It’s always good to learn from industry professionals outside our direct area of writing. Today I discuss genre, loglines and getting a film deal with Charles Harris.
In the intro, I mention some VERY exciting news!
With the popularity of How to Make a Living with your Writing and also Business for Authors, I’m starting with some free video training on 11 ways to make money as an indie author. Click here to check it out.
I also mention the launch of Deviance, the 3rd in the London Psychic trilogy, in ebook and print formats. All 3 books are on special during the weeks of 27 July – 10 August.
Show notes for Charles Harris interview
- On starting as a screenwriter.
- The three essential elements of scripts that sell and stories that resonate.
- The importance of a strong and interesting premise in TV and film writing and the importance of characters in writing novels, TV or for the screen.
- How premise and pitch are aligned.
- The four elements, structure and theory behind a compelling story sentence. How emotion plays a role in creating a premise or story sentence.
- Writing the story sentence for a multi-book series and the importance of genre when describing your book or screenplay.
- Charles recommends Shooting People for opportunities in independent film
- An explanation of the ‘four quadrants’ of the film marketplace and the dangers when films fall in between two quadrants.
- The financial rewards (or not) of being optioned for the screen.
- The expected time authors can expect an optioned book to take to reach the screen.
- The differences Charles notices between writing novels and writing screenplays.
Transcription of interview with Charles Harris
Joanna: Hi everyone, I am Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I am here with Charles Harris. Hi Charles.
Charles: Hi Joanna.
Joanna: Good to have you on the show. Just a little introduction, Charles is an international award winning writer/director, a script consultant, co-founder of Eurocript Screenwriters Workshop, and author of The Complete Screenwriting Course. Which is super exciting.
Charles, just tell us a little bit more about the highlights of your writing career, because you’ve done so much.
Charles: Highlights, well, I started off as a screenwriter. I was always a director. I directed home movies and student movies, and the only problem was I needed scripts and I couldn’t afford to hire a writer who would work for as little as I could afford to pay myself. So, I basically hired myself and then thought I better learn how to write.
Back in those days, impossible as it may be to believe, there were no books on screenwriting. I think Syd Field’s came out a few years later and then McKee and so forth and now millions, to which I have added my own, for better or for worse.
But, you know, I got together with some other people. There was an organization called AIP which became PACT. Which is now a major industry organization, then was quite small. I met up with some writers there and we formed a kind of a screenwriting workshop independently and discovered, who knew? We discovered we had created the first screenwriters workshop in the world.
So, in fact, you slightly misrepresented me. I didn’t found Euroscript. That was London’s Screenwriters Workshop that became Screenwriters Workshop which then spun off into Euroscript. But we are still the same, the same ethos, still industry people teaching industry people.
And at the same time I then moved on to writing, writing my own material more and more and I have been very pleased with what I’ve done so far. I’ve worked in just about every area, documentary, cinema, mostly directing and writing, occasionally only directing goes with your writing. Theater, fringe theater and I have got my first novel coming out next spring, which is very exciting. In fact I just delivered the polished draft back to the publisher after a few brief notes this morning.
Charles: If I look sort of lighter and happier, I’m on holiday for about a minute, until the next one.
Joanna: I was going to say – that’s the life of a writer – you finish one project and you start the next.
Joanna: I mean you’ve always got stuff bubbling away. But I am really interested in your work as you assess scripts. I’ve seen you at the London Screenwriters Festival. People are always pitching you stories, and you’re a script doctor, a story doctor. So apart from reading books and watching films, you’ve gone through, I guess, so many stories over the years.
What are the top three things you’ve seen that are critical for a script that sells or a story that resonates? And I don’t mean literary works, I mean best sellers.
Charles: To be honest, it applies to novels just as much and more and more the two are coming together. I think first has to be the premise, and this is where films and TV do differ slightly from novels and short stories in that is the premise is so much more important.
In the novel you can get away with a premise that is transcended by the quality of the writing, to a large extent, particularly if it’s a name writer.
