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  • 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

  • Confessons of a Contest Judge: The Differences Between Semifinalists & Winners

    September 9th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).

    I know contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.

    When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were just 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand writers vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.

    Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.

    Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other smaller contests as well over the years).

    However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarterfinalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.

    A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and luck all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win.

    Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of really GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.

    I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.

    My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).

    The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.

    This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…

    By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.

    That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or are enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?

    There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.

    Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.

    Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.

    Brutality is different than “torture porn”, however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.

    Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.

    The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.

    When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.

    Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.

    Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.

    The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.

    For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun.

    This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.

    In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!

    ***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, I encourage you to check out my services page and sign up for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th! Click here for more details – www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

  • Horror Film Trends & Tips

    November 1st, 2011

    It’s that time of the year again – where girls of all ages dress as whores, men of all ages dress as women, and offering candy to children on the street while asking them what they are wearing, is considered acceptable. That’s right – it’s Halloweeeeeeen! (insert spooky music here)

    And it’s around this time of year that studios anxiously wait to see how horror movies are do at the box office to see if the trend is still holding up. And this weekend’s HUGE success for Paranormal Activity 3, ensured that horror (and this franchise) is around to stay. And it’s a much needed boost for the genre, as with only a few exceptions, horror movies have not been incredibly successful this year.

    Fright Night, Scream 4*, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Rite, Priest, and The Thing all underperformed domestically. And there were some, like Apollo 18, Red State, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Attack the Block, Quarantine 2, and The Ward – that barely even graced the theaters despite having buzz around town.   (*To be fair, it should be pointed out that The Rite and Scream 4 made double their domestic grosses overseas, so they came out very much in the black)

    However, I think the trends for horror films this year have been pretty clear;

    “Found footage” projects – which all started with Blair Witch over 10 years ago – have made a nice resurgence lately and are a trend that will continue because they work well with micro-budget projects. The handheld camera direction style seems to connect with today’s younger demos, which makes sense because they are constantly making movies themselves and that’s how they look, so it feels more real to them.

    Supernatural is definitely one of the biggest current trends, especially Demon Possession projects! The two biggest horror hits of the year, Insidious and Paranormal 3 (not to mention The Rite and The Thing), are both possession films, and another cool looking “found footage possession project” – The Devil Inside – opens in January.

    In 2007, “evil children” projects came back in fashion. They still work, but now they have to be possessed. They can’t just be devilish little shits for the hell of it.

    Franchises are still kicking – hard – and have been for the last 10 years.  Foreign language remakes are still popular, though attention has turned from the Asian Horror remakes (The Grudge, The Ring) to Swedish Horror remakes (Let Me In).  Torture porn is pretty much out, except in already successful franchises (Centipede, Saw).

    Horror-Comedy can still work, but usually only in already established horror genre models where the straight scares have already been played out in 100 other movies – like with zombies, vampires, etc. And just in case you’re wondering, vampires and werewolves – are still out.

    There are 6 Frankenstein movies in development, so I wouldn’t waste my time writing another one, and Zombies are still pretty fuckin’ cool – but there are SO many zombie projects still in development and production that writing another one right now – unless it’s REALLY original – would probably be a waste of time.  But, did I mention that zombies are still pretty fuckin’ cool?

    Personally, I think slasher films are out at the moment. It’s hard to launch a truly new breed of slasher film as it feels like they’ve all been done before.

    And 3D isn’t cool in horror because it makes everything feel cheesy, less gritty and less scary. I know having an arm fly at you is a good jump-in-your-seat moment, but it makes the story feel less REAL. And scaring people is all about connecting with what they are truly afraid of and them seeing someone ELSE go through that on screen in a visceral, emotional way. If you have a slightly cheesy, beaten-to-death concept, like the Final Destination or Saw franchises, then perhaps going 3D is the one thing left you haven’t tried, but I wouldn’t suggest it for new original horror material.

    But the biggest overarching trend in the horror genre is that low budgets (and micro-budgets) continue to be the way to go. If you can make a good, scary, visceral, original horror movie for $1M or less, you will probably make good money back. And there are way more companies (including Paramount’s micro-budget division) that are looking for low, low budget genre movies! There is NO company that will make a $30M original horror movie – it’s not going to happen.

    If you’re making a $30M horror movie – and it’s NOT something that already has huge brand recognition (like Nightmare on Elm Street or Final Destination, etc), you’re going to lose money. Period. And there was no reason to make Final Destination 5 for $40M, except they wanted to make it in 3D and bigger than the first four.

    Paranormal Activity 3 made $55M domestic gross in its first week – and had a $5M budget (up from the original’s $15K budget). Insidious made $54M domestic gross on a $1.5M budget. This is how you make money in horror films if you’re not Wes Craven. 

    Horror films can get made at micro-budget levels because, for the most part, you don’t need big stars to make them work. You don’t even need big effects. In fact, sometimes having big stars and big effects HURTS your horror movie – because we KNOW it’s not real. Hello – we KNOW Katie Holmes isn’t really dying. Not using big stars also means that ANYONE can die. You don’t NEED Neve Campbell to live anymore for the sequel just because she’s the sellable name. Names don’t matter. So it leaves writers open to kill their main characters at the end and really shock the audience.

    And in films like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, etc – there’s that teeny, tiny bit of doubt (created by great marketing), that tells us – just maybe this IS real. I’ve never seen these people in movies before, so maybe they are just real people like me and this is real footage. THAT is why these movies do well. If Blair Witch had starred James Van Der Beek – it would have died a horrible movie death opening weekend. 

    And the horror genre continues to be a great way to break in. Attack the Block was technically a bomb, but the industry loved it so much that writer/director Joe Cornish has become a hot item around town.  Tucker & Dale vs. Evil didn’t make any money, but it will have cult classic status – as will Human Centipede, Red State, and Hobo with a Shotgun. And for new or auteur filmmakers, this is the way to build your following and get noticed!

    I saw Paranormal Activity 3 this weekend. And while it was certainly better than the cheesy second installment, the biggest problem with PA3 was that all of the really scary moments in the trailers and commercials – WERE NOT IN THE MOVIE! The Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror scene – not there. The little girl jumping off the ledge scene – not there. It’s like they shot all this cool, scary footage just for the commercials (or the blu-ray). I HATE when movies do that, and this may be the worst example of this practice I’ve seen in a long time. That being said, there were definitely a few really good scares and “grab your date” moments.  I won’t give anything away, but the ending for me left something to be desired. But go judge for yourself.

    And as for what the next trend will be? Remains to be seen. But the best predictor of future (evil) behavior, is past (evil) behavior. Have a happy and scary Halloween! And stay away from that guy in the screenwriter costume – he’s probably just some unemployed psycho looking for ideas.

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