Screenwriting

Writing for the Green Light – The Genre You Choose Says A Lot About You

The stereotype about Hollywood is that it’s filled to the brim with wannabe writers (and this stereotype is completely true). But contrary to popular belief, most of these wannabes are actually good at writing and the majority of them possess the endurance to deliver a quality 100-page script. The problem is that most screenwriters consistently write the wrong type of script—choosing a genre that unintentionally turns away the very professionals they’re trying to attract.

The genre of script you choose ultimately showcases what your value is within the Hollywood system. Why? Because the genre is the first, and most clear, indicator as to whether you “get it” or not. To put it bluntly, you either understand what professional producers and development executives need and you deliver scripts they can work with, or you’re simply wasting their time and clogging up the system.

So how does one go about choosing the right genre? Or learning the difference between a good genre and a bad one? It sounds absurdly obvious, but if you want to build a writing career in the movie business then you simply need to choose the genres that producers and development executives are looking to develop.

This is where most newbie writers begin making mistakes, simply because they look to the wrong sources for insight into what these Hollywood types truly want. Your friends tell you one thing, an advisor/professor tells you another and endless IMDb research just leaves you feeling more confused than when you began.

But we’re trying to help you get your career fast-tracked, so let’s jump ahead to which genres work and which don’t so that we can bring you one step closer to your first green light.

GENRE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

The Ugly

Let’s start first with what does not work: It’s easy: Drama!

There’s nothing about a drama’s story that doesn’t make it work, it’s more about the fact that in order for an indie distributor to produce a sellable drama they’re required to secure an expensive cast of big names. . . . And that still doesn’t account for the risk associated with this genre’s limited opportunity for VOD sales and broadcast slots. Dramas are also tough to presell internationally because most of them are dialogue heavy—meaning they’re expensive to dub and subtitle.

New writers want to move their audience at the core by writing something of such beauty and vision that their script will be held on a pedestal and admired by all. Truth is, most dramatic script submissions are so awful, poorly written, and filled with such self-absorbed pretentiousness, that the mere indication that you are trying to pitch a story anywhere near a dramatic theme will sink your career before it even gets started!

Even if you have a brilliant dramatic idea, save it! If you start your career on the drama route, you will be buried and pushed aside. Even if your script is fantastic, you will still be forced into going “the long-way around.” Wait until you’ve proven yourself and have a few credits before presenting a drama. Even if you have an agent and are getting consistent work with a production company, they’re still fearful of going to their third-party clients with news of an upcoming drama, so you need to get your career to a point where your talent cannot be disputed and those parties are willing and ready to share that risk with you.

Again: Dramas are great; just don’t start your career with one.

The Bad

Let’s move into the middle zone with a questionable genre: Comedy.

Don’t get me wrong, comedy is very high in demand and it’s successful throughout the world. . . . But it’s very difficult to write comedy, and it carries a very high degree of risk due to all the elements that can go wrong, so it should really be avoided except in very rare instances—especially in your first few scripts. If the old saying is true, that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, keep in mind that comedies have many more variables leaning towards the disaster zone than any other genre.

First, even if your script is laugh-out-loud funny to your reader, there’s still the problem of finding a director and cast that can nail the comedic timing elements in your script—they’ll also start adding their own ideas and jokes that can make the final production version a far cry from what was originally written—and their bad ideas and failures only fall back on you. Second, with studio-level content dominating the U.S. theatrical space, TV and VOD platforms (like Netflix) are getting more picky and selective by the minute—unfortunately for comedies, unless there’s a unique star or run-away sleeper-hit aspect to the film (like Napoleon Dynamite (2003)), they just never find the support of U.S. acquisitions agents—for proof, note that the best reference I could think of came from 2003. There’s also much more risk around “content sensitivities” in comedy that leave broadcasters and advertisers on edge; one single scene with a “questionable attribute” can keep an otherwise flawless feature-length comedy on the shelf. And third, even if your script is executed by a great production team and some heavy-hitting U.S. platforms are exploited, comedies are very difficult in the rest of the world. They’re usually dialogue-heavy (meaning expensive dubbing and subtitling costs) and there’s also the very real fact that a majority of cultural and social references aren’t clearly understood by most viewers in the world. The very plot of the film might involve something seemingly simple/ordinary to you, but the rest of the world has no idea about it—meaning they’ll have no interest in paying to see it. Because of this, comedies that work in one region of the world rarely succeed in the others.

Keep in mind, the above is all assuming your script is top-notch too—comedies are a skill level of writing that can take years (decades even) of trial and error to master. Quality humor is such a very rare talent, that most comedy writers didn’t start their career trying to be screenwriters. They were stand-up comedians or performers who later got involved in story development and eventually fell into writing.

Romantic comedies are very successful films, but again all of the above problems occur on these productions as well—and I have seen many potentially great romantic comedies fall apart from different variations of the above. Also, as the guy who literally signs deals on movies at the markets, I can tell you from first-hand experience that the prices romantic comedies go for are actually quite low (again, because of the risk and the cost to dub them).

