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Ask the Expert: Can an Out-of-the-Box Indie Succeed?

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This week's Ask the Expert is answered by screenwriter of Buried and ATM, Chris Sparling.

Before I say a word, let me simply ask why the default settings for Microsoft Word are eleven point Calibri font? Has anyone ever – and I mean ever – written something in those settings? This might seem like a digression, but it’s not; I haven’t even started on the actual topic yet, which simply makes what I’m doing now an act of aggression. But having now gotten that out of my system, and with my font settings changed to where I want them to be (twelve point Times New Roman, thank you), I’m ready to do what I can to answer the following question, posed by a reader of

Q: Studios seem to want more formulaic films. Is it likely an indie written more out-of-the-box has a shot?

Good question, Q. Oh, right, Q means Question. A good question nonetheless. Hopefully I can provide an equally good A.

A: As William Goldman once famously said, “Successful respiratory pathogens must be able to respond swiftly to a wide array of sophisticated defense mechanisms in the mammalian lung.” Of course, that’s because THAT William Goldman is a microbiology professor at the University of North Carolina (I just found him on Google). The OTHER William Goldman, the one whose wisdom you probably care a bit more about, said, “Nobody knows anything.” And like almost everything related to screenwriting and the motion picture industry, he was right (which I suppose negates his theory, but… ). Anyway, the point I’m driving at is there really is no true way to know what “has a shot” and what doesn’t. This is very much a flavor-of-the-moment business, and what studios seem to have an appetite for now, they may absolutely detest the taste of tomorrow.

Having said that, there are some ways that might help get your indie film the kind of recognition and box office revenue you’re aiming for. At least I hope they will. Despite the fact the title of this article is “Ask an Expert,” and I have been involved in the film industry for a fair amount of time and have found some degree of success, I again refer you to the aforementioned quote by Mr. Goldman (No, not the one about respiratory pathogens. The other one).


Arguably the single greatest benefit of doing an indie film is the whole indie thing itself. In other words, you’re independent; free to do something that’s truly never been done before. While studios tend to hedge their bets and stick to the kind of films that work for them, indies shine brightest when a risk is taken. Now, understand that there’s a distinct difference between doing something different/risky and taking your project headlong into crazytown. Try instead to develop a way of storytelling that’s never before been tried, or setting your story in a place that’s completely unique and fresh. Or perhaps you can come up with a way that alters the entire movie-watching experience itself. The sky truly is the limit. Well, your budget is, but why confuse the issue with facts?


Take what I just mentioned and store it away for the time being. You can remove it from storage later, once you’ve firmly committed to the notion that your actual writing is what matters most of all. Ultimately, how people respond to material – be them studio execs, actors, directors, or independent producers – all comes down to workmanship. So, even if you’re able to come up with the most ingenious way to tell a story, for example, the quality of your writing still has to measure up. This is just as true for studio pictures as it is for indies.


This is a trick I made up to help me transition from indie screenwriter to studio screenwriter, and it’s one that might help other writers as well. The gist of it is, once you’ve fleshed out your personal and deeply nuanced indie movie idea, take the entire premise and set it on the moon. Now, this can be taken one of two ways: 1) You can literally set your story on the moon, which might be pretty cool if you can somehow pull it off, or 2) You can take the statement far less literally, but still incorporate a “high-concept” element to your otherwise low-concept indie story. For example, if you have an indie movie idea about a young couple whose marriage is crumbling from the stress caused by a terminal illness, why not a) Have them trying to deal with this very same situation while on a lunar space station?, or b) Make one of them a CIA agent?; or make the illness itself a zombie-like disease?; or make the dying spouse a superhero?

Maybe these are horrible ideas, but I’m fairly certain the point still stands. The goal is to keep everything about your indie movie that makes it great (your multi-dimensional characters, your relatable themes and stakes, your attention paid to story, etc.) and add in an element (or several elements) that make it more box-office friendly. At the end of the day, this is pretty much what the studios do, anyway. Don’t believe me? Watch the first Transformers movie again. Sure, it’s about a robot invasion and all that jazz, but at its heart, it’s basically a story about a boy and his dog (with the “dog” in this case instead being a transforming robot car).

So, there you have it, Q. I hope this helps. Best of luck to you and all others reading!!

The Cinema Society & 2(x)ist Host A Screening Of "Buried" - Inside Arrivals

Chris Sparling is the award-winning screenwriter of 'Buried' and 'ATM,' as well as the upcoming film 'Reincarnate' for producer M. Night Shyamalan.

Follow him on Twitter at: @ChrisSparling

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