I saw myself some Wonder Woman yesterday. The theater was packed. The truth lassoes were out. Pineheads were oiling themselves up in Chris Pine oil. I may or may not have joined them. But you’ll have to wait until Monday to find out.
Right now, it’s time for some Amateur Offerings, with a TWIST! I’m adding some CARSON NOTES to the end of each entry. That’s right. You get a little extra insight into what I’m thinking when I look at these pitches. Speaking of, if you’re interested in getting a FULL SET OF NOTES from me, e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) me with the subject line, “50” and I’ll give you $50 off your purchase.
If you’re new to these weekends posts, the rule is: read as much of each script as possible then VOTE for your favorite in the comments section. Winner gets a review next Friday where, hopefully, I can help bring attention to the writer. This is also a wonderful opportunity to give writers feedback so they can get better. Let the writers know, constructively, where you had troubles with their scripts and why.
Genre: Revenge Fantasy / Buddy Movie
Logline: At a raucous Death Valley music festival, a timid detective must embrace her inner beast to solve the festival’s first murder: that of a heartless billionaire.
Why You Should Read: Utopian festivals such as Burning Man preach love, peace and acceptance. They have also become a microcosm for inequality. Every year elaborate tents show the have-nots just how little they have and tensions run sky high. What if, in this perfect world, someone was murdered? What if they really, really deserved it? Deathfest is the catharsis we all need right now. I hope you agree.
Carson notes: Genres should be – Comedy, Sci-Fi, Horror, Thriller, Fantasy, Western, Drama, Action and that’s it. Sometimes you will combine two of these. And there are a few sub-genres (Contained Horror). But I’d avoid making genres up. It screams “amateur.”
Title: Fighting Irish
Logline: Two gypsy fighters from Dublin have lived lives of violence since they were young. When one decides he wants out, what will he do when his father is released from prison and gets entangled in the criminal world of the other?
Why You Should Read: I’m a recently-graduated student from Northern Ireland who’s been studying screenwriting for the past five or so years, starting in my spare time and then at university. This script has had a couple of Black List reads between rewrites and has garnered a 7 out of 10 each time. I’m hoping to find out whether this latest draft could potentially crack that elusive 8 or above. I also hope to join our Irish contingent out in LA as I’ve heard Liam Neeson and Jamie Dornan are great craic on a night out!
Carson notes: This idea feels like it needs something extra. All I see is boxers, prison, and crime, which they’ve made lots of movies about already. Remember guys. Find your STRANGE ATTRACTOR – the unique thing that sets your idea apart from all the others out there.
Title: LIFE RIGHTS
Logline: After purchasing the life rights of a recently deceased man from his grieving daughter, a writer struggles to form a bestselling novel out of the man’s boring life.
Why You Should Read: I noticed a lot of people like books and movies that are biographical, and writing in that area might be a good way for a writer to climb to the top. But what if you painted yourself into writing about a subject who has nothing worth reading about? Is it wrong to make one up? Is the truth more important than an entertaining or meaningful story? I’d love any and all feedback on if I even came close to nailing these questions, let alone telling a good story. Enjoy :)
Carson notes: Not sure you need to include the grieving daughter in the logline. This sounds like it would work a lot better as a comedy but hopefully I’m wrong.
Logline: A disillusioned CIA agent is brought out of retirement to hunt a vengeful billionaire, who seeks to annihilate the United States using a Soviet Cold War doomsday weapon.
Why You Should Read: Inspired by true events dating back to the Cold War, Blowback is a big budget action spec that takes a hard look at how the fallout from America’s foreign policy shapes the world today. Also, since I’m a big Tom Cruise fan, I wrote the main character with him in mind, incorporating the type of death-defying stunt work for which he’s renowned. I’d be beyond grateful if the Scriptshadow community could somehow get the script into his hands.
Carson notes: Reading this logline, my first thought is, “Where’s the fresh idea?” All of this feels like stuff we’ve seen before. Pitching Tom Cruise also dates the subject matter. Also, “disillusioned CIA agent” makes it sound like it could be a comedy.
