Monday, March 24, 2014

Reader questions: Are you bringing something original to the table?

Joe writes:

I adapted a screenplay based on a RomZomCom novel about a married couple on the verge of divorce that repairs their relationship after/due to a zombie outbreak. I thought that since it was a RomZomCom that focuses on a bickering married couple (I'm aware that it sounds like a similar premise to Shaun of the Dead, but thought it would fall into the "same, but different" category) and not a dreary zombie flick about a group of survivors holed up somewhere would give it enough commercial appeal to at least be a direct to DVD film. 

I hosted my script on the Black List, paid for two reviews, and much to my dismay each came back as 5 overall with no individual scores higher than a 6, and each review had a 4--one review gave me a 4 for characters, and one gave me a 4 for plot. 

The weaknesses discussed in each review focused on a lack of character development, particularly the couple's relationship--which I agree with and have ideas for fixing--but the "Prospects" section of each review stated that my screenplay wasn't unique enough to stand out from other zombie movies. 

Obviously, since no category was higher than a 6, there are also issues with dialogue and plot (which may be linked to character development) that need to be fixed, but in your opinion, would it even be worth the time to re-write the script focusing on developing the relationship of the couple? Or, given the fact that there are already so many zombie movies, is my premise not even unique enough to have any commercial appeal? How do you know when it's time to just give up on a script completely?  

First, as far as knowing when to give up on a script, check out this video post.

But to further that discussion, I think it's important to consider the larger context here.  I think that no matter how good the script is, you're going to be fighting against that knee-jerk reaction of, "Not ANOTHER zombie movie!"  Zombies, like vampires before them, have hit total saturation point.  If you think there are a lot of produced films about either of those entities, you need to remember that for each one of those, there are hundreds of specs all trying to cash in on that genre's success.

To stand out from the crowd, you're going to need an incredibly inventive take.  The first spec that springs to mind is MAGGIE, which was on the Black List a few years ago.  This was a zombie script with a twist - it treated zombie-ism as a slow-progressing disease and focuses on a 16 year-old girl who's gradually turning into a zombie over six weeks.  I've read MAGGIE and it really plays less like a horror movie and more like a terminal illness movie that uses the supernatural trappings to dress it up a bit.

I'll confess I wasn't a huge fan of the script. I admired its cleverness in how it set up its concept, but it wasn't a script that left me with a burning need to see brought to the screen.  But I can't dispute that it found an approach to zombies that no one else was doing and it did it on a budget.

With your script, you need to be brutally honest in deciding for yourself if you're bringing anything new to the table.  With a genre like that, it's going to take more than just another set of characters working through their issues amid a zombie attack.  What's unique beyond those characters?  ZOMBIELAND didn't work just because it was four colorful characters - it was because the story started at a point where zombies had almost completely taken over the country and it treated that situation with a bit more irreverence than we'd seen.  We're given the doomsday scenario, but it's made darkly funny rather than brutal.

Is your script doing something that no one else's is?  Or is it merely a well-executed example of elements that feel familiar at this point?

Alessandro asks:

Is there any room for a character arc in a short movie script? (15 mins max)

Absolutely.  Just to pull from two examples I've featured on the blog, check out "Violet" and "Man Crush."  Both of them are under five minutes and were produced by students participating in Campus MovieFest.

Daren asks:

I've always liked the format for THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER script - with the absence of traditional sluglines. Using instead things like "IN JACK'S OFFICE" as the heading. Dan Gilroy's NIGHTCRAWLER script used the same style. I also really liked the bold. Both scripts were lean/fast reads. 

Anyway, question - is it okay to use similar formatting as long as you're consistent? I'm not talking about using a non courier font or messing with margins/dialogue and character spacing, but would the use of non traditional sluglines or bolding your script really turn off a reader/producer that much (assuming the story is great and script well written of course)? 

I don't see this thing too often so I can't speak to what the exact reaction would be.  I'd presume that once the script got to the point of being budgeted, the non-traditional slugs are going to drive your line producer crazy.

Speaking as someone who reads a lot of scripts, I always get thrown by this because it makes it harder to scan and identify specific scenes easy.  The extra line break before that scene heading and the "INT."  is really easy too look for when one has to scan back for a particular sequence.

I'm one of those who tends to feel that any time you stray outside the normal format, you're making it harder on the people reading your script.  The last thing anyone should want to do is force the reader to make extra effort.  I never want to have to rely on the benefit of the doubt.  There's a reason that every formatting program defaults to the standard sluglines.  They're universally recognized.

I don't think straying from the format will hurt a brilliantly written script, but if your writing already has the reader assessing it on the borderline AND they're having to work harder to keep track of things, you're probably dead.


  1. I haven't read HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER or NIGHTCRAWLER but doesn't RED OCTOBER take place entirely in a submarine? The reason the sluglines are the way they are might be because of the setting - it's assumed that every location is an interior because the characters can't go outside of the submarine. I recently read Jon Spaights PASSENGERS and I found that to be the case. He didn't use INT. or EXT. because the characters rarely went outside of the starship.

  2. Bitter,

    Thanks for the response. I'm not trying to be a badass or anything by slightly altering the format. I do just genuinely like the way it reads without traditional slugs and in bold font. However, based on what you've said, I will stick to the regular form...until I've actually made a sale. Thanks again.

    1. And Craig,

      Get what you're saying. I've seen that too. However, RED OCTOBER has many scenes on land, in planes, on boats, etc. Just a stylistic choice in this case.

  3. I actually use the bold sluglines and in places use them without INT. or EXT. when character(s)/action is swiftly moving from one place to another (i.e., maybe a chase scene). It actually makes for a quicker read as long as it's not every slugline in the entire script.

    My producer for one of my scripts didn't have a problem breaking it out for budgeting purposes. He treated all sluglines as a new scene. I haven't had any negative reaction to how's it's formatted either from anyone (creative execs, coverage people, etc).

    The key is to know when to treat sluglines like that and when not to.