Synopses Event 2017
Edited transcript of an event given by Mr. Julian Friedmann (of Literary Agency Blake Friedmann) at Mannheim Meeting Place during the 66th IFF Mannheim Heidelberg - 15th November 2017
This event was born out of the fact that writing a film synopsis the wrong way can quite simply put a reader on a wrong path…
And looking for the wrong elements when reading a synopsis can do exactly the same to the writer…
Thus an intended art house project can easily become a tv-movie in the eyes of the beholder - What to do?
Julian Friedmann: “Pitching the sub-text”
So what I have been asked to talk about today is really a key part of the film development process – and the more co-producers there are, particularly if they come from different countries and different cultures, the more likely it will be that there are subjective misunderstandings and disagreements about the story that is being told. And it is particularly common and difficult when it comes to what are called art-house films.
How do we describe the story for a proposed art-house film? Is it different from that for a commercial project?
Telling the story
Some time ago I did a TEDx talk on the mysteries of storytelling in which I tried to explain how after nearly 40 years of working with people who tell stories it seems to me that there are problems which are difficult to solve.
Firstly, I think one of the main reasons that so many scripts don’t work and, sadly, then the films that are based on those scripts also don’t work, has to do with the fact that a film is about a story, and if the story is not well told the script will usually not work. While in our industries, whether film or television, much too much emphasis is put on script-writing, and very little emphasis is put on story telling.
I do not believe film schools or universities should have degrees in script-writing. At all. I think they should have degrees in story-telling. And I think that would immediately begin to produce better stories from which we would get better scripts. Alexander Mackendrick – some of you may know the long-dead but famous comedy director and very famous teacher said “You should never try to work out the story while you are writing the script” which is actually what happens in probably 90% of scripts that are written.
And give the same story idea to ten writers and send them away for a week and they will probably come back with ten different stories despite the fact they all started on the same page.
So how do you interrogate the story? How do you examine it, explore it to decide what it is really about? And then what is the best form for it? This can include deciding what genre it is in. You might then be in a position to know what briefing to give the writer.
So over the last 40 years both as an agent for book writers and scriptwriters I and my colleagues, helped by literally many hundreds of writers, have evolved some effective ways of increasing the chances that all parties involved will – we say in English – sing from the same hymn sheet. In other words have a similar understanding of an intended project, which is actually even more important today when the nature of content delivery systems is changing so rapidly that films that were made for cinema release will only ever be shown by streaming on smaller screens. Money coming from the new SVOD set-ups is by far the largest part of new money available for filming so many producers are gravitating towards it – which also means people are moving away from feature film into “television”.
Someone once said cynically that Netflix and Amazon are places where films go to die. But at least you could say that they did get made! That’s better than dying while only a script - though in some cases it would have been better that they died before production.
So how do you use a synopsis or a pitch document to convey much more than a genre – to convey the tone, style, the pace, the depth of a film? And is it really so different for an art-house film or tv movie or commercial feature film?
Quite often proposals of synopses for very modest budget genre movies read as if they are high budget films. While proposals for art-house movies often look like they are tv movies or even stage plays.
How do you establish all the elements to make sure that you’re going to get the right response from whoever you are giving your pitch document to? The obvious answer might be just to say it, and describe it up front – “This is an art house movie” or “this is a feature film”.
An established auteur director may be trusted to achieve a certain standard, a certain sort of film because they have a track record. But actually – sadly – all directors, including great directors and all writers, including great writers, have failures. It is the producer’s job to try to prevent such a project becoming a failure.
But where individuals involved are not famous, and they haven’t had a particularly big success, or are just on their first feature, it is much more difficult. How do you present them in a way that is going to sell a director or a writer who have nothing comparable to show? It is possible, - difficult, but possible.
Referencing other films is often thought of as an easy way out for communicating to people you are trying to show how you see a film. But this can be quite risky: it’s so easy to say it’s like “Fellini’s 8½” or “Lost in Translation”. You can state it in relation to a specific audience, but the temptation is always to over-sell yourself. To make claims that, when one reads the material, are simply not justified. And the risks are many. The script might simply not be as good as the films quoted, because you are not comparing your 3rd or 4th or 5th draft script with the 3rd or 4th or 5th draft script of Fellini’s 8½ , but with the finished film. A finished film may actually be brilliant because it had a great editor and only a moderately good script. The director might have screwed up – and the editor might have saved it.
