Sunday, June 7, 2020

Which Screenwriting Genres Sell… And Which Ones Don’t?

Hope everyone is staying safe and healthy, avoiding the virus, dodging the protests and starting to get back to work! Proud to share with you guys my latest article that Writers Weekly just published about top-selling screenplay genres versus the genres that are harder to sell, and why. Check it out...

Which Screenwriting Genres Sell…and Which Ones Don’t?

Which Screenwriting Genres Sell…and Which Ones Don’t? – by Mark Heidelberger
Effective screenwriting features many challenges, not least of all the creation of compelling storylines, engaging characters, and relevant themes. But, the savvy screenwriter also has to consider what makes a film marketable and, by extension, valuable to a distributor. Among the most important of those considerations is genre. To be clear, not all genres are created equal. Several have a much better track record of selling well in the modern marketplace than others.
Here’s a rundown of the best and worst screenplay genres, according to global buyer interest, along with a brief examination of why. First, the best.
Broad Action
Shoot-em-ups, car chases, explosions, daredevil stunts – all of these things elicit the same thrill from audiences everywhere, regardless of country, because there are no language or cultural barriers that prevent comprehension. In addition, higher production costs for action has left a dearth in the low-budget marketplace, thereby increasing demand.
Disaster
Films that focus on large-scale catastrophes have proven to be box office gold. The calamity can be natural (earthquakes, floods, etc.) or man-made; local or global; and rooted in drama, science fiction or even the supernatural. The draw is based on movie-goers’ attraction to spectacle and the high cost of visual effects makes the genre similarly rare.
Children’s Films
G-rated movies are accessible to the widest audience pool, and often attract families with young kids. Parents don’t have to be concerned about inappropriate content, and often purchase rather than rent because they expect to watch these films multiple times. Stories with kids or animals in lead roles have the greatest appeal as they prove most relatable to tykes.
Faith
Christian films have an enormous and underserved audience craving content that focuses on moral, God-centered messages. Faith is often overlooked in favor of “sexier” genres but viewer loyalty, low budget requirements, and scant marketplace competition create a perfect storm for profitability.
Femme Thrillers
The American cable TV market has fortified the demand for thrillers with female leads, also known as “women-in-peril” films, but this demand has expanded overseas as well. Female audiences are a significant driver of box office revenues, and yearn to see strong women in roles that task them with overcoming domineering male figures. And, like action, thrills translate well across territories.
Rom Coms
The universality of romantic relationships increases global interest in this genre but, since female audiences also drive these films, distributors seek stories with female leads, or those told from a woman’s point of view. Relatable protagonists and attractive male conquests satisfy a sense of wish fulfillment in viewers.
On the flip side, distributors tend to shy away from certain genres for a number of reasons. Some of the most prominent examples might be surprising.
Broad Drama
Dramas typically require a strong hook (i.e., based on an interesting real-life person) and an expensive A-list cast to generate box office heat. Moreover, most foreign markets boast their own local film industry that produces films with local stars catering to local audiences, making for excessive competition.
Period
Stories occurring in some historical time and place often require large amounts of cash to properly capture the period, many of which do not hold much appeal to general audiences, And, like dramas, they often need big names to generate interest, creating an unacceptable risk/reward profile to most buyers.
Broad Comedy
The subjectivity of comedy means it’s unlikely to properly translate across territories. Jokes and gags are often based on cultural references so what’s funny to audiences in one country is unlikely to be funny to audiences in another.
Dark Comedy
By extension, dark comedies are even more of a challenge to market than broad comedies because they’re rooted in dramatic irony, tragic endings, and a variety of narrative subtleties that make them far less accessible to broad audiences.
Western
If there was one distinctly American genre, it would have to be the American Western. But, with that badge of honor comes the downside – a genre rooted in historical and cultural references that don’t mean much to audiences outside the U.S.
Horror
Many indie filmmakers turn to low-budget horror as an access point to the film industry.  But, it’s exactly that reason that the marketplace has been flooded with horror flicks, making them far less desirable to distributors. Additionally, name actors often avoid this genre for fear of being stigmatized.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Mark's Little Corner - May 9, 2020

