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Screenplay Concepts (Loglines)

Yesterday I offered to read people’s scripts, albeit with a bunch of caveats that probably discouraged people.

I was expecting to be inundated, but only heard from a half-dozen folks. Which is just as well, because those few folks who did reach out, after going through all my whiny warnings, were super cool.

The offer is still good! Read here for details.

But what I suspected would happen...pretty much ended up being what happened: Most scripts are a “pass” from anybody inside the industry (in other words, anybody who actually matters) simply because of the logline!

It took me many years to realize this. I wrote countless scripts the way most people do: writing things that interested me, constructing them as best I could, and then, ex-post facto, trying to scrawl out a logline because I learned that you had to have a logline in order to submit to anyplace (be it a contest or a manager via query).

I hated it, because here was my brilliant, personal masterwork—and I had to sum it up in a sentence or two? It seemed like such insulting bullshit!

Well, I have seen the error of my ways.

In the end, it was just as well I wrote all those bad, sloppy scripts (to a point) because I needed the practice. It was just the process I had to go through. Same for all of us. The only difference is how long that process has to be. For me, it was waaaay too long.

The real issue with the logline is not that it is some sacrosanct thing, but that it conveys the CONCEPT of the movie. And the only thing people care the concept.

This is a buyer’s market. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of screenplays. Only a few hundred get made every year—most of them from established filmmakers.

So the “entry level” slots are, what, a few dozen? Certainly, not many.

You’ve heard the term “high concept.” It is, alas, essential if you are a nobody screenwriter, and you don’t have the rights to The Transformers or something, to have your script be “high concept.”

It’s not just the silver’s the only bullet!

Tell me, would your read this script?

GOLIATH (sci-fi): A family of four is thrust into a harrowing space adventure when their interplanetary ferry is attacked by pirates. The family is abducted and anointed as gods in the pirates’ religion—which includes human sacrifices to the space beast “Goliath.” 

I wouldn’t—and I wrote it! At the time—I was in love with it!

But...what the hell is about? The family? A space ferry? Space pirates? Gods? The monster?

Even as I was writing it—and was dimly aware it would cost $300M to make—I was like, hmm, this kind of sounds like two different movies smashed together. And that might be a problem...

I was, I am chagrined to say, already, what, 43 years old, father of two? Having spent ten years writing scripts?

I am an idiot! So if you ever feel insulted by me—don’t be!!!

I even sent Goliath, when it was done, to a childhood friend who is now a high-up film executive. He is the head of production for one of the top-five movie stars in the WORLD. (Name redacted to protect the innocent.)

Juan-Carlos (not his name) read it, and was nice, and said, “Hey, dude, pretty cool...yeah, first off, that would cost $300 million to make. Write something else?”

Now I can’t—and won’t—ask him to read anything else (unless and until I become successful)...because it’s just not cool.

Did I mention I was an idiot?

Now, would you read this script?

A man with the inability to create new short-term memories tries to avenge the death of his wife by tracking down her killer.

That is, of course, Memento, which launched the career of Christopher Nolan.

And hell yeah, I would read that script. That sounds awesome—and it was! Several BILLION dollars subsequently changed hands because that logline is awesome.

Here is a really cool Facebook group, The Inside Pitch by Chris Lockhart of WME, which is all about logline guidance and review.

Here is a good Twitter thread by manager Zack Zucker, of Bellevue, about why having a great concept is “the cheat code” that will open doors for you. (And, alas, pretty much the only way to do it.)

Here is an article at Scriptshadow breaking down film genres and giving great advice on which one to write to try to break through as a new writer.

Also, speaking of Bellevue, here is a long pdf compiled by Scripts and Scribes of manager John Zaozirny’s advice on a ton of subjects, including how to send a query email to a manager.

I want everybody reading this, who is serious about writing, to do joke...

I’m a sci-fi guy, but it doesn’t really matter if you are or not.

I want you to read, methodically and without cheating, each and every logline. I dare you!

Maybe the first two, three or four will be fine. You’ll be like, this isn’t so bad...

But it’s the box test from Dune. It will start to tingle, then burn—then you will be overcome with the irresistible urge to REMOVE YOUR HAND, even at the cost of your life!

If Dune is too artsy-fartsy—try Airplane! You’ll be our friend on the right:

Keep going and all I can say is you’ll be in a fugue state. Time will suspend. Life will not be worth living. It will just be...a procession...of words...with no meaning...

I tried to pick the best ones out of several hundred—it was a very informative exercise.

But most of them sucked. They were soft. They were confusing. They were sort of a chore to ingest and process to figure out who or what it was even about.

They certainly seemed alike...and that was the biggest sin of all.

The point is: every single manager, producer, agent, executive and industry person on the other end of your query email has to ward off this fugue state every—single—day.

For all intents and purposes, it is barely possible for these folks read all of the loglines—let alone respond to them.

(It is true that somewhere in the galaxy, there is, in fact, the most brilliant script of all time, hiding behind a terrible logline. But people simply have to assume they’re not going to miss out on it—any more than you dwell on getting in a hideous accident when you drive your car. You just gotta live your life!)

It doesn’t take just one “yes” to make your movie happen and your dream come true. (Maybe if you have a direct line to Spielberg? Or your dad was Paul Allen?)

It takes a whole chain of them: managers pitch to junior execs, who pitch to their bosses, who pitch to their bosses, who pitch to investors/studios/buyers, who pitch to agents, who pitch to directors, in order just to make the offer to stars...

Throughout this, what do they pass around in email, to people with no attention spans?

The logline.

And they’re not dumb. They know what will move the needle.

That’s enough for now.

Next time I’ll talk about how to try to come up with a cool concept...seeing as how I’m an impoverished idiot.

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