Title: SLIFKO RULES!
Genre: Contained Comedy
Logline: An ex-serial prankster trapped at a Catholic High School is forced to repeat his senior year for a senior prank he was framed for, so he decides to pull off the biggest prank of all time.
Why You Should Read: Freddie Slifko is the 21st Century “Ferris Bueller.” It’s an 80’s style contained comedy with fantastic characters that push the edge of PG-13 with scatological humor, and high brow humor. It’s not your typical 85 page comedy spec that has three laughs in it. It’s got a strong backbone for the plot, and one of the best endings of a comedy EVER.
Carson Notes: This wins “Best Why You Should Read” Pitch for the year of 2017. This is how you sell your screenplay! Now let’s hope it delivers.
Title: Car God
Genre: Drama (Pilot)
Logline: A young ex-con, desperate for an honest life, takes a job at a local dealership, unknowingly entering the mob-run underworld of the car business. Based on actual events.
Why You Should Read: This story takes place behind all the headlines the came out a few years back involving Chrysler reporting thousands of ‘fake sales’ in order to inflate sales reports for investors. As an ex con, recently released from federal prison for marijuana trafficking, I took a job at the only place that would hire a felon and still be able to make a decent living. As I soon learned, being a criminal didn’t hurt my chances starting a new life with a career, it actually opened the doors to even bigger money-making opportunities, unfortunately still on the wrong side of the law. This pilot was also given an 8/10 on The BLACKLIST for CHARACTERS, and we all know how important that is on Scriptshadow… Thank you for any consideration!
Carson Notes: This is a great follow-up to the earlier entry of boxers and the criminal world. Notice how this idea has a strange attractor – the mob run underworld of the car business. That makes the idea unique, which gives it a better chance of standing out amongst busy readers. It being a true story from the writer’s point of view is also a great pitch.
Premise: In the midst of a deadly bushfire season, a petty criminal with a fascination for fire becomes entangled in a game of cat and mouse with a desperate arson squad detective while attempting to save his one, true friend.
Why You Should Read: The Black Saturday bushfires occurred in my home state of Victoria, Australia in 2009 and killed 173 people. It was Australia’s deadliest natural disaster and I still distinctly remember the atmosphere on that day – you could actually feel the death in the air. I’ve often been drawn to thinking about the people involved that day – both those fighting and investigating the blazes and the pyromaniacs who helped exacerbate them. While this story is set a little while later, the memories of that day remain an inspiration.
Writer: Daniel O’Sullivan
Details: 97 pages
We’ve got a WONDER-ful weekend ahead of us.
Wonder Woman comes out today?
My jokes are so on point.
Here’s my script review of the old Joss Whedon draft of Wonder Woman, which it looks like they drew inspiration from.
“Inspiration.” There’s a funny word. I hope some people drew inspiration from yesterday’s article. However, I do want to make something clear. I wasn’t saying to write and direct a horror film if you hate horror.
In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that the element that trumps everything when it comes to picking an idea is passion. If you’re passionate about something – whatever that something may be (horror, drama, western musicals) – that’s what you want to write. Readers know when you love what you’re writing about as it bleeds into the pores of every word on the page.
Now you have to be smart about it. Find a hook. Find an angle into your passion that can be marketed. But yeah, passion is often the difference maker between an inspired script and an uninspired one.
Today’s Amateur Offerings winner feels like a passion-play, a fire-infused mix between Hell or High Water and Manchester By The Sea. Since we know I loved one of those scripts and hated the other, you’ll have to read on to figure out what I thought of Pyro.
Pyro takes place in Australia and follows a young man named Chris Dumont. Chris is a pyromaniac. His opening page voice over is a love letter to the act of watching things burn. Chris loves fire like I love In and Out.
And he’s even found a way to make money off of it. Folks looking for cash pay a local criminal to burn their cars so they can collect the insurance. And Chris is Bickie’s (the head honcho) main burner. Everyone else is an amateur compared to Chris. For Chris, burning things is an art.
