The first chapter of Save the Cat, ‘What is it?’ is mostly talking about loglines for a screenplay idea. (The fact that the character of The Cat on the British show Red Dwarf, played by Danny John-Jules, had a great comedy bit in one episode centered around repeating the words ‘What is it?’ when confronted by a bit of Star-Trek-ish technobabble – is completely irrelevant.)
Blake starts by talking about pitching a movie idea, with a lot of different examples from a group of friends trying to pick a movie to see on a Friday night, to movie executives at the height of show business. His central premise is that you need to be able to sell other people on a movie idea quickly, not after ten minutes of explanation, and tell them quickly ‘What is it about?’
He presents a few examples, including Four Christmases, (which was probably still in development when the book was written?) and breaks down his four critical elements for a good logline pitch:
– Irony: A good logline must show something that is unexpected and emotionally intriguing, which is pretty much the same thing as having an element of dramatic irony.
– A compelling mental picture: A good logline should present the potential for the entire movie to blossom in your brain, from one or two sentences.
– Audience and cost: A good logline should convey a sense of who would be interested in watching the movie, and a rough idea of how much it might cost to make.
– Killer title: Not really a part of the logline proper, but the title also plays a part in the logline pitch, and the part the title needs to play is to say what the movie is, as clearly as possible, and with an ironic punch of its own. (He mentions ‘For Love or Money’ as an example of a vague title that really tells as little as possible about what’s going on in the movie.)
Blake finishes up the chapter by talking about practice pitches – test marketing your logline with total strangers, ideally people who are preoccupies with something else and not paying that much attention to you at the start, because that’s the true test of your logline – whether it can cut through their distraction and really get them interested despite their other priorities.
And he talks a bit about ‘high concept,’ and about how being able to wrap up a movie in a few sentences was something that scriptwriters were doing before anybody coined the phrase high concept, and how it’s still critical to the industry, no matter how unfashionable the term has become.
All of this is great stuff in my opinion, especially the breakdown of the logline pitch. It’s certainly something that I think could be applied to writing that’s not for the feature film screen – most of the requirements to hook somebody in for a novel query would probably be the same, except that production cost isn’t a factor in the same way.
Chapter 1 Exercises.
Okay, this is the fun part, where I try to put Blake’s words of wisdom into practice by working through his ‘practice questions.’
Exercise 1.1 is to pitch this weekend’s movies in the theater, and try to think of ways to improve their loglines. I picked three top new releases from the IMDB.com front page, and the #1 grossing movie from last week, and used the IMDB plot summaries as starting loglines. I also went through each of their IMDB trailers, to try to get a better impression of the movie to get material.
The Green Hornet: A newspaper publisher by day and masked crime fighter by night, The Green Hornet and his martial arts expert sidekick, Kato, fight crime while trying to keep their true identities a secret.
My thoughts – well, the title ‘The Green Hornet’ isn’t that good at conveying what the movie is in itself, that can probably be excused since this is a pre-existing comic franchise, so they need to go with the title that would be recognizable to fans. And as a logline, this does pretty well with the ‘mental picture’ and ‘audience and cost’ criteria, but it utterly fails at irony, though the trailer is full of it. The irony is in the fact that the ‘newspaper publisher’ is a playboy goofoff who inherited his father’s media empire, who wanted to become a crime fighter to make up for having wasted his youth, and the sidekick is freakishly competent, but was the father’s barista/mechanic, and kind of looks down on his boss.
So, how to tweak the logline to get that good stuff into a punchy logline? How about this:
A clueless playboy inherits a media empire, and teams up with his father’s barista to fight the city’s crimelord at night by becoming masked heroes with a souped-up muscle car.
So there we’ve got the irony of the main character’s humble origins. I think that I’ve improved the logline as well by introducing the car, (a good factor in the audience and cost,) and mentioning the character of the crimelord instead of just ‘fighting crime.’
The Dilemma: A guy struggles with whether or not to tell his best friend that the best friend’s wife is having an affair.
