The Business of Screenwriting: Never forget who the star is

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We’re in the office of a studio executive. In the room are the exec, the project’s director, us, and a speaker-phone on a coffee table. The person on the other end of the conference call is in NYC. He is the personal screenwriter for this project’s star, an Academy Award-winning actor. By ‘personal screenwriter,’ I mean this gentleman works on every one of the star’s movies, rewriting all his dialogue and reworking the character per the star’s inclinations.

The project is an unusual one because the central conceit is that there are two worlds side-by-side: a live-action part of town and a cartoon part of town.

It’s all very exciting brainstorming ideas and laughing about comic possibilities. However, all movie projects are exciting in the beginning before the hard work begins of actually wrangling the story and putting it down on the page.

We go away to work up a treatment. And this is where we make a really dumb mistake: We forget who the star is. We get swept up in the fun of creating this cartoon world and its cartoon characters, but while our heads are stuck in the story universe, we’re not paying attention to the Hollywood universe. In that universe, stars rule.

The treatment we hand in is cartoon heavy. It starts out in the animation part of the world, an elaborate introduction of the main cartoon characters. In our defense, setting all that up is critical because we have to convey to readers the story physics of that universe.

That’s not how it works with stars. They come first. They are the focus of the story.

It’s no surprise that William Goldman began his excellent book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” with a chapter titled “Stars.” Of screenwriters, he said we are tasked to do the following: “writing Perfect Parts for Perfect People.”

If I had been smart, I would have recognized this is especially the case in a live-action/animation project because the animation is going to make it tougher for the human star to match the entertainment bang of the cartoon characters.

If I had been smart, I would have seen to it that we emphasized the star’s role even more than what the story ultimately called for.

But I wasn’t smart. And the reaction to the treatment? Let’s just say we never found ourselves in a teleconference with those people on that project again.

There’s a lot of talk today about how CGI and special effects are the new stars of Hollywood, how actors don’t have as much sway as they used to.

As a screenwriter, believe that at your own risk. You can make a lot of money writing star-driven screenplays.

You can also hurt yourself if you forget who the star is.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

For more Business of Screenwriting articles, go here.

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