As we roll toward summer, with hopeful signs that the economy will reopen soon, I find myself performing a lot of script development and budgeting work for clients. Actually, my life hasn't changed all that much from the way it was before the whole COVID thing happened. Still sitting at my desk 90% of the workday going through emails, rolling calls, reading material, typing notes, running numbers and finding creative ways to push projects toward the starting line. It's more the social component of life that's been tempered. So, while I await the director's cut for "The Inheritance," I have a number of other promising projects for fall, including a horror to shoot in Oklahoma, a coming-of-age drama from a producer in San Fran, and a sci-fi pilot from a couple writer-producers in NYC. I expect that when Hollywood gets back on its feet, there will be a flood of work, but we'll also have to get used to some new ways of doing things. 2020 looks to be a pivotal year in the world of entertainment, although we won't really know just how much until the fall. In the meantime, just keep getting those projects in shape while you have the time!



Tuesday, March 31, 2020

As we wrap up the first quarter of 2020, sheltered in place and self-quarantined from the outside world, I find myself pondering not only what's happened but what the road ahead looks like. First, I can safely say the year has been anything but boring. Between Kobe, COVID-19, election-year politics, and a tumultuous roller coaster of a ride producing "The Inheritance," there have been many things to cry, yell or shake my head about.

But I try to remember that we humans are nothing if not resilient. We're capable of finding optimism and hope even in the most desperate of times. The silver lining of tragic events is that it brings us closer to one another (or should) -- working, fighting, praying and rebuilding as a team the way humans are wont to do.

We can look upon this era of solitude and isolation as a time for retrospect and self-examination. To think about who we are as individuals and what we really want to accomplish with the time we have here on this little blue marble. Moreover, we can use it as a time to be productive. Writers in particular have lots of time to work on their latest opuses, perfecting and fine-tuning so that their material is in ready shape for when Hollywood opens its collective doors again.

In the meantime, to help spur both the incentive and imagination of screenwriters out there struggling with where to start, I've pasted below my latest published article about the best-selling screenplay genres, which was recently published on FundsforWriters.com. So try to look on the bright side of things -- this time was set aside for you (and you alone) to create something great. Enjoy the read.

What Are the Best-Selling Screenplay Genres?

Mark Heidelberger / 2020-03-09
As a screenwriter, working out the crux of your story is a daunting enough task, but let’s rewind even further. How do you determine what genre to work in? After all, this is a crucial component to creating material that Hollywood wants to buy, right? So, how do you know which genres have the best chance of selling? There isn’t some magical way to access this mysterious information, is there? Surely, the film gods keep such knowledge under lock and key!
Actually, there’s good news: this info not only exists, it’s readily accessible if you know where to look. (Drum roll, please.) Ask a sales agent. They deal with film buyers around the world every day and can pass on valuable insights regarding what’s selling and what’s not. You can approach sales agents at film seminars and conferences, during festivals or markets like AFM (American Film Market), via personal contacts, or if all else fails, by cold calling with a plea for guidance. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of Hollywood sales agents.

