He didn’t believe in God. Ideally, then, you want to play that out during the big Red Sea moment, where he had to believe in God to part those waters. The ultimate test of his faith and his flaw.

But we’d already spent the last 45 pages watching Moses use God to tear apart Ramses’ empire. So his battle with his faith was never in question by the time the Red Sea arrived, leading to a heck of an anti-climax. This is why Bible stories are so tricky. You can’t change the Bible to make the story better. You’re stuck with what they give you. And often that’s at odds with what mainstream audiences expect.

But the truth is, this script lost me all the way back in the second act. You have to recognize that period pieces are the genre most susceptible to becoming boring. It’s not like a comedy where a good joke can bring the reader back in, or horror where a good scare can do the same. If you get complacent and let the story slip away from you – meaning NOT MUCH HAPPENS for too long a period of time – the reader’s eyes will glaze over and they’ll stop caring.

Once Moses got to that outpost and became a sheepherder and just hung around all day, that was it for me. There wasn’t enough happening in the story to keep me invested. It’s true that period pieces need their “downtime” scenes, but that never means the scenes shouldn’t entertain. It’s your job to know when things are getting slow, and to look for ways to keep those scenes entertaining, as tough as it might be.

I still remember the scene in Braveheart where the two new Generals were brought in.  The story was between big battles and could’ve easily gotten bogged down in a boring sequence.  Instead, the next scene showed William Wallace hunting, and we find out one of the generals is an assassin here to kill him.  The rest of the scene plays out with the second general saving Wallace’s life.  That scene energized a potentially boring section.

Exodus started off strong, but ended like a day at church, with you discreetly checking your watch as the pastor prattled on.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Find your CORE for your period piece, which is almost always a key relationship between two characters. Here, it’s the relationship between cousins Ramses and Moses. Whenever you’re lost in your script then – things have gotten too big or too out of control – go back to that core. That’s your real story. Everything else is secondary.

P.S. If anyone wants to share their keys to making swords and sandals scripts (or period pieces in general) work, please do.  The difficulty level on these scripts is so high.  Any help will do.

amateur-offerings-weekend

Read as much as you can from each and let me know which script I should review!

Title: Midas
Genre: Science Fiction
Logline: A teen who seeks vengeance against his treasure obsessed father joins a rogue spaceship on its hunt for a legendary asteroid of solid gold.
Why You Should Read: “I was recently told that Hollywood only makes this kind of sci-fi if it’s based on existing IP. Ironically the expert that told me this cited Star Wars and Star Trek as examples, ignoring the point that both of those come from original stories developed for the screen. So this is a dead end script, unless someone reminds Hollywood that they used to take chances on scripts like this, and sometimes those chances paid off in a really big way.”

Title: Monster’s Holiday
Genre: Christmas Fantasy/Comedy
Logline: Terminally single Merrily Campbell, a female music executive, is a modern-day Scrooge. But life changes for her when she meets an overly optimistic orphan, his alter-ego (a devilish, seen-only-by-her angel), and a pompous, powerful businessman — all determined to help her renounce her holiday hating ways.
Why You Should Read: I saw your review for the Otis Kringle Hates Christmas script, and no offense to the writer, but I think I’ve written a better Christmas script! That’s right, I’m throwing down the Christmas script gauntlet. I grew up watching movies like this, and while they can be as corny as hell, in a world full of crazy, if done right, they can offer an enjoyable welcome respite. The truth is, I read your site every day, but don’t comment much, because I am so busy learning and taking in what others on the site have to say. I’d love to know what they have to say about my script, Monster’s Holiday. While I was a semi-finalist in a well-known Screenwriting Competition a few years ago and I was a semi-finalist (top 33/500) for a studio fellowship program last year, I can’t seem to break through. I feel I’m on the right track with my writing and storytelling, and I’m wondering will this script help me get my foot in the door, or will I end up with a broken foot when door after door gets slammed on it? I challenge the Script Shadow Nation to decide if this script could possibly be the one to help jumpstart my screenwriting career. I am super excited about discussing my script with them on your site.

