SHOPPING FOR THE NEXT AWARD WINNER SCREENPLAY TO SHOOT? FIVE QUALITIES TO LOOK OUT FOR
The foremost objective in the filmmaking business is to maximise profit. Yes, asides the passion and love for the art of creating movies, every decision we take as filmmakers is guided by the underlying motive of pocketing some extra cash at the end of the day. So from, pre-production – finding a marketable script with a reasonable budget – to the process of turning the script into its finished product, the movie, we are always conscious of the cost and the projected income at the end of the day.
Notwithstanding all this, the need for recognition is a blatant and permanent fixture hanging at a corner which goes hand in hand with the filmmaker’s passion for the art. Hand-in-hand in what sense, you might ask. Emotional responses are often regarded as the keystone to experiencing art, and the creation of an emotional experience has been argued as the purpose of artistic expression. As such, inasmuch as profit making is the major aim of filmmaking from the business perspective, the need to elicit responses in the form of feedback and recognition of creativity is quintessential to the art itself. Even the Christian Bible has it that after creating for the day, God assessed his work and gave himself an emotional response to it.. His creative self needed feedback and recognition. Recognition comes in the form of feedback from your audience and fans. ‘We watched that movie you produced/wrote/shot/directed/lighted/acted in, and we….’ An artist never wished for anything better than positive reviews and rave accolades… Okay maybe something better in the form of award recognition from the art industry itself.
Now, while some filmmakers are okay with ‘popular demand’ and racking up profit, some others are more ambitious, looking for that extra something that would easily set their art apart from the others. The difference between both kinds of filmmakers lies in their definition of the ideal – especially, the ideal ambition of a movie concept. I look at movies like The Refugees, Ayanda, Common Man, Fifty, Tell me sweet something, Timbuktu, 30 days in Atlanta, to mention a few, which are among a few recent award winning movies across Africa. I took my time to review these movies, you’d come to realize that while some of these movies’ concepts falls into the ‘popular demand’ category, they all had that extra edge that put them above their (also recognized and artfully produced) counter parts.
The edge begins in the storytelling. A great concept built into a garden-variety, humdrum script, places the finished work at a disadvantage already. So, what should an ambitious filmmaker look out for while filtering through the myriad screenplays available for shooting? Among the criteria should include;
I keep throwing the word around, right? However, it goes without saying that most award winning movies are backed by stories that takes us out of what what we know and expect into an unlikely circumstances that throws a viewer into a whirlpool of questions and edge-of-the-seat suspense, waiting for reconciliation. Let’s say for instance that the President of the U.S visits an African country and gets kidnapped! Blinks!!! How??? By Who??? To what end??? How would the writer clear the air after throwing up such dust? Such ambition could lead to a riotous feedback, which was its aim in the first place.
2. A WORLD OF ITS OWN
There are two worlds available to a good movie story – one that the audience knows and can relate to, and the other that is unknown to the audience but captivating enough. Award winning stories takes the audience into one of these two worlds, either to show us something about the world it knows that it doesn’t know/haven’t had a close up experience about (eg Common Man, The Refugees etc) on the one hand, or to show it something about the other world which it know nothing about but find captivating and giving it an entirely new lesson from this unknown world which can be of use to us in this world that we know about (eg, Dry, Timbuktu, Refugees etc).
3. AN UNDERLYING PROBLEM
In every good movie script, the protagonist(s) has/have a problem which must be resolved by the end of the story. In even better movie scripts, there is always the secondary problem usually personal which the protagonist must face and resolve – an inner problem aside from the obvious one, which the character might not even be aware of, or is battling privately. This is evident in Dr. Zara’s personal recriminations about her childhood in the movie Dry, and can be seen in every award winning storyline ever written.
4. THE WOW FACTOR
This is also termed THE SUSPENSE OF DISBELIEF in screenwriting circles and refers to the the fact that the best movies show the audience a series of circumstances so appealing or extraordinary that the audience’s average life pales in comparison. A good example is Common Man, which although the award it won wasn’t based on its story line but on its lighting effects, and yet you would agree that the common man depicted in the movie is far less common than the man on the everyday street. He is more fascinating. Great movies successfully walk us through each stage of these increasingly fantastic constructions and make us believe that they are real, when in fact they are far from real.
Go ask a Stripper how to keep an audience glued to his seat with unwavering attention and buying drinks for the next hour or so. High concepts, great characters, scintillating dialogue and the best cameras are not guarantees of a great movie. A great movie PIQUES interest. Ever wonder why virtually every alien movie doesn’t show you the alien until halfway through the movie or later? They hook your interest by promising you something out of this world. The best example of this is the original Alien movie which teased the audience with slow yet horrific reveal. We saw the alien’s nest. We saw its eggs. We saw its embryo. We saw its explosive birth. We heard it growing. We saw its tail. We saw flashes of its shadowy form. Not until deep into the movie did we see the actual alien.
A great script undetstands the process of cultivating interest and there are so many ways to do it. The basics are always the same – insinuate what the audience is going to see, play it up as big as you can within the context—action, emotion, sex, horror—then give them one small bite at a time, each taste expanding the promise in the audience’s mind, teasing a bigger taste to come. Create and maintain growing interest in the audience combined with any of the above listed elements and this would result in a potential award winner after production.
Don’t forget, the edge you need begins with the quality of the script you choose to work with.