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  • Creating the Pitch-Perfect One Sheet

    April 15th, 2017

    By Danny Manus

    One important part of the pitch that writers constantly forget is the One-Sheet. I know many of you are preparing your pitch, getting your script in shape, and figuring out what your strategy should be to maximize your pitching experiences. But how many of you have completed your one-sheet?

    If your hand isn’t raised – you’ve got some work to do. One-Sheets are an absolute must if you are going into a pitch meeting, especially at a pitchfest event. It’s what you are going to give the executives at the conclusion of your pitch that will allow them to remember you and your story a week or two after the event, when they finally go through everything and decide what they want to read. If your pitch is your first impression, the one-sheet is your lasting impression.

    It’s the only way the executive, who has listened to 50 pitches that day, is going to be able to remember you after the salient details of your glorious pitch have escaped them. I used to write my comments on the one-sheet the second the writer left the table so I didn’t forget. “Great Idea, Not Commercial, Bad Pitch, Nice Writer, etc.”

    Your one-pager (another term for one-sheet) is your calling card and you should always keep one on you at all times. Even if the event you’re pitching at tells you not to!

    It’s not just a selling tool for your story, but also for yourself. It differs from a synopsis in a few ways. First, as its name dictates, it’s only ONE page.  Secondly, unlike the synopsis which is just about your story, your one-sheet can be a bit about you as well. It’s much closer to the query letter but without the letter aspects. You don’t need the greeting or closing, but a good one-sheet should include the following:

    –  Your name

    –  The title of your screenplay

    –  Your contact info including email (even if they have it already)

    –  The genre of your script

    –  The logline of your script

    –  If appropriate, 1-2 lines that state anything special about you that pertains to your story or the film business in general just like in your query letter. Or mention of any major contest wins, produced projects, etc.

    –  1-3 very short paragraphs (about 8-12 lines on the page) about your story, your world, your protagonist and what they must accomplish, what is against them, and what’s on the line.  It should be a bit more stylized than your synopsis, which means your voice as a writer should shine through.

    –  Much like the query letter, you should not give away your ending, but you should tease and intimate your awesome ending – let the exec know that your story builds to something exciting.

    On a one-sheet, you can also include at the bottom 1-3 more titles with genre and logline of other projects you have written (if you have others), because the executive might not like your project, but they might like YOU, and want to know what else you’ve done.

    And incredibly important for your one-sheet — no typos or grammatical errors!! If you cannot write a half a page without a typo or mistake, then why would they want to read 100 pages ot that? Many execs will throw away a one-sheet with a typo on it.

    Execs can tell if someone can write by their one-sheet, and they often will not ask for a script if the one-sheet is unimpressive, bland, boring, or doesn’t tell them anything.

    The paper shouldn’t be boring. In the 3500+ pitches I’ve listened to, the one-pagers I keep the most and take more notice of have something different on the page. They are a bit more visual, perhaps there’s a poster or pattern on the page that connects with your story, or they are printed on a slightly harder stock of paper than just regular printer paper. It doesn’t need professional graphic design, but I’ve seen many one-sheets that are basically the poster for the movie on one side and the synopsis and other information on the other. This seems to be the trend these days and there are a number of places out there offering this more graphic service.

    Just like with your pitch – the more visual a one-sheet is, the more memorable it will be. Is an exec not going to read your script because your one sheet isn’t visually stimulating? No, of course not. But you are trying to do things that make you stand out, in a good way. Executives may tell you it doesn’t matter, but subconsciously, it does. People like shiny objects. It’s how Transformers keeps getting made. So if there is something visually stimulating – not detracting or distracting – but stimulating about the page, chances are execs will pay more attention to it.

    One thing you should NOT do – is put the actor you want in your movie on your one-sheet. Nothing will scream amateur more than a photo-shopped picture of Adam Sandler!

    However you design it, I cannot express to you the importance of having one. Writers always ask if a business card is good enough. As far as getting an exec your contact info, a business card works. But even if the title of your script is printed on that card, that’s not going to remind the executive about your story or your pitch or some of those key words you dropped during your pitch. Business cards get lost, they fall out of pockets or bags, get thrown away, etc. A one-sheet is a preferred.

    Many people say things like one-sheets are unnecessary and that if you don’t write them, an executive will have no choice but to ask for your script instead. Untrue! They have another option…not asking for anything! And if they were on the fence about your project, not having a one-sheet makes it that much easier for them to forget you were ever there.

  • Creating Set Pieces for Script Success

    April 15th, 2017

    By Danny Manus

    Ever wonder what it takes to create truly memorable movie moments? Those scenes that just stay with you long after you leave the theater? Those scenes that, when someone mentions a movie title, immediately rush back into your mind? Those scenes that allow you to picture the trailer?

    These scenes are usually the major set piece sequences of a film. They’re what writers look for in a concept to know it CAN be a movie. And I want to share with you how to create them to make your script more commercial and cinematic.

    You hear the phrase “building set pieces for your script” but it wasn’t until I spoke with A-List comedy writer Tim Dowling (Office Christmas Party, Just Go With It, Role Models) and writer/filmmaker Joe Nussbaum (Just Add Magic, The Late Bloomer, Sydney White) about the topic that I started to look at set pieces differently.