With TV or film you do have to have a really good fundamental idea that makes people want to sit up and say, “Yeah, I want to see that movie. I want to turn on that TV series. I want to buy a box set.” There’s the kind of classic elevator pitch, if you’d like. So that’s number one, still things that are written where the fundamental idea is never going to run. It’s not going to hold an audience.
The second one is character. Characters I want to spend my time with. Characters we want to spend our time with. And that certainly applies to novels, too.
In fact when I was writing my new screenwriting book, I spoke to my agent and said, “What would you advise?” And he said, “The most crucial thing, par excellence, is a good central character.”
It doesn’t mean we have to like them, they can be extraordinarily unlikable, but you want to spend time with them, they’re exciting, they strike sparks. You want to find out what happens to them. And maybe stop them doing it or support them doing it or save them whatever.
The third is a mixture of storytelling tone, narrative.
It’s the fact that I’m being told a story. I see a lot of scripts which don’t do that. They might be very well written, but somehow they don’t give me a story that I want to follow. I think the third thing, particularly for the screenplays is that I am drawn into a story. I want to know what happens, I want to be with and obviously want to find out what happens at the end.
Joanna: Right, the hooks and things you want to find out. Little things that you put in that your brain then wants to find out what happened.
Charles: That’s part of technique, absolutely. Although, that’s in a way, in a funny sort of way, less important than the overall tone.
When you start reading you need to feel that you’re in the hands of somebody who’s weaving a yarn you want to be with and that voice is enormously important and I think it’s very underrated.
Then yes the hooks will happen and all those things will happen. But funnily enough often they are less important or they happen automatically. The danger of doing it the other way around is it becomes almost like an intellectual burden and people think, “I’ve got to have a hook here, I’ve got to have a hook here.” And I’ve read those kinds of scripts and they are really boring, you know? Because I’m not with someone I want to be with.
Joanna: So character is really important. But can you go back into premise? Because I think what happens in many of these things is we say words like ‘premise’ and ‘tone’ and people don’t know what that actually means in a concrete way.
Can you give us a concrete example of a premise?
Charles: Firstly I’ll explain it a bit more. Words like premise, pitch, logline, and tagline get thrown around.
My view is that they are all the same thing. They’re basically your story.
We talked about the elevator pitch, is your story, in one or two sentences. And the reason is very simple.
You’ll find it difficult enough to boil your 70,000 word novel down to 90 pages of script, mostly white paper. Now we’re saying you have to do it in two sentences, or one sentence preferably.
There is a reason for this, which is that the thing that sells movies and TV programs, is word of mouth.
You can spend as much as you’d like, you can spend millions on advertising and ultimately it’ll get you a good opening weekend if you’re lucky and then you get people telling each other, “I wouldn’t go see it,” or “Yes, go and see that.”
So what you’re doing when you pitch, when you’re developing a premise, when you’re talking to a producer, whatever you’re doing, and I think the same applies to novels as well, this is more your area than mine, is you’re thinking in terms of down the line there’s going to be someone standing by a bus stop or by the water cooler saying, “You’ve got to read this book. You’ve got to see this movie. You’ve got to watch this TV series.”
And you’ve got about two sentences before they suddenly have a subsequent engagement and realize they have to be somewhere else. You don’t have 90 minutes to do this thing that people imagine you do. Saying, “The sun’s rising over Creative Penn factory,” and you know you’ve gone on for 90 minutes and then say, “And Joanna strides out with a Kalashnikov over her shoulder, over the dead bodies, having succeeded.” That’s not really what you can do.
Your premise and your pitch are the same thing.
It’s boiling it down to a juicy exciting sentence that people say, “Absolutely!” I can see there’s an audience.
Initially, you can say I can see the audience. You know, initially actors, DOP (Director of Photography), cameramen, you know all those sort of people you have to get excited and on board until finally get down to the people standing at the bus stop saying, “You’ve got to go and see this movie,” or “You’ve got to watch this TV program.” That’s a long winded way of explaining something that is very short.
It’s something I teach. I mean I have to say I spend two days, a two day workshop teaching it. It’s quite difficult to boil down.
