From Script to Screen
OVER the past few decades, Hollywood has become a prolific source of box-office blockbusters. This phenomenon has had global impact, since many American films are released abroad just weeks—or in some cases days—after their U.S. premiere. Some movies have even opened worldwide on the same date. “The international market is a growing and very vibrant place,” says Dan Fellman, president of Warner Brothers Pictures domestic distribution, “so when we make movies, we view it as a global opportunity.” Now more than ever, what happens in Hollywood affects the entertainment industry worldwide.*
But making a profit on a film is not as easy as it may seem. Many movies must take in more than $100 million just to cover production and marketing costs. And whether they succeed is entirely up to an unpredictable public. “You can never know what the public at any given moment is going to find exciting or sensationally appealing,” says David Cook, a professor of film studies at Emory University. So how do moviemakers increase their odds of success? To answer, we first need to understand a few basics about how films are made.*
Preproduction—Laying the Groundwork
Preproduction is often the longest phase of the filmmaking process and one of the most important. As with any large project, preparation is the key. The hope is that every dollar spent in preproduction will save many more times that amount during filming.
The making of a movie begins with a story idea, which may be either fictitious or based on real-life events. A writer puts the story into script form. The script, also called the screenplay, may be revised numerous times before the final version—called a shooting script—is produced. The shooting script contains the dialogue of the film as well as a brief description of the action that will take place. It also provides guidance for technical details, such as camera direction and transitions between scenes.
It is while still in its early stage, however, that a screenplay is offered for sale to a producer.* What kind of screenplay might a producer be interested in? Well, typical summer film fare is targeted at teens and young adults—“the popcorn crowd,” as one movie critic calls them. So a producer might be drawn to a story that reaches out to youths.
Better still is a script that cuts across the age demographic. For example, a movie about a comic-book superhero will surely draw younger children who are familiar with the character. And no doubt their parents will accompany them. But how do moviemakers attract the teenagers and young adults? “Edgy content” is the key, writes Liza Mundy in The Washington Post Magazine. Adding crude language, scenes of intense violence, and a generous dose of sex to a movie is a way of “maximizing its profit-making potential by leaving no group languishing out on the sidewalk.”
If a producer feels that a screenplay has potential, he might purchase it and try to sign on a reputable director and a famous actor or actress. Having a known director and a top-name star will create box-office appeal when the film is released. Yet, even at this initial stage, big names can attract investors who are needed to finance the film.
Another aspect of preproduction is storyboarding. A storyboard is a series of sketches depicting various sequences of the film, particularly those that involve action. Serving as a blueprint for the cinematographer, the storyboard saves much time during filming. As director and screenwriter Frank Darabont says, “there’s nothing worse than standing around on the set wasting your shooting day trying to figure out where to put the camera.”
Many other issues must be settled during preproduction. For example, what locations will be used for filming? Will travel be required? How will interior sets be built and designed? Will costumes be needed? Who will handle lighting, makeup, and hair? What about sound, special effects, and stunt work? These are just a sampling of the many aspects of moviemaking that need to be considered before a single frame of film is shot. Watch the closing credits of a big-budget film, and you may find that hundreds of people were involved behind the scenes! “It takes a city of people to make a feature film,” says one technician who has worked on numerous movie sets.
Production—Putting It on Film
Shooting a movie can be time-consuming, tedious, and expensive. Indeed, a single minute wasted can cost thousands of dollars. Sometimes actors, crew members, and equipment have to be transported to a remote part of the world. No matter where shooting takes place, however, each day of filming takes a sizable bite out of the budget.
Lighting crew, hairdressers, and makeup artists are among the first to arrive on the movie set. Each day of filming, stars may spend several hours being made ready for the camera. Then a long day of filming begins.
The director closely supervises the filming of each scene. Even a relatively simple scene can take all day to film. Most scenes in a movie are filmed with a single camera, and as a result, the scene will be done over and over again for each camera angle. Additionally, each shot may need to be done repeatedly to get the best performance or to correct a technical problem. Each of these attempts at filming is called a take. For bigger scenes, 50 or more takes may be required! Later—usually at the end of each shooting day—the director views all the takes and decides which ones should be saved. In all, the process of filming may take weeks or even months.
Postproduction—The Pieces Come Together
During postproduction, film footage is edited to form a cohesive motion picture. First, the audio track is synchronized with the film. Then, the editor assembles the raw footage into a preliminary version of the film, called a rough cut.
