In recent years, the market for “big budget” studio screenplays has pretty much dried up for novice screenwriters. The studios are going to their “go to” produced writers – with considerable track records — who they feel are already “proven.”
Studios aren’t taking a lot of chances on much of anything these days. There are all kinds of reasons. Some say piracy is so rampant, that the studios need to make hundreds of millions of dollars to see a profit. (Thus, the huge tent-pole film franchises like “Harry Potter’ and “Fast and Furious.”
Intellectual Property (IP) is what studios like to see. A proven series of books, like the James Bond, or Bourne books – the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or in TV, “Game of Thrones,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They are considered low-risk because they are based on successful novels – with “built-in” audiences.
What are newbie writers to do?
I’ve been suggesting they write screenplays that can be made on a low-budget, or what they call “ultra low-budget.” Let’s say low budget for the purposes of selling as a newbie means less than 2 million dollars. Let’s say ultra-low budget means under $500,000.
How do you know what the budget of a script you’re writing is? Well one rule of thumb is to look at cast and locations. If you have on central location, and under a dozen cast members, you’re probably in the right neighborhood.
You could get away with, maybe three or four locations, as long as they were just rooms, or homes. Shooting in one house, using various rooms, and porches, and yards will do nicely. A lot of movies that pull the extended family in to visit pull this off.
One thing that helps with this type of film is an ability to write good dialogue. Dialogue is free, while bombs cost money. So if you’re a playwright, you will have an advantage here. If you can write entertaining arguments, or comedic dialogue, it will also serve you well.
Of all genres, low-budget horror does particularly well with scant locations.
Look at “Saw,” with it’s evil clown daring his prisoners to do unspeakable tasks in order to escape. Consider “Paranormal Activity,” where the heroes are stuck inside a home filled with frightening surprises. In “10 Cloverfield Lane,” our heroes are held prisoner inside a bomb shelter, as the world is destroyed outside.
Many other genres can work in one basic location. Consider “My Dinner With Andre,” “Talk Radio,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cube,” “Clerks,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Hard Candy,” “Deathtrap,” and “Sleuth.’ Notice these movie cross many genres.
I recommend watching as many of these as you can before writing your low budget script. Get a feel for how much they accomplished with so little in those films. Some of these are more contained than others.
Let’s take a closer look at the movie, “Buried.”
The film was written by Chris Sparling, directed by Rodrigo Cortez, and starring Ryan Reynolds, who is buried alive inside a coffin for most of the film. This script was challenging to write – for many reasons, but especially for the reason the writer and director made the choice to stay inside the coffin for the entirety of the film.
That’s right, the film opens on blackness, then slowly reveals Ryan Reynolds, stuck in this coffin. The camera never leaves the inside of this buried coffin. Dynamic tension is created through conversations with others, strictly over the cell phone. The camera never carries both sides visually.
Here is the set up to the movie: Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a truck driver who decides to take a job driving trucks in Iraq because it pays extremely well. Because it’s dangerous.
Reynolds plays a married civilian, who has an affair with a co-worker over there named Pamela. Paul’s convoy is attacked by hostile Iraqi’s – and he is taken hostage. (We don’t see any of that.)
What we do see is — he wakes up buried in a coffin. He has been given – a lighter, a cell phone, some glow sticks, some alcohol and a note.
Paul wakes up to find the phone and immediately makes calls to his truck company, to his family in the States, to 911, and the FBI. He asks for help, but none is forthcoming.
There is one phone number programmed into the phone. He calls it and his Iraqi captor answers – and demands 5 million dollars by 9 pm, or Paul will be left to die in the coffin.
What more can be done in this coffin to keep the plot twisting?
After Paul contacts the authorities, he hears a lot of “we don’t negotiate with hostages.” However, he suspects that is public posturing, and they will ultimately help him. He has to believe in something.
Later, the Iraqi captor instructs Paul to make a ransom video with the phone. Paul refuses at first, but then is sent a video of Pamela being shot in the head. He finally relents and makes a video pleading for the ransom. This video goes viral, capturing the attention of the press and the US military.
So there is posturing and negotiating going on from inside the coffin. The story plays out like a chess game. Paul is running out of time, he makes more calls. As time runs out, he tries to insure his wife will be paid for damages caused by his death.
However, the Army’s legal department makes him create a video admitting that he had a prohibited romantic relationship with Pamela, thereby absolving them of all liabilities.
Paul continues calling, as his lighter runs out of juice, and the oxygen runs out in the coffin. He finally contacts his wife on the phone, and apologizes for taking the job, and his indiscretions.
F-16’s start bombing the area, and the coffin opens up, filling with sand. Paul makes some last ditch calls to find there are military personnel coming to his aid. They have located his coffin.
In the nick of time, the military arrives to dig him out of the sand, only to find it’s the wrong coffin – they find the body of a different hostage. Alone in the desert, Paul’s coffin fills with sand as he suffocates and dies. A haunting ending to a suspense-filled story. Most of it told in the dark, inside a wooden box.
“Buried” was made on a budget of just under 2 million dollars. The writer, Chris Sparling, originally wrote the script with the intent of shooting it himself for $5,000. The movie made over 21 million dollars worldwide. The screenplay was voted Best Original Screenplay by the National Board of Review.
If you’re trying to get your script out, or break in, feel free to talk with me at 310-850-4707.