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From Book to Screen: Adapting Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation’

On Thursday, December 20, New York Film Academy (NYFA) hosted a guest lecture by producer, production attorney, and NYFA board member, Avy Eschenasy. Eschenasy is the principal of Eschenasy Consulting, which provides advisory services in connection with all business aspects of motion picture production, financing, and distribution.

Previously, Eschenasy was a senior executive at Focus Features from 2002 until 2013, where he was Executive Vice President of Strategic Planning, Business Affairs and Acquisitions. Eschenasy is known for producing Indignation (2016), Casting JonBenét (2017), and A Prayer Before Dawn (2017).

Avy Eschenasy

Eschenasy began the lecture by discussing how the book Indignation by Philip Roth, was optioned to be produced as a feature film. In order for a producer to option a book, they must pay the publisher an “option fee.”

“That fee entitles [producers] to exclusively have the opportunity to buy the rights [to produce the book as a film]” said Eschenasy, “for a limited time period, usually 12 to 18 months” if the producer can find a production company or movie studio that wants to produce the optioned book as a film.

If the producer can find a production company or movie studio that is interested in producing the book as a film, then they would pay the publisher an additional fee for the exclusive opportunity to produce the book as a film. That means that once Eschenasy purchased the rights to produce Roth’s Indignation, Roth’s publishing company was not allowed to sell the option or production rights to any other producers.

Avy Eschenasy

Eschenasy went on to discuss turning the book into a screenplay. In order to get a book adapted to a screenplay, the producer must negotiate with a screenwriter, usually a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

In the contract with the screenwriter, the producer outlines fees paid for the first couple drafts of the script and many times will pay an additional fee if the film makes it all the way to production and distribution. The fees paid to a writer also depend on how they are credited: for example, a writer that has written a script alone would be paid more than a writer that co-wrote a script with one or more partners.

Once the script is finalized, it is time to focus on production. The producer needs to have a “package” ready to prepare for launching production, said Eschenasy. “The script, cast, the director, and the budget.”

Avy Eschenasy

The budget is put together by a line producer and then the producer must try to raise that amount of money to make the film; with independent films like Indignation, this money is typically raised with “pre-sales” to distributors. A “pre-sale” is a contract between the production team and distributors that outlines stipulations that the production team must follow in order to secure financing from the distributor; usually the distributor’s agreement is contingent upon the producer promising a script and a known actor. A way to save money during production is to shoot in a state or a country with tax credits for film and television productions; because of this and a few other reasons, Indignation was shot in New York.

For Indignation, a big part of the production “package” was the actor, Logan Lerman, best known for starring in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). Eschenasy needed a name like Lerman to get distributors interested, but he also needed to make Lerman and his representatives feel confident in Indignation as a production; producers get actors and their representatives to trust their productions with contracts. The contract outlines the shoot schedule, the actor’s “billing” (much like the writer’s “credit” discussed earlier), the fee paid to the actor (including bonuses if the actor wins awards for the role), and perks if applicable.

After all the negotiations and contracts were completed and all of the necessary funds were raised, Indignation went into production. Everything went well during the production phase and then it moved to post-production. Once the final cut of the film was finished, Indignation was entered in the Sundance Film Festival, where it was received very well by critics. Lionsgate Entertainment made an offer to distribute the film in the United States and Sony Pictures Entertainment made and offer to distribute the film to the majority of the international market. After all of their hard work, the Indignation production team got the film made, critically acclaimed, and distributed all over the world.

New York Film Academy would like to thank Avy Eschenasy for sharing his industry expertise and experiences getting Indignation produced with our students!

Ten Iconic Films Written by Screenwriting Legend William Goldman 

William Goldman, one of Hollywood’s most influential screenwriters for several decades, passed away early November 16, at the age of 87. 

In addition to writing several famous (and infamous) major motion pictures across a wide variety of genres, Goldman cemented himself as an authority of Hollywood screenwriting when he published Adventures in the Screen Trade in 1983. In the book, Goldman not only shared with readers his mastery of all things writing — story, dialogue, character — but his incisive, honest look at Hollywood’s modern studio system in the 60s and 70s, and what it would eventually evolve into over the next few decades. 