So you have to be careful when referencing. The writer of the script you reference may have a huge, long track record with ten scripts and your writer one. So immediately one begins to worry about the claims you are making. You need to worry about the budget: if the budget is the same as of the film you are referencing - very often it is not. If the person you are pitching to hated the film you are so upbeat about? It IS a risk. Some time ago someone pitched a film to me and was very excited, very passionate about Sophia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation”. They didn’t know that I hate that film. I found it boring. I have had bio-pic projects pitched to me that reference “The Aviator” - which I found an excruciatingly boring, badly made film. So referencing is a risky strategy. But in some cases it is easier, when talking about a straightforward genre film, but for arthouse I think it can be very difficult.
I am actually a fan of film referencing but prefer it when it is stated in relation to the audience: “It will appeal to audiences who liked X or Y”.
Forms of the written pitch
Arthouse films are challenging to watch in many respects: and if they are challenging then the question arises should a synopsis for such a project be equally challenging? I think there is some validity to that: if you know that the audience will be challenged to comprehend your film perhaps you need to start by stimulating their intellectual capacities with the synopsis – I personally don’t think you should.
Now I am going to suggest a way we have evolved (at Blake Friedmann) of creating what we call a selling pitch or treatment for a film - the selling script is not the script we want to shoot but is the script we think the financiers will like. Then once they are on board we go on and try to persuade them it would make a much more interesting film if we made some changes.
The essence of a “written pitch” is that the document you use will be read by someone without you being there to talk to about it – so the written form really has to be very robust. It has to work for very different readers, many of whom you won’t know, and also not know what their interests are. However, we think we have found a way of doing this.
Now when I used to teach pitching at EAVE in the early 1990s I always tried to make a distinction between the frame and the picture inside it. And that the frame should show the picture in a way that provides context. You don’t for example put a cubist Picasso picture in a very ornate gilt frame more suited to a Renaissance work.
So when you get to a pitch I think you should always try to establish some pre-conditions – some context – before you even mention story. You need to get the listener/reader to see how the story will actually work in the way that you want it to. And the context can determine the genre or style of the film. it can talk about the budget… it should mention any awards that anybody involved in the film have ever won – writer, director, producer, stars, cinematographer and so on. If the writer has no credits, except perhaps for some short films that were shown at little-known festivals, then you have to look for some other connection. So you might say “This is the best first feature film script I have read in the last 5 years, and I read 200 projects a year. It made me immediately feel that I have to make this film.”
Now if someone says that and can look you in the eye, and they are not lying or bullshitting, you will feel that there is some real commitment there and that can make you better disposed towards them.
I think it is always important to try to talk about the audience. By emphasizing audience you are reminding the person you are pitching to that you have identified your potential audience for this film. Of course if you are asked more specific questions you need to answer them so it is also important to know relevant box office statistics and so on…
In any case, I think producers should know box office figures – writers should too, but producers really have to…this can make you look like a more realistic person rather than someone just trying their luck.
If you study Neuro Linguistic Programming [NLP] you will know that they have beautifully deconstructed the ways in which different people use words. Some people use visual words, others word connoting sounds, or feelings, or touch and so on.
NLP would advise you to learn what the dominant speech patterns of the people you are pitching to. If they use kinetic words – to do with touch – then your use of those kinds of words will have a better effect on them.
Personally I have never tried to work out people’s dominant speech patterns. But your choice of words in a pitch document is critically important to your success.
So what is the core purpose of our “selling” document? It may be to get someone to read the script. Then of course if the script is not good you are wasting your time and the other person’s time. But if you can position their minds to understand the context, to understand where you are coming from, and why you believe you can get financed and why you believe you can reach an audience then they will be more pre-disposed to liking it. Whether they invest will depend on the script, not on your pitch.
The “selling” document – structure
I propose that the pitch document is broken down into 5 separate sections: a very short pitch, character biographies, a statement of intent, the synopsis (but written in a particular way – I will come to that), and some idea of the budget.
It may sound very pedantic but there should be a contents page,
pages should be numbered, and that each section start on a new page. Trust me, it works. It works because we did some testing with around 15 to 20 people with the question “In what order would you like to receive this kind of information? ” and they all gave a different order. Some people will always want to read character biographies first – I myself never read them first. If I am forced to start with them then I already feel negative about the project. So let the reader find their preferred way.