    Set pieces are not just locations – they are scenes or a consecutive, connected sequence of scenes that build in a way that not only makes for a memorable and trailer-worthy moment, but also develops your characters, plot, increases emotion, and exploits the hook of your story.  One of the keys to building great set pieces is building layers into your scene.  If your scene is not accomplishing all of the aforementioned things, then it is not a set piece – it’s just a scene.

    Nussbaum and Dowling said that it’s their ability to brainstorm and picture these 3-6 major set pieces that tells them if their concept has potential.  If you cannot think of 3-6 scenes that do all the things mentioned above, that you can exploit your hook through, then you may not have a strong enough concept to write about. This was confirmed by comedy giant John Hamburg (Meet the Parents, Zoolander, I Love You Man, Why Him) when I interviewed him here.

    And this is NOT only for comedy – action, horror, thrillers, sci-fi, and even drama – ALL should have some version of set pieces. When you come up with a concept and a hook, you need to brainstorm and ask yourself what kind of big set piece scenes could EXPLOIT this idea – where are the big moments within this concept?  What are the scenes that are going to get this hook across, connect an audience with my main character, and create big cinematic, iconic moments?

    The difference between a scene and a set piece is in how it builds. Your set piece should build so that you’re not JUST writing or building a scene to hit that ONE joke line or have that ONE visual gag moment, but instead the comedy is constantly and continuously building and hitting throughout the scene. So there are at least a handful of big laugh (or action, scare, suspenseful) moments within each set piece.

    To help you, I’ve come up with a basic formula for creating a set piece Though sometimes the steps are not exactly in this order and not every set piece is alike, this is a basic guideline:

    1. Set-Up – This includes your location, setting up what your character wants to get out of the scene (so we know why it’s funny when it all goes wrong), and the situation your character has walked into.
    2. Bring out the conflict of the scene.
    3. First big funny moment/visual (or action, scare, suspenseful moment).
    4. Payoff for first funny moment/visual which causes or increases an uncomfortable situation, tension, anxiousness, or other funny emotion. Changes your character or the way others view your character.
    5. Regroup and try again hoping for different results – but unsuccessful.
    6. Second big funny moment/visual that raises the comedic stakes.
    7. Payoff for second funny moment/visual.
    8. REPEAT steps until you have exhausted the hilarious moments and visuals of the scene and exploited your hook.
    9. Last button on the scene which is the final, if not funniest moment or visual of the scene that makes it clear how the scene affected or progressed the story.

    I want to give you a few examples which will help illustrate this perfectly;

    • The Zipper scene in There’s Something About Mary – Stiller gets to the house, is already nervous and wants badly to impress her and her family and seem like a suave guy. He sees Diaz in the window (first funny moment), her father isn’t too happy with him (conflict), Father goes into the bathroom to help – doesn’t work, raises humiliation (second funny moment), they regroup and wife comes in (third funny moment/line/reaction), cop comes to the window (fourth funny moment/reaction), then the memorable visual of what’s stuck in the zipper (fifth funny moment), then the button final action and reaction (fixing the zipper and Stiller’s hilarious scream). Then he’s taken by the paramedics – prom is ruined and he’s lost his chance with his dream girl.
    • The Dinner/Urn scene in Meet the Parents – the set up of the conflict was set up previously but increases in this scene as Stiller tries to impress and win over DeNiro’s character (his motivation). The scene builds with the “milking” dialogue (first funny line), the VISUAL of Stiller milking the invisible cat (first funny visual), DeNiro’s reply (the payoff and second funny line), Stiller regrouping and trying again unsuccessfully which makes him even more nervous and anxious, the revelation that Stiller’s girlfriend was engaged before (creates more conflict and affects the story later on), champagne cork hits the urn and smashes it (third funny moment), the cat takes a shit on the ashes (the button on the scene).

    And a few scenes I thought of which also exemplify creating great set pieces – you can watch them and do the breakdown yourself:

    • The Bridal Shoppe scene in Bridesmaids
    • The Beauty Pageant scene in Little Miss Sunshine
    • The opening scene of Scream
    • Every action scene in every Fast & Furious

    Each of the above-mentioned scenes USE and EXPLOIT the hook of their story piece, and they build from that hook with a visual, a set up, an action and/or dialogue, and a payoff – then another visual/dialogue and a payoff that builds the moment even more – then repeat and repeat until that scene leaves you in stitches, or crying, or scared, or on the edge of your seat, depending on the genre.

    All of these scenes don’t just have ONE payoff moment or line or visual – but a constant build of big moments/visuals and creates those trailer moments. Memorable moments.

    Even smaller personal private journey movies often employ this technique. For example, in Call of the Wild, each of the important characters that help the lead character on his journey is a different set piece.

    Another key to set pieces is that they must feel natural to the story and concept you are writing – they are not forced moments. They fit naturally within your story and structure and character arcs. So, take a look at your scripts and stories and see if you are creating set pieces for success.

  • Goals vs. Needs – What Defines Characters…And Writers

    April 15th, 2017

    By Danny Manus

    What’s your goal?

    It’s one of the most important questions a writer can ask. Not just of their protagonist, antagonist and every single one of their supporting characters…but of themselves.

    A character without a defined goal has nothing to fight for, no aim and no meaning in the plot, no connection to the hook. They are stagnant and passive in a story happening around them. A writer who doesn’t know what they want to achieve, what their next steps are to reaching that goal, and what they want their script to accomplish for them, is no different.