Meanwhile, senior Detective Neil McKenna is trying to find out who started the city’s most recent bush fire. These Australian bush fires are dangerous as hell and spread like… well… wildfire. Since we’re smack dab in the middle of the burning season, McKenna figures if they don’t find their man soon, it’s a matter of time before Señor Burno wipes out an entire town.
It just so happens that Chris has been on McKenna’s radar for awhile. And even though Chris has alibis for all the recent bush fires, McKenna’s convinced that Chris is his man. Now if he can only prove it – an act that’s losing him support back at the station. Even McKenna’s own partner, an ambitious young detective named Lisa Mason, believes McKenna’s losing his mind.
Despite his itch to burn, Chris decides to get out of the pyro business so he can start a normal life. But Bickie’s not letting the LeBron James of pyromaniacing go that easily. Bickie threatens Chris unless Chris pulls off one more job – an entire luxury car showroom – to net him one last payday.
Chris reluctantly accepts the job but must figure out how to pull it off with an increasingly obsessive McKenna following his every move.
First impressions? I like the unique subject matter. This is a clever way to add a fresh twist to the garden variety procedural genre. The Australian setting was also a strong choice. I love when we’re in unfamiliar territory for a story. Everything feels new and exciting.
Here’s where Pryo ran into trouble for me though.
It didn’t feel like there was enough plot to fill the script. Which is funny since just yesterday we were talking about how plot is the enemy. But you can only minimize plot when your character development is awesome.
And while Pyro was largely focused on character, it never rose above lukewarm in that department. There were lots of “talking heads” scenes where the plot wasn’t pushed forward. There was little conflict to these scenes. Just theories about what was going on, discussions revealing backstory, talks between friends and old lovers. There wasn’t enough drama to keep me invested.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the stakes are so low. So the story’s already working from a point of weakness. This puts excess stress on the character development so if that doesn’t pay off, now the reader’s got nothing to satiate their appetite.
What was wrong with the stakes? Well, there was no impending danger that I could put my finger on. What happened if McKenna didn’t catch his man? Nothing, really. The possibility of more fires. But it wasn’t until the end that we learned how dangerous those fires might be. Through the first two acts, the danger was vague. And vague stakes are the equivalent of no stakes at all.
Plot-wise, it needed a few more “Ins” (remember my In and Out article?). Everybody was pushing out on the story. But the story wasn’t pushing back in on the characters. I wanted something to happen like Bickie forces Chris to move up to houses for insurances burns. And Chris burns a house which was supposed to be empty, only to learn afterwards that someone was inside and died. In other words, I wanted something unexpected to be thrown at Chris. For the most part, Chris was allowed to operate freely in this story. As was McKenna. They needed more and BIGGER obstacles.
With that said, the third act comes together well. All that plot and action that was missing in the first two acts fires up in the final one. I liked how we weren’t sure if McKenna was going crazy. I liked that a ticking time bomb was introduced (even though I would’ve preferred one earlier). I liked that not everything is what we thought it was.
But when I look at the script as a whole, it feels thin to me. More needs to be going on. Or, if this is going to be a straight-up character piece, there needs to be more conflict between the characters, more drama, flaws being tested, characters besides Chris and McKenna having deep backstories.
I guess one way to put it is that you’ve only got the stove burner on 60% here. You need to pump it up to 100%.
I do think Daniel is a screenwriter to watch, though. This is one of the best “not for me’s” I’ve reviewed on Amateur Friday. :)
Script link: Pyro
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Knowledge helps sell your story. If your script is about a unique subject matter, take some time to TEACH US about that subject matter. Not only do we learn something, which is fun. But now we trust the writer. We know that they understand this world. I read so many scripts – I can’t even tell you – where I know more about the subject matter than the writer does. If they didn’t even do enough research to know more than I do, how much effort could they have possibly put into the writing process itself? It’s an instant indication of an amateur writer and a script that’s not worthy of your time. Daniel clearly knows this world. McKenna gives a speech early on explaining how these fires spread, going into minute detail about the main culprits, eucalyptus trees, which carry an oil inside of them, that make them susceptible to explosions. Once I read that, I had instant confidence that the writer was going to be able to tell a solid story.