Joanna: Yes I realize that. Difficult to do on a podcast. But, one example, I was thinking of a friend of mine, A.G. Riddle who has a book deal and film and everything. His book Departure has a premise: “a plane takes off and lands in the future”.
Charles: Wow. I like that. It’s got a good a hook.
Joanna: You don’t need anything else.
Charles: You would if you were pitching it to a producer.
Joanna: Well, he got a Fox deal.
Charles: He got a deal?
Joanna: Yes. Sold movie rights, he has sold multi-millions of books. Indie writer. I think he spent a long time coming up with that line.
Charles: See, that’s a great initial pitch. And the pitch can mean different things to different people and some people use a pitch as just a hook to draw people in. And unless you’re an experienced writer with a big track record, a pitch anyway is not going to get you a good deal.
What is going to get you a deal is, either send me the script or tell me more. So if somebody said that to me, and I imagine what happened, is the producer said, “Tell me more.”
And then that leads you into starting a long conversation, which is great. You see, what I advise writers is to have a story sentence. Which gives you the gist because what the producer is looking for is essentially, is there a story there?
So if you pitch that, “A plane takes off and lands in the future.” I say, “Great,” but I’m still thinking, “Who are the characters, what’s their dilemma? Does this person know how to tell a story?” And he obviously does because he’s got a track record.
Joanna: Absolutely. That was really cool and I think we’re starting to get there but I think everyone who is listening is going, “Well, I’m still not clear how I actually write this one line.” So, take one of my books, I’ve got 70,000 words. I didn’t start with a one liner.
How do I get from a book or a novel into one line? Is there a way of reverse engineering it?
Charles: Or even if you did start with a one liner, I generally make sure I have a premise before I start writing and then re-write it constantly, so you can work both ways.
I do a very simple story sentence. I have to say, it is easy to describe, although it takes a bit longer, we’ve probably got time in this podcast so I’ll give you the brief introduction to it so people can get their teeth sunk into it.
Even though I teach it, I still find it tough to do.
I listened to you talking on a recent podcast about social media about how difficult it is for the author to see it from the eyes of the reader and it’s a similar kind of thing.
You have to constantly see it from the other side. And when you’re in the middle of it, getting that perspective, it really takes feedback. I always advise people to bounce it off people. So the story sentence is simply like this, and it might sound like a formula but I think of it more like a recipe and the ingredients, the good quality of the ingredients is what makes it work.
The first thing is, “It’s a . . .” That’s the first bit of the formula. So what have you got, what have you got for me? “It’s a . . .”
The next thing you put in is the genre. And the reason why you put in the genre is because the genre tells you, crucially, what emotion you’re getting. And why you might want to go to it.
I don’t know about you but most people decide whether they’re going to see the movie or watch a TV program very largely on “What do I feel like at the moment? Do I feel like a comedy or do I feel like a thriller?”
So if you don’t know that then you’re not even at first base because that’s going to give you the fundamental emotions. So, “It’s a comedy thriller.” “It’s a supernatural horror detective story.” And that’s not always easy. Sometimes even finding your genre can take quite a bit of work.
What I don’t want to be is demeaning because so many other people think that genre is somehow demeaning. Everything is one thing or another, even the greatest movies.
Then, you want to know who the protagonist is and what their goal is.
Because fundamental to all dramatic stories is somebody wanting to try and do something or trying to escape from something. That’s the outer story, in a sense.
You say, “It’s an action adventure story about a woman who is trying to escape from an indestructible homicidal robot.” Terminator.
“It’s a romantic comedy about an actor whose finding it so difficult to get a job, the only way he can get a job is dressing up as a woman and pretending to be an actress.” Which is Tootsie.
“It’s a coming of age story about a schoolgirl who becomes pregnant and has to find someone to take the baby.” Which is Juno.
Now, you notice you’ve not really got much of the gist of it yet, you’ve got the very bare bones.
It’s not terribly exciting yet because what’s missing is the inner story and that’s the bit that makes it come to life.