    But the question of goals is often informed, motivated, compromised, or superseded by an equally vital question –

    What is your deeper need?

    What this second question asks is, what is the deeper emotional want that is driving your character…and you? The difference between goals and needs is the difference between one’s brain and one’s heart.

    Goals are created by situations and circumstances, and a character can have multiple goals throughout a story. They are usually achieved by recognizing or analyzing a situation, making plans and executing them. They’re created by the brain. They’re the external.

    If your character is sent on a mission to colonize Mars, then their goal is to complete their mission; If your character is a cop trailing a serial killer, then their goal is to find the killer and solve the crime; If your protagonist is in love with their best friend who is about to get married, then their goal is to stop the wedding and tell them the truth. And as each of those characters journeys through each of their stories, smaller more acute goals will present themselves as obstacles arise.

    Your personal goal may be to become a working paid screenwriter. But your deeper emotional need could be to live a life doing something creative that you’re passionate about. And perhaps your motivation, which can sometimes be a bridge between them, is to prove everyone who made fun of you in high school wrong. Ya know…just as a random example.

    The deeper needs and wants of your character, however, are about examining the character’s fatal flaw or backstory or wishes or dreams or insecurities, etc. It’s about recognizing or analyzing WHY their goal is so important to that character. They’re created by the heart. The internal. And you need both to make your characters compelling, three-dimensional and castable.

    It’s not enough that your character wants to save the world. It’s also about why. What saving the world represents to them or how that could lead to them achieving their deeper need or want. And one’s deeper need can be achieved because of, or in spite of, their goals.

    Liam Neeson’s character in the first two Taken films has a very specific goal – to rescue his family from bad guys. But his deeper need and emotional want is to prove he can be a good father after all these years and put his family back together. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon’s goal is to survive hiking that trail. But her deeper need and want is to overcome the loss of her mother, forgive herself for cheating on her husband, and reinvigorate and reinvent herself after being an addict who was lost in life. In Whiplash, the goal of Miles Teller’s character is to prove he is the best and win the approval of his teacher. But his deeper need and want is to prove to the world that he is special and has something different to offer at all costs.

    Sometimes, a deeper need can present itself as obsession. In fact, obsession may be the one running theme in every single Oscar nominated film this year. Every lead character had this deeper need or want that they become obsessed by (or obsessed with) which drives them even after their immediate goals are accomplished. Theory of Everything, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, Imitation Game, Whiplash, Birdman, American Sniper, Selma. Even Patricia Arquette’s character in Boyhood, though to a lesser degree, is obsessed with providing the best life for her children that she can.

    In Foxcatcher, John Du Pont has a goal of creating an Olympic winning wrestling team and getting closer to Mark, his star wrestler. But his twisted, hidden, deeper need is to win the respect of his peers and his disapproving mother and feel needed and important at all costs. And it is when that deeper need is threatened – not his goal – that John’s character changes and tragedy strikes. In fact, John is willing to sacrifice the goals set up to ensure his deeper need is met.

    Sometimes a character may not even recognize the deeper need, and they almost never state it. This is where subtext, context and backstory can pay off for the audience and reader, as sometimes the deeper emotional need is something WE recognize in a character before they do.

    The goal and the deeper emotional need can often work together, but they can also be at odds. And when that happens, a strong dilemma is often created for the character. Do they service their brain – or their heart? Foxcatcher is one such example. I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Gone Girl (especially the third act) is another great example of this.

    An even better example, however, may come from looking in the mirror. As a writer, you’re going to have constant goals. From finishing a first draft, to winning contests, to getting representation, to getting sold, to doing it all over again. But you need to recognize if your deeper need and want is strong enough to keep you dedicated even when rejection makes you feel like your goals may never be achieved.

    Very honestly, if you’re new to screenwriting and your deeper need and want is to make enough money to provide a great life for your kids and put them through college and buy a house, then your goal of becoming a working screenwriter – which can take many years to make happen, if ever – may not be the best goal to strive for to achieve that deeper need. I’m not trying to dissuade you from trying. Not at all. Every character (and writer) should attempt to accomplish their overarching goal. But goals can seem hollow and empty if they don’t connect to something deeper and more emotional. Same goes for characters. And same goes for screenwriters.

  • 12 Tips from the 2017 Oscar Nominated Writers

    February 23rd, 2017

    Hey there! Welcome to my slightly late February Newsletter. I hope all your writing goals are being met and you are working hard at advancing your projects and stories because it’s an exciting time in Hollywood.

    Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, I attended a panel of all 9 of this year’s Oscar Nominated Screenwriters as they answered questions about their careers and their nominated films. And through their anecdotes and stories, I gleamed a number helpful quotes, tips and advice that I wanted to share with you.
    Writing is Rewriting and sometimes it takes Years. Half the nominated writers wrote dozens and dozens of drafts of their script. The other half said they wrote only 3-5 drafts but over many years. There is no one process, but no script is ever done after draft 2. Tarell Alvin McRaney (Moonlight) wrote only 3 drafts of the original script but over 10 years. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) said his first draft took 8 months, the second draft took 2 years, the third draft was the production draft.