Now the vast majority of proposals, synopses, pitch documents that we see thousands of every year - arrive in all shapes and sizes. Their content and structures are often really difficult to work out and very frustrating to try to read. The document we have developed and which we use I think works out quite effectively.
The “selling document” – the Short Pitch
So we start with the short pitch. If you go to the paperback section in most bigger bookshops there will be a section with the top 10 titles of the week’s biggest selling paperback novels. You pick up one of these books and on the back cover there will be a short text of maybe 5 to 10 lines. Read all 10 back covers and you will see a pattern. This pattern tells you what kind of story the books tell, but it does not tell you the story itself - not with the beginning, the middle and the end. The texts promise you great things, they reference other books and best-selling authors. So essentially they help you see a context.
The “selling document” – Character Biographies
The reason for taking the character biographies out of the synopses is because they slow the synopsis down. When you watch a film and a character walks into a room you don’t suddenly get told how old he is where they went to school or why she was in prison. Films don’t work like that, and your synopsis shouldn’t work like that. Take that stuff out of the synopsis, and if the reader wants to refer to it, they can.
The “selling document” – Statement of Intent
For myself, the most interesting part is the statement of intent. Why are you writing this? Why are you producing this? Why do you want to direct this? Why are you the right person to do this story? What is special about it? What is your connection to it?
One of my clients thought he was going to be cheeky so he wrote “I want to make a shit-load of money”. Then when he gave me his proposal he said “I’m really sorry but I really didn’t expand the statement of intent”. And I said “That’s fine, because I will now judge the rest of the document in the context that the project is supposed to be capable of generating a lot of money. And then when I read it, I realise that this is not a project that is going to sell very well, I will know that your judgement is weak and faulty!” I can then ask myself do I really want to have anything to do with the project?
So the statement of intent is really important – you need to make the reader believe in your commitment to the project – tenacity and perseverance over a period of 3 to 5 years are needed for a film – so do I as reader really believe you’re willing to do that?
It is also important to remember that you are part of a pitch – it is not only what is on the page.
The “selling document” – The Synopsis (1)
Now the synopsis must describe the beginning, and the middle, and the end. The end is the most important.
However most synopses I see, in fact most pitches, (including verbal pitches), concentrate almost entirely on the beginning. Very often the ending hasn’t been really worked out yet. And without the end, should you be pitching?
A trick with writing a synopsis for a film is that you write it in the present tense. This creates a sense of immediacy. Using the present tense and emphasising visual aspects gives the reader, in the pages allocated to the synopsis, a chance to imagine that they are seeing a film. And if you manage to do that they will come away feeling there really is a film there – “I’ve seen it, in my head”.
An example from my teaching days: A long shot of a deserted beach and in the distance we see a man jogging while, running around him wagging its tail, is a dog. We cut to medium close-up: the dog starts digging in the sand and then in extreme close-up the rotting fingers of a hand sticking out of the sand.
So I don’t describe the beach, or the dog or the sand – ok I use the adjective – “rotting” . So – try to keep it simple. As soon as you say the man is 2 metres and 3½ cm. tall people start thinking about that and deconstructing what you saying. But you don’t want that - so just say “tall”.
People get anal about detail - they think the more detail supplied, the more confidence the reader will have in the writer. No. Broad brush strokes.
The car chase in Steve McQueen’s BULLITT can be simply described as a 13-minute incredibly exciting car chase up and down the rolling hills of downtown San Francisco to the point that the audience stops breathing.
Of course a real problem for many writers is that a pitch document is being put into circulation before the script is finished, so they will say “well I don’t really know about the ending” and you have to say “tough, use your imagination, put down something that will make me think that you DO know what you are talking about”….no-one is going to hold them to it.
A selling document makes certain promises as to visual and emotional experiences.
Try to avoid such words as “thinks” or “feels” – don’t take your reader away from seeing your movie. Your use of visual words helps the reader to visualize your film, and also people who are thinking or feeling are usually boring to look at.
And if the subject is really dark or difficult or obscure, you need to state that clearly and you need to demonstrate how you intend to make the subject matter accessible. If you can’t do that, then stop trying. Accessibility shows up the skill of the writer and film maker.