That said, if you’re just dying to write some humor, then it’s much smarter to focus on one of the below “good” genres and spice them up by adding some appropriately placed comic relief. Believe me, a few witty one-liners cleverly placed into a genre that proves you “get it” will do much more to further your career than a failed attempt at “the next great teenage comedy.”

To repeat: Comedies are a very successful genre, but a very risky choice for new writers. Tread with extreme caution.

If you are passionate about writing comedy or drama, don’t misinterpret the above advice to mean you can never explore these genres! I’m only suggesting they’re not the best “out-of-the-gate” spec scripts to show off your skills.

And the Good

So let’s get down to what does work: Basically everything else.

What gains the attention of agents, producers, and development executives are clear, straight-to-the-point entertainment genres. What does that mean exactly? Simple: Thrillers work. So do action films, horror films, and light-hearted family films.

The problem is so very few new writers actually write these genres! That means those that do write them have a much higher chance of getting their career into motion because they stand head and shoulders above all the competition out there.

Turn on your TV and scroll through the channels. I bet you’ll count six to eight thrillers for every one romantic comedy. I bet you’ll find entire channels devoted to horror, action, and dozens dedicated to family. You’ll see dramas and comedies too, but you’ll also notice these are studio-level movies with major A-list casts (you’ll also notice a lot of them are old, except on the pay-per-view channels). This is not the case with thriller, horror, action, or family genres. Click on one. Watch them. Recognize the actors? Maybe one or two, from some TV series you cannot remember the name of. The point is that thriller, horror, action, and family do not require high-level A-list stars to work. . . . The genre itself is enough to give it stature.

What about the international side? What happens when these genres get pitched at the Cannes Film Festival? I have never in my life heard any of my clients ask me for a drama. Not once. When I have had to sell drama, I’ll do my best to pitch it, but my client will always end up asking me about the cast in the movie. Unless it’s an A-list name, they shake their heads “no.” I have been asked for comedy, but it’s always a very specific request, like, “Do you have comedies about kick boxing?” or something else out of the blue. Comedy can work if it’s slap-stick (because it’s understood and doesn’t require a dub), but slap-stick humor still needs an internationally known star, such as Rowan Atkinson and his globally recognizable Mr. Bean character. If a comedy is dialogue-based, and most are, then it goes back to who is in the fi lm and any name you provide never seems to meet the clients’ expectations. They just cringe their face, shake their heads, and pass.

So what do my clients all over the world ask me for? Here are common requests in my working day: I’ll get a phone call from Starz, ION, or Lifetime, “What do you have for family or thriller?” A client from Japan will call me, “I’m looking for action, what do you have?” I go to lunch with Netflix, “Do you have any family or thriller?” I get an email from reps at Chiller, or limitless VOD platforms, “What do you have in thriller or horror?”

See a pattern? Dramas and comedies are dead weight. People don’t want them and they clog up the system.

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, and want to be seen as valuable in the Hollywood system, then hop on the bandwagon and put your effort into what producers and development executives actually want to acquire.

WELL, NO SHIT, SHERLOCK

Okay, perhaps Hollywood wanting entertainment-value genres is far from a shocking revelation. Besides, the word “thriller” or “family” can cover so many different types of stories; it’s not exactly a huge puzzle piece I’m providing here. I first wanted to make it clear that dramas and comedies simply need to be removed from your writing lexicon, at least for the time being. Now that they’re removed, let’s focus on those four top genres: Thriller, action, horror, and family.

Writing a script based on one of these genres will drastically narrow the playing field, but it certainly won’t be enough to get you a first green light. You’re going to have to dig deeper into these genres and present a script based on what distributors consider absolute “content necessities”—meaning you’re going to have to present agents and producers with one of the “gold-mine” scripts.

A gold-mine script is not one based on a certain genre; instead, it’s focused on a specific genre type. What does that mean? It means not all thrillers or horror films are made equal. Certain trends can define genre types (like zombie horror films), but these are generally fads—meaning that by the time you hear that a genre type is all the craze, the marketplace has already been flooded and your eight months of effort on a great zombie fi lm go nowhere. Rather, a gold-mine script is one that stands the test of time. . . . A fi lm based on a gold-mine script will be of interest to TV channels, DVD/VOD distributors, and content buyers throughout the world, year after year.

Here is the real insight: Not only are the gold-mine genre types the fastest way to get recommended and the most sought-after within the indie marketplace, they are actually the easiest to write! In fact, there are six that are so foolproof and successful that entire companies (and entire individual careers) have grown and blossomed all by remaining true to them. Also, these scripts are so very rare to be received by agents, producers, and production companies that they review these scripts with more acceptance—and forgiveness—than any other (because they know they can sell the hell out of it!) making it much easier for you to edge your way into the top 1 percent of novice screenwriters who truly gain the attention of Hollywood.

Image by Curtis Newton via Flickr

Excerpt from Writing for the Green Light: How to Make Your Script the One Hollywood Notices by Scott Kirkpatrick, © 2015. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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