    Put your character in a crisis of identity. The main character in each of these films faced an identity crisis in some way. Many of them reshaped the world they’re in to fit their needs or goals and find themselves. What are YOUR characters doing to find themselves and do they face a crisis of self in your story? How ingrained into your story is your character’s very identity?

    “Writing (and character journeys) is about finding your true authentic self” — Mike Mills (20th Century Women)

    “By unsuppressing things he held on to for so long, he was able to achieve his goals and find his identity.” — Luke Davies (Lion) on his main character played by Dev Patel.

    Write who you are. Know why YOU are the only writer who could tell that story the right way. Allison Schroeder was a scientist at NASA before she was a screenwriter, so co-writing Hidden Figures was her destiny. It was also a writing assignment she got BECAUSE of her experience. Allison said, “It’s okay to be a woman and love dresses and heels and lipstick and also love math and science and want to be a screenwriter.” Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester) said, “Any good screenplay can only be written by THAT writer.”

    “Understand the tone of what you’re trying to say.” And what your characters are trying to say. — Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)

    “Where’s the fun?” — Kenneth Lonergan. Know the fun of your story, your concept, your pitch. What is the entertainment factor of your story? If you cannot define that, why would anyone want to read or watch it?

    When/If you feel you’re lost or ruined everything, put it into the creative. As I wrote in my own mantra in a newsletter about two years ago – write your way out. Desperation breeds achievement if you can channel it correctly. “Get out your last F*CK! and go do something.” — Eric Heisserer (Arrival).

    Give yourself an inspirational and isolating place to write. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) went to Brussells and shut out the internet.

    Every success story comes on the heels of horrible failure stories. Allison Schroeder gave 44 pitches around town and no one bought anything. Her manager literally told her ‘I can’t get you hired.’ Taylor Sheridan was unable to pay rent when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant, so he started writing and didn’t stop. Eric Heisserer had two options die and his manager leave the business all in the same 45 days. Then he landed on the Blacklist. So, each failure brings you closer to success.

    When stuck on an emotional scene, ask yourself – what’s the conversation you wish you could have with your parent and/or child? That will usually get the emotional and honesty faucet turning.

    On Procrastination – “Procrastination is normal, if not inspirational.” Only ONE of the writers on the panel (Barry Jenkins) said he does not procrastinate. Everyone immediately hated him. He said his procrastination IS writing – he writes other things to get him in the mood to write the thing he needs to write. But every single other person on the panel confessed to “researching” for hours a day. Whether it’s creating playlists, setting the mood, cleaning the house, watching favorite films or TV series, clearing the DVR, driving around endlessly, etc. It’s normal. You’re not alone.

    “I procrastinate by being depressed. I just recede from everything.” — Mike Mills

    Luke Davies loves to read Poetry because it “puts you in touch with the primal linguistic energies of existence.”

    “I do nothing as often and as intensely as possible. Procrastination is life.” — Kenneth Lonergan

    “You have the right to write about anything you care about…If you care about it, others probably will too.”
    — Kenneth Lonergan. True, however, you need to be budget and demographic conscious. If you know it would only appeal to a small demographic, then your budget needs to reflect that.

    If you’re ever searching for story ideas, read the NY Times obituaries. Read incredible life struggles and stories and apply it to your own work. “Always go to the truth and your research” — Allison Schroeder 

    I hope these inspiring and talented writers help you on your journey to success, and I hope I can help you as well!

  • Watch That Next Step!

    December 18th, 2015

    By Danny Manus

    I’m sure you’ve heard it said that screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. But in truth…it’s both. And sometimes it’s not the first step OR the last step that’s most important, but those treacherous steps in the middle as you make the run from aspiring screenwriter to professional.

    As a script consultant and writing coach, many of my clients are at a sensitive juncture in their writing career. They’ve written their first scripts – and perhaps their second, third or fourth as well. They’ve gotten feedback, they’ve rewritten, they’ve polished, they’ve submitted to prestigious contests and they finally get the email they’ve been waiting for… They’re a contest finalist or maybe even the big winner!

    They have beaten out thousands of other aspiring writers and have won the grand prize of whatever prestigious contest it might be.

    AWESOME!

    …..Now what?

    This is the question that so many writers don’t know how to answer and because of that, either they don’t know how to capitalize on it OR they try to capitalize when they’re not actually ready and end up screwing their chance.
    First things first. If you were lucky enough to win a major contest with your first script, that’s amazing. But you need to go write your second one before you start contacting agents. Yes, you can start querying and calling production companies with your contest-winning script but while you’re doing that, ride that wave of motivation to write and finish your next script!

    Next, look at the contest you won. You should be entering contests that afford you opportunities to get read and make in-roads to industry connections. So, if those contests promise to send your script to X companies, then that’s your next step.

    You want to capitalize on whatever buzz or momentum you can muster in this business. So, if there are social media announcements about how you’re the big winner – use that! But don’t just rely on the contest to do the work for you. Start making phone calls and your first sentence is “Hi, I just found out I beat out 4,500 other writers to be this year’s grand prize winner of Script Pipeline (for example), and I am currently looking for representation. I’d love to talk to you about my script.”

    But before you start calling every manager, agent and production company out there about that first contest win, you need to know a few things that no one else will tell you…

    1. If you won (or were a finalist in) a TV contest with a spec of an existing show, managers and producers don’t care as much because they can’t sell that script. And every single rep you call will say, “Great, do you have an original pilot you can send?” They may want to read your spec ALSO, but they will definitely ask for an original. If your answer is no, then your win doesn’t really mean anything except it should give you a big vote of confidence to start writing your original pilots!

