Where Are the Original Ideas?

WTF. A recent visit to my local cineplex revealed ten movies on the marquee. Every one of them was a sequel. Or a blatant rip off of something we had seen before. (i.e. Skyscraper) What happened to all the original ideas? Where did they go? Why did they go there? And will they please come back

Movie studios produce what we want to see. Period. It is, after all, show business. Making movies is an expensive proposition. And the investors and shareholders who pour their hard-earned dollar into them would like to get their money back. And ideally a few bucks for their effort. But that’s not easy. There are too many distractions today. Pulling us in too many directions. With a thousand channels on television and a gazillion sites on the internet, how do you get someone off the couch and into the movie theater at all? In the studio’s eyes, it’s by two things. One: A star. That’s why they get paid so much. It’s not for their twelve weeks on set. It’s their name, face, and draw that pulls people in. Two: It’s familiarity. If we saw the first movie, or played the video game, or read the book, or combed the comic, chances are we’ll go see the movie too. It’s not a sure bet for studios. But it’s the closest they get. So they play the odds, hoping they tilt their way. Decisions at studios are made by people, just like you and me. At any one time, there are about a thousand people in line outside the studio waiting to take their job. Since no one wants to lose their job, they play it safe. Time after time. To compound matters, movies must be BIG in the theaters to justify the high cost per ticket. It must be a spectacle. Otherwise, we would just wait for it to come out on Netflix. But big movies cost big money. So movie studios hedge their bets by producing films they know will not only bring in a loyal audience at the theater but generate additional revenue via ancillary streams, such as video games, amusement park ridesand lunchbox covers. It’s a never-ending cycle.

So how do we break it? That’s up to you. Bywhat you see. And what you write. You want something different?Writeit. Sell it. Fight for it. And get it made. And if the movie Gods are on your side, and the winds blow your way, maybe, just maybe, it too will be successful.

And if you’re lucky, you will be asked to write the sequel.

Desert Island Challenge

Recently my book publisher threw down the gauntlet. He challenged me to the infamous “Desert Island Challenge!” If I was stranded on a desert island and could only take ten movies with me, what would they be? First let me say, I hope there is some power on that lump of sand. Not to mention a DVD player and an LG big screen. Providing those were accounted for, I set out to make my list. At first it came easy. GLADIATOR. BRAVEHEART. ROCKY. All classics, all Academy Award winners, all brilliant screenplays about extraordinary heroes. When I got to number four, however, I stalled. The movie that came to mind was clearly RAMBO. One of the all-time great action films, written by the indomitable James Cameron, which spawned a slew of sequels that grossed nearly a billion dollars. Certainly, I was not the only one a fan. But I knew people would balk. Rambo? Really? Stallone? Again? Screw ‘em. It was my list, and that film got me through a lot in my youth. It sure as hell would get me through a lot on an island. Then came movie five. As a writer of action movies and an author of a book about writing action movies, I could’ve easily coasted home on nothing but action fare. But I felt a pang in my heart for something else. And noticed at the core of all my action picks laid one thing: a great love story. For without it, what’s the point? Convinced I had enough goring and gouging to last me the rest of my days, I decided to cross over and go with SAY ANYTHING. Mouths dropped. How did that ever make my list? Cameron Crowe is how. One of the most talented screenwriters in history with a gift for gab and an insight to the human condition. To this day my friends and I recount the dialogue like it was yesterday. And that’s one of the magical things about that film, or any great film, is they take us back to our yesterdays. Next was GOOD WILL HUNTING. Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and as they were wise to admit at the Academy Awards, a bullpen of some of the most talented scribes in the world. Again, I found myself drawn to a story about a bold hero with flaws for days whose discovery of love sets him free. Number seven was THE HORSE WHISPERER. This threw everyone for a loop. But something about Robert Redford’s character always drew me to this movie. For me, he embodied all the qualities in a man I hope to have when I grow up: Honor, conviction, integrity, kindness, courage. Strangely, it is those values that I find myself drawn to, in not only great heroes, but great people. OCEAN’S ELEVEN was next. There have been three Oceans made thus far. If I had room for them all, they would all make the cut. The repartee between Clooney and Pitt pays homage to the classic Rat Pack male camaraderie, and in the end, these criminals demonstrated more class than all the marks they took down. No list is worth its salt without a Bill Murray movie. His flippant attitude and dry wit wreaks of comic genius that will help any lonesome island dweller remember how to laugh. STRIPES was the benchmark for me. And to this day, I find the lines from that film drifting into my dialogue unwittingly. Last came my first love. Rock and roll. Born and bred on Led Zeppelin, I knew I needed music to keep my soul alive, and thanks to the genius of Jimmy Page, THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME offered not only some of the best of Zep’s live performances, but a window into the mind of its artists through ethereal narrative imagery that tips a hand to Game of Thrones forty years before it came to be.

Those were my picks. To the left.

What are yours? I hereby challenge you to the “Desert Island Challenge!” Post one each day ten days in a row on your social media of choice. You might be surprised what you find.

Crash! Boom! Bang!