His rounded, honest view of the system that gave him great success was both cynical and appreciative, from the ground level as well as a bird’s eye view from the top, where he laid out and accepted both the good and the bad of the massive and powerful industry that produced an artistic medium he very much loved. 

Here are just some of the films he contributed to the Hollywood canon:

Misery

Director Rob Reiner and producers of the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Misery, in which a psychotic fan ties her favorite author to her bed and forces him to keep writing, felt like they needed to dial back the horror of the book to make the film more palatable for mainstream audiences. In the novel, the character played by Kathy Bates severs the foot of the author played by James Caan, rendering him unable to escape.

What screenwriter William Goldman came up with as a solution was perfect, and became an iconic Hollywood moment. Rather than sever his foot, Goldman had Bates smash Caan’s ankles with a sledgehammer – less bloody and less gory, but somehow in its specificity, even more brutal to watch. Goldman was proving a valuable lesson in screenwriting: sometimes less is more.

Harper

Goldman had already finished the script to the hardboiled detective movie Harper, starring Paul Newman, but producers needed a scene to play over the opening credits. Goldman quickly came up with a simple, but poignant moment — the disgruntled PI getting ready in the morning, realizing he was out of coffee, and reusing an old filter from the trashcan. In one quick dialogue-less moment, Goldman established the get-it-done character of his protagonist before the opening credits had even finished rolling.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Goldman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on this seminal western that paired together two of Hollywood’s most charismatic and popular leading men — Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The film highlights the genre-bending abilities Goldman seemingly wielded without breaking a sweat, going from comedy to thriller to drama to even musical from scene to scene without ever missing a beat. 

Chaplin

Chaplin was a star-studded biopic in 1992 that portrayed the life and career of silent film megastar Charlie Chaplin, and was one of that year’s most prestigious films, with a talented cast, incredibly high production values, and direction by Richard Attenborough. While it received mixed reviews, it was one of the first major dramatic roles for the young comic actor Robert Downey, Jr., who was nominated for his first Academy Award for his work.

A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far was also directed by Richard Attenborough, and was an epic World War II film with a large-for-its-time budget and loaded cast that featured stars from other Goldman films like James Caan and Robert Redford. In a genre overstuffed with classics, A Bridge Too Far managed to make a name for itself for its wide scope and intense battle sequences, especially since, unlike many of its brethren, it focused on a major historical loss for the Allied Forces.

Marathon Man

Marathon Man, like some of Goldman’s other screenplays, was adapted from a novel he wrote himself. As a book, and later as a film, it attracted the attention of producers and critics alike for its stark violence and themes of Nazi war criminals still existing in society decades after the end of World War II. A major casting coup for the gritty thriller was Sir Laurence Olivier as the antagonist, who earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

Maverick

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Marathon Man is Maverick, a big-budget western comedy adapted from the 50s television series of the same name. The film reunites Lethal Weapon’s director Richard Donner and star Mel Gibson (and a cameo from Danny Glover) at the height of their Hollywood powers and proved to be a definitive audience-pleasing popcorn movie in a year full of tough competition. 

The Stepford Wives

The science-fiction horror film The Stepford Wives challenged the norms of gender dynamics between husbands and wives and, when it was released in 1975, received only moderate success. It has however gained a solid cult status over the decades, and was even eventually given a big budget remake starring Nicole Kidman in 2004. The term “Stepford Wife” itself has now become slang for the type of doting, robotic homemaker featured in Goldman’s script.

The Princess Bride

“Anybody want a peanut?” 

That’s just one line out of dozens from the eminently quotable screenplay Goldman wrote for The Princess Bride, itself an adaptation of a novel he wrote with the same name. Ostensibly a comedy, the film also plays with genre, and has firmly rooted itself in the hearts of multiple generations of film and adventure lovers. Can you imagine a world without the line, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”??? 

Of course you can’t… it’s “”inconceivable!!!”

