Before building your story, I want to caution you about what not to write. It is inevitable in every workshop that one student will ask,
"How do I know what the networks or studios are buying?"
"You don't know!" I exclaim.
"What's commercial this year?"
"Nobody knows," I reply.
To want to be commercial or imitate former successful high concept scripts is not a good enough reason to build your story. By the time you write what you think will be a hot topic you'll already be too late. How can you outguess the networks and studios who have staffs on their payroll just to read the newspapers, magazines and manuscripts of books even before they reach the public? You just can't, so don't even try.
Do you recall what happened with the real life Elizabeth Smart kidnapping? Immediately after she was safely found there was a TV movie that was in the works. At the same time another studio made a true-to-life movie about Jessica Lynch who was stationed with the military in Iraq. She was kidnapped in Iraq when the convoy she was in became lost. She was badly injured and alone as a captive of the Iraqis. In a surprise and covert mission she was rescued by a group from the military and she later became known as a hero. Her story was on television the same night as the movie about Elizabeth Smart. Get the picture?
There's really no way to compete with the big conglomerates about current hot topics in the news. These companies even have writers on the payroll who have already started scripts about worldwide hot topics that are seen on the news programs day and night. The writers are just waiting for the actual ending of the real life story, so they are able to complete their screenplay with the correct facts.
Can you recall all the other movies that were released almost immediately after a major newsworthy event or death of a celebrity? And now that we have so many reality talk shows, entertainment exposés on television and all those supermarket tabloids, there is NOTHING you'll be able to get that will scoop these studios or networks, unless of course, you do something sensational and then you'll probably sell your story to the highest bidder.
Hopefully, you can now understand why it doesn't pay to try to be commercial when you write your screenplay. You'll just be wasting your time. You'll never sell the overdone, cliched work you're sure will be commercial, because it's been done over and over again. But you'll always be commercial when you write something new, fresh and original—something that comes from your life experiences, from your heart.
Recently, I conducted a workshop at Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles. It was called, "The Inside Story: Writing What Hollywood Wants." It was a full house because I'm certain everybody there wanted to learn what was going to sell. However, I'm sure they were surprised when I revealed that what they needed to write was the personal story which nobody else could write. One that would be filled with passion, vision and emotion and be fresh and original—a story that would touch the hearts of the audience.
When you pick your subject matter for your story, it's better to write a contemporary piece and to avoid the epic, or period piece as they are too costly and seldom made, especially by an unknown writer.
There are no new plots under the sun. All have been done over and over again, but not by you. So go for the story that will be uniquely yours. Write one that will be fresh and novel, featuring your point-of-view. Make it a work with originality by writing what you know and revealing who you are. Your personal involvement will make your story come alive and your voice will make a difference and needs to be heard!
By writing about your passion it will be reflected in your screenplay, making it fresh and unique with you. Your screenplay will have a chance of becoming a success, because of your commitment to your story and your need to share your feelings with others.
Assuming that you now have given up the notion of wanting to be commercial just for the sake of being commercial, I want to make it clear that doesn't mean you don't want to sell your screenplay. Of course you probably do or else you wouldn't be writing one. By writing about a story or event that has meaning to you and knowing the correct structure and the elements of dramaturgy, you'll end up with a successful screenplay.
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