This has been a strange year at the box office. Did you know that the number 1 comedy of the year so far is the geriatric knee-slapper, Going in Style? Which has made 43 million dollars?
Surefire hits like Pirates of the Caribbean have imploded. Dusty superheroes like Wolverine have come back to life. And mega-franchises like Fast and Furious are doing two-thirds of the local business they used to, with studios not giving a shit since all they care about now is global.
Now, if we’re being honest, none of these movies I’ve mentioned affect you, the screenwriter reading this website. The writers who write these films have fought their way up a Game of Thrones like ladder that, hopefully, one day, you’ll find yourself climbing as well.
But right now, all you want to do is get your foot in the door, preferably in as little time as possible. And there are three ways to do that. The first is to write a great script that features either a great concept, an exceptional understanding of character development, or a unique voice, and parlay that into a high Black List showing. This will get you an agent and get your script out to a bunch of people so that everyone knows your name.
The second is to write a spec in one of the big genres (action, adventure, sci-fi), which might get you a starter writing gig on one of the franchises your script is written in. You probably won’t get a credit but you will be working. This is what happened, for example, with Nicole Perlman. She wrote a spec about the Challenger shuttle crash, and that allowed her to get first shot at another “space” gig, Guardians of the Galaxy (Perlman did manage to get that credit and is now scripting Captain Marvel).
Finally, there’s the third – and fastest – way to break in. Write a horror spec and direct it yourself. This is, by far, the quickest way for a screenwriter to get into the industry. I’ve seen it time and time again. The Duffer Brothers, the guys who did Stranger Things? Their breakout spec was a horror flick called “Hidden” that they directed right before the now famous Netflix show.
Even if directing doesn’t interest you, consider making it interest you. It’s so freaking cheap to make a movie these days. It’s still relatively expensive, I guess. But if the wannabe writer-directors of the 90s who had to scrape together a million bucks to shoot a film on 16mm time-traveled to today and saw how cheaply we could make a good-looking feature film? They would scold us for the excuses we make not to.
All of this is somewhat roundabout to today’s article focus. But I promise it will come together at the end. In regards to writing horror films, there were two horror films this year that took big risks, each coming at the genre in a unique way. One of those went on to become one of the most profitable films in history. The other didn’t even make it to its second weekend. And I want to discuss why one sailed and the other failed, despite the fact that both scripts were good.
Here’s another shocker. A Cure For Wellness was directed by a 20 year veteran director who had helmed some of the biggest movies in Hollywood. And Get Out was directed by someone who had never directed in his life. Not even a short movie.
Both of these projects did what I tell you guys to do: Find a fresh angle into a genre. The horror genre has ghosts, zombies, vampires, torture porn, contained horror, and they play those cards over and over again. What are you going to do that makes the genre feel fresh?
A Cure For Wellness is about a businessman who goes to a faraway bizarre treatment center to retrieve a co-worker for the company and gets stuck there. Get Out is about a black man who goes to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. As you can see, the stories share some DNA. Hell, they even both have a scene where a car hits a deer (seriously, screenwriters, please stop writing this scene).
So why is it that 20 times as many people chose to see Get Out as did A Cure For Wellness? Don’t give me the cheat answer. “A Cure For Wellness looked dumb, Carson. Get Out looked good.” One of your jobs as a screenwriter is to understand SPECIFICALLY why movies do well and why they fail, so that you can use that knowledge to make a more informed decision when coming up with your next concept.
The number 1 screenwriting mistake I see, by far, is misconceived concepts. Concepts that aren’t movies but that screenwriters, for some reason, think are movies. You guys see a few of them every Saturday on Amateur Offerings. So the large majority of you reading this have made far worse miscalculations on your concepts than A Cure For Wellness. Why is Get Out the better concept? Why is it that when people saw the Get Out trailer, they wanted to see the movie whereas when they saw the A Cure For Wellness trailer, they didn’t?