    If you won with a spec for an existing series, and you DO have other original pilots that are completed, polished and ready to go, then use your existing spec win as leverage to get reps or producers to read your original pilot. Call about the win, but have the pitch for your original series ready for that call. You should absolutely mention the contest win in your query letter, but your query should be for your original pilot. Leverage the spec win to get the read of your original. It will mean much more.

    2. If you won (or were a finalist in) a TV contest with an original pilot, and you have an additional writing sample already completed, polished and ready to go – then start querying, calling, emailing, and try to use any executives who read your script as part of the prize to see if they would recommend you to any of their rep friends. Create a buzz about your win even if the contest doesn’t.

    3. If you won a contest or film festival with a SHORT film or Web Series, you need to know what you’re calling places for. Are you calling places to help distribute your short? Are you querying because you shot the first episode of a web series and are looking for funding for the rest? Do you have a vision (or a script) for the full feature based on your short and you’re hoping someone wants to develop that with you? Are you calling because you’re a writer/director and want to find representation as a multi-hyphenate? You need to know why you’re calling and how to pitch yourself and your project, as each of the aforementioned goals would require a different type of pitch or query.

    If you’re promoting a short or web series, create a strong social media platform and following to prove that your contest or film festival win isn’t just a lark, but that there is real support brewing for this idea. Use that platform to your advantage as proof of concept. If you were ONLY the writer on the short (as opposed to also directing or producing), chances are that’s not enough to get anyone to read you unless it’s a script for the feature version of the short that won.

    4. If you won one of those top contests with a feature script, strike while the iron is hot. Know where you are in your career and what that next goal is for you. If you only have the 1 script and 1 idea, then your best bet is going to be contacting producers because they don’t care (as much) about how many other scripts you have. If they love that one, that’s all you need. If you have more than 1 finished script or at least 1 finished (winning) script and a bunch of other fleshed out ideas, then try querying and contacting managers.

    If you have at least 2-3 finished, polished and semi-commercial scripts, then you can also contact agents. Go to pitchfests and use online pitch services if you can’t get to execs or reps any other way.

    But again – know where YOU are in the process. And don’t get discouraged if your contest win doesn’t lead to fame and fortune – most don’t. It’s the writers who know how to capitalize on the win and follow-up on a win with their NEXT great script, that usually break out.

    Winning a prestigious contest is a great step in your career – but it’s basically step 20 out of the 100 steps you need to take. The upside is that you’re now one giant step ahead of all the other writers who are still trying to win. Be excited and proud for your accomplishment! But then focus on your 21st step. You need to be aggressive, but realistic. Productive, and entrepreneurial. And above all…keep writing!

    Because that next step is a doozy.

  • A New Wave of Horror

    November 11th, 2015

    By Danny Manus

    Halloween is over, but that doesn’t mean horror films aren’t still selling. But there has been a substantial shift in the types of horror films that are driving the market in the last two decades. There are a number of reasons for this, including oversaturation of the market in the 80s and 90s, and the new low budget mindset of horror producers. But also what scares us in our core has changed.

    When the serial killers of the 60s, 70s and 80s were at the height of their popularity, the film business exploited that and that’s why slashers did so well. But today, people aren’t scared of the crazy masked serial killer who breaks out of the mental ward – they’re scared of the mentally ill neighbor who one day forgets her meds and just snaps without warning. We like our horror to have an element of escapism and fantasy, but also be grounded enough to scare us in our souls. The reason horror films do well overseas is because fear is universal, and the things that shake us to our core or give us the shivers or nightmares is something everyone can connect with.

    While producers are looking for the next great franchise, now that Saw and Paranormal Activity are done and Insidious has completed a trilogy, launching a new slasher franchise has proved all but impossible the last decade and torture porn is a trend that met its maker. In fact there have been a number of trends that have come and gone in the last 15 years…

    Asian horror remakes certainly had its heyday (The Ring, The Grudge, Cure, Audition), Zombie films like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead launched a horror movement still enjoyed today though usually with a more humorous slant (Pride & Prejudice with Zombies and Scout’s Guide to Zombie Apocalypse are about to be released), then it was haunted houses that made a comeback (The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts), then demons and exorcism knock-offs were all the rage (Devil Inside, The Rite, Deliver Us From Evil, The Last Exorcism, Annabelle), evil children movies tried to remind us why having kids is not always the right choice (Orphan, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Cooties, Insidious), socially conscious horror movies tried to make a splash (The Crazies), and of course there’s the found footage film trend, which is still bankable depending on the story and what you do with this style of storytelling (like in Unfriended).

    But in the last few years, it has been the more cerebral, paranormal, comedic, and even true stories that have been driving the domestic horror film market. And personally, I think we will see more horror anthology films like V/H/S in the near future as more “scary story” books from the 80s get optioned and developed.

    There have been a number of great horror films that are redefining the genre. So, I wanted to compile a quick list of 25 great horror flicks from just the last decade that you need to see if you want to compete in this market. They aren’t all blockbusters, but a few of them have ended up on my personal list of best films from their year (The Babadook, The Conjuring, Cabin in the Woods), and they all deliver upon a horrific premise, have great scares and suspense, set a great tone, and have a specific hook that makes them original. They are ELEVATING the genre, and that’s exactly what you should be trying to do if you want your horror films to stand out.

