Luke Ryan is Executive Vice President of Disruption Entertainment, which has a first look deal at Paramount Pictures. He’s also worked as a screenwriter and came to share with us the detailed process of how a Hollywood script gets to the screen and why it does, using the project of Hot Tub Time Machine as an example.
He begins by telling us that Hollywood is a silly place, but it’s a place where things get made and Execs need to keep material flowing in the pipeline. This begins with the script submissions. One thing I didn’t know on screenplays is that on the title page of a script, an ampersand means the writers work together and an ‘and’ means they wrote as well. Good to know and tells the execs whether they’re dealing with individuals or writing teams. The logline must express what the story is about, succinctly and include the story hook. As a rule the shorter the logline the higher concept the story is likely to be, in that it needs fewer words to explain. What story to write and pitch is a case of concept and character change, and you need to consider whether an audience will really want to see it. Not only are audience returns important to the studios but for your own writing life, if you’re committing part of your life to this story, can you really ‘write the hell out of it’ before you commit part of your life to writing this particular screenplay. When an exec finds a story they can make, they need to justify the spend to the studio to get it approved and financed. Often they are going into a room with an extremely busy person who may be also on the phone while listening to them convey your forty minute pitch in just a couple of minutes to get an okay. The clearer you can make your pitch the easier it is for them to go in and get that okay.
Writing deals in the Hollywood system guarantee WGA minimum, if they buy your screenplay the deal will likely include one re-write before they can bring other writers in. Optional revisions and polishes can form part of the contract too, if they continue to like what you’re doing with the notes and changes. Bonuses come at the end and are greater for sole credits, much less for shared credits. The process starts with a draft and then either you or another writer/writers will redraft until the exec things it’s ready to move on, or it gets ‘Turnaround’. Turnaround rights are where a story has been going through this process a while and you and your representation can ask to buy the rights back so that you can shop the story elsewhere if the studio is not going to make it. After turnaround the process of pitching begins again and you’re back to square one. But if the project moves on the process of attaching talent like actors and director begins. Luke warns that if attaching talent to sell a screenplay make sure that those people bring genuine value to the project. They may be a big name, but there are names who bring less value and their attachment can be more of a hindrance to a project than a help.
There’s a green lighting committee who decides if the project is green lit for production, if it doesn’t there may be delay or turnaround. They wear much nicer clothes than anyone else and don’t care about the creativity of a project, but are predicting the worth of the investment. Movies have traditionally been green lit based on a document called a profit and loss statment which is a low, mid and high case projection of the real production costs against the predicted (imaginary) income cost figures that the project is likely to bring in. It’s not merely a process of will the film make a profit, but will it make enough of a profit for the amount invested. For instance an $8M profit on a $50M investment is a bad investment, not only because the $8M is only a prediction but because there are better investment returns out there for anyone wanting to make money on a $50M investment. Changes over the years have meant that marketing budgets have increased and as technology changes revenue fluctuates so this process is affected quite a lot by what can be marketed now. Global decline has meant that the industry shrank in recent years by about 40% and there are less execs buying less work. Piracy, complex markets like China etc. come into play. Understanding this gives you an insight into what you will really want to spend your life writing.
At the end of the redrafting stage roundtabling may be used by the exec to improve as much as possible before shooting the script. For the cost of a re-write a number of highly talented writers are brought together in a room to go over and discuss the script and brainstorm it. It’s a good way to get a lot of brilliant minds contributing ideas to a project. Actors drafts may come in and their ideas may also be included. A lot of Hot Tub Time Machine ideas from John Cusack’s draft were included in the final film. Finally the production phase gets underway which is prepping and shooting the film. A timetable is put in place which also includes post, studio viewings, and tests. Writing can sometimes go on during production but ideally one wants to start with a completed screenplay where possible. There were 27 official studio drafts of Hot Tub Time Machine through development and production with stars, studio heads etc. input throughout. Everyone cares about things and wants the best movie and the changes they care about can affect the entire draft. For Hot Tub Time Machine with the time travel aspect this made changes more difficult.
Release schedules are then looked out to find the best available window to maximise profit and interest during release. All kinds of facts, figures dates and timelines are noted and weekend projections made on various release schedules then there is a testing phase, they like to do several tests on full theatres (about 300 people). On Hot Tub, money was pulled from marketing to create word of mouth and social network buzz when tests showed that recommendation may be the way to get people to see the film. Testing also highlighted a dead comedy zone within the film, and reshoots were done to improve that. Testing also happened for the trailers and though a number tested well, they went with the trailer that tested best with their preferred demographic. Looking at the variants, the chosen trailer was actually the one I preferred, it was clear, fun and simple.
Roundtabling happened again after the re-shoots to decide what was or wasn’t to be included in the final release cut of the film. Then tracking data is used to predict how the marketing is going, who is or isn’t aware that the film exists, if they know when it’s released and if they plan to see it as a first choice or dependant on the other films they might see in that release slot. Then the positive/negative reviews are tracked on release. The release and income data will predict whether a sequel will happen.
All in all this was an incredibly useful amount of information to hear, and gave me a huge insight into the very difficult jobs of studio execs and what happens in the industry. The writers’ strike had a huge impact on the market with less specs being bought now and that pause forced people to implement those changes ahead of when they’d have done so if the machinery had kept ticking forward without disruption. Execs may get writers in to write to specifications that fit their studio requirements, that are more likely to be green lit and that don’t get into spec script bidding wars which can be more expensive. In the next few years there could be more changes with money coming from companies like google and those who own screens like cellphone companies. Those companies can reach an audience without a massive marketing budget. Executives will try to achieve and maintain relationships with as many good writers as possible, and that’s something to remember when pitching. You can in a round of pitching only sell your script to one person but you can use those pitches to forge relationships with twenty people who can remember you and your writing talent. Share your mastery of the craft as a writer and they could come to you as well as you to them.
I’m supremely grateful for what I learned here and very respectful of the very complex process of getting a Hollywood script made. There are pitfalls and opportunities but knowledge is power they say and we were definitely given some incredible knowledge here today!
Leilani Homes at the London Screenwriters Festival
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