Rant: High Concept Microbudget Feature Writing

July 8th, 2013 by Kat Kingsley-Hughes

Booze 1I hear it time and time again: it's all about the concept. And that concept is what everyone is chasing.

It seems to me that all anyone wants is high concept. Something new. Yet not too new. In fact, if it could be very, very like a product that already exists, but yet is somehow different in a new and refreshing way, that would be just great. But, and I can't stress this enough, not TOO refreshing or TOO different. So really kind of the same. But different. Better. We don't want the audience to have to think too much and we definitely don't want the film executives to have to think at all. Or take any risks.

Oh and we’re not going to pay you very much. Or even anything.

It's no wonder screenwriters like me are sitting round staring at the keyboard and sweating into our cheap liquor.

It's perhaps why most of my screenwriter friends are still aiming for the big tamale … the impossible shot-in-the-dark of their script getting optioned by someone with a proper budget, with a proper cast, by a proper production company.

Champagne on iceTo my mind I would be better off buying a lottery ticket. I mean the odds are 14,000,000:1, right? That HAS to be a better chance than selling my high concept heartwarming, gangster, animal, rom com script to Hollywood.

It is all too much to consider and too, too depressing. So we sit at our keyboards after doing our day jobs, quietly turning profound messages and interesting characters into what we think are great scripts (even if in the present climate they are totally unmarketable) in the vain hope that one day soon things may change. The market will come out of its slumber, someone somewhere will decide that it’s OK that filmmaking is a risky business and decide to take chances once again. And maybe then the wheels of the industry we love and want to be a part of will begin whirring back into life.  And new movies will start to flow again. Fresh movies, wonderful movies, full of intrigue and adventure and humanity and with really great writing. With titles and taglines that contain none of the following words: “reboot”, “sequel”, “prequel” or “amazing”.

Of course Steven Spielberg thinks the whole movie business is about to implode and we’ll all be stuck watching reality TV, with our boredom only occasionally relieved by trotting off to the nearest big city to see a *movie blockbuster*, like the coach trip I went on once to see “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” on stage. A once in a lifetime sort of thing, perhaps.   (And Steven Spielberg has a yacht. A big one! So I figure he knows something about where the film industry is headed.)

For me and my hopeful, hard-drinking screenwriter compadres, it’s all pretty depressing. Make mine a double!!

More boozeFor me the only glimmer of hope is in independent filmmaking. That is picking up the camera and doing it myself. I have what it takes, except quite probably the talent, but apart from that it all seems sort of doable. I like that.

And with that in mind my scripts are starting to flow again; I can put down the cheap liquor and write to produce, right? Well no, not really. Screenwriting is an already lethal cocktail: concept, marketability, fresh but not too fresh, different but not too different, with really great characters, great male leads and lots of scope for actresses to get their tits out. In indie filmmaking all this still applies, because the movie-going public's taste has been shaped that way, but now we have to add in the vital ingredient of low budget filmmaking into the mix, and suddenly you have a truly terrifying concoction.  Prepare to be feeling the effects of this brew for a long time to come.

To most Joes in the street, low budget simply means no helicopter explosions, no CGI, no big name actors.

To the independent filmmaker low budget means one location, no money for professional actors (so nothing requiring too much emoting), no catering ("well maybe Mum can put on a pan of stew, but no, she's never heard of vegan") and absolutely no budget for makeup, props or hair. “Oh and can you bring your own clothes? Preferably several identical sets. They may get damaged so nothing too good.”

To go to that much effort all on your own credit card limit, auntie’s life savings and the coins you found down the back of the sofa, you need to have a really really good story.  Which is where I came in at the start of this rant, but now rather than selling it to an industry that doesn’t want it, we’re investing our own money and that of our family and friends.

It has to be a story that’s so profound and heart-warming or so horrifyingly scary that it’s going to enthuse every single one of the people you’re going to need to cajole into crowdfunding your project or giving their time and effort for free.

The story is going to have to be so important that you’re going to see it through the long miserable edit stage when all your hard work is in the can and you realise it looks like shit; the even longer harder and more disheartening getting it shown stage where the distributors are going to do their absolute damnedest to get you to give them your movie for free. Zero, zilch, zip, nada.

And the story is going to have to be so ingrained into the very fibre of your soul that you’re going to stick with it right through the stage where your ego demands that you drop this absolute millstone of a movie immediately so you can move on to new projects because this one is really just holding you back from being the truly great filmmaker that you are.

Is your story important enough that when you tell your backers the eventual truth which can’t be avoided, that they still feel like they’ve been part of a worthwhile project?? Because let’s be honest, the sole purpose of making most films is to give *me* a shufty up the ladder a bit, or get *me* some attention as the brilliant screenwriter/director/filmmaker/producer/actor etc that I am. It had absolutely nothing to do with giving anyone a return on the financial investment they made in the film. “Sorry Granny, didn’t I tell you? There’s not actually any money in movies.  Only egos and self interest.”

Does your story have the legs to make it through all that?

I see so many stories that just aren’t going to go the distance.  And the project is going to be doomed from the start.  Just because it’s indie, doesn’t mean it’s enough to just make a movie. It has to be a good movie from the off and that is starting with a really great script, a really valid concept and something worthwhile. It’s worth getting it right!!!

The quality of independent films has to improve and that starts with the script.  And if the guy with the yacht is right, and I happen to think he is, we are running out of time. If the concept of the movie is to survive the coming implosion then the quality of independent films must improve fast. We can’t take our lead from the film industry because, let’s face it, that system is screwed. Independent filmmakers need to show solidarity by refusing to play the distributer’s games and by embracing the new methods of distribution that are available. It’s absolutely vital to do it together as the film community, which I think is a much nicer phrase than film industry.

A community is made up of individuals. And for me that's the fun. I like pootling about and doing it myself. The challenge as always is in stretching me.

Kind of like this guy:

Anyway, rant over. Bottoms up!! 🙂



This entry was posted on Monday, July 8th, 2013 at 8:10 pm and is filed under Filmmaking, Flotsam, Screenwriting, Writing. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Rant: High Concept Microbudget Feature Writing”

  1. joshua Says:

    You're absolutely key. Story trumps everything. The reason is we had story before we had special effects, helicopter crashes and 3D. A compelling story is the only point. You might be able to trick someone with a low attention span to watch something high concept with lots of effects but apart from that we need something meatier. Story has to be at the heart of it. It's what's always been there.

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