Title: Super Epic
Genre: Comedy
Logline: A closeted superhero wrestles with both of his secret identities, as the world embraces his superhero alter ego but his friends and family can’t accept the man behind the mask.
Why you should read it: I saw that The Almighty Stud got really negative reviews based on the fact that it conveys a misogynistic message and displays a gay character that perpetuates the flawed association between homosexual men and predatory inclinations. So, why not offer a superhero screenplay that does the opposite of all that? My protagonist is a gay superhero that challenges the stereotypes, it has a cool feminist superheroine and the villain, although in a first moment seems to be just like The Almighty Stud villain, actually hides a secret that mocks through subtext the current trend among certain men of demonizing feminism and feminists.

Title: The Killing Man
Genre: Western/Thriller
Logline: A bounty hunter pursues an elusive serial killer through Gold Rush San Francisco, but the line between hunter and hunted starts to blur in the ultimate fight for survival and redemption.
Why You Should Read: THE KILLING MAN is a unique entry in the Western genre. It has a strong protagonist, the type of character most A-listers would love to play. It is not your typical shoot-em-up either. The supporting characters, the dialogue, and the tone of the script also leave a strong impression on everyone who reads it. THE KILLING MAN is a quick read with numerous historical references that don’t bog down the story, but instead give it a singular identity. I have written several screenplays, but I am most attached to THE KILLING MAN. I hope you will give it a read and find out why.
PAGES: 102

Title: Intelligent Design
Genre: Crime/Horror/Sci-fi
Logline: While investigating a gruesome vampire-like murder, an NYC Detective gets in way over his head when he discovers that his prime suspect has been dead for over twenty years.
Why You Should Read: Because you might like it.
About me: Been a writer/director for about 7 years. Done 3 shorts and a feature. Am about to have a sci-fi thriller optioned (lawyers and producers are ironing out the details). If all works out, it will have a low 7-figure budget. Fingers crossed.

Get Your Script Reviewed On Scriptshadow!: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, something interesting about yourself and/or your script that you’d like us to post along with the script if reviewed. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.

Genre: Biopic
Premise (from writer): After the entire Kringle clan is murdered, Santa’s illegitimate son is forced to save his least favorite holiday from a menagerie of supernatural fuckwits.
Why You Should Read (from writer): My name’s Otis J. Kringle and I’m not a screenwriter — I’m fucking Santa Claus. Hang on, that came out wrong, as I am not actually “fucking” Santa — that would be weird and (as you’ll see) necrophilia. More like, I AM Santa Claus. I didn’t used to be, mind you. Truth be told, I’ve always considered Christmas to rank somewhere between getting a colonoscopy from Edward Scissorhands and watching FAILURE TO LAUNCH on a neverending loop. But alas, events unfolded that led me to pick up the jolly red mantle, events like stealing a UPS truck, getting thrown in jail, stepping in reindeer shit, throwing down in fisticuffs with Frigid Bitch and Jack Frost, riding flying lions, massive mall sing-a-longs, things of this nature. I know, right? I was pretty amazed, too. So amazed, I felt the need to share and find an outlet for my story (and movie, because who doesn’t love a new Christmas flick?), namely ScriptShadow. What can I say — I read your site, love the shit out of your site, and as far as I’m concerned, this makes it to a Friday review, everybody who reads your site will be put on the Nice List this year. Even Grendl. I know when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, — Otis J. Kringle
Writer: Otis Kringle
Details: 97 pages

bad-santa-dancentury

It’s rare that we get a screenwriter who writes a story based on his own life, which means we should consider today a treat. What makes this even specialer is that our writer appears to be related to Santa Claus.  I’m still working on verifying this but I’m 2-4% sure that it’s true.  And with the Christmas shopping season starting up next week, what better time to celebrate a Santa-inspired screenplay?  Or a Santa-gets-slaughtered-inspired screenplay?

Now I must say that all this murder and mayhem hinted at in the logline has me worried. I’m a Christmas purist. I watch It’s A Wonderful Life every year on Christmas Eve. I download that Band-Aid song and listen to it on repeat. I even purchase egg nog despite the fact that I hate it, just so I can look at it in my fridge and feel festive. Is Otis Kringle about to ruin all that?

In a word, yes.

In another word: “fisting.” As in we’re told on page 1 to go fist ourselves.