I’ll give you a hint. There’s one other film this year that defied expectations in a big way. Logan. The Wolverine franchise was dead. The movies sucked. No one was showing up anymore. Then Logan comes out and does 100 million more than the last film off a much smaller budget. How did it accomplish this? What did it do differently? Think…
The answer, if you guys haven’t figured it out yet, is that Get Out focused on character. A Cure For Wellness focused on plot. When you watch the Get Out trailer, you see a human situation, a loving but difficult relationship, then later that relationship in danger. When you watch A Cure For Wellness’s trailer, there’s a wall between you and the characters. Hell, you don’t even know the main character after you’ve finished the trailer. You see his face. You know he has to get somebody. But you don’t know anything about him. Therefore you don’t care about him. Therefore you have no interest putting up your hard-earned money to find out if he succeeds or not.
I said I’d get to the point eventually so I will. If you want to break in as a screenwriter – the fastest way to do it is to write a horror spec EXPLORING THE HUMAN CONDITION IN SOME WAY and then direct it yourself. Plot is important. But audiences don’t connect with plot. They connect with people who experience the same life problems that they do. Which brings us right back to yesterday. Vivien is such a dark script. It has its own challenges in drawing an audience but that is exactly the kind of chance you should be taking. Not writing some silly horror movie. Write a horror movie where you’re deeply exploring people and the human condition. This is how you connect with audiences.
Now there’s a caveat to this. You have to understand how to do good character work. You can’t just show two people in a relationship have a fight and think you’ve done your job. You have to find a theme, you have to create conflict within the characters (Am I good enough for this girl?), conflict within the key relationship (race), characters have to arc. That stuff takes practice. But once you understand this stuff, you become a screenwriting superhero. You can now do things that 99.999999% of the population cannot. So that’s my advice to you guys today.
But ONLY if you want to get into this business quickly.
Write a horror spec EXPLORING THE HUMAN CONDITION IN SOME WAY and then direct it yourself.
Premise: A young husband feels that his marriage is slipping away. But he has no idea how bad it’s about to get.
About: Today’s script comes from one of my favorite screenwriters, Brian Duffield. I’ve reviewed all of Duffield’s scripts except for two, today’s script being one of those final two. My favorite script of his is Monster Problems, which is in my Top 25. And the script of his that is the closest to production is The Babysitter (about a babysitter from hell), which some have argued is Duffield’s weakest script. Vivien is one of the scripts that first put Duffield on Hollywood’s radar.
Writer: Brian Duffield
Details: 102 pages
Been saving this one for when I needed a pick-me-up.
Yesterday’s script left me with such a bored taste in my mouth, I needed a script I knew I was going to like – something weird and unexpected. That was my issue with Mr. Toy. It was just so… rote. You knew everything that was going to happen 30 pages before it happened, because the script never set a precedent for surprising you.
What do we say here? The enemy of entertainment is predictability. As soon as your story becomes predictable, you’ve lost your audience.
I went into this one completely cold. All I knew about it was the title. So let’s find out what it’s about together!
Tom and Vivien have been married for awhile, though like a lot of the details in this story, we’re not given exact numbers. What we do know is that Vivien is drifting away from Tom. He knows this. Somewhere, deep inside, he knows she’s fucking their neighbor, Charlie.
And so he’s gotten used to the fact that Vivien has stopped laughing at his jokes, that she now sleeps facing away from him, that in the tiny moments when he tries to make her jealous so she’ll notice him, she’ll notice but won’t care. That she’s, for all intents and purposes, checked out of this marriage.
“Vivien Hasn’t Been Herself Lately” then asks the question: What if that were the best case scenario?
When Vivien starts walking on walls, Tom knows that his life has taken a turn for the worse. When she starts biting off her own fingers, he knows shit is getting bad. And when she starts beating Tom up mercilessly, he knows that his life has changed forever.
Vivien, Tom quickly learns, is possessed.
But, you see, Tom refuses to leave her. He tells the million plus demons who have now taken residence inside her body this. That he loves Vivien so much, he will stay until he finds a way to get them out of her.