All the President’s Men

Goldman won his second Academy Award for the screenplay adapted from the book All the President’s Men, written by the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. The film, which is still regarded by many as one of the greatest of all time, takes the real-life investigation of newspaper journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they run up directly against a Nixon administration fighting to stay in power. Who would’ve thought its themes and even plot points of cover-ups and political corruption would be more resonant than ever forty years later? 

There are several other fantastic films written by William Goldman in his decades-spanning career, too many to list. Watching them all would not only be a great source of entertainment, but a Master Class in screenwriting from the man himself. 

RIP William Goldman – your contributions to cinema will not be forgotten.

 

Great Techniques to Write a Script with an Unexpected Ending

Don’t you just love epic film endings that you never saw coming? These endings are the ones that stay with viewers for a long time and inspire talk about the movie and the reasons why the screenwriter decided to give the story such a mind-blowing plot twist.

Building an unexpected ending in movie scripts is difficult, but can give a movie a lot of buzz and leave the audience breathless. It can be a fine line between a well-earned shocker of an ending and a contrived, seemingly desperate, last minute attempt to save a bad movie.

What’s the secret to making a successful twist ending? There may not be one magic bullet, but a pretty good understanding of some script writing techniques can help you make a memorable ending stick with your audience:

  1. Misdirect the Viewers

Misdirection is a widely popular technique among screenwriters. The main purpose is to make viewers think that they have everything figured out before subverting their expectations entirely at some point, usually in the film’s climax. What could be better than gradually guiding viewers’ attention away from the real plot resolution and reveal it only at the end, right?

Achieving an effective misdirection requires you to use some tools, including the following.

  • Sleight-of-hand. Gradually bury clues to the real ending in preceding scenes where the viewers will be focused on something else. For example, many screenwriters do it during fast-paced moments such as fight scenes because the attention of viewers is focused on the action.
  • Red herrings. This technique steers viewers in the wrong direction by planning false pieces of information and cues pointing in the wrong direction.
  • Dead ends. Similarly, these wrong directions could lead nowhere and stop short, throwing the audience off balance — in a good way.

Always keep in mind that you need to be as subtle as possible, so the viewers won’t notice you’re trying to steer them in the wrong direction, or so your writing doesn’t come off as heavy-handed. This isn’t easy — you’ll need a lot of time, energy, and focus, so schedule screenwriting appropriately so it fits into your daily routine.

 

Screenplay

  1. Make Your Twist Emotional

An effective way to generate a good twist at the end of the movie script is to look at it from an entirely new point of view – whether the ending would be uplifting or a downer.

If your story has been more or less optimistic throughout the first 2+ acts, a downbeat ending can really gutpunch the audience. Conversely, if your script was mostly gloomy and bleak tale that finally offers its characters some hope or a happy ending, the audience can be overwhelmed with sudden relief and make their experience that much sweeter. Either way, you’re putting your audience through an emotional roller coaster.

  1. Put Yourself in the Reader’s Shoes

This is a simple but effective technique that could make a huge difference for your ending. Imagine that you’re a stranger reading your script cold. How would you react to the narrative? Is there a direction that you found yourself expecting the story to go? What other endings could you foresee for the plot and characters?

Write down and make note of every potential ending you come up with, and then discard them all when writing your ending. The result would be an ending that one would never see coming before it’s revealed!

  1. Use the “No One is Safe” Technique

Clearly, not all movies have happy endings. Not every character will achieve their goals or, depending on the story, may not even survive. Why not take the opposite route and subvert the viewers’ expectations by adopting the ‘no one is safe’ mentality?

By killing off characters or having the plot take unexpected turns earlier in the screenplay, your audience will know not to take anything they’ve come to expect from typical Hollywood movies for granted. With everything unpredictable, they’ll just have to follow along for the ride, and wherever they end up could be a total surprise.

These are just some of the ways to build your story to an unexpected twist ending. But, depending on the genre, your plot should usually come naturally from what your characters would do. Betray that, or any of the other core elements of a screenplay, and everything you’ve built could collapse. But if you navigate successfully between the lines and use the tips above, you could come up with a twist that movie audiences will be buzzing about for a long time after the lights in the theater come up!

Interested in learning how to craft a screenplay? Check out more information on New York Film Academy’s screenwriting school here.