And when you can’t transmit accessibility in the synopsis you have to do it in the statement of intent.
I’m sure everybody here understands what a director’s vision is, because you are always asked for that at some point. For me a Statement of Intent is a producer’s vision and is as important or even more important that a director’s vision. And I think producers let themselves down by not taking enough control and responsibility.
I think that films are a producer’s medium, not a director’s medium. I know that is not very popular, but I think it would result in better films.
What about the budget? I don’t think that writers should be expected to know a lot about budgets – if they do then great. When someone says “I have a great idea for a movie, bla bla bla..” then you ask “what about the budget?” and they reply “Well, its just an idea…”
As a producer you’ve produced 7 shorts, a couple of TV episodes, but you’ve never produced a feature. What kind of budget is someone like you capable of raising is one approach. And obviously the answer is not likely to be “13 million euro”. It may not even be 1 million Euro.
Another approach is to look at other similar finished films and work out what your film would actually cost. Producers should be able to talk approximate budget fluently even if they’re bluffing, certainly below the line (since above can vary wildly).
The “selling” document should inspire confidence in the project creating box-office revenue of 4 to 5 times the proposed above and below the line budget cost, so as to make a profit. Less and it will lose money. Sure the producer will get his or her production fee, but that alone is not enough reason to make the film. And is certainly not a reason for an investor to invest in it.
Often private investors might be better off by giving the producer a fee for never making the film. You know the joke “how do you make a million dollars in the film industry? – You start off with 2 million”.
And putting together the “selling” document also gives you an opportunity to really question the role of everyone involved and yourself, and whether you all see the same objective. Many pitches, written or verbal, are really not very good.
Synopses (2) :
OK let’s now look at a bad pitch or synopsis and how it can be improved.
Here come 2 alternatives: one bad, the second better:
“Staying Alive” is a film about cancer, and dying, and euthanasia.
It is the story of an 80 year old woman dying of cancer. She lives in a very typical old peoples’ home which is horribly depressing and smells of urine. Her family don’t really care about her, they think
she’s very wealthy but she doesn’t give them any money so they ignore her. She can’t walk, she’s in a wheelchair, and she’s decided that she wants to die.
So she gets her doctor to write letters so she will try to get to Switzerland to go to Dignitas and end her life. However she can’t go on her own because she can’t walk properly so she tricks her teenage granddaughter – who’s very depressed – into taking her on holiday, by promising to buy her the guitar she so desperately wants and which her father will not buy her. So the girl is bribed and they set off on the trip.
Dignitas refuses and both the old lady and the granddaughter learn about self respect.
That is a quite accurate description of the script, but it is a really bad pitch.
Here is the alternative:
“Staying Alive” is a modest-budget comedy about old age and death.
It is very funny, very life affirming and it is actually about how we don’t talk to the people in our families about the whole issue of dying. After all everybody’s going to die, but we don’t deal with it in ways that make it much easier to relate to.
So Ruth is 80 years old and she’s dying … Of boredom and of cancer.
She can’t go to Switzerland to be euthanized because she’s in a wheelchair.
So she gets her 18 year old granddaughter Len to secretly smuggle her out of the nursing home.
Ruth and Len go to Geneva. Which doesn’t suit Len because she thinks Geneva will be boring. She has no idea what they are there for. She wants to play guitar in a rock band but her guitar is really bad. And she doesn’t want to go back to school where she’s made a continual fool of by her peers for having stage fright, even to the extent of malevolent clips on YouTube – her self-esteem really sucks.
When the day comes for the appointment with Dignitas, Ruth struggles away in her wheelchair from a sleeping Len. Len wakes up and freaks out. When Ruth arrives back at the hotel she explains: “Well I went to Dignitas to kill myself”. The agreement of a close family member was missing, however and Dignitas refused to do it.
They go out and buy Len a guitar. So the day won’t be a complete loss. But Ruth didn’t bring enough of her pain-killers, thinking she wouldn’t need them. Len comes up with a solution: cannabis. The result is wonderful. The pain goes, they both get high, they go skinny dipping in Lake Geneva, they hang out with elderly gay Harley Davidson bikers, and Len scores with a young female receptionist in the hotel who then takes her to an open mike club where Len even starts to play.
Later that evening Ruth and Len sit in their hotel room watching porn. She is full of questions : “Len, what is rimming?”