And boy is he tested on that. Vivien does everything in her power to get Tom to kill her, kill himself, or leave forever. One day, she chokes Tom out until he comes to again, then repeats the process. Over and over and over again. For 24 straight hours. And still Tom won’t leave. He keeps probing, keeps trying to figure out how to save his wife.
Unfortunately, as we move through the story, and we experience just how dark things get in this home, we realize that this isn’t your average exorcism script. And that it’s very unlikely that there’s going to be a happy ending.
I haven’t said that in a long time after reading a script.
This script was… wow.
I mean, holy shit. That had to be one of the most intense reads I’ve ever experienced. I’m still processing it. It’s basically about the person you love more than anything actively hating you every day for months on end.
It’s relentless. To the point where I had to stand up a couple of times and walk around just to assure myself that there was still good in the world.
But to this script’s credit, I couldn’t stay away for long. I had to sit down and find out what happened next.
I’m trying to get myself into the headspace where I can help you guys learn some screenwriting tips from this screenplay since it was so affecting. But I’m just not there. And that’s probably the biggest compliment I can give a script. It pulled me in so much, I wasn’t even thinking about screenwriting.
Or maybe I was abstractly. I know I’d catch myself thinking, “Holy shit is this brave. Holy shit is this unique. Holy shit nothing in this script is happening when it’s supposed to.” I mean, this is a possession movie and the exorcist shows up on page 17. Page 17! Most writers would’ve drawn the story out before bringing the exorcist in, padding the script until page 50 or 60. Our exorcists (plural) run away on page 20 here. I’m looking at this script going, “What the hell is he going to do now for 82 pages???”
And what he does is he turns this into a character piece. This is about – at least in my opinion – how difficult marriage is. It’s that things don’t go swimmingly all the time. And there are going to be periods where shit gets really bad. And you’re going to want to run away. And so despite the relentless negativity that is hurled at the reader throughout this story, it’s ultimately about a man who’s so in love with his wife, that he will stay with her at her worst.
But if that’s all the script offered, I don’t know if it would have been enough for me. It was the choices that Duffield took that really wowed me. Remember – writing is about making bold unexpected choices. Not all the time. Some of your choices have to be familiar. But every once in awhile, you have to be bold. Yesterday’s script didn’t have a single bold choice. Not one. Thats why it was so boring.
Here, for example, one of the surprising sequences was that Tom and these demons actually developed a relationship of their own – separate from Vivien. It’s a fucked up relationship where one second they’ll be laughing together and the next “Vivien” will hurl Tom against the wall, breaking his arm. But it’s so unexpected and weird that it adds to, easily, the strangest character piece I’ve ever read.
And on top of that is Duffield’s voice (‘Voice and Choice’ should be the new mantra I endorse here). He’s one of the best screenwriters, hands down, at painting a picture with as few words as possible. On the very first page, we get this line: “Their socked feet touch.” Not “their feet touch,” which is what 99 out of 100 screenwriters would’ve written. But their “socked” feet. That one word turns a cliche into a verifiable image that you can imagine. And once you’re imagining, you’re no longer outside. You’re inside the story.
On top of that, this is the kind of stuff writers should be writing to start their careers. You want to write stories with 2-3 characters that are cheap but that have a hook to them. And because 99% of writers who take this route go the “cliche contained thriller” path, trapping a few characters in a room with danger outside (Cloverfield Lane, for example), if you’re the 1% that can do this without using that trope, you have a great opportunity to stand out. And if you have any directing aspirations whatsoever, try to direct that script yourself. Because you’ll get your career moving a million times faster by directing your own script than you will waiting for someone else to direct it.
I have nothing but praise for this screenplay. It’s not easy to read. In fact, it might be one of the hardest reads you’ll have all year. But it’s hard for the right reasons. It’s hard because you want these two to end up together so badly but you have to go through so much pain to find out if they’re going to.
This was really good. And a new TOP 25!!!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (NEW TOP 25!!!)
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you want to write about a relationship, don’t literally write about a relationship. Find a metaphor for the relationship, something with a hook, and write about that. To use Vivien as an example, if the original intent was to write about a troubled marriage, writing about a literal trouble marriage will put people to sleep. By using this possession as a metaphor, you’ve all of a sudden got a clever hook, and your movie can now be marketed.