So it’s not just a protagonist, it’s a certain kind of protagonist with a flaw. Sarah Conner’s flaw in the Terminator is that she’s really unable to stand on her own two feet. She’s being pushed around and there are people where she’s working, in the bar as a waitress sticking ice cream down her apron she’s not able to, she hasn’t got the ability to stand up for herself. She finds herself being chased by a homicidal indestructible robot who’s trying to kill everybody with her name.
And then you just put a little bow on the end, to tie it all off. An ironic twist that shows that she’s had a kind of character journey, if she has.
And by the end she’s more of a killing machine than the robot, you could say for example.”It’s a romantic comedy about a bolshy, difficult, impossible actor who finds he can’t get a job anywhere as an actor so dresses up as a woman to get a job as an actress as a soap. And by the end he finds he is a better man as a woman than he ever was as a man.” Which is actually a quote from the end of the script.
And what is nice is that it gets people smiling because remember it is a comedy so we want people to at least smile. You don’t have to fall about laughing, you don’t have to be a standup comic but something of your pitch, premise, whatever, I feel, should have some of the emotion of your genre, too.
If you haven’t chilled people with a horror pitch something has probably gone wrong.
Joanna: That’s a great explanation. I’m interested in how you would do a series sentence. Because many indie authors write series because they sell better and once somebody has bought one in a series they might carry on reading and therefore you make more income. So most of us plot a multi-book arc. Of course there are many films that have sequels but I guess they normally do that when it’s already a success.
How would a series arc work with that? Because at the end, as you say, the end might be in the third book of the series.
Charles: Well you’ve got two alternatives. One, are you writing in BBC terms, they used to call that writing series and serials. And a serial classically is one story told over a lot of episode.
Joanna: And most people write series. But there are people listening who do write serials.
Charles: So if you’re doing a serial that is one story, just pitch the whole story. Essentially it’s the same thing, just longer. The pitch isn’t longer, but you need more umph in it, more juice to make it last over a number of books or a number of films. That’s simple.
The series is a little bit more complicated. You need two premises.
You’ve got your series premise, which is the first thing you do, you say, “It’s a medical detective story about a doctor who’s got a brilliant pathologist but who has no human skills whatsoever but relatable.”
And so you get the running gag if you like, the running emotional hook, the character hook which makes you turn onto House every week. Because that character is interesting in himself the fact that he’s in this supposedly empathetic profession, and the irony is that he is totally unable to empathize.
And then you then say something about what is going to happen every week, what people know what they are going to turn on to. “And then every week a new impossible to solve disease comes in that he has to, through his brilliance, try to solve and heal the person.” So that’s who you pitch a series like House.
Because a good series is based on what I call a constellation of characters all rubbing off on each other.
Sometimes like House you’ve got one main character, sometimes it’s two or three, like in a typical sitcom. All interfacing or treading on each other’s toes. So you get the essence of what’s going on there.
And then you say, “Each week, something like this happens.” and then they’ll probably say, “Give me a for instance.” And then if you’re doing this on paper, and it’s the same thing exactly the same thing on paper, “For instance . . . ” And then you basically do the premise for one of the episodes, usually your pilot episode. So does that make sense?
Joanna: That’s great. So, let’s just go back to genre, because I explain genre to most people as it’s the Amazon category, or it’s the category on any of the stores because when you publish, however you publish, your book has to go into a category. We get two when we self-publish on Amazon, but you get multiple categories on sites like iBooks, for example, or we can use key words to get into categories.
What do you mean by genre and how can people identify what they are?
Charles: Okay, well you’re not far off. And I’ve got a problem with my novel because . . .
Joanna: Oh, we’ve all got problems with cross-genre!
Charles: I mean, it’s a crime novel of sorts, but it’s also satire. And Amazon are great, they have a category for satire. But you walk into a bookshop and as you know one is advised to do, in fact you might have even put it into one of your excellent books on writing, go into a bookshop and find out where they put things on the shelves. And you go into a particular British bookshop and they don’t know what satire is. They just don’t have a category for it.