Sound effects and visual effects are also added at this stage. Special-effects cinematography—one of the most complex elements of filmmaking—is sometimes accomplished with the help of computer graphics. The results can be spectacular and lifelike.
The musical score is also added during postproduction, and this aspect has taken on greater prominence in today’s films. “The movie industry is now demanding more original soundtrack music than ever before—not just twenty minutes or a few cues for dramatic moments, but often more than an hour of music,” writes Edwin Black in Film Score Monthly.
Sometimes a newly edited film is shown to a test audience, perhaps made up of the director’s friends or colleagues who were not involved in the making of the film. Based on their response, the director might reshoot scenes or eliminate them. In some cases the entire ending of a film has been changed because there was a poor response to the original in a test screening.
Finally, the completed film is released to theaters. Only at this point does it become apparent whether it will be a blockbuster or a bomb—or something in between. But more is at stake than dollars and cents. A series of failures can ruin an actor’s prospects for work and destroy the reputation of a director. “I had seen several of my contemporaries fall away after a couple of misses,” says director John Boorman, reflecting on his early years in filmmaking. “The brutal reality of the movie business is that if you don’t make money for your masters, you are banished.”
Of course, when standing before a theater marquee, the public at large is not thinking of the employment issues of moviemakers. More likely, their primary concerns include: ‘Will I enjoy this movie? Is it worth the price of admission? Will I find the film shocking or offensive? Is it appropriate for my children?’ How can you answer such questions when deciding which movies you will see?
According to Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, “even though foreign box office revenues are now often higher than domestic revenues, a movie’s performance in the U.S. remains a key driver of what happens overseas.”
While details may vary from one film to another, what is presented here is one possible course of events.
In some cases a producer is offered a story outline rather than a screenplay. If he is interested in the story, he can buy the rights to it and have it developed into a screenplay.
[Blurb on page 6]
“You can never know what the public at any given moment is going to find exciting or sensationally appealing.”—David Cook, professor of film studies
[Box/Pictures on page 6, 7]
MARKETING A BLOCKBUSTER
The film is complete. It is ready to be seen by millions. Will it succeed? Consider a few ways that moviemakers try to market their product and turn it into a blockbuster.
▪ BUZZ: One of the most effective ways to create anticipation for a movie is through word of mouth—or, as it is called in the industry, buzz. Sometimes buzz begins months before a movie’s release. Perhaps it is announced that there will be a sequel to a previous hit movie. Will the original stars return? Will it be as good (or as bad) as the first installment?
In some cases, buzz is created over a controversial element in a film—perhaps depictions of sex that are unusually graphic for a mainstream motion picture. Is the scene really that bad? Has the movie “pushed the envelope” too far? Moviemakers enjoy the benefits of free advertising as opposing viewpoints are publicly debated. Sometimes the controversy that is ignited all but guarantees a large turnout for the film’s premiere.
▪ MEDIA: More traditional forms of advertising include the use of billboards, newspaper ads, TV commercials, movie trailers shown in theaters before a feature film, and interviews in which the stars plug their latest movie. Now the Internet is a prime tool for movie advertising. “Had Dorothy [of The Wizard of Oz] clicked her mouse, and not her heels,” writes film critic Steve Persall, “she’d have found herself with a rainbow of movie sites offering celebrity gossip, the latest movie trailers, tickets and times.”
▪ MERCHANDISING: Promotional items can enhance a film’s release. For example, a movie based on a comic-book hero was accompanied by tie-in lunch boxes, mugs, jewelry, clothing, key chains, clocks, lamps, a board game, and more. “Typically, 40 percent of movie merchandise is sold before a film is even released,” writes Joe Sisto in an entertainment journal of the American Bar Association.
▪ HOME VIDEO: A movie that falls short financially at the box office can make up for its losses in home video sales. Bruce Nash, who tracks the financial intake of motion pictures, says that “home video markets account for 40 to 50 percent of revenues.”
▪ RATINGS: Moviemakers have learned to use ratings to their advantage. For example, material might be deliberately inserted into a film so that it will receive a more severe rating, making the movie seem more adult. On the other hand, just enough cuts might be made to a movie to avoid an adult rating and make it marketable to teens. Liza Mundy writes in The Washington Post Magazine that a teen rating “has evolved into an advertisement: Studios use it to send a message to teenagers—and young kids who long to be teenagers—that the movie will contain cool stuff.” The rating creates a sort of “generational tension,” Mundy writes, “warning the parent while seducing the child.”
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
HOW MOVIES ARE MADE
FILMING ON LOCATION
SPECIAL EFFECTS FILMING