Below are six genres that, according to a prominent sales agent I know, have consistently attracted buyers, and with no signs of abating.
Gender-Neutral Action
Action films have a long, battle-tested history of selling well around the world, regardless of territory. Why? Because unlike drama or comedy, action faces no language or cultural barriers. While something that’s funny in the US may not translate in India or Spain or Japan, explosions and car chases elicit the same thrill everywhere. Gender-neutral simply means the story is broad enough to attract both men and women. Think Fast & Furious or Terminator. Oh, and avoid straight martial arts stuff, which is too oversaturated in the market due to its lower budget requirements.
Female-Driven Thriller
The woman-in-peril sub-genre of thriller has generated reliable interest in the television and home entertainment markets thanks to female audiences hungry for strong, relatable women overcoming insurmountable odds, often against an otherwise dominant masculine figure. Enough or Sleeping with the Enemy are prime examples. Lifetime really popularized this type of story with a steady stream of weekly movies that have proven to be ratings gold.
Kids & Animals
W.C. Fields gave birth to the infamous Hollywood trope, “Never work with children or animals.” But as a screenwriter, live-action family films with an adventurous group of young tots or a couple of frisky felines could be a bullseye with a distributor. especially if the animals talk. (Yes, I’m serious.) Think The Sandlot or the Air Bud franchise. It’s the type of G-rated fun parents can show their seven-year-olds without having to do “earmuffs” every five minutes. Moreover, parents tend to spend the extra dough buying rather than renting these films because they expect to watch them over and over.
Disaster
Disaster films have been exciting audiences for decades, reaching a high-water mark in the 1970s with titles like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Such stories can be more global in nature like 2012 or local like Dante’s Peak. They can be natural like The Day After Tomorrow or supernatural like Independence Day. And they can skew more dramatic like Deep Impact or be action-oriented like Armageddon. The common thread is simply a larger-than-life existential threat to a defined population.
Female POV Rom-Com

Romantic comedies are perhaps the most successful form of comedy film globally since relationships are universal, making the storylines (and laughs) more accessible to foreign audiences. However, it’s critical to maintain a female point-of-view for greater marketability since the ladies drive this genre’s box office. Think Pretty Woman or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Buyers point to exit polling data that show women are more likely to invest their time in a story with a relatable protagonist. In other words, it’s something that could happen to them!
Faith-Based
Many distributors note that this heavily overlooked genre is among the most profitable due to the fact that such films have rabidly loyal audiences, little marketplace competition, and can often be produced for extremely low budgets. Films like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead generated gross revenues that multiplied their production costs many times over and, in the latter’s case, spawned a couple of sequels that were equally successful. Such films don’t have to be overtly religious as long as they’re centered around a moral or message rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dear 2020,

Nice to meet you. We haven't met before, but I'm hopeful that our new relationship will prove to be a fruitful one. I have high expectations for you, I'll be honest. I'm starting our collaboration off strong, with a brand new feature film I'm producing called The Inheritance, which starts shooting on February 5th. The story is about a crew of hoodlums who decide to rob two rich Chinese brothers who are inheriting a large corporation from their deceased father. It's set in New York, but we're shooting the primary unit in Los Angeles. Right after principal photography ends, I expect to start working on a new development project with my old buddy. Lloyd Barnett, who directed Ninja Apocalypse for me. I also have high hopes for Walking on Palmettos, the epic drama about drug smuggler Myles Richards, particularly after attaching Josh Lucas to the antagonist role and officially securing the support of Screen Queensland. Yes, 2020, you sure look to be a promising year. So don't let me down, and I'll try not to let you down either. Let's make this one for the record books. Talk soon!

Mark

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dear Film Friends,

I often get asked by screenwriters about best practices for working with a film producer or literary manager -- I've served as the former for nearly two decades and was the latter for eight years in a previous life. With so much interest in this subject, I decided to write an article on the topic, which Funds for Writers recently published on their website. As such, I thought I would also include it here on my blog for those who might have missed it. I hope it provides all you up-and-coming writers with some real insights as you work your way up the Hollywood ladder.

Cheers,

Mark


Best Practices for Working with a Producer,
Agent or Manager in Film & TV

By Mark Heidelberger

Producers. Agents. Managers. Oh my! As a writer looking to make a living in the world of entertainment, these sometimes enigmatic creatures will be an integral part of your journey from unproduced novice to sought-after scribe du jour. Learning to work with them in a way that proves mutually beneficial means creating a winning environment for both sides, creatively and economically. (That’s why we call it “show business” and not “show show.”) And while no step-by-step guidebook exists for doing this because no two individuals are alike, I can suggest a handful of best practices that neophyte writers should keep in mind as they find themselves seeking these useful and often necessary allies.