Now I’m no doctor, nor do I play one on the internet. But I’m pretty sure that’s physically and biologically impossible.  Gonna do a WebMD search on this later to make sure.

Our loser hero, Otis Kringle, the man responsible for telling us to fist ourselves, happens to be the illegitimate son of Santa Clause, who apparently slipped down Otis’s mother’s chimney many years ago, injecting her with many presents.

This will become important later after a dingbat elf in the North Pole named Dunbar Capp sings a song from a cursed book called the Santanomicon. He thinks he’s being jolly. But all he does is release Jolly Klaus, Santa Claus’s long lost half-uncle.

The axe-wielding Jolly slices up Santa along with the rest of his family, then demonizes Rudolph so that Rudolph can slaughter all of Santa’s reindeer.

Lucky for the planet, Dunbar and Blitzen get away and fly to America, where they approach Otis, the bastard child of Santa, to inform him that he’s the only one who can save Christmas. And the planet.

All he has to do is sing a song from the Santanomicon and Jolly will be sent back to the Badlands for another 1500 years. The problem is, all the songs are in another language, which poor Otis can’t read.

Complicating measures are Jack Frost and the Frigid Bitch, an oversexed couple who have likewise been stuck in purgatory for hundreds of years. Being freed allows them to have sex again and boy do they take advantage of it, even singing a song about all the sexual positions they’re going to enjoy together, which number at least a hundred.

Will Otis Kringle, who tells his story in first person, except when we’re around other characters, be able to save the day? Will you be able to save yourself after venturing into a story that introduces the world to the term “cunt brisket?” There’s no way to know for sure unless you read Otis Kringle Hates Christmas. And then fist yourself.

I hear that this Christmas, NBC will be debuting a live Peter Pan musical inspired by wholesome family values and the power of song.  If, for whatever reason, this show gets cancelled, I’m sure “Otis Kringle Hates Christmas” can take its place.  They’re practically the same movie.  I mean, Peter Pan has a song about taking a literal exposition dump, doesn’t it?

Look, I think Otis has problems. He seems a tad angry. And that anger has manifested itself in a script more focused on shock value than story. Shock is a funny thing. It can work in small doses. One need look no further than South Park to see that.  But it’s hard to make work if that’s the only thing you’re giving the audience for two hours.

South Park is actually a good gauge for how to make shock work. Underneath all its shocking humor, there’s an undeniable love South Park has for its characters. That love translates over to you loving the characters, and going along with whatever shenanigans, no matter how crass or dirty, the characters find themselves in.

I’m not sure Otis Kringle the writer has that same love for his characters (which is ironic, considering he is one of the characters), which prevents us from ever really connecting to Otis, Dunbar, and Blitzen. We get crass instead of heart.  Swears instead of cares.  And that creates a wall between reader and character that extends not just to the story, but to the comedy.

And this is why comedy’s the most subjective of all the genres. Everybody needs something different to laugh.

I need to care about the characters to laugh. I believe laughs come from stakes, come from us caring what’s on the line for the characters. And we can’t care about what’s on the line if we don’t connect to the characters in the first place. For example, in Neighbors, I really FELT the importance of our hero’s need to raise a family. So I cared that this frat next door was disrupting their world. And that’s what allowed me to laugh when they kept failing at their goal.

But I concede that not everybody feels this way. For a lot of people, a funny joke is a funny joke, regardless of whether you give a shit about the people involved in the joke. Otis Kringle graduated from the Kevin Smith school of comedy, where the jokes are based on nasty, on disgusting, on shocking and awing your reader.  I’m not going to put that comedy down.  All I can say is it’s not for me.

With that said, this script has a mission. And that’s to get your attention. And the easiest way to get people’s attention is to be loud and bold, and Otis Kringle is the loudest script I’ve read in years. Throw in some rule-bending (first person writing!), a bizarre mythology,  and some snowflake-infused writing talent, and this script will find some fans.

It’s just that for me to become a fan, I have to see that love between writer and character.  I need to feel at least some depth in our hero.  Sometimes as writers we get so carried away with trying to do that one thing we set out to do when we conceived of the script, that we overlook other basic storytelling components required to make a script work.  Otis may have had tunnel-vision in trying to make this that big attention-grabbing script, preventing him from remember that you still have to move people, you still have to make the audience feel something at the end.

