Hester Schell, M.F.A. is an award-winning director, veteran acting teacher and recovering academic. Her screenplays focus on social good and environmental stewardship with roles for middle-aged women and seniors. Schell is the author of the critically acclaimed volume,CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors, 2nd edition, Focal Press. She’s a member of SAG-AFTRA and Harvard Square Script Writers. Follow Hester on IMDb, Facebook and LinkedIn.
This month the column diverts from acting and script writing to focus on a bit marketing and selling: The ever important log line. It's got to be perfect.
Many of use online bulletin boards to post our log lines, synopses and scripts in hopes someone on the other end of the fishing pole will nibble on our hook. I’ve used both Virtual Pitch Fest and the ever popular InkTip among others. Recently, when I got an email out of the blue from InkTip that my log line was chosen to lead off their newsletter, well, that got my attention and so I wrote back to find out why. Michael Kim, Vice President of Product Development said he chose it because “It popped, it started with an action verb and had a clear hook.” Cool. Sure. Thanks. I thought I would return the favor and find out more about Mike Kim and if he had any insights to help me (us) get the script the attention (we feel) is warranted.
MICHAEL KIM TALKS LOG LINES
Michael is orignally from Toronto, schooled in Dallas, and arrived in Los Angeles 11 years ago. He’s worked at InkTip for about 7 years. When he started he barely knew anything about the industry. Now, he’s worked his way up into a power position. He’s a musician and spends some of his hours writing and performing music, and of course, watching tons of films.
Hester: So, my writing partner and I truly want to say “thanks” for choosing our log line to feature in the newsletter. Please share with our readers what else you do at InkTip.
Mike: I run product development and media. My job is to get new services for both the writers’ side and the producers’ side off the ground as well as tweak current ones. I oversee the newsletters that we send each week and write articles for some of them. We launched several services and are constantly thinking of how we can help more producers and writers make more movies through us.
Hester: How have the online pitch web sites changed our industry? Have they made a big impact? For example, I've noticed a drop in the big pitch fests where you get 5 minutes with a movie executive/producer.
Mike: Ever since InkTip was launched in 2000, we’ve seen lots of screenplay pitch websites fold. The internet changed the development game, but what took the game to level 2 was when people began to figure out how to take all the information on the web and actually give people what they need. So instead of getting lost in a vast wilderness of scripts, we said, “Hey, we have a place where you can find scripts and target your approach. How can we help you?” For development execs, this made sense: wade through hundreds of emails and voice-mails or simply see a pitch in 5 seconds? Of course, relationships are still major currency in the industry, and because of that, we developed our company with two things in mind: efficiency and relationships.
Hester: How do you see the impact of an in-person pitch fest versus online pitch posting? In an industry all about relationships, how is it that the in person pitch fests are dwindling in favor of the online?
Mike: We’ve hosted five in-person pitch fests. All of them resulted in relationships and deals. But it’s a tremendous effort to put one together. Some producers and reps enjoyed coming out for a day, meeting others and hearing pitches in person. But it can be less efficient for them as well as for the writers. Does online communication give you the same effect as looking people in their eyes and shaking hands? No. Yet it’s so much easier to initiate. A writer who has a few great scripts and lives in Ohio can initiate interest on our site instead of having to fly to Los Angeles to attend a pitch event. If your scripts and their pitches have what it takes, it’s much more convenient for you to use a service like InkTip than book a flight without any meetings scheduled in advance. That said, there’s no doubt that writers can gain much by living in Los Angeles. But overall, I’d say, look for evidence of successes in most of the online pitch fests and you’ll find it difficult to do so.
Hester: Do you see any significant changes in the style of log lines? Particularly, I've noticed they're shorter, or is this my imagination?
Mike: We haven’t noticed a significant change on our site as far as length of log lines. Stylistically, many people have moved on from “Jaws meets Die Hard.” I’ve noticed an uptick in log lines that boast about numerous contests the script won or placed in. I’ve also spotted more and more that contain marketing taglines, which are for the most part, not very good. I always recommend that writers to stick to the story in their log lines and make them clear and simple.
Hester: I’ve heard now to completely steer away from any references to titles. It was cleaver and now it’s cliché. “Titantic meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” for one nutty example. Tell me one thing that helps log lines POP and ZING?
Mike: Oh, a knockout concept. I’ll give you more than one thing. A hook that makes us want to know what happens next. If it incites within readers a reaction of suspense, of anticipation as to what may happen, whether thrilling or comedic, they will want to read the script. Also, dynamic word choice is what separates log lines that are a cut above from the rest.
Hester: What are the common mistakes you see in log lines?
Mike: I read a lot of log lines with too much information—extraneous set up that isn’t necessary to the pitch. Similarly, writers will meander from the main through-line of the scripts’ A- story. If someone asks you, “What’s your story about?” and they only have 10 seconds to hear it, can you excite them about your script’s main conflict? If not, then perhaps you aren’t thinking of your story as its most basic level…or, you need to re-work your script.
Also, clichés and marketing taglines, as well as patting your script on the back are bad ideas. An example: “A harrowing drama about a man who,” or, “in this balls-to-the-wall comedy”…your log line, along with your title, should show if the story’s tone – whether it’s funny, tragic, dreadful, whimsical, etc. without the need to literally tell us how funny or tragic or whimsical your script is. Instead of saying your script is harrowing or that it’s a comedy, show us! Tell us who and what it is about.
Hester:Online script services do seem to create more opportunity for new writers to get a shot at a script sale. Are Hollywood films the better for it? Or is there still the same amount of "garbage in/garbage out?"