First off, let’s clarify some basic definitions of each role so we know exactly who we’re talking about.

Producer – The chief visionary of a production who hires a writer to create a story or buys and develops her already written story with the ultimate intention of filming it for mass consumption.

Agent – A commission-based representative who is solely responsible for seeking out and procuring work for the writer or selling the writer’s material.

Manager – A commission-based representative who is tasked with guiding a writer’s career choices, developing her work for presentation to producers, coordinating her other representatives such as agents and lawyers, and facilitating opportunities, but not actively selling the work as an agent would.

Collectively, we’ll call them PAMs.

Get a Referral

Not only do most PAMs dislike being pitched without an invitation, especially by a stranger, they flat out refuse to even read or listen. Such pitching is called unsolicited and it’s frowned upon, not only because most PAMs are already inundated with material, but because it’s a legal liability. Hollywood is a relationship town, plain and simple, so getting a referral from someone the PAMs already know and trust is a universally accepted method for soliciting their attention.

Be Clear on the Deal Terms

PAMs who recognize your talent and want to work with you can feel rewarding, but don’t let that excitement cloud your judgment. Negotiate terms you can live with, get it in writing and have those terms reviewed by an expert who can verify that they are, at minimum, in line with industry standards. If the terms are not satisfactory to you, don’t be afraid to walk away. Anyone offering you terms outside of industry standards probably aren’t legitimate anyway.

Trust the Process

Respected PAMs achieved their status through years of experience, and while their methods may at times seem unconventional, trust that they bring knowledge of the industry that has been, until now, obscured from you. This isn’t to suggest you take a passive approach, but simply to accept guidance from those who have been around the business far longer than you.

Communication is King

Create a fluid system of communication from the outset. Establish the best method of contact, a regular schedule for corresponding, and what the goal of your collaboration will be. Clarify on a regular basis what you expect from your representative or what the producer expects from you. Moreover, respect their time and skill just as you want yours respected. Stand up for yourself without being combative. And pick your battles carefully.

Manage Expectations

Entertainment is one of the most competitive career landscapes in the world. “Overnight success” stories never happen overnight; they’re the result of years of unseen toiling in trenches. Accept the fact that you’ll always have to do a lot of legwork yourself, even with a PAM in your corner, and that most projects still never see the light of day. Failure is part of the process. That said, getting one in every 10 projects made means you’re a success even by jaded Hollywood standards.

Have an Exit Strategy

Sometimes your relationship with a PAM will go south, perhaps over creative differences, personality clashes, egos, money, whatever. Keep this in mind from the beginning and always make sure you have a contractual way out if the relationship sours. The worst position is to be stuck with a PAM who’s a drain instead of a buoy for your creative talent.

Saturday, October 5, 2019


Dear Cinephiles,

Last year, I was invited to serve as a film writer and critic for a new upstart online publication. Unfortunately, the company went under before it had a chance to publish my first piece -- an advanced look at 2018's biggest summer tentpoles. Recently though, I was combing through some of my old writing for a portfolio I'm putting together and I came across this little gem. I was pleasantly surprised with how well it turned out and found myself a little disappointed that it never got in front of the readership that it was supposed to. So, alas, I decided to resurrect it here on my own blog just in case anyone was interested in taking a stroll down Tinseltown's memory lane. (Yeah, I know it's only been a year, but a lot can happen in such a short time!) Anyway, without further ado, here is my 900-word write-up on last year's heftiest blockbusters! Enjoy!

Mark

Pumped Up: A Look at This Summer’s Tentpole Films
By Mark Heidelberger

Each year, Hollywood works feverishly to up the ante on the scope and scale of its summer blockbusters, all in hopes of conjuring the next billion-dollar success story. Stars are bigger. Locations are bigger. Visual effects, bigger. Budget, way bigger. And that trend doesn’t appear to be abating with 2018’s crop. Nor does Tinseltown seem to be straying from the tried-and-true tradition of piggy-backing on the coattails of its most lucrative franchises.