Really bad title. There could be hundreds of movies about dilemmas, at least, and I want to know which one. And the plot summary again lacks irony, (I don’t think that IMDB is trying in that respect,) and doesn’t do too well with the rest of the logline goals. This could be a fairly tough one.
For irony – as far as I can tell, there’s irony in the trailer, and it’s centered around the fact that while the main character really wants to do the best thing for his friend, he’s not sure what that is. Each of his choices – tell his friend, stay silent, pressure the friend’s wife into confessing, have the potential to make things worse, and sure enough things seem to keep getting worse throughout the film. He probably doesn’t tell the friend directly until the end, because he doesn’t want to hurt him. (And because once the friend knows the secret, and reacts, that’s pretty much the end of the premise.)
Audience? Well, this is a mature comedy, probably good for guys from sixteen to sixty, with a mix of slapstick, fart humor, and more sophisticated character comedy. So we want to suggest as many of those as possible in the logline.
The mental picture should be good once we’ve conveyed the irony, especially the part about trying to pressure the friend’s wife into confessing, (which was probably the source of the funniest scene in the trailer.)
A Secret Between Best Friends: Ronny accidentally finds out that his best friend’s wife is having an affair, and doesn’t know what comes next. He just wants to do the right thing by his friend, but can’t tell if that should be breaking the news himself, keeping the secret, or forcing the wife to come clean herself.
Barney’s version: Impulsive and irascible TV-show producer Barney reflects upon his life’s successes, failures, and its great mystery — from his three marriages, to his doubts with the bottle and infidelity, and then to the unsolved disappearance of his best friend, Boogie.
Okay, we’ve got no irony here in the summary, very little audience, and an uninspiring picture – but the title is on the money. (As well as being the title of a popular book that was adapted.) Barney is a guy who’s made a mess of his life, or so you’d see if you just looked at him. The irony is that he isn’t really such a bad guy if you hear his side of the story – his version. In a more specific way, you have Barney meeting and falling in love with a guest at his own wedding – where he’s just married a girlfriend that he didn’t really love but accidentally got pregnant.
My logline: Barney sees the only woman he’s ever loved at his third wedding – the trouble is, it’s a stranger, and not the pregnant girlfriend he just married. To straighten out the failures and mysteries of his life, he’s going to have to track this mystery girl down, and figure out a way to explain his own version of events to her.
True Grit: A young girl recruits a tough U.S. Marshall to track down the man who killed her father.
The title is still a little bit weak here, but the logline is great – short and sweet. We have the irony with the young girl contrasted against the tough Marshall, and probably the innocence of the girl’s appearance against the motivations of her character. The picture of the movie is pretty clear, as is the audience and the cost – except possibly that I think that the movie is old west, not modern, and that isn’t clear, which could have an impact on the audience – but they’re expecting action and comedy for all ages, which is good stuff. (Mentioning that the marshall is an alcoholic could help with the irony too.) Maybe just try a few minor changes…
True Western Grit: A young girl recruits a tough alcoholic U.S. Marshall to track down the man who killed her father.
Exercise 1.2: Write the loglines for the screenplays in your files.
Dungeon Heroes: An ordinary medieval teenager has dreams about fighting scary demons. But can he and his slacker apprentice friends really find a way to go up against the monsters from underground and find their way safely back home?
The African Secret: A teenaged princess from a magical family is sent on an undercover mission to the Palace of a rival royal family. Only one of the royals could possibly complete this mission without arousing suspicion, but can she manage to find the information needed to save her people from a surprise attack?
For exercise 1.3, look up the TV movie listings for tonight, read the synopses as loglines. Do the title and logline say what the movie is? Do they fufill the four critical elements?
Addicted to love: A man and a woman meet by chance, then collaborate to spy on their exes, who are live-in lovers.
Good logline – we’ve got the irony in that the male and female leads, who you might expect to be interested in each other, are still focused on secondary characters. Good picture, and a fairly good audience/cost expectation. The title is quite vague, though – you’ve got love and obsession in there, but not the hook about the two stalkers finding each other.