    In no particular order….

    It Follows
    Cabin in the Woods
    The Babadook
    The Descent
    Let the Right One In
    The Conjuring
    Drag Me to Hell
    Under the Skin
    Insidious (the first one)
    V/H/S
    Evil Dead (Remake)
    Unfriended
    Kill List
    Green Inferno
    Warm Bodies
    The Woman in Black (the first one)
    Zombieland
    I Spit On Your Grave
    The Crazies
    The Strangers
    Human Centipede (the first one)
    The Final Girls
    Paranormal Activity (1 and 3)
    Martyrs
    The Mist

  • Writing Book vs. Film (Writing Visually vs. Cinematically)

    November 11th, 2015

    By Danny Manus

    If you’ve been paying attention lately, you surely noticed that the hottest thing selling in Hollywood…is books! And with the success of films like Gone Girl, Hunger Games and yes, even 50 Shades of Gray, more and more book writers are making the jump and adapting their own material or trying to get their books adapted to film.

    And while the goal in both mediums is to create the best story and tell it in the most compelling way, there are some major differences between writing for book and film.

    Whether writing book or film, you always want to think and write visually. As storytellers, we are always picturing whatever we’re putting on paper. But writing visually is not the same thing as writing cinematically.

    Writing visually is making sure something is happening in the scene (or chapter). Writing cinematically is about making sure something is happening behind the scene. Writing visually in a book is about describing the scene – the location, the wardrobe, the way the moonlight shines in the effervescent blue sparkles of your character’s eyes. In film, it’s about expressing what’s happening in the scene in the fewest amount of words. It’s not about feelings or thoughts – it’s about actions and word choice.

    With books, it’s often about writing a story that everyone can relate to and say, “I’ve been through that too, so I understand. This is like a book about my life.” It’s about creating a community of people who relate to what is happening in your story in some way.

    In film, it’s about creating a story that no one else has gone through and then finding ways to make it relatable through your themes, characters and dilemmas. The threshold is higher with stories meant for the big screen, because people go to the movies to escape – not to commiserate. Ten thousand books a year can be published about fighting cancer. You know how many movies about cancer there can be in any given year? One.

    Writing cinematically is about having moments. Yes, certain structural moments that keep a reader and audience engaged. But also, visual, impactful, shocking, powerful moments that people will be talking about or quoting later. It’s about bringing out the hook of your story and exploiting it to its maximum dramatic (or comedic or horrific) purpose. It’s about focusing your project down to its most important moments and details that create a world and tell a story and a character arc without feeling novelistic.

    If you’re interested in adapting your book to a screenplay, this is how you need to think. You take your basic concept, your world, probably your main character, and the 5-10 major moments that define and exploit your hook and concept in your book – and you leave the rest behind. Sure, there are some lines of dialogue and description that will carry over. But adapting from a book is basically like writing an original screenplay inspired by a true story. Except it’s inspired by the book it’s based on.

    And the great part about writing books is that even if no one else wants to publish it, you can still do it yourself and get your voice out there for the world to read. There’s always a pay off! That’s something you can’t say about a screenplay.

    But to that end…No BullScript is here to help! After working with a number of book writers, speaking at numerous book conferences, and forging great relationships with publishers, editors and book agents around the country, I am thrilled to announce that No BullScript is now offering a service specifically for BOOK WRITERS!

    If you have written a manuscript and want to know if your story and writing is strong enough to grab a publisher or agent’s attention, or if you’re thinking about adapting your book to a screenplay and want to go through how and if it’s worthwhile to do so – we can help with that! I will read your book and we will go through all my notes, chapter by chapter, over the phone (or Skype) to make sure your book is as strong as it can be. And if it is, I will help you get it into the right hands. *I want to make it clear, I’m not EDITING books. But if you are unsure about your story, characters, flow, overall writing, plot, or its ability to become a feature film, I am here to help! Please check out my services page for the NEW Manuscript/Adaptation Notes Service. And I hope to work with you all soon!

  • 12 Important Takeaways from Austin Film Festival 2015

    November 11th, 2015

    By Danny Manus

    There’s always a sharp adjustment period after I return from Austin Film Fest every year. And not just for my liver. It’s a constant whirlwind event for 5 days – and not just because of the Tornado that almost hit this year! There’s so much to take in – it’s wall to wall panels, parties and people! If you have never been, I highly recommend it!

    This year, I was back teaching the Pitch Prep seminar alongside Pixar executive Emily Zulauf, as well as judging the early rounds. And I got to moderate a great panel on pitching as well.

    While extreme weather and falling on Halloween certainly affected this year’s events, there was still a huge amount of learning and networking to experience.

    My favorite panels that I saw were Phil Rosenthal’s interview with the legendary Norman Lear, who at 93 is every bit as sharp, hilarious and inspirational as he ever has been; the conversation between action heroes Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive); Michael Arndt’s (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) course on Endings; the TV/Film Crossover convo between Justin Marks (Jungle Book) and Amy Berg (DaVinci’s Demons); and my own panel on the art of pitching with Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring, San Andreas).

