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Writer Speak Vs Mogul Speak
Writers and “filmmakers” speak different languages. If you don’t know this, it can be surreal to have a conversation with someone who is using the term writer, but not a writer, because you’re both using the same terms, you’re just using them to mean different things. I’ll give you an example:
When writers talk about tone—it’s fictional, it’s dark, it’s suspenseful, it’s eerie—writers tend to describe the work in terms of an emotion evoked by the piece. They are telling you about the feeling of having their head broken into pieces.
When a movie maker asks you in tone like an executive or a producer, and the same goes for agents, they want to say, “Which movie made a lot of money at the box office?”
If you don’t know this, it’s going to be hard to sell a pitch because a studio executive will ask you about tone and want to hear it in a “Men in Black” tone, when you say, “It’s suspenseful and fun.”
This one miscommunication probably cost me five pitches. They were really good projects, too. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. An executive would ask me, “What’s the tone of the movie?” I’d say, “It’s kind of dark and intelligent and fast-paced.” The executive will say, “Great, but can you tell me the tone?” I’d say, (looking at the executive like he was from Planet Jorg), “Um, sure, it’s dark and gritty and moves very fast.” And the executive would say, “That’s great, um, um, well I’ll get back to you.” And we’d both come out of the meeting wondering what the other person was talking about.
I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of writers think studio people are completely stupid and ignorant. (Okay, some studio people are completely stupid and clueless, but not all of them.) “Why do they keep asking the same question after I’ve already told them?” Well, because you’re speaking a language they don’t understand, and vice versa.
The same problem arises when an executive or producer asks typewriters what the story is. Executives and producers mean, “What’s the point of the plot?” But “what it is” means many different things to a writer. “What’s it about” incorporates the theme.
Whenever they ask, “What’s the story?”, they’re talking about concrete, action, and an action-driven plot.
WoW themes can get you into trouble. The executive asks a writer what the story is. “Oh, it’s about our fear of rejection,” says the author. Executive is showing zero. The writer looked at him. Wow, what a moron, but okay, here goes — and starts more about people’s fear of rejection. The executive is keeping an eye on the security button. hmm
All the executives needed to know is that the story is about a man who falls in love with a supermodel. That is what the executive officer wanted to hear. It’s the plot thing. And finally, the crux of the plot. What the author was answering was a theme question. Stories often have themes for writers. To executives, they are not.
Sometimes, when you wax theme-oriented answers “what the story is about,” executives and producers kind of laugh at you. Oh those timid, starry-eyed writers. The way they carry on is just adorable. And they see it as passion and they want you to always be “enthusiastic” about the material. But — they can’t sell the “it’s about fear of rejection” above. They can sell “It’s about a man who falls in love with a supermodel.” But not “fear of rejection”. “Fear of rejection” is vague, not concrete, that damn “a” word I can never think of. Where is my damn thesaurus? “Abstract.” Executives and producers can’t sell an abstract thematic ideal in Hollywood terms, because an abstract thematic ideal doesn’t translate into a trailer in people’s heads. No one can watch the movie. It’s just not there.
When I went to Hollywood, I stopped using the word “theme” when I went to talk to three people, who assured me they had PhDs in literature from Harvard or something, (we’re all friends here and really smart, ho ho, Let’s go deeper — if they were the police I could file a case against them for entrapment) and then when I used the word “theme”, eyes glazed over. Then my agent got a call saying they liked me a bunch, but thought I was too smart for the project. Very intelligent? Win!
I never used the word “theme” again in a pitch meeting until it became the flavor of the day’s question. Not too long ago. I’ve been asked about “universal themes” in three separate pitch meetings now, (by executives!), so I’m going to guess it’s being asked a lot these days. That’s a smart question, I wonder who came up with it before it ran like wildfire? Regardless, people are looking for it now. “Universal Themes.” What’s great.
I won’t take it too far and open a pitch with a “theme”, I won’t even bring up the theme in a meeting, unless we’re in the question section and someone throws it at me and then I sit down and say what I see. (They are sometimes so sneaky in those meetings.) You should know though. In the back of your head, if you’re pitching, know that what everyone on the planet is fighting for is somehow touched upon in your story. This is the “universal theme”. It is also referred to as a common “theme” in literary circles, but it seems more vivid and important to executives tagged “universal”.
In one of my stories, the “universal theme” was, everyone these days is dependent on formulas and shopping lists, everyone is looking for love by the number of self-help books instead of their heart. (Okay, universal themes always sound cheesy, so shoot me.) In another, it was, everyone is so afraid of failure, we stop trying to succeed to avoid it.
Everyone fears failure, everyone wants love. They are universal. Learn things about your stories so you can answer new trick questions
But don’t open with it. Just remember the keyword is “universal theme.” That’s when they want to hear it. When they don’t ask “What’s the story?” Whenever they ask, “What is the story?”, they are talking about concrete action and action-driven plot.
And when people ask you questions in the studio and production office, remind yourself it’s not a writer you’re talking to. Someone from this business building. They think in concrete substantive terms. Their questions revolve around specific substantive answers. The tone is “It’s just another movie that made a lot of money.” “What is your story about” plot. Who you see starring, who you weren’t thinking of when you wrote it or who you think is talented you really like, but “Who did the big box office last week who can play it?”
There are countless examples of “mogul speak” vs “author speak”. They will change with each story and each meeting. The important thing to remember is that executives want answers in concrete plot specific terms. And examples that are directly related to box office. Keep that in your head, and you’ll be fine.
• Quoted from “The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide; Or, Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War” by Max Adams
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