Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
Last year I wrote a 3-part course for Screenwriting University on Writing The Micro-Budget Screenplay. It's broken up into Preparation, Writing The Damn Thing, and how to shoot and sell it once you write it. I'd like to go over the Preparation aspect today. We can do the Micro-Budget script "rules," Marketing & Distribution in following posts. So, vamos!
My good friend Colin Costello, a former Chicagoan who moved to Los Angeles, recently wrote an article about how a writer needs to be in Los Angeles to be a professional. I asked Colin to define his terms--if, by professional, he meant in the strictest sense a writer getting paid to practice the art of screenwriting--then sure, L.A. is where you find the money and infrastructure. The established Writers Guild member going the traditional route of agents/managers, pitching, taking meetings, doing assignment work or getting staffed for TV would have to live in Los Angeles. But if Colin thinks that's the only way to get a screenplay made, then I'd be happy to debate him. You don't have to be in Los Angeles to get your movie made.
In a perfect L.A. spec world you would write a script with passion and purpose. This would garner a great placing on The Black List and attract an A-List producer who just happens to be combing online websites for the next big thing. Or maybe the script makes semifinals at Nicholl Fellowship and bags you a manager who then sends it on to Jeremy Renner’s production company where you sign a six-figure deal, watch major talent attach to the project and get the movie made for 30 million. You would then be part of the Writer’s Guild, take meetings, pitch, do assignment work, and earn Academy Award consideration...In a perfect world…
Maybe it’s the ex-casino craps dealer in me that can’t get over the mathematics of this scenario. The probability of this scenario, the likelihood of it. Or—can we be honest—the NON-likelihood of it.
Glance at the Go Into The Story Spec Script List for 2015 and you'll see 55 specs sold last year. Then add up the screenplays registered with the Writer’s Guild that year-- shall we say, conservatively, 50,000? About 1,000 to 1, though I've seen the odds-- especially for those without an agent or manager-- at much worse. Then look at the WGA 2016 Annual Report to see that for all the tens upon tens of thousands of folks writing screenplays last year, exactly 1,799 got paid. For every spec screenplay writer you see on Deadline.com breaking through with a magical story of success, you could point to a thousand dreams that didn’t pan out.
Jez Peditto, so you’re saying I should stop dreaming of being a screenwriter? I should stop writing… because the odds are against it?
Not at all. I’m talking today about the need for re-calibration. A mental rearrangement of priorities. From Old School to New. The need to know yourself…and your project.
When you write a screenplay and ignore budgetary considerations, you guarantee needing other people’s money.
Needing other people’s money cedes power. It guarantees the need of L.A. and the necessity of the L.A. mechanism. It’s why you should consider writing with micro-budget in mind. When you write for cost you increase your odds of seeing the script happen. Because you control the mechanism.
The real question should be: How do I write a movie for the absolute lowest price possible without compromising the vision of my film?
There is no one size fits all definition for micro-budget. My definition? Micro-budget is a movie made with money exclusively controlled by you. Meaning, literally, money you pull out of your pocket, or your mom’s pocket, or your 1000 Facebook friend’s pockets through a Kickstarter campaign. This could be $500 bucks or $50,000. It’s an amount you raise yourself, no strings attached by content-controlling outside money people.
You’ll need to write a script along the lines I will document later, but first you need to prepare...
Made up of three things: WHO-- GOAL--OBSTACLE. Who is the protagonist? What is their goal? What stands in the way, the obstacle? Really basic stuff and all you need when considering a logline. That and selling the reader/producer on the piece. If it's a comedy your logline will mimic the tone of the movie. Other than the raw idea, a logline is the shortest form of outlining.
If you decide to outline at all -- and NO, Syd Field worshipers-- I could decide to just start writing without knowing every twist and turn, a more organic approach, spontaneous. This is a process choice. But IF you outline, blocking out the major action in larger beats, then hone down into single scenes. It takes me the better part of two months to “card out” the script and have the Step Outline down solid.
The thinking behind scheduling script meetings with the director before a script exists is the immense pain and suffering it saves on the back end. Debate the story with your producers and director before you invest weeks and months writing it. Clarify what you intend to do ahead of time so there are no unfortunate misunderstandings on direction, or tone, or character development, or story arc.
Synopsis vs. Treatment
You can find more on this subject here, but for now let's see these two in broad strokes, starting with the Treatment:
• 3rd person
• Present tense
• Observable behavior (nothing in the head “he thinks—decides—considers)
• Prose Paragraph format
• Limited Dialogue
Approximately one page of treatment per 10 pages of screenplay (this, a loose rule as evidenced by James Cameron’s infamous 97-page Titanic treatment) Think of a treatment as a prose paragraph beat sheet. Broad strokes, multiple pages.
ONE page (accompanying the logline)
• A pitch to read/sell the story
• Zero dialogue
• Zero secondary characters or subplots
• Zero backstory
• Hold to A-Story elements of protagonist and antagonist.
- BUT HOW DO I START?
Conceive a movie that can be made for a budget you can raise. Outline the idea, never forgetting the common sense rules we'll over (next post.) Write the thing, get some notes from your inner circle, and rewrite it. Then rewrite again.
This whole time you and your team should be doing something else—developing a network of people who can help make this script happen. That means networking within your local film-making community. Going to events and other people’s films. Meet DP’s, Production Designers, Editors, and other filmmakers who are just starting out. Sure, it helps to be in L.A. to network but it’s not exclusive to L.A. There are a dozen organizations here in Chicago like Chicago Filmmakers that help connect and support you in your efforts. Take classes there, network, and get educated.
Learn, too, about the mechanisms in place to help you raise money. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter help thousands of grass-roots DIY efforts get off the ground. Cultivate investors if possible. And don’t forget to pass the list of those angel financiers on to me!
For Chat we raised $25,000 on Kickstarter (if you want to know how, look here) and the rest was private investors. You have to think of every way possible to raise the cash including Private Investors, Crowdfunding, Grants, Benefits, and "Soft Money"( Illinois' 30% tax credit the state gives to legitimate movie companies shooting in the state was responsible for the 1.3 billion spent on TV and film production in 2015). For every dollar you spend here on your movie, you get .30 cents back(qualifying above a certain bar per budget.)
You (or the producers you're working with) will be multi-tasking here, working on the Business Plan. They won't be able to budget or schedule until the "white production draft" is locked. For Chat it took four drafts and one year to get to this point. Of course that won't mean the script won't change when you get to Production. It most certainly will because, you know, shit happens. I think there were five more incarnations of Chat while we were shooting it, each called a different color-- pink, blue, magenta, tangerfreakingrine...I lost track. But let's save writing it & Post-Production/Distribution for the next posts.