Joanna: And I would say, just on that. Satire, if you check the rankings, I would say that satire is not a great category for sales.
Joanna: So, that’s the other thing.
Charles: Which is why it’s selling as a crime novel!
Joanna: Exactly, put it in crime 🙂
Charles: It’s a state of a nation crime story that has a satirical element. And people will tell you, you’ve got to prove that it will sell. And I say, “Well, let’s hope that the readership does that.”
Satire actually in TV and film is fine as a category. In a similar way to Amazon it goes back to the shelves back to the 1920s and 1930s where the distributors would stack things on shelves saying Western, Gangster whatever.
The word genre, if you know your French, means “kind of”. Because if I ask about any book or any film that you’ve seen, and I say, “What kind of is it?” You’ll tell me. You’ll probably tell me six or seven different things.
You’ll say, “Well it’s a thriller, it’s an action story, it’s a kind of studio style, and it’s a bit epic. You know, there’s a kind of docudrama . . .” There are all sorts of things that go into it.
The other problem with genre, I have to say genre is one of those words that’s very difficult to talk about. Particularly in the film industry because it’s this awful thing, and I think it happens in books too, there’s just this sentence which is it’s only a genre movie. It’s only a genre book. I think that is dreadful because everything is a kind of something.
Joanna: Now literary fiction is a category on Amazon, so it’s just as much a genre as anything else.
Charles: The one category I couldn’t cross over from film to novels is what we call drama, which classically was called melodrama. Which essentially is about people interacting with people. And a lot of people write that sort of thing. And I suspect literary fiction is the closest to that genre. It’s drama. It’s people relating to people rather than shooting each other or running away from ghosts or whatever.
And in fact, I don’t know if you know about Shooting People. For those of you who don’t know about Shooting People, if you’re interested in film or TV you really have to join. It’s a mailing list with screenwriting and film making categories and so forth and it’s a brilliant place to meet up. And I was having this discussion and I put up a competition on there and I said, “Look, if anyone can tell me a film or TV program that isn’t in a genre they can have a bottle of champagne.”
The greatest movies and directors, they all work in genres.
Even Shakespeare worked in genres.
The great writers are adept at using genre in very subtle and interesting ways.
I think what we mean by only a genre book or movie is that somehow it hasn’t quite risen above just being the genre. It’s not that anything else isn’t genre. But you do have people thinking they can write outside of genre.
And genre fundamentally comes down to number one emotion we talked about briefly already.
You know, you go to a thriller because you want to be frightened.
Joanna: Or thrilled.
Charles: I’m a bit iffy about the word thrilled because I think thrills tend to come with action or adventure movies. Thrills and spills.
Joanna: I think frightened comes with horror.
Charles: You see, this is a fascinating discussion. And when I’m teaching I always say I’m not doing film studies. What I want to do is get people thinking for themselves. Because ultimately, we the audience are the experts in genre. It’s what you mean by it as an audience that really counts.
I would say horror horrifies. A good horror idea or a good horror film should make you feel horrified. Now it’s interestingly that a lot of horror films are also thrillers nowadays. But they weren’t always, some of the earlier horror films weren’t thrillers. And you can still have horror films that aren’t thrillers. But in fact you very rarely have a single genre movie.
So many horror films are thriller movies as well. And I think that’s why you get the horror plus the fear factor. I think thriller actually is any other genre with the fear cranked up. A bit like a spinal tap you turn it up to 11. So you take another genre, normally horror, or gangster, or crime, occasionally noir, and you crank up the fear factor, that extra level of suspense.
And similarly, so you go to a comedy, you want a laugh and so forth, so that’s step one. And then there are certain patterns you expect to deliver.
A lot of it is about expectation, and good writers understand that it’s about raising and surprising expectations, that’s what genre’s about.
Joanna: Just going back, you mentioned the newsletter, but you didn’t say where it was? Do you have a website?
Charles: The Shooting People’s Newsletter? It’s not mine. It’s Shootingpeople.org. If you just put “Shooting People” into your favorite search engine you’ll find it, I’m sure.
