What does that mean, “Is it a movie?” We hear it in pitch meetings, from producers and agents, really all over the place. It is a Sword of Damocles used to fend of approaching concepts. The question isn’t really even a question. It is the listener’s assertion that your idea/script/pitch is not worthy of a 60 million dollar investment from the listener’s studio or from anyone else’s. It is a pronouncement that your idea fails to contain some basic element contained in every movie that should ever have been made and every movie that should ever be made in the future. The very question itself suggests that your concept should be taken out with the trash. When you hear, “But is it a movie?”, pack your bags, make nice for the next time, and get on the bus home.

But what is missing from your idea/pitch/spec that makes it not “a movie”?

This criticism is a particularly tough one. First, any joe can use it and mean anything he or she wants. Sometimes, it’s used just to avoid telling you the hard truth about your script, pitch or idea. Remember, producers aren’t out there to train you. They want to find the next picture and get it made. Second, to a large degree, execs who use this do so specifically to avoid thinking in terms of specific analysis. Something like, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That’s all I can tell you.”

So what do you do if you begin to get this response? Look at your story. Is it clear enough, compelling enough? Is your presentation being understood? Why? Because maybe, just maybe, the exec is right about your pitch. It isn’t yet a movie.


As most of you know, at The Thinking Writer, I think a lot about theme. In a review of Alex Epstein’s excellent book, “Crafty Screenwriting”, The Artful Writer has dredged up a debate over that all important element: theme. It is worth paying attention to. A-level writer Craig Mazin shares his insight.

Here’s a sampling of past entries from The Thinking Writer on theme:

Why Bother With Theme?
April 4, 2005

But I Have A Theme?
April 7, 2005

February 25, 2005

Are “Script Reviews” A Good Idea?

Screenplay Reader
Photo by Svenstorm @ flickr.com
Obviously, studio script readers are sworn to silence on drafts of potential studio blockbusters. Spielberg reportedly numbered all copies of the drafts of his scripts even during production to help keep the details under wraps. But, today, leaked scripts are common-place, leading to the inevitable so-called “script reviews”. For example, here is a review of a draft script for the close-to-production Judge Dredd and here is a review of an early draft of the not-even-near-production contemplated remake of Forbidden Planet. Both of these reviews are for scripts that may never be shot. Are these types of reviews fair game?


Bill Murray Jeff from “outside L.A.” asks:

Hi. Enjoy the blog. I have a fairly simple question for you, I think. I am working on outlines for a couple of script ideas while I rewrite my first one, and in one case, I can’t quite figure out the ending. I like the idea a lot, and it seems to have good story potential. So how common is it to just plow ahead and hope a 3rd act presents itself somewhere along the line? Does that path offer any hope at all, or is my struggle possibly indicative of a flaw in the idea?

It is common to just plow ahead but usually not too effective. Some writers claim they are able to conceive of a story in terms of its ending and write backwards. I wish I could. Even M. Night wrote six drafts of The Sixth Sense before he figured out that Malcolm was dead. The story did not start out that way.

In my own writing, endings arise out of the core questions I am exploring in the script; in other words, endings arise out of theme. If I do not now how a story ends, it means I have not spent enough time developing the theme. Through rigorous work, theme leads the story to what eventually feels like a natural second act complication (notice I say “feels like” – it is usually actually hell developing it). That second act complication usually dictates an appropriate ending. This sort of approach seems to be adopted by many writers who are much better than me including Gary Ross, for one. (I think Craig Mazin is on that list, too. If not, it gives me an excuse to link to a very appropriate post of his….)

By way of example, in Groundhog Day, the central question is “How do you give a monotonous, redundant existence any meaning?” Kind of a central existential question with implications far beyond the storyline. As the protagonist struggles with this question, trying first one thing and then the next – he is led to a second act complication – he falls in love (perhaps the first genuine thing he has ever done) but the woman will never really fall in love with him because the day always starts over. Only by solving his existential dilemma (finding the meaning of life) does he finally win her love. In the eyes of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis (the screenwriters), life has meaning when we contribute to the world around us. Once the protagonist experiences this, his life once again has meaning (and the physical monotony also ends).

Notice that in Groundhog Day, every scene explores the theme. In fact, given the extremely repetitive nature of the physical setting, thematic development is the driving force that engages us and compels us to follow along.

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, the central question the screenwriter explores is “How do you communicate effectively with those you love?” Cole cannot tell his mother what is happening to him. His mother cannot effectively speak to him; her anger and confusion gets in the way. Malcolm cannot speak to his wife nor she to him. All of the characters suffer from the same problem; they cannot effectively communicate with each other. As the two protagonists, Malcolm and Cole, explore this central question in various ways, the second act complication arises – Cole must listen to the ghosts without judging them. (Just as Malcom had to listen to Cole without judging him.) Once he does, he discovers he can communicate with his mother and he discovers he can tell Malcolm how to speak to his wife.

As you can see from both of these examples, developing a story around a clearly focused central core (the theme) takes a tremendous amount of work. However, it gets you to the second act complication and from there to an appropriate ending.

Like so many things in screenwriting – this is no shortcut. In fact, it’s pretty damn hard to do it right. But that’s the way the big boys and girls do it….


flickr|WTL photos
Writer/Screenwriter Rex Pickett, whose unpublished novel became the basis for the screenplay Sideways (and then the novel got published) is out with the sequel novel, Vertical. Pickett is thrilled with Alexander Payne, but not thrilled with the book’s original publisher. To get hopelessly depressed about both the movie industry and the publishing industry, read about his travails in the Yamhill Valley News Register. (Yamhill Valley is Oregon wine country and apparently part of the new novel.)


Mystery Man GifKevin of Cincinnati saw a listing like this on Craigslist:

Screenwriters Opportunity

Can you do it better than
the films you see?
Do you have the next SIXTH SENSE
Now’s your chance to prove it.

Award winning Hollywood producer/manager
Looking for motion picture scripts.
All genres. Send synopsis
plus contact info. Cinn.

Kevin asks:

What would you make of a posting like this; is it to be trusted? Is there any difference between a synopsis and an idea? Can a synopsis be legally more protected than an idea?

There are some legitimate managers who solicit via the Internet. However, a legitimate manager will share his or her identity and credentials, usually on a website, and these credentials will be easily verifiable. Also, usually, a legitimate manager will make the writer sign a release before submitting material.

I am not saying the person above is not legitimate. I am saying you probably want to learn more about the manager before sending in your material. Email him (or her, who knows?) and ask for the manager’s background.

Aside from the lack of disclosure about the identity and credentials, the fact that the manager is in Cincinnati is also a red flag, or at least a yellow flag. Managers must be in regular discourse with producers and other dealmakers. Most of these contacts are in Los Angeles (at least, for the American market) and, naturally, so are most successful working managers. (There are also a good number in New York.) While it may not be impossible to function as a legitimate manager from Cincinnati, knowing the manager’s credentials is even more important.

As for the last part of your question, I assume it means, “Do I have to worry about my idea being ripped off?” Any time you share an idea with an anonymous source, you have to worry about being ripped off. Irrespective of the legalities of intellectual property law, you normally would not send ideas or synopsis to an anonymous email address. You should always keep a submission log and know exactly where and when you submitted material, always submit material with a cover letter or email (of which you keep a copy), and always follow up in writing if you hear no response.

The bottom line on listings like the above: before sending in your material, inquire of the person’s identity and credentials in order to make an informed decision.