The market is changing. Because this is America, a company isn’t doing well unless it’s growing. Stock prices must continue to rise. Dividends must continue to… … divvy. And that’s putting pressure on Hollywood to deliver product with more upside. Obviously, there’s only so much a single film can do. Only so many toys it can produce. Only so many tie-ins it can manufacture.
For awhile, the studios had a solution for this. They called them “sequels.” Clever idea, right? Sequels allowed a studio to keep making money off the same property. But sequels can take 2-3 years to make. Growth, once again, was stagnated by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Enter the “universe” phase. Universes not only allow you that original movie plus its sequels. But now you can have SPINOFF films. Have a super-hero or secondary character everybody loved? Give him his own movie! Conceivably, you can now release a movie from your franchise EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Marvel proved this was a viable business model with their Avengers franchise. Pretty soon, Star Wars jumped on the bandwagon, then Universal with their horror characters, and DC/WB with the Justice League, though they seemed a little confused by the whole notion (“Universe? Ohhhh-kaaayyy. Yeah, we’ll do that.”).
Now whether this model will work for an extended period of time is another question. The reason they didn’t do this kind of thing before was because they assumed people would get sick of seeing the same old shit. But with Marvel’s dominance, we’ve surprisingly witnessed the opposite. People want more of this shit!
The result is that intellectual property drives the majority of studios’ decisions now. And if your intellectual property can spurn more intellectual property, even better.
Nipping at the heels of the “universe” IP approach are YA novel adaptations. Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Giver. Publishing houses are starting YA novel brands with the explicit purpose of getting movie deals out of them. So crazy has the YA novel craze gotten, you can’t even option YA books that have 5 reviews on Amazon anymore. Desperate producers have already beaten you to the punch!
After that, you have the toy properties (Transformers, G.I. Joe, The Lego Movie), the traditional sequel franchises (Planet of the Apes, Fast and Furious), high-profile book adaptations (Lord of the Rings, World War Z) the animation properties (mainly Disney and Pixar), and the occasional ultra-concept film (Godzilla, Super 8).
So what does over-dependence on IP mean? It means fewer and fewer slots on the calendar for original spec screenplays. Which is why you’re seeing less and less screenplays being purchased. Now I’ve been reading a lot of the specs out there, the ones making big enough waves to get noticed, and the biggest reason they’re not doing well, in my eyes, is because they’re not good enough.
This stems from the majority of writers assuming their scripts only have to be as good as the movies they see on a typical summer weekend. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. The top films at the box office were all born out of intellectual property. In other words, the people on the other end of the pitch already knew what the writer/producers were talking about. When someone hears, “Godzilla,” they know who Godzilla is. They don’t have any idea what your script, Chocolate Frank and the Huckleberry Dancers, is about. It’s just a pile of digital paper. That means the big IP project shoots to the top of the priority list while Huckleberry Frank gets stuck up chocolate creek without a paddle. The only way your script is going to get picked over a project like Godzilla is if it’s exceptional, not simply “as good as.”
Intellectual property has taken over and you, the screenwriters with original ideas, are being pushed out. Should you throw in the towel? Give in? Of course not. Adversity is the harbinger for some of the greatest creations in history. We must adapt! We must change our tactics. But I shall warn you. Not all of this advice here is sexy. We’re looking at cold hard facts so we need to consider cold hard solutions. Throw all your preconceived notions about how to make it in this industry in a box and slide it under the bed. It’s time to put on your reality pajamas and make some tough decisions.
How to compete with IP…
Solution 1: Make your own movie – Far from earth-shattering advice. But this continues to be one of the fastest ways to break in because you bypass all the bullshit gridlock Hollywood’s famous for. Movies are getting cheaper and cheaper to make. The amazing Blackmagic camera can be had for under two grand. And since you’re on this site, you already have a HUGE advantage over your competition. One of the biggest weaknesses in any low-budget film is a bad script. But you guys are writers! You know how to write a script. So write something cheap and shoot it cheap and get it out there!