Joanna: So, I also wanted to ask you about this four quadrant thing which I have heard about. People say it’s a four quadrant movie or TV show which is therefore attracts all target markets. And I have two feelings towards this, one is, “Oh, that sounds great.” And you can explain why that is. But equally, we are told to aim for a specific market so we don’t just have something too generic.
What is the four quadrant idea and when is it a good idea to try for that?
Charles: Okay, so the four quadrants is essentially we’re talking about is the market for movie. Now, excluding children’s movies for the moment. And we’re talking about films for adults, not that kind of adult, and essentially there are four markets for a movie. And there are similar kind of breakdowns for TV as well, it’s slightly different.
And the first is males between 14 and 24 because they like good movies, they like seeing movies with big bangs and big breasts, basically that’s the kind of thing that attracts them.
They go to the multiplexes a lot, so often we are talking about a multiplex type movie here. They go to cinema a lot. They are easily marketed to. If you’re lucky they drag the girlfriend along. And they also buy the two most profitable things in the universe, and I don’t know if you know what those are?
Joanna: Beer and popcorn?
Charles: Almost, coca cola and popcorn. Because you know have a handful of popcorn and it cost a couple of pence if you’re lucky and you can sell it for whatever massive amounts once you’ve puffed it up. That’s what pays for movies. Movies don’t make, they make very little money out of the cinema. Basically you’re setting up an audience for TV and DVD and download and so forth.
Okay, second quadrant. The second quadrant is women between 14 and 24. Because they’ll go with the boyfriends. They’re a bit more discerning. They won’t just go to anything. But they will go frequently to the movies.
The third quadrant is males over 25.
There is no gradation it’s 25 as old as you can get. And they’re more discerning, they’ll read reviews and of course they’re generally in relationships at this point. They’re not going to go as often. And they have to get the babysitter in.
And then the most difficult to get to of all, is females 25 and above because they don’t even believe the reviews.
They are very discerning, they will only go to the things they are absolutely convinced they want to see. So, what the interesting thing is, generally the first two, the younger ones are the multiplex, the mainstream. And the older two go to the art house specialist cinema route.
It takes a very special movie to appeal to all four of those quadrants.
And as you say not only is it very difficult, it would be enormously foolish to try and design a movie for all of those.
Joanna: I guess that’s why the YA films like Hunger Games, for example, fell squarely in that kind of market. And also Twilight, because they said a lot of the younger women and older women also liked that stuff. That YA stuff I think.
Charles: The other element is cross over. You know, you cross over from YA. You cannot predict that.
Charles: The history of Hollywood and those who are the best at it is littered with people who thought they had a surefire crossover movie.
The danger is you actually fall in the middle and what you get is called Tweener movie or on the bridge of a movie. And I don’t know if you saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for example?
Charles: It’s a lovely movie, but it kind of fits between the two. Because the thing is independent, specialist cinema movie is are not just a multiplex that didn’t work with the multiplexes. It has its own demands. More stylish or more director led. It has a special star or something, or very mystical. There are things that the independent specialist cinema demands in the same way as obscure times on channel for or the equivalent I suppose you could say, or BBC2.
Joanna: With books, most readers are actually in that older market. For most of the people listening, our readers will be over 25 actually and the biggest reader market are women in their 40s and 50s. So that’s actually completely different from movies.
Should we not try to compare and books? Or how do they actually work together in that way then?
Charles: Depends on what you mean by compare. Because they are different things entirely.
Joanna: Well like I mentioned, A.G. Riddle’s book, for example, getting optioned. Many authors want to get a book optioned but from what you’re saying there, the audience is actually quite different.
Should you forget that kind of dream and just hope for luck or should we aim for that?
Charles: I mean either forget it or aim for it.
Well, the first thing you’ve got to do is write a really good book. Because a book that hasn’t sold is unlikely to sell. It might be optioned if it has a really good idea but it’s not going to do a lot.
