There are two kinds of success as a screenwriter: The success you make of your own writing career, and the success your knowledge of screenwriting creates for someone else’s.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Huntley and Stephen Greenfield, owners of Write Brothers, Inc., creators of the Movie Magic® products, and industry pioneers for 30 years.
Being someone who loves history, and also the kind of chick who watched her root canal in a mirror, I wanted to crawl in their heads to see how it all began, how they came up with the Movie Magic® add-on to help shorten pages, and what advice they had for screenwriters. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Roll the clock back to the 1980’s when hair was big, fashion was bad, and MacBook Pros weren’t even imaginable. Writers were creating scripts on CPM (what the heck is that?) and WordStar. When Windows came on the scene, those dinosaurs died. Word processing programs like Word Perfect and Microsoft Word broke new ground, but without macros built in, formatting a script was a beast of a task for screenwriters, including Huntley and Greenfield.
Having met at USC Film School, Huntley and Greenfield dreamed of selling their scripts and seeing their names on the big screen. Since they were creative and motivated, they thought developing screenwriting software would not only help their writing, but also get them connections in the industry.
It’s that kind of give to receive mentality their entire software company is based on.
Greenfield explains the origin of the Write Brothers.
“If we wanted writing tools for ourselves, we figured other writers would want those tools too. We also wanted to be in the film industry, meet people, and be connected in order to be filmmakers. But it ended up being difficult to straddle both sides of the fence. The people we met didn’t have the power to greenlight a movie.”
Despite the creation of the software not turning out to be the door opener the hoped, they’re both completely satisfied with their decision to help other writers.
Huntley shares, “You have to make your own opportunities. There is no formula for making it. You have to create your own luck… take the 10 years to be discovered route… be persistent… if you don't have the balls for it, then get out. I got out of screenwriting early on. Doing the work, but not having any of the control, was something I didn't believe in. It scratched the creative itch, but it didn't satisfy the creative need.”
One gave up writing. One kept writing. Both won an Academy Award.
Their creation of Scriptor, the very first screenplay formatting software, won them a 1994 Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and forever changed the foundation of the screenwriting industry.
Personally, I’m a believer in fate. Even though their writing careers got sidetracked, their initial interest in writing is what changed all writers’ toolboxes.
While Huntley stopped writing to focus on the business, Greenfield continued on, using his own scripts to test their products. Genius. But beyond his own notes, they relied heavily on feedback from their users. They listen, so speak up if you have an idea.
Fast-forward to 2012, Huntley and Greenfield have created a stable of programs by Write Brothers, all designed to aid writers, screenwriters, and filmmakers: Movie Magic® Screenwriter™, Movie Magic® Scheduling™, Movie Magic® Budgeting™, Dramatica® Pro, StoryView™, Streamline™, Outline 4D™, Word Menu®, Writer’s DreamKit™, and more.
Huntley has an analytical mind. He can get his hands on any program and almost instantly find the bugs.
“When Chris sits down in front of a program, he has a magical way to zoom right into what will break it,” says Greenfield.
Since Greenfield still writes screenplays, I asked if his own work helps in the creation of new products. He shared the inspiration for the Streamline™ plugin for Mac.
“I was working on a 122-page script I had to turn in the next day. That's the heartbreak of every screenwriter. If you can get it to 119 or 120, you’re golden. Used to be you’d play with font sizes, change the spacing between lines. But readers have grown up in a computer world and they recognize what isn’t 12-point courier. I spent 90 minutes cutting out trailing lines, yet still the script length didn't change that much. Then for some reason, I deleted one letter in a word, which caused the word to wrap up on page 11… suddenly the script was two pages shorter!”
“So I got this idea, what happens if we create a tool that can go through and literally remove each word in the screenplay and test how it changes the overall length? You can then go in and find the way to make your script shorter. We created this patented tool that produces a bar chart report, showing which changes would have the most impact. For example, it will try to substitute a synonym for the word that will make it shorter. But it doesn’t automatically make these edits for you. You choose what you want.”
As a person who had to carve off 25 pages of Slavery by Another Name, I would have died for this product, if only I had known it existed!
Greenfield continues, “Let’s say Warner Brothers buys a script, the first thing they do is have a script typist retype it into their format to limit any possibilities someone is cheating. But with Streamline™, you aren’t cheating at all, you are making things terser in the appropriate places.”
