High Concepts and Zombie Projects

to quote today's quote... 034365
to quote today’s quote… 034365 (Photo credit: paloetic)

By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

Back in the day, when I was an aspiring screenwriter with stars in my eyes and a an almost completed Bachelor’s degree from college on the coast, I took a 2 unit “pass/no pass” class called, succinctly enough, “The Film Industry.”  One day a week, for an hour or two, local luminaries – and anyone remotely related to Hollywood who happened to be chummy with our department head – would regale us with tales of wonderment and hard-won wisdom about making and breaking into the movie business.  From these lectures I learned that movie theaters make more money off concessions than tickets  – so think of those large popcorns as a “film subsidy” of sorts – and it’s always, always, who you know that gets you in the door.

During that brief quarter, we heard from alumni like Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank, as well as the owner of our local theater chain and a Hollywood agent from CAA.  We also hosted Edward James Olmos and Robert Zemeckis. We heard tales of first breaks, second chances and what it really takes to make it as a successful film professional.

But what I remember most – and sadly, I can’t recall who actually gave us this advice – is the following suggestion regarding pitching your project.

“It’s all about the tag line.”

You know the tag line – you’ve probably seen it on movie posters, or in the title of a film review, or even as a voice over during a recent movie trailer.  While there are certainly plenty of complicated narratives that find a way onto the page or the screen, simplicity can be a valuable tool.  Tag lines and the art of the high concept pitch whittle a story down to its basic elements, distilling essential ingredients and building excitement and anticipation for the whole.

A tag line comes into play primarily when your pitching your project, but I remember our screenwriting 101 professor encouraging us to write out a tag line and tape it up to the computer screen at the beginning of a project.  That way, whenever we began to flounder – our plot started turning sideways or a character refused to blossom on the page – that handy tag line could serve as a beacon in the fog, a light at the end of the tunnel, an all important course correction.

While I was puttering around my home office today – dusting and straightening and taking a deep breath after several months of out of town guests and impromptu visits from the landlord – I paused in front of my bookshelves and took in all the titles and multicolored spines.  All these stories…all this history…all these instructions and advice.  I’ve got everything from Harry Potter to the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Robert McKee’s book on screenwriting on those shelves.  I’m a bit of a book hoarder, and I rarely, if every, sold any of university texts – so now I’ve got a room full of samples of every kind of writing imaginable.

McKee’s book sits on a shelf next to my collection of Julia Cameron instruction manuals, tomes on plot and style,  and paperbacks with titles like “You Should Write a Book” and “Work with Passion.”  As I stared at all those names, I realized that I have a weakness: I’m addicted to reading about writing.

Which made me wonder about the nature of writing tips and tools – why some advice resonates and some falls flat.  How some authors seem to know exactly what to say to make spark enthusiasm, and others fill me with despair and make me ponder whether I should ever write another word. How about sometimes, it’s less about why your writing or how your writing or what your writing about, and more about finding a way…any way…to make it to the page.

Or, as Robert McKee says, ““Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.”

If you’ve seen the film Adaptation, or ever taken a one day seminar or university course on writing or screenwriting, you’ve probably heard of Robert McKee.  Not everyone’s a fan, but I find that his no nonsense approach is helpful when you need to knock the cobwebs out of your brain and just get back to the business of writing.

So in that vein – and with visions of Brian Cox as Mckee in Adaptation dancing through my brain, I wondered “what if I try to tagline some moments in my own life?”

As a writing exercise, I decided to take few memorable events and turn them into the opening tag lines or high concept film pitches.  I picked out the first five memories that popped into my head – missing out on the opening day of our town’s first community pool, my improbable career as a junior high cheerleader, my first adult heartbreak, my decision not to take the bar exam, and my experience starting the Daily Creative Writer – and gave it a shot.  Below….my first attempt at turning my own life into the next great summer blockbuster or sleeper hit.

(Just a note – They probably work best if you imagine them as read by Don LaFontaine (aka The Voice)).

  • In a world where water is scarce and rewards are few and far between, one girl ….alone and friendless….must battle a flat tire and broken promises…. to make it to the community pool and finally gain entrance to the grand opening of a new adventure.
  • You might think making it to the community pool was the end of her adventures, but everything you know is about to change…and only one, tenacious junior high cheerleader can rally her student body and make sure the flag football team shines.
  • When you least expect it….you just might realize that the first asshole that will inevitably break your heart is standing right in front of you, ready to make you finally understand that work relationships are not a good idea and insubordination is never sexy.
  • In a world where everyone hates lawyers, but everyone needs legal advice…one single JD bucks tradition – and the bar exam – to find a different way to earn a paycheck…and her parents’ acceptance.
  • You might think writing a daily blog would be easy for this dedicated editor and aspiring author….but just when you least expect it…new freelance assignments and an email from an old boss….are all she really needs to discover that writing is a life sentence but the words are only guideposts on the adventure of a  lifetime.

So…what do you think? Would you pony up the $15 to see these plots play out in a multiplex or read them on your kindle?

Now you give it a go, and after you try this writing exercise with some of your own memories, take some time to look over some stalled writing projects – could a tag line help you jumpstart the plot or redefine a character?  Maybe imagining it as a movie trailer can bring a paused project back to life.

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