I do advise a lot of my screenwriters to write a book or write for theater. Theater is also a very good place to develop your voice. We talked a bit about voice before and I think voice is something that people often, particularly the books, tend to ignore or take as read.
Joanna: I think there’s this myth or dream that if you do amazingly, get your book optioned and made into a movie, that you make a gazillion dollars and your life is made.
I wondered if you could explain the reality of the figures involved in TV and film and what it actually means to most writers?
Charles: Well, sitting here in my palatial Hampstead home [laughs] the reality is that it goes back to William Goldman’s famous phrase, “Nobody knows anything.” It could be anything.
Every single contract is different.
The first thing is to understand that it is a far more competitive market. I mean, novels are competitive enough but you can at least self-publish and you can self-make make films yourself as well but they are generally not for very much money.
To give you an idea, when I first started the industry, there were 24 films made in this country [UK] each year. There are now about 240 on a good year, which is a massive increase and then on top of that there are a thousand scripts being written. Thousands of scripts that have ideas that never finish.
There is a lot of material there that we don’t see, we only see the tiny tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of competition going on there. Now, even 240 is a lot by British standards, which is still a tiny number compared to the number of books published each year.
So, film makers and TV makers tend to be understanding and much more choosy. They also have a lot of money at stake. I’m not saying publishers don’t have a lot of money at stake, but there’s a lot at stake and a film that doesn’t sell isn’t good for anybody, it kills careers.
They’re looking for something they feel enormously solid about.
And one of the sad things that saddens me is that publishing is beginning to go the same way. Which means they don’t take risks, which of course is the one most risky thing of all. Not taking a risk. I’m trying to put this all in perspective.
One way around it is to have published a book to show it’s done well, there’s no doubt about it. I mean Harry Potter would not have been made into a film if it hadn’t already had three big major books behind it. The idea alone won’t necessarily sell it. Having said that, some people do jump on a great book and jump on a great idea and go with it.
So the next, so assuming you’ve got something that people like, and like anything you’ve got to keep on trying and trying and trying, because you’ll get a lot of people saying no. When you get somebody, it’s like a negotiation, how much do you want it, how much do they want it?
At one end of the scale I’ve known people sell options for a pound. Because they want it made and that itself can be quite valuable for a career. Sometimes it’s knowing what you want, and you don’t necessarily want money.
At the other end, I think this Joe Esterhaus’ . . . I think the script for Jagged Edge went for a million dollars. And that’s just the option. Not even the making the film, just the agreement was they have the permission to raise the money and pay him for making it.
Between the two you have sort of a ballpark of somewhere between a few hundred and may 20,000 if you have a fair amount of experience for a film script. The Writer’s Guild minimum for first draft script is I think 14,000 to 15,000. But again it depends who wants what.
Now, there’s various stages of payment.
You can get the best one which is what you mentioned, the option. In other words someone pays you some money for a couple of years’ worth of exclusive time, to raise the money to make the film and then usually pays you a bit more for making the film.
Usually the main chunk of money comes in what’s called the first day of principle photography when you first start filming. Then there’s back-end money, points, percentages, which people hear about.
The reality is that anyone who promises you anything out of the profits, you almost certainly will never see, because most films don’t make a profit.
And if they do then the accountant manages to bury it in something else.
Joanna: That’s why I asked this question because I talked to somebody and they said, “Basically films don’t make money because it all gets shuffled around and people use films as investment vehicles and tax things.”
The recommendation is for authors is that in any kind of negotiation around figures, make sure the money comes in, like you say, before it’s made and don’t just wait for the profits.
Although, didn’t Alec Guinness take a percentage of the profit for Star Wars?
Charles: Yes, a percentage of the gross. There’s gross and net: net means you can take all your costs off before paying the poor writer or actor. Gross is of the actual box office. But those films were so massive that they ran out of ways of hiding the money.
It is a mad industry. If you think about it, your job as a producer is to say to the writer, “We’re definitely going to be making it.” To say to the star/actor, “Don’t worry we’ve got the money to make it and we want you to sign,” and to say to the financiers, “Don’t worry the actor is signed,” before he actually has. You’re dealing with a house of cards.
