This is not actually new, it is an excerpt from the book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, Warner Books — by yours truly. But since the new edition is coming out this year, it seems like maybe a good time to repost it, and also I’m pretty sure not everyone has seen it before. [You in the back row playing with matches, I KNOW you haven't seen it before.] It was originally published in the book, then republished on Wordplay.com and SeeMaxRun.com and a few other places that will be mad as hell I am not mentioning them. Oops.
*Hey, if you are one of those places? Drop me an email, it has been a while and I am on deadline.
Chapter 8: Writer Speak vs. Mogul Speak
~ by Max Adams
Writers and “movie makers” speak different languages. If you don’t know this, it can get surreal holding a conversation with someone who is using writer terms, but is not a writer, because you are both using the same terms, you are simply using them to mean different things. I’ll give you an example:
When writers talk about tone — it is wistful, it is dark, it is suspenseful, it is eerie — writers tend to describe work in terms of an emotion evoked by the piece. They are telling you the flavor of the piece in their heads, in an emotional context.
When a movie maker asks you tone, like an executive or a producer, and this applies to agents too, they mean, “What movie that made a lot of money at the box office is this like?”
If you don’t know this, it is going to be hard to sell any pitches because a studio executive will ask you about tone and he will want to hear it is “Men In Black” in tone, while you will be saying, “It is suspenseful and fun.”
This one miscommunication probably cost me five pitches. They were really good projects, too. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. An executive would ask me, “what is the tone of the movie?” I would say, “it is dark and wistful and kind of fast paced.” The executive would say, “That’s great, but can you tell me the tone?” I would say, (looking at the executive like he was from Planet Zorg), “Um, sure, it’s dark and bittersweet and moves real fast.” And the executive would say, “That’s great, um, um, well I’ll get back to you.” And we would both walk out of the meeting wondering what the hell the other person was talking about.
I think this is one reason many writers think studio people are completely stupid and unsane. (Okay, some studio people are completely stupid and unsane, but not all of them.) “Why the hell do they keep asking the same question after I already told them?” Well, because you are speaking a language they don’t understand, and vice versa.
The same problem crops up when an executive or producer type asks writers what a story is about. Executives and producers mean, “What is the crux of the plot?” But “what is it about” means a lot of different things to a writer. “What is it about” encompasses theme.
Whenever they ask, “What is the story about?,” they are talking about concrete, action and verb driven plot.
Wow can theme get you into trouble. The executive asks a writer what the story is about. The writer says, “Oh, it is about our fear of rejection.” The executive looks blank. The writer eyes him. Wow, what a moron, but okay, here goes — and launches into more and more about people’s fear of rejection. The executive is eyeing the security button. Hmm.
What the executive needed to know was, the story is about a man who falls in love with a super model. That’s what the executive was asking to hear. That’s plot stuff. And ultimately, the crux of the plot. What the writer was answering was a theme question. To writers, stories a lot of the time are about theme. To executives, they are not.
Sometimes, when you wax theme oriented answering “what is the story about,” executive and producer types humor you. Oh those whacky, starry eyed writers. It is just endearing the way they carry on. And they see it as passion and they want you to be “passionate,” always, about material. But — they can’t sell “it is about fear of rejection” upstairs. They can sell “it’s about a man who falls in love with a super model.” But not “fear of rejection.” “Fear of rejection” is intangible, not concrete, that damn “A” word I can never think of. Where is my damn Thesaurus? “Abstract.” Executives and producers cannot sell an abstract thematic ideal in Hollywood terms, because an abstract thematic ideal does not translate to a trailer in people’s heads. No one can see the movie. It just isn’t there.
When I got to Hollywood, I stopped even using the term “theme” right after I went to a meeting to talk to three people who assured me they were literature PhD’s from Harvard or something, (we are all friends here and really smart, ho ho, let’s get deep — if they had been cops I could have slapped a lawsuit on them for entrapment), and then when I used the word “theme,” glazed over. Then my agent got a call saying they liked me bunches, but thought I was too intellectual for the project. Too intellectual? Jeez!
I didn’t use the term “theme” again in a pitch meeting until it turned up as the flavor of the day question. Not too long ago, too. I’ve been asked about “universal theme” now at three separate pitch meetings, (by executives!), so I’m going to guess this is getting asked a lot these days. It’s a smart question, I wonder who came up with it before it ran like wildfire through the ranks? At any rate, people are looking for it now. “Universal theme.” Wow.
I wouldn’t take it too far and open a pitch with “theme,” I wouldn’t even bring theme up in a meeting, unless we were in the questions section and someone sprang it on me and then sat back to see what I would say. (They get so crafty in those meetings sometimes.) You should know, though. In the back of your head, if you’re pitching, know what it is everyone on the planet is struggling with that is somehow touched on in your story. That is “universal theme.” Also referred to in literary circles as just plain “theme,” but it sounds flashier and more important to executives with “universal” tagged on there.
In one of my stories, the “universal theme” was, everyone is so dependent on formulas and shopping lists these days, everyone is looking for love by the numbers in self help books instead of in their hearts. (Okay, universal themes always sound cheesy, so shoot me.) In another, it was, everyone is so afraid of failure, we’ve stopped trying to succeed in order to avoid it.
Everyone is afraid of failure, everyone wants love. Those are universals. Know that stuff about your stories so you can answer the new trick question.
But don’t open with it. Just remember the keywords are “universal theme.” That’s when they want to hear that. Not when they ask “what is the story about?” Whenever they ask, “What is the story about?,” they are talking about concrete action and verb driven plot.
And when people ask you questions in studio and production offices, remind yourself this is not a writer you are talking to. This is someone from the business building. They think in concrete substantial terms. Their questions revolve around concrete substantial answers. Tone is “what other movie this is like that made a lot of money.” “What your story is about” is plot. Who do you see starring means, not who were you thinking of when you wrote it or who do you really like who you think is talented, but “Who made big box office last week who could play it?”
There are myriad examples of “mogul speak” vs. “writer speak.” They will change with every story and every meeting. The important thing to remember is, executives want answers in concrete plot specific terms. And examples that relate directly to box office. Keep that in your head, and you will be okay.
Photo: Max Adams
Photographer: Michael James Canales