Enter the $100-billion gorilla in the room, Disney, with not one but two post-Memorial Day Goliaths set to bash their way through theaters this summer. First to screens is The Incredibles 2, follow-up to the Mouse House’s hugely successful animated 2004 original about a family of superheroes relegated to suburban banality after the government puts the kibosh on their crime-fighting escapades. Produced by Pixar Studios, the kid-friendly sequel is scheduled for wide release on June 15th and is on track for a mega-sized opening of $140 million. At CinemaCon in April, Disney’s global distribution honcho Cathleen Taff noted the teaser trailer had been viewed a record-setting 113 million times in the first 24 hours of release and that awareness of the film was tracking at a remarkable 96%, with 61% of those surveyed expressing “definite interest.” The sequel picks up where the first film left off as the super-family struggles to resume normal lives. Wife Helen (voiced by Holly Hunter) campaigns for the reinstatement of superheroes to active duty while husband Bob (aka Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson) plays stay-at-home dad. Most of the original cast is back, including Samuel L. Jackson as ally Frozone, while Bob Odenkirk makes his franchise debut as new villain Screenslaver, a mysterious media mogul who manipulates the populace through hypnotic messaging. Director Brad Bird also returns to the helm.

For those more into stegosauruses than super-villains, Universal Studios is roaring back with another installment in its second-highest grossing franchise (sorry dinophiles, but Fast & Furious still holds the top title by a cool $100 million or so) as the highly anticipated Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom claws its way onto screens June 22nd. Eschewing the previous installment’s genetic-tampering-gone-bad premise, Kingdom takes place on the now-abandoned Isla Nublar three years after the destruction of the theme park and finds co-heroes Owen and Claire racing against time to save the remaining dinosaurs from extinction as the island’s volcano begins erupting. Joining returning stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are character actors Ted Levine and James Cromwell along with franchise alum Jeff Goldblum reprising his role as dry-witted mathematician Ian Malcolm. Replacing Colin Trevorrow in the director’s chair is J.A. Bayona, who exploded onto the scene in 2012 with Naomi Watts/Ewan McGregor-starrer The Impossible. As for Michael Crichton’s beloved brainchild, which has been regaling audiences for a quarter-century now, there are no signs of tapering, with Jurassic World 3 already announced for 2021 and Kingdom posting an almost unheard-of 99% “want to see” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

And lest the studios squander the adrenalized momentum they’ve built up through Independence Day weekend, Disney will be releasing its second foray into summer box office madness on July 6th with live-action superhero sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp. This latest nugget from the ever-expanding Marvel universe, nestled between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, sees Paul Rudd return as the titular, pest-sized protagonist as he seeks to balance home and work life while under house arrest. However, he quickly finds himself pulled into an urgent mission by the doe-eyed Hope van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly), who joins him as alter-ego The Wasp on a quest to defeat a powerful new force while simultaneously uncovering buried secrets about their past. The Peyton Reed-directed flick boasts a star-laden cast (several of whom are returning from the original) that also includes Judy Greer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins, Michael Douglas, and Hannah John-Kamen as ruthless archvillain Ghost. But expect a targeted marketing deluge to be the real star in turning this tiny hero into a box office giant.