    From all the panels I heard, as well as the pitching competition this year, there were some clear lessons, tips and quotes I want to share with all of you who couldn’t make it that will hopefully help you on your writing journey.

    1. The greatest writers in the world all think Structure and Formatting is important. There are a few consultants and writers out there spouting about how structure is killing creativity and how having a beat sheet or using three-act structure isn’t necessary. And maybe it isn’t. But, when I hear writers like Michael Arndt, Brian Helgeland, Jeb Stuart and Terry Rossio touting the importance of specific structure, it’s clear those who don’t believe are in a vast minority. Even those who hate structure – still love structure. They just call it something else. You can look at structure from your character’s POV or thru visual beats or emotional beats – but it’s all structure. And it’s all important.

    2. “At the moment of (true) commitment, the universe conspires to ensure your success.” – Norman Lear on becoming successful and what it takes. “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.” – Norman Lear.

    3. “The big difference between action and suspense – suspense is cheaper.” (Jeb Stuart) He also said (and I’m paraphrasing): Action is when something exciting happens that the character and audience both experience. Suspense is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t and we’re not sure when or how they will discover it. For example, action is a bomb exploding. Suspense is seeing there’s a ticking bomb under the table and the character doesn’t know. Then finding ways to build the tension of that moment.

    4. Humanizing your characters is about laying foundation with those small clues and moments early on that give us insight into them and connect us in some way. (Angela Kang, writer/Exec Producer, The Walking Dead)

    5. When Die Hard was being developed, Joel Silver told Shane Black, “You have to blow up the top of the building!” Because if you don’t, you’re teasing the audience too much and audiences don’t want to be teased at the end of an action movie.

    6. Insanely great endings are positive, surprising, and most of all – meaningful. There’s an emotional release, a new look on the world, and meaningful emotion… Always ask yourself – what’s at stake? And look at the External, the Internal, and the Philosophical (paraphrasing Michael Arndt in his Endings class).

    7. “The connectors kill your script. They are what cause the lulls,” Shane Black said. He is referring to the exposition-filled PLANNING scenes where it’s just characters talking about what they are going to do or how they’re going to do it.

    8. Good action scenes advance the plot. Never hit pause on your story to include action – it should be part of the story. (Angela Kang) And if you imbed the story in the action, then it can’t be cut for budgetary reasons later on. (Jeb Stuart)

    9. In terms of pitching, TV was king this year. Two years ago, the pitch competition was about 60/40 in favor of film. Last year, it was 50/50. This year, it was about 70% TV pitches! And to that end, the WINNERS the last two years were TV series pitches.

    10. When you pitch producers, pitch the External. When you pitch actors, pitch the Internal.

    11. Have your pitch down. The winner this year had her pitch down so perfectly, she did not get ONE note in her preliminary judging session OR the finale. Her TV Comedy series pitch had everything one should have; a funny concept, likable characters and a strong entrée into the world, clear conflict, it wasn’t just a great pilot but a strong series, and she had great one-liners with perfect word choice, rhythm and cadence to the pitch. And she was unshakable. She knew her story and pitch so well a room full of drunken peers and three A-List writers judging her couldn’t shake her. That’s how you pitch!

    12. “It took every moment of your life to get right here. And every second of mine.” – Norman Lear.

  • The Sentence.

    September 1st, 2015

    By New Writer on Message Board

    Hey guys, thanks for accepting me into your Facebook group. I’m new to screenwriting though I’ve read at least two books on it. Well, almost two books. And I read at least 3 scripts last year which I think really prepared me for my new writing endeavor, but I could use some guidance because…

    I just wrote a complete sentence and I think I really have something here.

    I know it’s not much yet but it took me 4 months and I think in the right hands, it has huge commercial potential and could sell. It’s certainly better than most of the crap Hollywood is churning out these days, which I can’t stand. It’s like there’s no originality anymore, right? I only want to write my own original thoughts. But I thought I’d ask you all for feedback and advice before I start sending it to production companies and agents.

    Be brutal – but kind. Because this is the first thing I’ve ever written – or at least the first thing I’m willing to show anyone – and I think it’s a pretty great sentence. Here goes –

    “No one else could possibly imagine the tortured pain he felt inside after she drove away.”

    What do you think? I’m really proud of it. I think it conveys a new type of character that’s never been seen and some deep emotion. I heard stories are all about internal conflict.

    But since I’m new to screenwriting, I was just wondering a few things. I hope you can answer my questions and help find me the success I know this sentence deserves.

    I heard Tarantino once wrote a sentence and it was bought for a million dollars. I’m not saying this sentence is as good as Tarantino’s of course, but who knows?

    First, do you think I should capitalize any other words in my sentence? I’m pretty sure I read that the first letter in a sentence should be capitalized in screenplays, but am I getting the format right? Should I capitalize DROVE since it’s a verb? Or PAIN so that the reader really knows what I’m going for?

    Second, I was thinking of Morgan Freeman when I wrote this sentence. I just think he’s brilliant and would really get it, ya know? Do you think he would be interested? And does anyone know how I could call his agent and send it to him?

    I heard that you should register everything you write. How do I go about registering my sentence? When I send it out, should I put the registration number under the sentence?

    How would you suggest I pitch this sentence? Should I read the whole sentence or just part of it and let execs ask questions about the rest? Should I send blind queries for it, and if so, would it help if I tell the execs that I’m currently working on the next sentence so that they know I really have a vision and I’m a hard worker who won’t give up until I’ve written a whole paragraph?