The part of me that loves writers who take chances gives this a Millineum Falcon Lego Set present. But the script purist in me gives this a 25 dollar gift certificate to Best Buy.  Hey, at least it’s not coal, right??

Script link: Otis Kringle Hates Christmas

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It’s really hard to keep a reader invested for 100 pages on shock alone. I’m sure it can be done, but that means continually one-upping yourself with something even MORE shocking every 10 pages. I wouldn’t want that assignment.

interstellar3

The value of screenwriting contests has been debated for years. I’ve gone on record as saying they’re an important tool in helping gauge where you are in your journey. If you’re not at least making the Quarterfinals (top 50 to top 100) of a screenplay contest, you might want to think about getting some personal feedback on your script to find out what you need to work on.

But don’t feel too bad if you’re not lighting up the contest circuit. Believe it or not, there are huge movies out there, movies that have made millions of dollars at the box office, that wouldn’t have even made it out of the FIRST ROUND of a screenwriting contest. Which just so happens to be the subject of today’s post.

That’s right, we’re going to look at ten movies, each of which were either critical or box office successes, that would’ve been laughed out of the big screenwriting contests. Some of these are obvious while others might surprise you. Commenting on these movies will be our hypothetical contest script reader, whose duty it is to explain why the script didn’t make the next round.

Now remember, you have to see these scripts as they’d be seen by the reader. These are naked scripts that have not become successful movies. They don’t have hot directors or actors attached to them. They’re scripts just like you would submit to a contest. With that in mind, let’s check out the list.

Transformers: Dark of The Moon – “Way too long with a story that’s painfully unfocused. Not a single character feels authentic or multi-dimensional. An over-reliance on crass humor, which becomes tired quickly. Way too much emphasis is placed on set-pieces, which would be okay if we understood why they were happening, but often we don’t. Pass.”

Annabelle – “Any horror script that contains a scene where a record player starts playing old timey music on its own is a surefire bet that there will be little if any originality on display. You may as well have a cat jump out of a cabinet while your character’s gone upstairs to ‘check out a noise.’ Horror’s number one enemy is cliché and when a writer shows not even a casual interest in avoiding the C-word, you know you’re in for a long predictable ride. Also, there isn’t a single memorable scare in the script. Death for a horror screenplay. Pass.”

The Monuments Men – “A strange unfocused tale that doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? The idea is an interesting one, a story we’ve never heard before about World War 2. But the execution is all over the place. Why, for instance, did the writer choose to split our group of men up for the majority of the story? The group dynamic was the strongest part of the screenplay. To not recognize and take advantage of that shows a writer still learning the craft. It’s too bad. This could’ve been good. Pass.”

Interstellar – “Has the reckless feel of a first or second draft that the writer decided never to perfect. The dialogue is way too expository and on-the-nose, two signs of a beginning screenwriter. For example, lines like, ‘The MRI machines we no longer have could’ve spotted my wife’s cancer before she died.’ Yikes. While there are some interesting ideas about space exploration and time tacked into this overlong second act, everything comes crumbling down in the finale, when the writer tries to wrap up several corners he wrote himself into with trippy pseudo-science explanations. Time-travel is one of the hardest plots to get right, and this writer shows no dedication to figuring it out. Could show some promise with work. As it stands, pass.”

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John Wick – “This is one of the most laughable set-ups for an action film I’ve ever come across. The main character, a retired hit man, goes after the Russian mafia because they killed his dog. Outside of a few fresh ideas in the second act, which include a hotel that deals exclusively with hit men, John Wick is bogged down in cliché after cliché. For example, must every action script end in an industrial location? Pass.”

Elysium – “Yet another sci-fi screenplay where the writer fails to explore his world on anything other than a cursory level. There’s no sense of scope at all. People are broken down into over-simplified “haves” and “have-nots.” An orbiting city has a half-ass plan in place for renegade ships breaking through, despite it being a common occurrence. Our main villain, a sword-wielding futuristic samurai type seems to have been ripped from another more fantasy-driven film, exemplifying the lack of foresight put into the script. He’s also bad for the sake of being bad, one of the easiest ways to spot a rushed draft. Feels like we’re five or six drafts away from this achieving its mark. Pass.”