21: Ben, a brilliant student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, needs some quick cash to pay his tuition bills. He joins a group of students who, under the leadership of their unorthodox professor, use their math skills to win big in Las Vegas. Seduced by a beautiful teammate and loads of money, Ben learns that the stakes are higher than he ever imagined when he crosses paths with the casino enforcer.
This summary is a bit too long for a logline, but it’s got everything else. You’ve got plenty of irony – with the professor subverting a usual authority role to help with gambling, and with the students using math skills to gamble instead of the usual portrayal of gamblers as being desperate and completely ignorant about math. The picture is clear, and a lot of the market and cost. The title is somewhat uninformative, but at least it’s intriguing in its brevity, and there aren’t many other movies that could pull it off.
Letters to Juliet: While visiting Verona, Italy, with her busy fiance, a young woman named Sophie visits a wall where the heartbroken leave notes to Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, Juliet Capulet. Finding one such letter from 1957, Sophie decides to write to its now elderly author, Claire. Inspired by Sophie’s actions, Claire sets out to find her long-lost lover, accompanied by her disapproving grandson and Sophie.
The title is good here, and the picture and the market/cost. Irony is a bit low, but the notion of real people leaving real letters for a Shakesperean character is emotionally intriguing enough to squeak by.
Mad Money: After her husband loses his job, upper-crust housewife Bridget is forced to take a job as a janitor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo. Spotting a weakness in the bank’s security system, Bridget convinces her two new friends to help her steal a fortune in worn-out bills that have been earmarked for destruction.
We should make the title a bit more specific – the money reference is fine, but why ‘mad’? Bank janitors stealing the dirty notes isn’t quite ironic, but certainly intriguing enough. We’ve got a crime drama with appeal for women and a comic twist – all on a budget!
The Goonies: When two brothers find out they might lose their house they are desperate to find a way to keep their home. They find a treasure map and bring some friends along to find it. They are all out looking for the “X” and trying to get away from a group of bad guys who also want the treasure.
This title doesn’t mean much to me, maybe it would be better to something about treasure hunts. The cost is pretty clear, and the audience would seem to be mostly younger males.
Casino: A New York bookie and his pal turn a Las Vegas casino into an empire, then one’s money-hungry wife helps bring it down.
Finally a decent title, but the logline isn’t not ironic enough, and I can’t remember the movie enough to say if there’s a way to fix that.
For exercise 1.4, come up with movie titles and ideas based on the following prompts
1.4a: Funny _____ (Turn a drama, horror, or suspense film into a comedy.)
Hogan’s Basterds. Give the Hogan’s Heroes comedy approach to Inglorious Basterds.
1.4b: Serious ______ (Turn a comedy into a drama.)
What goes missing in Vegas – a bachelor party goes horribly wrong when the groom goes missing, and the Sin City police suspect foul play. (The Hangover as a suspense movie.)
1.4c: FBI out of water (Put an FBI agent into a fresh, unexpected situation on a mission.) Repeat five times.
Secret Agent Clown.
Clear and present kitchen. (Restaurant business.)
Unsafe at any speed. (Race car driving)
1.4d: ______ school. (Come up with an unusual kind of school, classroom, or camp.) Repeat five times.
Vampire academy – for those who just can’t get the hang of being a bloodsucker.
Fortune telling school.
1.4e: Versus. Think up two character archetypes and the burning issue that they’re on opposite sides of. Repeat 3 times.
The nuclear option – when a small Pennsylvania town must vote on the construction of an atomic energy plant on the edge of town, a college green crusader is surprised to find herself facing off against determined construction and plant workers who are determined to keep local jobs.
Right to bare eaves – a first time homeowning couple start an electoral campaign to oust the retirement-age board of their homeowner’s association.
Siege at the gallery – a thirty-ish sculptor starts a sit-in campaign to save the City Art Gallery when a Councilor teams up with a condo developer to bulldoze the building.
1.4f: My ______ is a serial killer. (Name an unexpected person or thing that a paranoid protagonist could suspect of being a murderer.)
My landlord, the psycho.