Not to be outdone, Paramount wades into the testosterone-fueled cinematic arena by giving IMF point-man Ethan Hunt a sixth adventure in its stalwart series, Mission: Impossible, to be released nationwide on July 27th. Subtitled Fallout, the Christopher McQuarrie-helmed actioner sees Tom Cruise’s iconic character return in a clock-crunching quest to avert a global catastrophe while being hunted by dangerous assassins (what’s new?) as well as former CIA allies who question his motives. However, the studio is keeping plot details tightly under wraps for fear of fanboys spreading twist spoilers. Starring alongside Cruise is long-time confrere Ving Rhames reprising his role as Luther Stickell as well as Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin, Wes Bentley, Vanessa Kirby, Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett. This fresh installment marks a handful of firsts for the Mission movies, including McQuarrie as the first director to return for a second outing and the film being the first in the series to get the RealD 3D and IMAX 3D treatment. While Fallout is on track for a franchise-best domestic opening of $60-plus million, only time will tell whether the filmmakers managed to reinvent the storyline enough to ultimately ensure that this Mission doesn’t fail.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

I know a lot of you screenwriters out there struggle with generating story ideas that will sell. It's certainly not an easy hurdle to jump. That's why I recently wrote the below article, published at Funds for Writers, that is meant to provide some guidance on the topic. Hopefully it will serve as inspiration...


Generating Bankable Story Ideas for Film and Television

Mark Heidelberger / 2019-07-06
So, you’ve finally decided to try your hand at screenwriting. You’ve read Syd Field’s Screenplay cover to cover. You’ve bought the latest version of Final Draft. You’ve set aside time each night to write three pages knowing that in a month you’ll have a first draft of your 90-page opus. You’re pumped! There’s just one small problem. You have no idea what to write. I mean, you know what topics you’re passionate about, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a sellable screenplay… does it? Where and how does one generate those great story ideas that make it from script to screen? The good news is there’s no magic formula, no hidden secret, no play-by-play instruction book. However, there are a few practical methods that working screenwriters will tell you have often produced results.
Look at What’s Hot
Critics often pan Tinseltown for its plethora of derivative works. But there’s a very simple reason why the same kinds of movies and TV shows get made over and over: they work. If audiences keep tuning in, why stop? Look at the type of content that’s doing well with audiences right now and how long it’s been that way. If it’s been a few years with no signs of abating, there’s a good chance producers want more of it. Figure out what hot content you enjoy and then come up with your unique spin on it.
Consult an Expert
Experts are everywhere. Producers, script consultants, distribution execs, sales agents. And while they may not have a crystal ball, their position in the industry means they likely see what’s selling and what’s making money. Moreover, they’re often desperate for writers willing to eschew personal passions in favor of writing what’s marketable. So, where do you find these experts? Attend networking events, film markets and festivals, join a professional writers’ group, or ask friends who have connections.
Open a Newspaper
Some of the best ideas hide in plain sight. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs are rife with human interest stories and current events that might make for strong movies or TV shows. How do you know which ones? First, look at how popular the story is. Have you seen it in numerous publications? Is it a front-pager? Has it been getting tons of hits? And second, is real drama there? Real adversity? Something that’s almost too amazing to believe? If readers are responding, audiences probably will, too.
It Really Is Who You Know
Movie-goers love true stories. And while newspapers are filled with them, it may be challenging for a frosh screenwriter to secure a subject’s life rights without significant money involved. (A true story is essentially worthless to a screenwriter without a life rights option in place.) Instead, look at people you know who have highly peculiar, unique, or exceptional life stories. They may just be the hidden gem you’ve been searching for, and they’re more likely to option their life rights to you for cheap.
Adapt Preexisting Material
The Academy doesn’t offer a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for nothing. Preexisting material is fertile ground for new story ideas. And it doesn’t have to be some book on the New York Times bestseller list either. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a book at all. Novellas, short stories, poems, comic books, graphic novels, blogs, even advice columns have all found second lives as movies or TV shows. Consider whether the material is topical and relevant to today’s audience, and you may just have a winner on your hands.
Partner Up
Producers who are having trouble finding specific types of material may be willing to partner with you if you write on spec. Both sides put in sweat equity – you write the material, and they guide the process, develop the material, and eventually shop it. If it gets sold, everyone gets paid. If the producers can at least offer basic story direction or lay out their investor’s parameters, you can start by brainstorming dozens of loglines (one-sentence story concepts) and see which, if any, sparks their interest.