The Counselor – “Script seems to put no value on clarity or narrative focus, often leaving the reader wondering where they are in the story, why things are happening, and what the characters plan to do next. I can’t tell if this was a deliberate choice, with the writer aiming for a high-brow audience who can read minds, or a first-time screenwriter who doesn’t yet understand how to make his plot points clear. Either way, the script completely falls apart when it reaches its apparent goal, the Counselor’s deal going bad, only to make us stick around for another 40 pages, where we’re forced to watch the main character wallow in pity. Writer must learn, amongst other things, that when you’ve reached your destination, the journey is over. Pass.”

Godzilla – “Who is the main character in this script? We’re led to believe it’s army man Ford Brody. But Brody doesn’t make a single decision throughout the entire screenplay. He instead follows a number of other people around and does whatever they tell him to do. Passive characters are the worst characters to lead a story, and Godzilla shows us why. Without a dominant character pushing us forward, we have no one to latch onto, and therefore no one to care about. Script also has a clunky opening, where we watch one parent’s death, only to go through twenty more pages of the other parent before their death. All of this before Brody is formally introduced. One wonders why not just start with Brody and look for ways to imply the backstory instead of show it. The script also spends so much time explaining where Godzilla is, what he’s doing, where he’s probably going next, and how to stop him, that there isn’t any time left for an actual story to develop. You’d think all the explaining would at least go towards setting up big memorable Godzilla set-pieces, but Godzilla only has a couple of featured scenes. A bizarre script that seems intent on avoiding everything that makes a story good. I can’t in good conscience send this one to the next round. Pass.”

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Inside Llewyn Davis – “One of the stranger scripts I’ve ever read. The dialogue appears confident, even strong in places, yet there’s no story here to speak of, unless you count a man stumbling through the deliriously morbid world of folk music a story. The main character is such an asshole without a single redeeming quality, that watching him interact with others is akin to listening to metal scrape against concrete on concert-sized speakers. I’ve never read a script where the writer tried so adamently to make us hate their hero and I’m struggling to figure out what the point of that would be. Because we hate him so much, we don’t want him to succeed. Since succeeding is his goal, that leaves the audience with no choice but to root against his success. Can an entire movie hinge on this conceit? I’d say no way, Jose. Pass.”

The Master – “There’s a movie somewhere in this script, but the writer seems unwilling to find it. One of the script’s biggest problems is in its scene writing, as very few scenes have focus or structure. In fact, we’re often unsure where the scenes are headed or when they’re going to end. There’s a scene where the main character, Freddie, for example, gets fired from a department store, that could’ve ended on four different occasions. I like when writers give me something unexpected, but these scenes feel more like the writer himself didn’t know where he was going. The script picks up when religious leader Lancaster Dodd begins to mentor Freddie, only to delve back into an unfocused story that seems uninterested in having a point. Writer needs to get to the religious cult sooner, and focus more on the growth of the cult under the Lancaster and Freddie dynamic, as that’s when the script shines brightest. However, I have a hard time believing this writer is capable of writing a focused story. Pass.”

And there we have it! So what does this MEAN exactly? Does it mean screenplay contests are flawed? I don’t think so. I think it means Hollywood has a huge weakness in two areas. – the big budget flick and the writer-director vanity project. Both can end up bad for, ironically, completely opposing reasons.

The big-budget tentpole/franchise films have too many cooks in the kitchen. This results in either a highly compromised uber-safe film (Olympus Has Fallen) or the overly bloated film where every single idea gets added (The Amazing Spider Man 2).

The writer-director projects, when they go bad, go bad for the opposite reason. There’s only one cook in the kitchen. They don’t have to win over anybody with their script, so if the script is bad, there’s no checks and balances system to prevent them from making it.

If you’re a writer who wants to win a contest, you should be doing generally the same thing as a writer who’s trying to sell a script. Write something with some marketable element and then write the tightest and most entertaining story you can. If you do a good job at that, you’ll find yourself making it past the first round of contests easily, and possibly getting much further.

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