    Do you think agents will like my sentence? Do you know any I could email about it? I know CAA is the biggest, but I’m thinking maybe ICM would respond more favorably?

    In case you’re interested or know any investors, I also just launched a GoFundMe campaign so that people can donate to this project. Anyone who sends over $10 gets a personally written copy of the sentence. And a producer credit when it gets made. Please tell your friends!

    Hey, guess what? I just bought a $45 online pitch session. I was told all I need is an idea, but luckily I have way more than that with my sentence so I think the exec will be impressed. How many writers do you know that have optioned their sentence? Does it happen often? How long should I wait to follow up on the pitch of my sentence?

    That brings up another point – if my sentence gets optioned, should I move to LA? How much money do you think I should expect for the option of my sentence? I’m not looking for much, I’d rather just get my foot in the door. But if I move to LA, I’m going to need that sentence option money to get me through.

    Oh shit, guys! I just read my sentence in another script that has already sold. But I’m pretty sure I thought of this sentence years ago before that script sold or was even written. I can’t believe someone would take my sentence and put it in their own script. I really feel like this sentence means more coming from me than it does in this other guy’s script. I think I’m gonna sue…

    Does anyone know a good entertainment lawyer who will work for free until the settlement money comes in? I know it’s gonna be huge.

  • How to Know If You’re Leading A Cult

    May 21st, 2015

    There are so many opinions out there for writers to listen to these days. So many voices trying to tell writers what to do, what not to do, how to do it, how not to do it, who they should hate, who they should respect, how to succeed, how not to succeed, etc. It’s coming from all sides. And some of those voices have begun to take a tone that, for me, seems almost unhealthy to listen to. I’m not sure when social media became the technological equivalent to a Branch Davidian compound, but it needs to stop.

    All writers want to do is connect. Especially those still trying to “break in”. But I think some of the recent rhetoric has made it hard for writers who are trying to get noticed, get read, learn, or make that connection with a professional they admire, to figure out when they are actually networking and learning…and when they are unknowingly part of a cult.

    To be honest, I don’t even think the professionals themselves are aware of their Jim Jonesy behavior and what type of self-aggrandizing, arrogant dome of cynicism and power they are creating. So, in hopes that there is still time to save others from drinking the Kool-Aid, and as a public service to inform those unknowingly responsible (on both sides), here are some ways to know if you’re leading a cult…

    – Your followers or fans have a collective name they are referred to by outsiders.

    – You have tried to preclude your followers, fans, friends, or people within your circles from communicating or forming relationships with others who don’t share your way of thinking. You make introductions and arrange “instant friends” for those you want to be part of your group. You make your world seem like a loving, supportive place to be. But if anyone disagrees with you or leaves your circle, they suddenly lose all their new friends. When support = control, it’s not a friendship or mentorship…it’s a cult.

    – You suggest your followers and fans not seek out or read outside information that disagrees with yours. Only information you provide is correct and will help your followers. Anyone else providing information is a false guru with a sinister motivation. Only your motivations are true.

    – You denounce outside education, classes, advice, feedback or knowledge from anyone other than yourself or those you have personally endorsed and deemed as worthwhile. And you discredit other people’s information or advice not based on how true it might be, but on the basis of how it supports your party line.

    – If you are attacked on social media, your followers quickly exact revenge on your behalf in heinous and personal ways without even knowing your attackers personally.

    – You cast aspersions on outside computer programs or software your followers may use (…and then launch your own and charge for it).

    – You advise your followers that they need to move closer to you, and can only truly be part of your world if they are living nearby in the same town.

    – You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own font?).

    – You offer FREE information, FREE help, or FREE access to some higher power that can get followers closer to their dreams. All they have to do is believe and be loyal.

    – You often emotionally break down those seeking your advice by saying their chances of success is infinitesimal. That if they don’t have an innate talent, they are hopeless, and that the only people who can truly help them are people who won’t – except you.

    – Your group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader or group is on a special mission to save others from what you deem as making mistakes).

    – The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

    – You enjoy being equally feared and revered by your followers. You make it clear you have direct access to a higher authority (like, for example, the Studios). Anyone disagreeing with you might as well be disagreeing with that higher authority. Questioning your authority or opinion is seen as a sign of stupidity, naivety or inexperience.

    – You are self-funded and use the fact that you are accountable to no one and have no direct allegiances or corporate ties to convince followers that unlike others out there, you have no agenda other than their well-being.

    – You answer logical reasoning or other’s valid points with your own brand of false reasoning, shaming, guilt, peer pressure or character assassination. In terms of character assassination, you may say things like, “Maybe the reason you’re not as successful as me is because you’re not doing it how I did it.” Or something like, “How could you possibly disagree with me? I’ve been doing this longer than you and at a higher level. You are obviously unsatisfied with what you do and are jealous of me and my success, and your rebellion to my opinion is only hurting yourself and others.”

    – Your followers display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to you and your teachings and regard your beliefs, ideologies, and practices as The Truth.

    This list is obviously meant in a humorous way and should be taken as such. But if you take anything else away from it, let it be this… Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious. And you don’t need to listen to either one. If you are worried that you or someone you know has been involved in cult-like behavior, please seek help immediately – and stay off social media.

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