Joanna: And then you hope it comes together.
Charles: Yes. If you don’t lie at some point, you probably aren’t going to be able to make the film, because the finance won’t come in until you’ve got Tom Cruise and Tom Cruise won’t come in until you’ve got the finance. It’s a mad, mad world.
Joanna: Can you maybe just comment on the time involved?
If a book is optioned, for example, how long before you see it on the screen? I’ve heard nightmare stories but is there an average?
Charles: Some films get done very quickly. But the reality is if you option a book, I’m assuming you haven’t got the script written. That will take at least two years to get it properly written.
And the thing is the film industry is a collaborative industry. In getting my novel published, it’s strange as I’m used to having thousands of notes – many of them may be stupid, many of them may be enormously useful. But even the most edited book has far fewer notes than the average film does.
So you’ve got to go through a number of drafts – and films go through a lot of drafts, particularly if they’re good films. Hollywood’s very good at this. Here we tend to say, “Seven drafts and then we’ll make it.”
In Hollywood they say, “Seven drafts – now we raise the money. Now we rewrite it and 14 drafts later we make it.” Which is one reason why their movies are so much more tight.
You’re looking at two years to write the script, another year to start the feedback on the finance. Maybe another few rewrites. Five, six years wouldn’t be at all unusual. Sorry to depress you.
Joanna: No. It’s good for people to realize the reality. So many people do want film options. In the indie world we’ve seen Hugh Howey with Wool being optioned by Ridley Scott, and A.G. Riddle, as I mentioned.
It’s really awesome to hear these stories but the likelihood is very small for most indie authors. Right, final question before we round up. You’ve just turned in your novel, as you mentioned. You’ve written scripts. You look at a lot of scripts.
So what have you learned in writing a novel? Is there anything that surprised you, given how much experience you have?
Charles: Well, it wasn’t the first one I’d written. But it was the first one I’ve found a publisher for and probably the second one I’ve sent out to publishers. There are a couple of others that I would never, ever show my best friend. They’re in lead-lined containers somewhere or other.
So the first thing, I suppose, when I started writing a novel a long time ago, which is just how big it is. It’s a marathon compared to a sprint.
I think the problem for people adapting or trying to move from a novel to screenwriting is just how little space there is.
There’s no room to manoevre in a script. Everything has to be enormously tight.
It’s like writing Haiku for 90 pages. Basically there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t escape with a bit of purple prose. Not that you can a lot for a novel but it’s a little bit more forgiving.
And in a way, you can do the directing….what I loved about it was that I’m directing without having to deal with the producers and the financiers. If I want it to snow, it snows. If I want 50,000 extras I can just write them in. So that was great fun.
And then I actually realized that I had to be quite judicious and I had to scratch all the descriptions I’d written in just because they were fun to write. You still have to be quite tight and economical but it’s a different kind of economical.
The two can learn from each other. I think screenwriters ought to do more of other kinds of writing. I think I said before, theatre or novels, or both. Because they’re much easier to develop your voice in. Because you can see it done.
The thing with a film is that a film script is not a finished thing. It’s a blueprint. And until it’s actually made you haven’t got the experience of the feedback. You get other kinds of feedback and you need other kinds of feedback. But the actual film being on the screen, then you think, “Oh, that’s what they meant!”
A good place to do that is short films. But also theatre, novels, short stories. So you can see something done. So you can cut your teeth and move on.
I really enjoyed it. I think I found it fun having much more space to spend with a character, to really let a character rip. I’ve been trying to cut it down but it’s still 90,000 words.
Joanna: A lot of people do like longer books.
Charles: I hope they do.
Joanna: Can you give us the title so people can look out for it?
Charles: It’s called The Breaking of Liam Glass.
Joanna: Super. And you have books and courses available for people interested in screenwriting. Maybe just tell people where they can find all of those various resources.
Charles: The best place to go is my website and then you can go from there to find the courses. www.charles-harris.co.uk.