Lucy Benton is a writing coach, an editor who finds her passion in expressing her own thoughts as a blogger. Currently, she works at A-Writer. She is constantly looking for the ways to improve her skills and expertise. Also, Lucy has her own writing blog Prowritingpartner where you can check her last publications. 

Paid Script Coverage Services – The 2 Biggest Benefits and Drawbacks

Script coverage, it’s been said, is one of those things about the film industry that nobody really learns about until they’re actually in the industry. Usually you’re introduced to script coverage at your first gig, or even internship, by way of your boss or higher-up handing you a script (or a PDF these days) and a Word document containing the script coverage template from the lucky person who wrote script coverage before you got there.

So, it’s fair to surmise that most people who write script coverage, or read scripts for a living, probably learned from reading the script coverage of their predecessor at a production company or studio or agency — each of which, by the way, has its own unique way of doing it.

Does the script coverage include a synopsis? How long of a synopsis? A critique section? If so, is it free-form, prose critique, or is it a series of boxes to check off and score, like “Plot,” “Character,” “Conflict,” etc.? Is there an analysis grid? Does it include a logline? Up top, does it indicate the writer’s name? The submission date? Does it indicate who submitted it?

While the templates and methodologies can be as different as the different entities doing the script coverage, one basic purpose is common to all script coverages:

Script coverage saves a producer, agent, or otherwise busy film industry “somebody” from having to read the actual script.

In other words, script coverage is a glorified “book report” of a screenplay or teleplay, designed to provide “the skinny” about a script, in order to save someone higher up from having to read the actual script.

In the past, generally pre-1996 or so, script coverage was an in-house thing only. That is, the only entities doing script coverage were agencies, production companies, studios, and producers. Script coverage was an internal document designed to stay internal, and not necessarily get back to the screenwriter whose script was covered.

But with the rise of the internet, script coverage became available as a tool for screenwriters and filmmakers, who could use to improve their screenplay. For a price.

Script readers were no longer only to be found in agencies and studios and production companies, or working with name talent. They were now taking their trade online, and exchanging their time and critical chops for money.

So now there’s a virtual cottage industry of script coverage companies spanning the internet, ranging from the good to the bad, from the expensive to the cheap, from professional work to hatchet jobs.  

Traditionally, receiving script feedback on one’s own screenplay — feedback of any kind — has never been a super easy endeavor. Prior to paid script coverage services, a screenwriter would generally rely on her writer colleagues, writers group, mentors, or friends and family, to provide her with insight into her work.

But with the rise of the world wide web also came the rise of online meetups and writers groups and screenwriting forums. Now it’s more accessible than ever to find communities and like-minded folks to help you with your screenwriting. And standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all those methods and options, free and otherwise, is the service of paid script coverage.

Full disclosure: I’ve run the script coverage service Screenplay Readers since 1999. But while I’m a huge advocate of paid script feedback for my own writing, and am a huge fan of it because it’s my business, I have to make one thing super clear: I’m an even bigger advocate of getting as much free feedback on your work as possible before paying for any script coverage.

Paid script coverage isn’t for everybody, but here’s my take on the two biggest reasons it can help, and the two biggest reasons why it might not be right for you:

Biggest Benefit #1: It gives your script a “dry run” for the real submission process.

90 times out of 100, or even more frequently, if you’re sending in your script to an agency, producer, or production company, your script isn’t getting read. An immutable fact of the film business since time immemorial has been that everybody wants in. And I mean everybody. And everybody thinks they can write a script.

The result is studio and agency inboxes are crammed with spec scripts from unknown writers. Heck, many are crammed with spec scripts from known writers, both regularly employed and underemployed ones.

There’s just. Too. Many. Screenplays.

But for those lucky few who do get their scripts read, you, the screenwriter, will likely never read the script coverage that script readers writes about your script. So you’ll never know what criticisms that script reader had, and you’ll never have a chance to address them, or an opportunity to make those changes or fixes that could make the difference for a future script reader.

By paying for script coverage from a reputable screenplay coverage company, you get to read the coverage. You get to soak in all the criticism, good and bad, all the details, all the big-picture notes the script reader had, any and all concerns with the script finding an audience, you name it.  

