Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Price is Right?

I got the following e-mail a little while back from a company called Roundhouse Films:

Many thanks for your mail and your submission, which we have finally been able to read.

However at this time we would not be interested in taking on this project.

Partly the reason why is from a costings point of view, specifically the gun fight scene, as well as the explosion in the flat, we thought about it and there are so few ways to film the second of these, and all of them are costly, which would be difficult for us at this time, we are looking for a script with little to no special effects to keep the budget down.

Well, first off, at least they read the damn thing. And secondly, my screenplay is hardly written in stone! If anyone wants ‘expensive’ scenes excised, then hey, they’re gone, consider it done. But no matter – Roundhouse did what they said they would do and got back to me in a reasonable time, which is a lot more than a lot of other prodcos ever do.

But then I got to thinking – in writing a speculative screenplay, should you have half an eye towards a possible budget?

I’ve read countless scripts on Trigger Street where, within 5 pages, you become painfully aware that what you’re reading is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to put up on screen – in a spec screenplay, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. TS certainly features a high proportion of fantasy and horror scripts written with a sense of complete abandonment with regards to (an admittedly fictional) budget – scenes that could only be constructed using expensive effects and multiple locations, some literally being out of this world. Add to that the fact that the script may well be set in a period other than the present day and you have a recipe for a budget that would eat everything in its path. And besides, no-one in their own right mind is going to entrust the writing of something like that to an untried first timer.

Given the fact that mega-budget fantasy movies tend to come off the back of best selling novels (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, et al), I’m not so sure how much of a chance a similar spec screenplay stands in this market. Given the shape of the industry, the horror genre almost demands something that can be made for a low budget – so to write something where handfuls of money would have to be thrown around with gay abandon seems a little wrong headed to me.

That’s assuming of course that you intend your screenplay to be a blueprint for a viable movie, and not simply a ‘writing sample’ – in which case, my own general rule is to write with a beady eye fixed firmly on the money. No expensive FX (yeah, OK, an explosion in a flat is probably quite an expensive thing to stage, point taken), limited/already extant locations, present day settings, no sets – the list goes on. By writing something that could potentially be produced for a low budget, then surely you increase your chances of actually getting the thing read/considered/produced?

On the other hand, if you intend what you write to be seen as a ‘writing sample’, then I guess the sky’s the limit. If you want to demonstrate a penchant for writing fantasy or science-fiction, then that’s cool – however, when the budget spirals, then there will undoubtedly be an exponential drop in the number of prodcos willing to consider (let alone read) what you’ve written.

Companies such as London Pictures appear to be actively seeking for no-to-low budget scripts – their requirements are here (notice how they cunningly include themselves as “established independent evaluators”!). The general feeling I get about sites like Inktip is that the overwhelming demand is for scripts that can produced on a low-to-no budget – however, seeing that Inktip is predominantly US-based, the opportunities for writers in the UK would seem to be limited.

Of course, the ideal screenplay from a speculative point of view is one that can be used as a writing sample and that has also been written with a low budget in mind. One of the first scripts I wrote ‘sort of’ fell into this camp – it initially got a prodco (Kelso Films – anyone remember them?) and a few agents hot and bothered, on the basis that it was predominantly written for a low budget and that it featured (what I thought at the time) was a reasonably complex time structure. Having just seen London to Brighton, I think this dual axiom still holds true – write something that is original and/or formally inventive, and something that can filmed for next to nothing, and you’ve got half a chance of getting a foot in the door.


Lucy said...

Whilst it's certainly true that every UK prodco is looking for the cheap "big phenomenon" film, I'd have to disagree about only limiting yourself to no-budget films.

Writing the big budget blockbuster and doing it well whilst still being original is HARD. Managing to pull off a script on this kind of scale is a major achievement. OK, maybe your spec won't sell 'cos it's too expensive, but it will get you some attention from someone. I know plenty of writers who've never had their "big one" made but they've got so much out of their big budget spec it's mad.

Also, it shows your range. Film isn't a job for life, you gotta take what you can get and who knows when a big budget commission might be on the table... Who will they give it to? The guy who has written a low budget, a mid budget and a high budget as part of his portfolio or the guy with nothing but low budgets in his?

Nothing's for certain in this biz but covering all the bases can help. If only in your own brain.

Chip Smith said...

In my rather random portfolio, I have one screenplay written for what I think are high, mid and low budgets - I'm certainly not advocating writing purely from a low budget standpoint, just that the chances of getting something produced for a 'first timer' are surely greater if you can demonstrate an awareness of budget.

The script I've been using as a 'calling card' for the last year or so is what I consider to be a 'mid budget' piece, and it's led to a few interesting meetings and emails - which always seem to go down the low-to-no budget route!