Len’s father arrives, Ruth having been tracked down to Geneva by the police at the behest of a frantic nursing home. Ruth says she can’t go back since she has spent all her money on the dream Fender guitar she bought for Len. And Len says Ruth won’t go back to the nursing home, she’ll come back to live with her family, and have as much cannabis as she needs…
Who knew that dying could be so much fun?
So this is a first-time feature for the writer-director but the deal with the producer is that she won’t direct if that stops the financing.
The two versions here show how to make a subject like death interesting and accessible. You have young people, old people, you have a lot of fun in it. The film to be referenced in this case is the wonderful (French) “Untouchables”, which to be honest is perhaps better than this one – but then there are few films better than “Untouchables”.
“Staying alive” is probably an arthouse film but also challenges the notion never to settle for a small audience if you can reach a bigger one.
Broadening the Audience
So now ask yourself how many drafts have been written for a script you are producing that were aimed purely to broaden your audience?
My guess is very few. But when the subject matter is serious, complex and difficult it becomes much more important to think about ways of opening it out. We have already mentioned some of the options, and we can add:
- creating great roles, (thus attracting a better cast,)
- heightening visual interest,
- and when building scenes of exposition (as so common in European cinema) - making them visually more stimulating.
Back to Neuro-Linguistic Programming: the Italians are often referenced because they talk with their hands. And when parents are arguing in one room the teenage daughter can be practising riffs in the next room…
The use of sound can also work in ways to contrast with the visuals – make the audience use their eyes and their ears and make them work… and they will go away having enjoyed the film more.
I don’t think there should be a conceptual distinction between arthouse and commercial. But theatre and cinema are different – if it works on stage why make it into a movie? You need excellent reasons.
The key point is: what is the sub-text? Is Casablanca a love story? Or is it about fighting Fascism? Can a story about a ship that sinks be pitched without mentioning the ship? Of course it can. In fact the film’s tagline, “It is better to have loved and died than never to have loved at all” doesn’t mention the Titanic or a ship, does it?
Because by finding the subtext, or underlying theme, you have something universal, rather than the specificity of the unsinkable ship that sank.
Subtext will usually be both emotional and universal. Look for the subtext in the underlying theme because that is where your key lies to your broader audience. For example “My Life as a Dog” and “Babette’s Feast” were often mentioned as culturally specific films that were universally accessible – local stories as global stories. So one must not rule out the other, and there are dozens of other examples - all good films with universal subtexts:
So, are MOONLIGHT, LA LA LAND, HACKSAW RIDGE, SPOTLIGHT, THE DANISH GIRL, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, HIDDEN FIGURES art-house films? Or just good films with universal subtexts?
(From Wikipedia®): “Art film is typically a serious independent film aimed at a niche market rather than a mass audience, intended to be a serious artistic work, often experimental, made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit and containing unconventional or highly symbolic content.”
That’s a fair description but not the real problem – which is that so many films, (art-house or commercial), are badly made. Because especially in auteur movies, the filmmakers are compelled by the certainty of their subject and approach and they pay very little attention to their potential audience.
So phrases such as “aimed at a niche market” worry me – isn’t this saying “let’s make a film most people won’t want to see”? There is room for those, but to let them exist we also need a share of “quadrant” movies - for Old, Young, Male, Female . That is your audience, what’s so difficult about it?
Writer directors also worry me – without strong producers they
tend to magnify their script mistakes. And if they are going to do two jobs there is only one they can do better. This can also happen to studio movies – do you remember “John Carter”? An example of one person having too much power ruining what might have been a great movie.
Using a “selling” document in the development process should provide almost all the answers. If all it does is raise questions or disagreements, it has failed.
Another concluding point is that there is a difference between a story and how you choose to tell it. And the latter is more important than the former.
So it is not a question of style over substance. Rather it is a matter of subtext over text.
Establishing sub-text in a “selling” document is making sure that everyone involved stays on the same page by showing what the story is and how it is going to be told.
And, of course, how the producer is going to sell it.
The “selling document” that Julian Friedmann talks of is a parallel to the MMP “Skeleton” though both have been developed separately.
The MMP “Skeleton” is aimed specifically at the needs of start-up producers in international co-production. More can be learnt from the MMP/ Producer Guidelines page on the IFFMH website.
“It’s not about the synopsis on its own – it’s always about the package”