What I learned 2: Be brave and write about the things you’re scared to admit to anyone in real life. Your scripts and your novels are the places where you have to let that stuff out. And the more honest you are, the more the reader is going to connect with your story.
Premise: (from Black List) The true story of Marvin Glass, brilliant, charismatic, self-loathing, paranoid, demanding – and probably the greatest toy inventor of all time.
About: Mr. Toy finished on the low end of last year’s Black List. Chai Hecht made the Black List before in 2014, with his script, “In Real Time,” about a brother’s attempt to save his suicidal’s sister’s life by recreating her high school prom. I didn’t love that script, but it’s good to see that Hecht is still churning out material. Remember, you have to keep creating content. You never know which of your ideas is going to be the one that people fall in love with. Dan Brown wrote three books (all of which sold less than 10,000 copies) before he wrote The DaVinci Code, which sold 80 million copies.
Writer: Chai Hecht
Details: 111 pages
Memorial Day Weekend is usually a time of reflection. Which it definitely was for two studios this weekend, Disney and Paramount, as their films, “Pirates” and “Baywatch,” drowned under the weight of their seafaring subject matter, leaving the presidents who greenlit them scratching the red, white, and blue off their heads.
Baywatch’s failure was the more obvious of the two. Don’t studios know that audiences no longer buy cheesy old shows repurposed into comedy features anymore? The oddest thing about Baywatch is whoever decided to approve its R rating. The original Baywatch was harmless fun. Why alienate millions of dollars of potential business for what I’m guessing is access to a few more swear words? Not that Baywatch was going to be a hit at PG-13, but I guarantee it would’ve made more money.
The new Pirates had a fun trailer, but this franchise has run out of peg-legs. I believe audiences are fine with studios and their money-hoarding ways AS LONG AS EVERYONE IS COMMITTED TO MAKING A GREAT FILM. The second we feel like you don’t care anymore? That’s when we don’t care anymore. And that’s what’s happened to Pirates.
Speaking of franchises, the biopic has turned into its own franchise – a never-ending train of biographies on a one-way track to Oscar Nomi-station. But with so many lives being documented, it’s become harder and harder to stand out. Let’s see if a toy-maker can locate the genre’s secret sauce.
Marvin Glass grew up in my wonderful home state of Illinois in the 1920s and had the unfortunate luck of being born to the worst father in existence, a verbally abusive man, who, when he discovered that Marvin had a talent for making toys, made it clear to him that men don’t make toys.
Perhaps that explains why, when Marvin graduated from college, he decided to become a painter. And he was pretty good at it, if not good enough to sell anything yet. Painting is where he met his wife, Dorothy, who was a model in one of his classes, and the two quickly had a child, a girl.
With the pressure to provide, Marvin was forced into the toy-making business, where he quickly built that famous wind-up “chattering teeth” toy, choosing to take a quick 400 bucks rather than hold on to the licensing rights. Marvin thought nothing of the deal. But when the item became one of the hottest selling toys ever, it would teach Marvin a valuable lesson. It’s better to play the long game than the short one.
This led to Marvin pioneering a way to sell toys that had never been done before – inventor royalties. He would sell the toy rights to the big companies then take a cut in perpetuity (I learned that word on Shark Tank!).
After someone stole one of Marvin’s idea, Marvin became obsessed with secrecy – turning into the Christopher Nolan of the toy industry. He built a fortress, blacked out the windows, and changed all the locks in his building every three weeks. He then introduced another new concept into the business – an NDA. His customers were not allowed to see his prototypes without first signing a waiver saying they wouldn’t steal his idea.
Throughout all of this, Marvin became insufferable, an asshole, and obsessed with making as much money as possible, ironic since he started out his career hating money. It was argued that Marvin hated his life so much (he’s famously quoted as saying: “I consider myself a complete and utter failure.”) because he pursued a profession he despised. Which, I guess, is the lesson of this story? Although there’s so much going on in Mr. Toy, I can’t be sure of that.