This sort of “dry run” is invaluable, as most screenplays are given only one chance to make a good impression on whoever may be reading it. An assistant or script reader, or even an agent or producer, isn’t going to read your script twice, unless you’re a name writer. And even then, a second read is a longshot. (In most of those cases, you’ll be lucky as a name writer to get even a second “skim.”)

Biggest Benefit #2: A person you don’t know synopsizes your script.

Nearly all script coverage includes a synopsis section, where the person reading the script boils down your story into a page or two, listing just the major beats and developments so that the person reading the script coverage later can get a good idea of what the actual story is.

As writers working alone, or even with a co-writer, we often get too close to our material. We start to see the trees, yes, but the forest can be elusive after staring at the page for two or three years. That is to say, while you’re on the third draft, hard at work on polishing the dialogue, you may have long ago stopped looking at the overarching story — and that story may need drastic attention. A complete stranger reading your screenplay and providing notes in the form a script coverage synopsis can a huge benefit for a writer because having that synopsis, in essence, brings back the “forest” — the “bird’s eye view.”

And the best part of that is that it doesn’t even matter if the script reader gets your synopsis “right.” That is, if they get all the beats of your story down pat, and the synopsis is spot on, you win because you know your material is clear and your story is coming across.

But even if they get it “wrong,” weirdly enough, you still win because you learn which parts of your script aren’t making themselves clear. A “wrong” synopsis beat gives you a chance to zoom in on that beat and make it clear. Better yet: make it idiotproof so that it’s unmissable to all but the most sloppy of readers.

Biggest Drawback #1:  Expense.

There’s a key reason that aspiring screenwriters are the second most common film industry folks stepping off the bus and trying their hand at the grand ole Hollywood film industry. That key reason? Screenwriting is cheap — that is, the bars to entry, the expenses associated with giving it a try: they’re low. All you need is a laptop, some free screenwriting software, and some imagination. Don’t get me wrong: Talent is still vital, and skills take time and money and resources to hone, but the bare bones bar to entry for simply giving it a try is low.

Now compare that bar to entry for aspiring cinematographers and directors, where you kinda need to have a not-small pile of expensive gear, or a film or two under your belt. Because screenwriting is such a relatively inexpensive craft to try your hand at, it stands to reason that there are vastly more low-income aspiring screenwriters than there are middle/upper-income aspiring screenwriters.

So that means, for the majority of aspiring screenwriters, paying a script coverage company for feedback may be out of the question. Plus, many aspiring screenwriters decide that it really makes no sense to pay for coverage if they’re just a few clicks away from an online writers group or a writers meetup that can provide feedback and help them grow as artists in many other ways — not the least of which is in social connections which may pay off later.

Biggest Drawback #2: Anonymous readers.

Script coverage companies, by and large, work with mysterious readers who you know nothing about, and the company’s not telling you. My company and a few others break this rule, posting names and bios and pics of our team on our site. But by and large, if you’re paying for script coverage, you’re likely going to have your script read by a reader you know nothing about, and whose qualifications are a mystery.

On the one hand, not knowing who your reader is can cast some doubt on the integrity of your notes, sure. But on the other, it might not actually be all that bad; Consider that if you ever send your script into a studio or agency, you’ll probably never know the identity or qualifications of anybody reading your script at those places, either. Still, when receiving feedback on your screenplay, knowing who’s doing it, what their background is, and what their qualifications are can count for a lot.

So what does it all mean? Well, I can only tell you what it means for me. For me, it’s awesome to get super-focused, super-detailed feedback on my work, as screenwriters can only grow — in my opinion — with copious feedback. But paying for script coverage isn’t for every screenwriter, especially those who just don’t have the resources.

I believe in what we do at my script coverage company, and I believe in the quality of the script feedback we’re providing our customers, absolutely. But I also believe in the importance of networking, and writers groups, and collaborating with other writers on other projects. Without those things, without those people, I wouldn’t be half as a good a screenwriter as I am now.