Mike: The Internet has helped screenwriters from all over the world get more of their scripts out there. Platforms like YouTube and smart-phone technology with on board high- def cameras have helped level the playing field a bit more in terms of content creation and distribution (or at least give people anywhere an opportunity).
Hester: So, is that a “yes?” I would agree there is more garbage getting made for really, really ridiculously low budgets. Vanity projects, I suppose.
Mike: Of course, over-saturation will take place, where tens of thousands of scripts are registered with the Writers Guild every year. So, that means the pitch is more important than ever. A producer can determine what script or writer he or she needs with more precision and have systems to find exactly that – to be in more control of what he or she wants to read. In a way, it’s similar to dating apps; you might find more opportunities to meet people, but it is up to you to use filters for whom you want to meet.
Hester: Dating? You’re comparing script sales to dating? Ok, so we’re talking algorithms now aren’t we? Search engine management. The more precision used in filling out the script registration forms, the better the date.
Mike: Yes. And I don’t know how to quantify “good” or “bad” films. I have my own subjective taste, of course, along with everyone else, but our job at InkTip is not to be tastemakers. In fact, that is why we don’t read and cover scripts ourselves – we let the readers decide what to read because we trust that they will find what they need by using our service and starting with each pitch. However, I also believe the industry as a whole has to continue developing more productive solutions to embrace new voices in writing while still allowing people to have reasonable control of what they’d like to read.
Hester: Why InkTip over the others?
Mike: We let the growing number of successes serve as our proof. Even after over 300 movies have been made through us, people still occasionally ask us if InkTip really works, or if there have been any writers who have had successes. No other service that’s in our little sandbox of the industry comes close to 300 movies. Writers can use other avenues to get their scripts read, and we don’t discourage writers at all from using those, such as networking events, writers groups, social media, etc. We simply believe that we provide a service that is a cut above other services of our kind due to the fact that production companies have made so many movies through our scripts and writers.
Hester: Any special enthusiastic advice for better log lines?
Mike: Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Imagine your job is to find something that stands out. You want to discover a log line that sparks your imagination, your visual senses to where you can almost see the trailer. Thus, at the very least, you need a log line that is very clear on what the main story is about and who it is about. I can’t tell you the number of pitches I’ve seen that mentions no protagonist, and in combination with a lack of clear conflict, really shoots itself in the foot.
Make sure your log line can answer these questions in a succinct way: who is this story about, what are they after and what stands in the way? If you’re lucky, you will also have a new take on a familiar genre, so it’s something that, if produced, a potential viewer will be able to explain to her friend what it’s about and not just say, “It’s a comedy.”
Hester: Any special advice for writers seeking script sales?
Mike: Work on your specs and read what out’s there. Write a few extremely solid scripts and meet people. Do not be afraid to put yourself out there. You will often find that your connections one day originated from a trail of other people. Instead of asking, “How can I meet Steven Spielberg?” tell yourself, “I want to meet people whom I can bring value to. Who can I help?”
Your network will grow if you are sharp, approachable, careful of whom you give your time to, and teachable. Eventually, you’ll meet the guy who will introduce you to the lady who introduces you to the guy at Amblin Entertainment. But earn it. Do the work first, and that doesn’t just mean writing.
Hester: I see so many indie films where the writer is also directing and sometimes acting in a lead role and probably producing. Anything you want to say about this?
Mike: It’s a tough climate right now for low-budget, non-branded projects, so some writers have turned to directing in order to get those scripts made. However, if you’re going to direct, your film must, must, must stand out in some way. One way to do that is to have a knockout concept that possesses that “new twist on an old thing.” You can’t bring something generic to the table with thousands of other films and thousands of film festivals and fly-by-night sales agents. Instill a new flavor in a familiar genre such as Jeremy Saulnier did with Blue Ruin. A generic horror movie might be the cheapest to shoot, but it can also be a trap and extremely difficult to get it noticed amongst all the others. Imagine If It Followswas simply another horror movie without that plot device – it wouldn’t stand out.
But it really, really helps if you have directing experience on some level, be it commercials, lots of shorts, etc. Writers who are just starting out often imagine directing is mostly artistic, when in reality, they are oblivious to the amount of questions they will have to answer on set, the politics they will have to navigate with financiers, the cast and crew that they will have to work with, the meetings they will have to navigate, etc.
Another way to make your film stand out is to make sure it goes above and beyond the actual budget (like what Gareth Edwards did with Monsters). If you aren’t a VFX pro like Gareth, then find a unique location by knocking on doors until you find a hot spot with a discount.
I would avoid acting if you’re also both writing and directing. Often, the more roles one takes on a project, such as cinematographer or actor, especially if it’s a debut feature, the more the film suffers.
I’m all for writers getting involved in helping promote the project, using crowd-funding, securing financing, etc., whatever it takes. Just know that the script must show off something very cool in order to draw interest. To do that, you must not only know cinema history, but must also pay attention to what’s going on now – in the world of indies – and ask yourself, what is it about these films that get noticed?
Hester: Good question. The million dollar question really. Or the Five Million Dollar Question. How about Just Under A Million
Thanks for reading. Your support means the world to all of us at Script Magazine.
Development stories are a goldmine for learning. Please leave a comment about what services you’re using to get your scripts launched. Share your successes and battle stories. For example, it took Salma Hayek nearly a decade go get Frida up and rolling. It won two Oscars.
There you go: Never give up.
- More articles by Hester Schell
- How Not to Write a Logline
- 7 Crucial Logline Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Get tips on casting in Hester Schell's book
CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors