Hollywood Gatekeepers on What Makes a Great Screenplay: ‘Will these characters and this story stand the test of time?’

By Jeff Legge · October 12, 2017

There’s no use beating around the bush. The prominence of spec sales in Hollywood has diminished radically over the last two decades. Specifically, we’re referring to the days in which studios and production companies would climb over each other fighting tooth and nail just to add to the hottest script to their development sleight. These days, the number of specs sold each year pales in comparison to what it once was.

With fewer sales each year, the question becomes: what does it take for your script to break through an increasingly oversaturated market?

It’s a difficult question to answer. The waters are certainly murkier in 2017 than they were twenty years ago. And while screenwriting competitions continue to present new avenues and detours for writers looking to get ahead, the truth is that the feature film industry is currently in flux. Perhaps that’s part of the reason so many writers continue to turn to television.

Still, if feature film is your racket of choice, your best bet is to go straight to the source: Hollywood’s gatekeepers. We’re talking studio heads, producers, and development executives. Only they can truly tell us what it really takes to get ahead in Hollywood’s overstuffed marketplace.

Because at the end of the day, it’s their call.

Fortunately, the fine folks at Vulture recently ran a profile on seven such individuals in an attempt to uncover just what it takes to get your screenplay out of your desk and onto the development sleight.

Michael Barker
Position: Co-President, Sony Pictures Classic
Credits: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Midnight in Paris 

Most interesting trend: “I ask myself, ‘Will these characters and this story stand the test of time?’ and ‘Is this a resonant story at this moment in the world?’ I tend to look for something fresh that surprises me. When [Sony Classics co-president] Tom [Bernard] and I first read Pedro Almódovar’s Talk to Her, at one point in the script it says, ‘Film goes to dark; a tiny man is climbing a naked giant woman and jumps into her vagina.’ We went, ‘What???’”

Most annoying trend: “American screenplays tend to be very long in a way that’s really irritating. Screenplays we get from European writers like Michael Haneke are generally shorter. Scripts are also irritating when, if after 15 or 20 pages, you’re still like, ‘What is this? What’s going on?’”

Biggest turn off: “Horror movies. But I’m a sucker for Westerns.”

On budget: “It’s always on our minds. We often say, ‘Holy mackerel, there’s no way we can make this,’ because nowadays, we only invest in the screenplay about a third of the time. Nora Ephron once told us she wanted to do an indie and sent us a screenplay, but there was no way it could be made low-budget. She didn’t understand that part of the business, because she had only made big movies.”

The best first draft: “David Mamet’s were always spectacular. For Woody Allen’s movies, we never read the scripts. His movies are based on very little knowledge on our part; we throw fate to the wind.”

How to stick the landing: “I have seen so many films that, if they don’t send the audience off on a high note, or have the right punctuation at the end, it really hurts the word-of-mouth. A good ending is vital.”

Jason Blum
Position: Producer, Blumhouse Productions
Credits: Paranormal Activity, Whiplash, Get Out 

Most annoying trends: “Self-referential comedies whose characters comment on what’s going on in the movie; it’s a cutesy style of writing that winks to the audience, ‘We’re in on the joke!’ It used to be funny in early 2000 Will Ferrell movies — he could pull it off. But it’s overdone now. Also, scripts that have characters talking about movies is my pet peeve. Quentin Tarantino can get away with it, but it totally pulls you out of the movie. It’s like reminding the audience that they are sitting in a theater. It’s the screenwriter’s job is to make the audience forget that.”

Is a traditional format necessary: “Not at all. Almost everything we’ve done, starting with Paranormal Activity, breaks the mold. That was an 80-minute movie with a 45-minute first act, and the first big scare happens over halfway through. In tentpole movies, it’s too risky to break the three-act structure. But almost every movie we do challenges the notion that there’s a formula to screenwriting.”

The best first draft: Sinister. It didn’t change very much. And neither did Get Out.”

Feelings on adaptations and pre-existing material: “Very mixed. Obviously the most successful movies of this summer were superhero movies. As much as people are disdainful of these, it’s what audiences are showing up to see. If I were making $100 million movies, I’d be doing the same thing. I do think rebooting horror-movie franchises is a more forgiving thing than, say, resurrecting a preexisting comedy. Horror relies on concept. Comedy relies much more on the actors and the comedians.”

Passing on a script: “I have strong feelings about this, because I’m often on the receiving side of passes [laughs]. But I have two rules: Respond quickly and chalk it up to personal taste. If you say you personally don’t like something, no one can argue with that. Sadly, most of Hollywood doesn’t pass like this and it drives me bananas.”

Kristin Burr
Position: Former VP of production for live-action projects at Disney; Producer, Burr! Productions
Credits: Sweet Home Alabama, The Muppets, The Proposal

The stories worth telling right now: “Heartfelt, sincere, andhopeful. The world can feel bleak sometimes, so I want you to feel better walking out of the theater than you did walking in.” 

Most interesting trends: “Scripts that show empowering female characters with sincerity and complexity. I don’t need another story about women that doesn’t run deeper than romantic woes or petty differences.”

Most Annoying Trends: “Violence for violence’s sake. I appreciate the craft that goes into action and fight sequences, but it seems the stream of assassin-character scripts tend to celebrate violence and destruction without purpose or repercussion.” 

Spelling and Grammar: “A script can feel lacking in professionalism when it’s full of typos. Also, at this point, shouldn’t we all know the difference between ‘to’ and ‘too’?”

Instant pass: “Someone attempting to write for kids by making it feel less intelligent and, frankly, lame. My favorite movies as a kid are still things I admire today because they have smart, engaging characters.”

Race and ethnicity: “I prefer for movies to reflect our world as it is and sometimes as it should be, so I seek out opportunities to include a diverse cast — no matter the type of film.”

Length (120+ pages): “It drives me bananas. I can already hear people describing the movie as ‘slow.’”

Michael DeLuca
Position: Former president of production at Dreamworks and Newline Cinema; Founder, Michael DeLuca Productions
Credits: Moneyball, The Social Network, Fifty Shades of Grey

Stories worth telling right now: “I love escapism, but what gets me really excited are true-life stories; movies like I did with [producers] Scott Rudin and Dana Brunetti — Social Network, Moneyball and films like Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo.”

Most annoying trends: “Slavish devotion to formula or anything too derivative or anything that’s riding the coattails of another movie’s success can be a little deflating, rather than taking four stabs at making originals; jury-rigging tentpoles as opposed to investing in originality and innovation.”

Spelling and grammar: “By the time a script reaches me, it’s rare to run into grammar and spelling problems. But if I’m digging the script, I’ll forgive any number of typos. Those are easy to fix; fixing theme, plot, and character is not!”

Is experimentation a deal-breaker? “If it’s satisfying, all bets are off. Some of my favorite films have incredible voice-overs: Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Goodfellas. Then there are movies that are practically silent like 2001: A Space Odyssey; or really any script by Charlie Kaufman. I’m grateful for it all; it’s like a buffet.

Existing IP: “It really depends. I’m working on a new version of Battlestar Galactica because I loved both TV series. I also read the comic. I’m full-on a fan. If you have a personal connection to something, or you think you have something to contribute to a new version, then have at it. But I don’t think that’s what we should do exclusively.” 

The best first draft: Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. They basically shot the scripts I read. That’s extremely rare.”

Passing on a script: “I usually say, ‘Great work, but it’s just not for me.’ If you’re a writer, getting a phone call back at all is a victory. We’re all up a shit creek if we don’t keep writers at least a tiny bit happy.” 

Helen Estabrook
Position: Producer, Right of Way Films, Estabrook Productions
Credits: Whiplash, Young Adult, Up in the Air

Stories worth telling right now: “Anything new and strange, as long as it’s intelligent and emotionally honest.”

Most Annoying Trends: “I am always annoyed when I read something that feels like it was just written to sell. It’s very obvious when someone has written something they actually believe in.”

Least interesting genres: “I would have a hard time signing onto a horror script, mostly because I think it’s the one genre that has done the best to both utilize and subvert the established tropes. I am just not nearly as well-versed in the canon to make a great horror film.”

What makes a good character? “I think a lot about E.M. Forster’s delineation of round and flat characters: A round character acts and speaks as a real person would, and increases in complexity throughout the story; they’re capable of contradiction and change, and we see their emotional and psychological development as the story progresses. I think a lot of unlikability for the audience is born out of flat characters.”

Instant pass: “Have terrible descriptions of female characters.”

Length (120 pages+): “I’m already turned off if I’m looking at the page count.” 

How to stick the landing: “I used to talk with a colleague about the idea of the “parking lot ending” — the thing you’re debating, in an excited way, while you’re still in the parking lot of the theater. So, I want it all: satisfaction and more questions.”

What it would take to sell a script that defies and transcends conventions (Memento, Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind): “This is basically all I want to make. Send me these scripts, please!

Lynda Obst
Position: Producer, Lynda Obst Productions
Credits: The Fisher King, Interstellar, Sleepless in Seattle 

Most interesting scripts right now: “Are stories that run perpendicular to the political narrative, but still shed light on it, and stories that reveal something moving and deep about character.”

Most annoying trend: “I loathe slasher movies and dystopian future scenarios — lazy, repetitive, and depressing. I also hate bad science in sci-fi when it’s easily correctable. The country is dumb enough without our cooperation. Also, making movies out of TV series. It shows a depressing lack of confidence in market, and an overreliance on marketing.”

Spelling and grammar: “I think a writer is suspect if a script isn’t spell-checked. I’m an ex-editor, so grammar is important except obviously in dialogue.”

Instant pass: “Be full of clichés and mention the Kardashians.”

Best first draft:    “Richard LaGravenese’s The Fisher King.”

How to stick the landing: “Relief and resolution of something, if not everything. It depends on the genre. But always remember that your test number is highly determined by the feeling at the end of the movie. I learned this working on Risky Business.”

Do topical stories rise to the top of your pile? “Not at all. Personally, I want to make nothing that reminds me of Trump.”

Will Packer
Position: Producer, Will Packer Productions
Credits: Think Like a Man, Straight Outta Compton, Girls Trip 

Most interesting scripts: “Are those that authentically represent the perspective, lifestyles, cultures, struggles, and joys of real people. That’s why I think Girls Trip worked; it had nuances that other movies like it didn’t have. It gave women, regardless of ethnicity or background, an aspirational feeling of being free.”

Most annoying trend: “It’s less about a lack of creativity from the writer’s perspective than it is what financiers, studios, and distributors are pushing writers to write.”

How much does diversity matter? “Quite a bit. The reason there’s been such a dearth of diversity in Hollywood is because a narrow group of writers have depicted their versions of reality. If I’m telling stories that truly reflect the world, I shouldn’t have to try to be diverse. Also, I’m not white; I didn’t come up in the Hollywood system. This helps me have a very different view of content creation. And I live in Atlanta — not Los Angeles — so I’m naturally around more so-called ‘real’ people, and that helps.”

Sticking the landing: “Personally I like unexpectedness, but that’s not usually the commercially viable version of a ending. Unfortunately, we always want the protagonist to win, the underdog to overcome, and the lead character’s arc to be completed.”

Passing on a writer: “I try to respond as quickly as possible. I have a lot of respect for writers, so I treat them as such when I’m interacting with them, even if it’s saying, ‘I can’t move forward with your project.’ I have such an appreciation for how hard their job is.”

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