Solution 2: Write comedies or thrillers. These two genres seem impervious to the IP plague. The great thing about thrillers is you can write them in multiple genres (horror, sci-fi, action, psychological), so you have a lot of range there to find subject matter you like. And comedies don’t need IP to be funny. Again, if you can come up with a clever concept (Neighbors), you can be looking down at the rest of us from your house in the hills at this time next year. These two genres are the best genres to write in if you’re writing specs, point blank.
Solution 3: The “spec universe” – The next option is one that hasn’t been proven yet, but with the “universe” approach gaining steam, I think it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the next big thing in spec screenwriting. It’s basically what “Moonfall” writer David Weil did. Off the buzz of Moonfall’s success, he used his meetings to pitch a 7 movie franchise based on The Arabian Nights.
Now there’s two things going on here. First, Weil is using an “IP” property that’s in the public domain. This allows the studio to get all the benefits of IP without having to pay for it. Secondly, he’s using the “universe” approach here to pitch the property. He didn’t come in with a single tiny spec to sell. Remember, studios have to think bigger now. They need more to bring to their investors. They want properties that are going to deliver over a longer period of time.
So look back through those public domain properties and see if anything sparks your imagination. The Count of Monte Cristo, a great book, is a popular older property that keeps getting remade. Can you come up with a franchise version of that? Of something else like it? I mean obviously you don’t want to force a “universe” onto an idea that can’t support it. But if the opportunity’s there, why not take it?
Solution 4: True stories, known quantities and IP sneak-arounds – Hollywood loves true stories. They love’em! So go out there and find a captivating true story to tell. You have 10,000 years of recorded history to draw from. I guarantee there are a few thousand amazing true stories that haven’t been told yet. Another option is a “known quantity IP sneak-around” approach. You find something that’s real and that everyone is familiar with, and you build a story around that. This is how Aaron Berg sold Section 6 for a million bucks (about the origin of MI-6), and I’m sure it played a role in F. Scott Frazier’s recent sale about an agent who worked for the agency that would later become the CIA. The idea here is to find sexy subject matter that people have heard about, and build a story around it, so it’s an easier sell, both from writer to studio, and studio to moviegoer. Once again, this is a way to write about something known without paying an IP price for it.
Solution 5: “If you can’t beat’em, join’em.” – Basically, throw out the idea of selling a spec. Instead, figure out which kinds of movies you love above all others, the kind of movies you’d die to get paid to write the rest of your lives, and write a script in that genre. So if you love movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, write a big crazy space opera. If you like Godzilla, write or make a movie about big monsters. The script will serve more as a writing sample for what you’re capable of doing, and get you out on meetings with the kinds of people who make the movies you want to write. You may not get that big splashy sale, but you get to play in the sandbox you always dreamed of playing in, and isn’t that the ultimate goal?
Solution 6: If you can’t join’em, leave’em. And write a pilot. – Pilots are so much easier to sell than specs these days. Everybody wants them. I heard even the Weather Network is jumping on the original programming bandwagon. Anybody have a spec titled “Light Rain?” As a movie lover, this used to be unthinkable to me. Who cares about TV! But TV keeps getting better and they treat writers like kings compared to the feature world. So pour through all of your movie ideas and see if any can be adapted into TV shows.
Solution 7: Write a great script. – No, I’m serious. If all else fails and you don’t like any of these options, write an awesome script about anything you want and I PROMISE you, you’ll get noticed. Just keep in mind that if you go this route, the script has to be better than if you go any of the other routes. You have to knock it out of the park. To achieve this, make sure you are BEYOND PASSIONATE about your idea. Because if you’re not passionate, you won’t pour your soul into it, and if you don’t pour your soul it, there’s little chance of it being great. If it’s not great, you’ve got no shot at competing with all those big IP properties. Also, make sure there’s a good story here. Don’t write about an entitled 25 year old white male who’s depressed because his trust fund was taken away from him (unless it’s a comedy!). Give us a real story and tell it well.
What about you folks? What do you think writers should be writing in this new era? Is there something I’ve forgotten? A future trend you see coming around the corner? Share and debate in the comments section!