Guest Post Written by Brian O’Malley of Screenplay Readers

How To Write A Video Game Script: Take A Cue From Literature

While not all games employ a narrative structure to provide their plot, for a lot of gamers, story is vital for getting your teeth into a good game. A good narrative can help a gamer become fully immersed and feel he or she is part of the world the programmers have created. But how do you write a proper video game script?

How to write a video game script

Creating a compelling plot for a game is a hard discipline to master, but it’s also one of the first and most fundamental skills taught at any game design program. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the importance of narrative structure within the game design sphere.

Taking a Cue from Literature

Narrative structure is what makes us care about the character we are controlling. It makes us want to achieve the goals, save the day, and can make us want to finish a game to see the final denouement.

The same, of course, is true for a good genre book, whether it’s a thriller, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy novel; it’s the narrative, the characters and the pacing of the novel that makes us want to keep picking it up.

Games and novels are not that vastly different.

How to write a video game script

While games are interactive, books have been too, as anyone old enough to remember the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks that were popular during 1980s can testify. But even normal genre novels lend some of the same narrative techniques to video games.

As with novels, a good narrative structure that introduces rich characters, false endings, red herrings, and multiple climaxes can take us on a roller coaster ride of thrills and excitement.

The same is true of the best video games narratives resulting in an immersive experience; which, when you consider the cost of the average game can make all that saving, scrimping, and trading your phone in for recycling worthwhile.

Conflict

When crafting in the game design workshop, it should be firmly kept in mind that the key to any good story is conflict; whether a video game or novel, it’s the conflict that drives the narrative.

Games need conflict just as much as books. Of course, most video games, particular first person shooters, are full of conflict. But we are not just talking shooting and action here. Conflict in a narrative structure is the basis for the story.

In novels such as a mystery, the conflict is the murder which the protagonist has to solve; in a thriller, it’s the ticking bomb under the White House that the hero needs to defuse. And the same conflict is the basis for some of the best video game stories.

Half-Life 2

As with genre novels, conflict in games sets the basic premise and the purpose behind the game’s story. In Half-Life 2, perhaps the ultimate in plot driven video games, the conflict centered on the invasion of Earth by the Combine; which helped make the player feel part of the resistance movement that were desperate to rid the world of the invaders.

Player Types Equates to Genre

The basic player types in video games are very similar to the types of protagonists created by the genre novelist. They serve the story by defining the genre of novel or game. In some games or novels, character that have to achieve set goals, whether it’s reaching the end of the level, acquiring points or solving a puzzle, are synonymous to those used in the mystery genre. Detectives, private eyes, and little old ladies solving crimes all serve the same basic function, with Miss Marple being no different than Lara Croft (apart from in the physical sense, obviously).

Lara Croft Tomb Raider Video Game

In science fiction and fantasy novels, protagonists are often tools that help the reader explore a new world. The same is true of the video game character; with Tolkien’s Frodo being not that different to the characters used in World of Warcraft or other RPGs.

As for the thriller, whether its James Bond or Jason Bourne, action-driven characters are there to provide the thrills and spills. Similarities with the characters employed in the average FPS are clear. They are there to cause as much mayhem and violence as possible, to sate the reader or player as they go from action scene to action scene.

Three Act Structure

Another common narrative structure employed by both games and genre novels is the three act restorative structure. The three act structure simply divides the story into three:

  • The beginning, where the main conflict is established,
  • The middle, where the implications of the conflict involve the main body of the book or game, and
  • The resolution, where the protagonist saves the day (or dies) and the player gets to complete the game.

In most games, this structure is spread quite thin, with the first act often played out in cut scenes during the start of the game or via the loading screen. The basis of most video games center on the second act, where all the running around and shooting takes place.

The third act tends to be signified by the final battle or confrontation, resulting in another cut scene and the completion of the game. Although, some of the best narrative led games stretch out the different acts, in a more subtle way.

Don’t Neglect The Importance Of Story

Whether it be film, novel, or game, a great story captures the imagination and captivates the watcher, reader, or player. Stories take us to a different world and allow us to escape. Stories build loyal followings and fans.

Knowing how to write a video game script, or at least knowing how to choose a good one, can be the first step to creating the next big hit in the gaming world.