Tag Archives: story

What is a “Beat”?

“Beat” is a term used a lot when developing or explaining a story. Beats are extremely important in communicating the direction of a story and to keep a story moving. It is a piece of information that can be conveyed in a quick moment, a sequence, or in an entire scene that moves the story forward. Often times when writers are trying to figure out their story, they will use what’s called a beat sheet. A beat can often be described in one sentence. For example, “The big bad wolf blows the straw house down.” This helps the writer determine what’s important in the story and what moments are needed in order to compel and audience.

 

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Microbudget Films, Contained Thrillers, Found-Footage Horrors

I recently met with Steven Schneider; the producer of “Paranormal Activity”. After 10 minutes of engaged conversation, about a dozen light bulbs went on in my head. I’m hoping after reading this post, a few light bulbs of your own will turn on.

First, a little bit of background. Steven is a huge fan of horror movies. He’s watched them all, studied them, and has even written books on them. With Paranormal, Steven did not act as a producer in a traditional manner. He had a development deal with Paramount and Oren Peli, the writer and director, had given him the film to act as a director’s reel. In other words, the film had already been made, and Steven was not involved in the development or the production of it. Steven said that it was so scary that he had difficulties sleeping at night. That was enough for him to want to attach himself to the project.  Not once did he felt critical of the production quality. To make a long story short, Steven and his colleagues sold it to Paramount and it became the most profitable movie in world grossing over $300 million worldwide. I will save the details of this story for another posting.

The point of the article is this: The ability to make high quality content has never been easier. You have access to amazing affordable cameras. You can edit digitally in your own home off your lap top. You can distribute your film online with a click of a couple buttons. This all presents the industry, especially young filmmakers, with an opportunity to make  microbudget films (films under $1 million) and present a finished product to buyers, which is much more appealing than undeveloped projects.

Currently, it has never been harder to get a movie made and distributed. The biggest, and sometimes the only hurdle in the past has always been the cost. Nowadays, this is no longer an excuse. If you have the right story, you can essentially film a movie for less than 5 figures. So the challenge now becomes finding the right story. Oren told a story that had two main characters, and two supporting characters with two scenes each – four actors total. He shot the film in his own house – one location. He shot it using essentially no camera movement. Oren also edited Paranormal Activity on his laptop in his home office. With this in mind, I challenge you to set aside your traditional feature passion project for now, and develop a contained story that has no more than 5 actors, and takes place in no more than 2 locations. You can choose whatever genre you like, however, I strongly recommend horror because the audience is easy to reach, loyal, and don’t care about A-list actors. Also, with most successful horror films, the emphasis is place first on concept (it’s ability to scare), then on story. In all the rest of the genres, story is typically paramount. But, if you can crack this formula and be successful with other genres…PLEASE be my guest. If not, stick to the contained thrillers. Try and think of a high concept. Typically, the lower the budget, the higher the concept needs to be in order to gain attention from buyers. Having restrictions on locations and talent actually forces you to be more creative. I strongly encourage it, if anything, for the sake of the exercise.

To get you in the right mind-set, let’s look at some notable contained, high concept movies. First you have your “found-footage” horrors like The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity. Both movies shot for under 6 figures, both extremely successful in the box office. Another notable film that I personally love is “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”. This critically acclaimed film told a kidnapping story with three actors in essentially one location. In, “Phone Booth”, the lead actor spends the entire time in a phone booth. I think you get the idea.

If you have a great story, or an amazing concept, people will look at it. I am a firm believer of that. Having that story already produced only decreases the barriers to these people which is exactly what happened to Oren Peli. He created a unique, outstanding film, and found the right passionate person to champion his project. So go and develop your contained story, and then MAKE IT!!!

What should I write about?

You’ve heard it many times, “Write what you know.” An established TV writer (who will remain anonymous) told me to ignore this statement. She said not to worry about writing what you already know. You can always do research on something you want to write about. However, what you should try to do, is write WHO you know. I know this isn’t always possible, but unless you’re writing a biopic, you should always write characters based of people you know or have experience with. Character is so important, and the best way to flush them out and convey a captivating character is to base it off of someone you are familiar with.

More importantly, don’t worry about what’s selling, or what executives are looking for. Write what’s important to you. Write what you’re passionate about. In this business you are going to lose more than you will win, but in both cases, you DON’T want to experience it with something you are not passionate about. What matters is a good story, good characters, and great passion for each. All of these will be recognized on the page.

Sources for Character Motivation

You hear it all the time: “What’s your character’s motivation?” It’s one of the major questions that go through a writer’s head every time he/she is trying to crack a story. I had the opportunity to sit down with an established writer and I asked her convey process when it comes to character motivation. To my pleasant surprise, she broke it down very simply for me.

A character should be motivated by “need” not “want”. Usually characters that are motivated by simple pleasure, or “want” don’t make up very strong characters and, as a result, don’t provide a great story. There are four reasons for a person to “need” to do something: FEAR, MONEY, LOVE, & BELIEF. I know that it makes for a lot of cliche story-telling, but these are the sources of motivation that most audiences can relate to. When you can pull your audience with relate-able motivations, you can convey a much  more compelling story.

Story vs Plot

What’s the difference between the two?

“Story” is what your film is about. “Plot” is what happens in your film; two very different things. Your plot conveys your story. The first and foremost important thing you must know before you embark on producing any film or TV is story. You must understand what your movie is about. You can usually express this is 1-2 sentences. It’s very similar to a logline. However, loglines are often used as a selling tool (ie when pitching your film). Loglines meant to captivate and intrigue the person who hears it. Story is used as a practical producing tool. It’s used for creative people to gain an understanding how they are to work towards produce a film.  Often times, producers and writers focus too much on the events that happen in their film, but lose sight of what the story is about. Steven Spielberg was a master at this. He always emphasized to his crew to never lose sight of what the film was about. For example, “Schindler’s List” is about a man who wanted to make a difference; not about Nazi concentration camps. “Transformers” is about the relationship between a boy and his car; not about cars that turn into robots.