Another way to tighten page length is to play with the character names. Just tightening them by one or two letters can have a dramatic effect on page length.
“It’ll catalog character names and try to shorten them and tell you which ones would benefit from shortening.”
I just dropped my root canal mirror. Only a programmer who was also a screenwriter could understand how helpful that plugin would be. Bravo. I’m certain when these two men started at USC, they never thought their careers would take this kind of turn.
Surely, men this innovative must have plans for world domination.
Welcome to the reinvention of Dramatica® Pro.
Greenfield explains, “There’s no piece of story development software that does what Dramatica does. It’s the only tool that tells you things directly connected to your story and tells you what the writer’s intent is. It tells me I need to do this, and I’m not doing that. With the new version, we go very far into making the program connect to writers in a much more holistic manner.”
Huntley has worked tirelessly on this new version, and his passion for it shows.
“It’ll ask multiple choice questions and position how all of them are related in a story. They aren’t the kind of questions you’d necessarily think you’d need to answer. One obvious question is, ‘do you have a main character who changes or is steadfast?’ We separate the concept of the main character from the protagonist. Here’s an example: In the overall story, there’s going to be a story goal. The protagonist (an objective character) is the one trying to achieve the goal. The Main character is the ‘I’ perspective (a subjective character), the character through which the audience experiences the story. Often the character identified as the Main Character also functions as the protagonist. However, the Main Character need not be the protagonist.
In the Terminator, Sarah is the main character, but Sarah is not the protagonist. Kyle Reese, her protector from the future, is the protagonist pursing the goal of keeping Sarah Connor alive in order to save mankind from a future annihilation by sentient machines. Kyle also acts as the Impact Character, the 'You' perspective (another subjective character), who's steadfast influence on Sarah eventually convinces Sarah of her importance to the future and her need to engage in her own defense.”
The protagonist doesn’t need to evolve for the story to work, but the main character does, whether it is by growing and adopting the Impact Character's world view, or by shoring up her resolve to stay the course as pressure to change mounts.
He continues, “Having those two options is something most people don't think about. If you have a character who doesn’t grow, how likely are they to just fix their problem? They need external pressure to push them, or they’ll find a balance to stay in a justified position.”
The new version of Dramatica® Pro for the Mac comes out in July. It is called Dramatica® Story Expert.
Every screenwriter needs the tools to succeed, but they also need advice from people who have walked the path before them. I asked Huntley and Greenfield to be candidly honest.
Huntley lays it out cold, “I usually tell writers to run far away, find something they really like to do that’s not in this industry. Succeeding in Hollywood sounds sexy but rarely is sexy. It’s a lot of work, and writers are at the bottom of totem pole, as opposed to theatre, where writers are at the top. If you’re doing it for money or fame, forget it. You have just as much likelihood as becoming an NBA star.”
Greenfield spoke to those who pass Huntley’s litmus test.
“Anybody, given enough time, energy and effort, can write one screenplay. Some people can squeak out a second one. But to make a living as a writer, you need to be prolific and not become too attached to one project. When you finish your first script, don't run out and try to get an agent, instead, write another two or three scripts. A friend of mine wrote six scripts in one year, and she wanted an agent. I introduced her to three. All three agents liked different scripts, feeling a different script in that group of six was one they would go out with. Agents don't want to rep the writer who has one script, they want to know you won’t be deterred and are able to create a variety of scripts to fall back on. If you can write three or more screenplays, you can make a living at it.”
Huntley agreed, “Rather than spending a lot of time writing one script over and over, write more… then go back and look at the earlier scripts. Some might warrant time to fix. Some might need to be tossed.”
They also suggested picking your gurus and screenwriting courses wisely, being careful not to overdo anything and to trust your own instincts. Sort through that knowledge and find a process that works for you intuitively.
“Classes can be motivating. Sometimes you build up a fear of a particular story. You feel you need something. Having that something can really help move you past whatever blockages are there. That’s the great thing about Dramatica: it functions in many different ways, and highlights the area you need to improve.
Two college roommates pursuing a screenwriting dream. Thirty years later, one still writes, one focuses on story theory, and both have changed the lives of thousands of screenwriters and the foundation of the industry.
I call that success on every level. Happy Birthday Write Brothers®!