Let’s go over our “What Your Biopic Needs to Be Great” checklist.
1) Fascinating subject – If you don’t have this, don’t bother writing a biopic. That means someone who’s unique or strange or fucked up or had an incredibly complex life, good or bad (preferably both). Look at the biopic about the DHL guy. After he died, they found out he’d had basically been a pedophile all his life who had impregnated numerous young girls. That’s as fucked up as it gets.
2) A great character – More than any other genre, character exploration in a biopic has to be on point. That means inner conflict. It means a clearly defined flaw. It means vices (alcohol, drugs, women). Irony is strongly rewarded (a comedian suffering from depression). These movies are about exploring the inner life as much as the outer.
3) A fresh angle – A fresh angle in the biopic department pretty much means anything besides a linear cradle-to-grave story, as that’s the most obvious route one can go. Predictability is the enemy of all great movies. And there’s nothing more predictable than going cradle-to-grave in a biopic.
4) A great story – Just like non-biopics, a biopic needs to have a great story. It can’t just be a checklist of scenes that occurred during someone’s life. You should try and add GSU. You should try and add three acts. There should be compelling revelations, unexpected developments, drama, suspense, and, overall, a story that’s interesting. For whatever reason, biopics want to be boring. Their nature is to be the script version of someone’s Wikipedia page. So you have to work against that to find your story.
How does Mr. Toy stack up in all these areas? Let’s take a look.
Mr. Toy is interesting in that he hates toys and he hates what he does, despite being so good at it. But I wouldn’t call him fascinating. His biggest career achievement seems to be pioneering royalties for toy makers. Unfortunately, numbers on a spreadsheet don’t translate well into film. Nobody’s pining for a scene where Marvin negotiates an extra percentage point on his deal.
A GREAT CHARACTER
There was a lot going on with Marvin for sure. He hated toys. He hated money. Yet he still focused on those things above his own flesh and blood, as his wife left him and his daughter despised him. However, this complexity was often more confusing than compelling. I couldn’t figure out why a man who hated money so much wanted it so badly. There was never a moment that linked those two conflicting ideologies together. By the end of the script, he’s trying to live like Hugh Hefner, yet he says numerous times he hates money and everything it represents.
A FRESH ANGLE
This was a straight cradle to grave biopic, so no freshness involved. The great thing about a fresh angle is that it can hide a lot of a script’s imperfections. Fresh takes are becoming harder and harder to find in this genre since it’s so crowded. But you have to be inventive. Arron Sorkin built Steve Jobs around three major product launches. It can be done.
There didn’t seem to be a structure here, so the script wandered for awhile as we got to know Marvin over the early part of his career. The script picked up, however, when Hecht added a goal – Marvin needed to come up with a new toy or lose his floundering company. All of a sudden, we had a goal, we had stakes, we had urgency. But above all, we had structure. The problem? This didn’t happen until page 70. Had we introduced some sort of plot earlier, Mr. Toy would’ve been a lot more focused.
This is the thing with biopics. Since they don’t naturally fit into the 3-Act structure, writers try to wing it. Just fill up the space with the person’s life and everything else will sort itself out. But storytelling doesn’t work that way. It needs a series of destinations to keep the story on track. And I couldn’t ever figure out where this one wanted to go.
I wanted to like it. There is something deliciously ironic about adults who make toys. But Mr. Toy never got there for me.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: To find a fresh angle for your biopic, look for inspiration within the character himself. For example, if you’re documenting a cartoonist, tell the entire story inside one of his cartoons. If you’re documenting someone who died of Alzheimer’s, tell the story out of order, the way they remember things. If you’re documenting a famous silent film actor, write a silent film. Just don’t write cradle-to-grave unless the life perfectly fits into the 3-Act structure and is amazing as is. Or – OR! – do write a 3-act structure if you’re documenting a famous screenwriter. And have the screenwriter admit to the audience that he knows you hate cradle-to-grave biopics but he’s going to tell you one anyway. Have fun with it. But always, above all else, be creative.