The two questions you should ask yourself before writing any screenplay is “How will it make money?” and “Why should I care?” When a studio even considers an idea, their main motivation is to make money. Pitch them a story about your life and unless you’re a famous person, most people will just yawn because most people’s lives are no more or less interesting than anyone else’s story.
The first question you must know how to answer is how will your story make someone else money? If you can’t answer that, you’ve already lost the battle to get a studio’s attention. Ever notice how Hollywood makes so many mediocre movies? It’s because they could see a way they might make money. “Maleficent” was a mediocre movie, but the big appeal was getting Angelina Jolie to star. Her acting was perfect; it was the rest of the story and characters that were boring.
Look at “Jupiter Ascending.” Studios thought they could make money because this movie was made by the same people who made “The Matrix,” which was a big hit. M. Night Shyamalan keeps getting horrible movies made because of his one big hit with “The Sixth Sense.”
Look at any sequel like “Horrible Bosses 2” or “Hot Tub Time Machine 2.” These movies got made because studios knew the original was a hit, so a sequel will likely make money despite being awful. Since you can’t rely on A-list stars, sequels, or past success to help your screenplay, you have to look at other ways for how studios can make money from your screenplay.
The main idea of any story is to make it appealing. That’s when you answer the question of “Why should I care?” Toss a screenplay at a studio executive and the immediate question is “Why should I care?”
That’s why you have to pitch a mainstream story idea. Pitching a historical drama about an obscure French painter will be much harder than trying to pitch a story about a man fighting terrorists in a skyscraper. The key to the pitch is to tease studio executives with an interesting story idea that doesn’t provide an answer but intrigues them with ideas.
One of the best pitches I heard was for a comedy called “Oximorons,” which was about two geniuses who get struck by lightning right before they’re sent on a world tour to demonstrate their brilliance. When the lightning hits them, they turn into complete morons, yet everyone thinks they’re still geniuses. You don’t even have to know how this story ends to see the possibilities that jump to mind. The screenplay could be total garbage but the basic idea intrigues the mind so the reader (studio executives) can see possibilities and come up with their own ideas for how this story could play out and who could star in it.
That’s what your pitch needs to do. You need to come up with an interesting dilemma that lets the reader see possibilities. A bad comedy was “Sex Tape,” but it had an intriguing idea. What if two people accidentally released a sex tape on the Internet? The idea is still funny and opens the mind to all sorts of possibilities. The actual screenplay and movie was a complete disappointment because the possible ideas it generated were far better than the final execution of the story.
The basic features of a good pitch are:
- Introduces an interesting problem
- Doesn’t resolve the story so it leaves possibilities open for others to imagine or contribute ideas
- Clearly defines the genre (horror, comedy, etc.) and in the process, hints at how the studio could make money off it
The difference between a great movie and a bad one is mostly execution. Both a great movie and a bad movie probably had a great pitch, which is why they got made in the first place. The bad movie just failed to deliver its promise (think “Jonah Hex” or “Jupiter Ascending”), a mediocre movie delivered on its promise, but not very well, while a great movie was not only executed well but also had a great story structure to keep the movie focused on a theme that appealed to the emotions long after the story ended.
“Titanic” was a monster hit because it appealed to the emotion of living your own life. “Sex Tape” or “Jonah Hex” fail because it’s all about the story and once the story ends, there’s nothing left but emptiness. Bad movies are like junk food that are ultimately unsatisfying in the end.
Before you write, think about your idea. How will someone make money off it? Why should anyone care about it? If you can answer both questions clearly, you’ll greatly increase your chances of success than if you ignore one or both questions altogether.