When I was a kid I wanted to be a stuntman.  Blame it on too many hours sitting too close to the television watching too many episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man.  Swept up in the excitement of a wry handsome hero kicking ass and taking names, I too longed to be a savior of men, women and children and make the world safe for democracy.  So I practiced.  Flipping over cars, jumping off cliffs, motor-crossing bikes and skating halfpipes, just to prove I could.  As a result, I broke my jaw, wrist, arm, finger, toe, rib, foot, knee, and collar bone… and was sewn up with enough stitches to make a quilt that would cover Kansas.  There’s got to be a better way I thought.  And so I took to writing, which enabled me to live vicariously through the actions of heroes.  Now I could be a cop, an FBI agent, a CIA operative, a Green Beret.  Basically, anything I wanted to be.  Anytime.  Anywhere.  And I didn’t break a sweat.  Or a leg.  

Soon I discovered that others liked my action writing and would hire me to write action movies… at Paramount, DreamWorks, Disney, Universal, Fox and more.  Not only was I not getting hurt, but I was getting paid.  After some hits and misses on the Hollywood rollercoaster, I returned home to the green trees and blue skies of Atlanta for an easier-peasier life.  With film and television on the upswing here, people everywhere suggested I teach what I had learned to help others tell their tales. I was surprised to find doing so was nearly as rewarding as writing them myself.  So I took to lecturing at Emory University, University of North Georgia, Reinhardt University and in my own workshops at Screenwriter School.  Soon I was inspiring hundreds of writers to tell their own stories to make the world safe for democracy.  Eventually one student said I should write a book sharing what I knew.  Then someone else said it.  Then a whole slew of people.  But like all good action heroes, I was slow to change.  But eventually, I acquiesced.  

Crash! Boom! Bang! How to Write Action Movies is my first book on screenwriting. It packs in every lesson I could squeeze into a 150 pages.  Even if you’re not an action scribe, you’ll still get a lot of it.  Because I put a lot into it.  Published by the renown MWP (www.mwp.com), it will be available June 1st in Barnes & Nobles across the globe.  But you can order one now at a discount from Amazon here, if you wish: https://goo.gl/qxO7qO.  

I hope you enjoy it.  

That you learn something.  About movies, writing, yourself.    

And that it keeps you from breaking any bones.


Enter The Dragon

Next week begins the Atlanta Film Festival’s 2017 Creative Conference. If you’re serious about screenwriting, you should attend to learn everything you can about the craft. If you’re serious about writing professionally, you should enter the screenwriting competition in Atlanta, and every other festival you can. “But won’t someone steal my idea?” No, they won’t. People don’t just hear an idea and run off and sell it. It’s not that easy. 

Competitions are a great way to get discovered. Because one of the jobs Hollywood development executives are tasked with is combing contests for fresh meat. Just entering them won’t get you much. But winning them will. So will being a finalist. What if you win two contests? Or three? There’s no way any exec worth their salt can deny reading your work.      

In 2016 Heidi Willis submitted her horror thriller Black Sunday to the Atlanta Film Festival’s screenwriting competition. From 500 screenplays sent from all over the world, a panel of readers narrowed it down to the twenty best. They were narrowed to ten. Then to three. Heidi’s clearly stood out as the best of the best to me and the others on the awarding committee. A couple months later she drove in from Alabama for the festival to receive adulation from her peers and workshop her script. Before, during and after the workshop, Heidi learned that, unbeknownst to one another, the Austin, Nashville, Bahamas and Final Draft competitions had also recognized her script as the best of the best. How? Because it was good! It stood out. And Hollywood came looking for her. All because she had the nerve… to enter the dragon. So get in the game. Enter your scripts. And come out for the conference!


Everyone who has ever written a novel has dreamed of it being turned into a movie. In the perfect world, Warner Bros. buys the rights to their book for a million dollars and hires Steve Zaillian to adapt it. It then goes onto make a bazillion dollars at the box office. The writer buys a sixty-foot yacht and sails off into the sunset. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Option B is the novelist decides to write the screenplay themselves. But quickly learns that writing screenplays is verrrry different than writing books. And thus, embarks on Option C: Seeking out a lowly lonely screenwriter to adapt their book for them. Usually for free. But with the age old promise of them sharing in the gold and glory upon the film’s successful release.

I got news for you. Adaptations take time. Talent. Discipline. Crafting great adaptations is a skill totally unto itself. Even some of the most successful screenwriters will duck and hide from adaptations no matter the money. Why? Often, simply having to cope with the reticence of the novelist (or producers) to make the changes necessary to turn their 350 page single-spaced brick of a book into a 110 page double-spaced screenplay that translates onto screen. Some things simply have to go. Scenes. Characters. Lines. Sometimes whole storylines. Hard choices must be made and it takes a deft hand to know what and where to carve. Not to mention, streaming those remnants together in a cohesive tapestry that will tantalize millions in the dark.

On the other hand, scripting adaptations can be incredibly rewarding. After all, they offer a head start. A hero. A story. A fellow writer with which to conspire and commiserate. And sometimes, in the case of autobiographies, writers who the story is even about. Who better to fill in the blanks of the unknown? Either way, for the love of God, make sure you have the rights to the source material you are adapting before you begin. Or all your work will be for naught. No studio will touch it. And last but not least, try to get paid something up front for your time AND your fair share on the backend. You will deserve it.