Screenwriter Max Adams has just released her book “The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide,” a guide to the industry written especially for screenwriters. The book is available to purchase here. For more information on the book, visit its website here.
Below is the book’s eighth chapter, “Writer Speak vs. Mogul Speak,” reprinted with permission from the author.
Writers and “movie makers” speak different languages. If you don’t know this, it can get surreal holding a conversation with someone who is using writer terms, but is not a writer, because you are both using the same terms, you are simply using them to mean different things. I’ll give you an example:
When writers talk about tone – it is wistful, it is dark, it is suspenseful, it is eerie – writers tend to describe work in terms of an emotion evoked by the piece. They are telling you the flavor of the piece in their heads, in an emotional context.
When a movie maker asks you tone, like an executive or a producer, they mean, “What movie that made a lot of money at the box office is this like?” (“Mogul speak” applies to agents, too.)
If you don’t know this, it is going to be hard to sell any pitches, because a studio executive will ask you about tone, and he will want to hear it is Inception in tone, while you will be saying, “It is surrealistic and suspenseful and emotionally intense.”
This one miscommunication probably cost me five pitches. They were really good projects, too. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. An executive would ask me, “What is the tone of the movie?” I would say, “It is dark and wistful and kind of fast paced.” The executive would say, “That’s great, but can you tell me the tone?” I would say, (looking at the executive like he was from Mars), “Um, sure, it’s dark and bittersweet and moves real fast.” And the executive would say, “That’s great, um, um, well I’ll get back to you.” And we would both walk out of the meeting wondering what the hell the other person was talking about.
I think this is one reason many writers think studio people are completely stupid and insane. (Okay, some studio people are completely stupid and insane, but not all of them.) “Why the hell do they keep asking the same question after I already told them?” Well, because you are speaking a language they don’t understand, and vice versa.
The same problem crops up when an executive or producer type asks writers what a story is about. Executives and producers mean, “What is the crux of the plot?” But “what is it about” means a lot of different things to a writer. “What is it about” encompasses theme.
Wow can theme get you into trouble. The executive asks a writer what the story is about. The writer says, “Oh, it is about our fear of rejection.” The executive looks blank. The writer eyes him. Wow, what a moron, but okay, here goes – and launches into more and more about people’s fear of rejection. The executive is eyeing the security button. Hmm.
What the executive needed to know was, the story is about a man who falls in love with a super model. That’s what the executive was asking to hear. That’s plot stuff. And ultimately, the crux of the plot. What the writer was answering was a theme question. To writers, stories a lot of the time are about theme. To executives, they are not.
Sometimes, when you wax theme oriented answering “what is the story about?,” executive and producer types humor you. Oh those whacky, starry eyed writers. It is just endearing the way they carry on. And they see it as passion and they want you to be “passionate,” always, about material. But – they can’t sell “it is about fear of rejection” upstairs. They can sell “it’s about a man who falls in love with a super model.” But not “fear of rejection.” “Fear of rejection” is intangible, not concrete, that damn “A” word I can never think of. Where is my damn Thesaurus? “Abstract.” Executives and producers cannot sell an abstract thematic ideal in Hollywood terms, because an abstract thematic ideal does not translate to a trailer in people’s heads. No one can see the movie. It just isn’t there.
When I got to Hollywood, I stopped even using the term “theme” right after I went to a meeting to talk to three people who assured me they were literature PhD’s from Harvard or something, and then when I used the word “theme,” glazed over. Then my agent got a call saying they liked me bunches, but thought I was too intellectual for the project. Too intellectual? Jeez!
I didn’t use the term “theme” again in a pitch meeting until it turned up as the flavor of the day question. Suddenly at every meeting, I got the same question: “What’s the universal theme?” By executives! It’s a smart question, I wonder who came up with it before it ran like wildfire through the ranks? At any rate, people were suddenly looking for it in meetings. Universal theme. Wow.
And this will happen. Some executive way up the ladder will decide something is important that hitherto no one in a suit considered important, will start asking a pointed question that is unusual in meetings, and bam, everyone in town is asking the same question.
If this happens, an unexpected question along the lines of, say, theme, shows up as the question of the day in meetings? Do not get carried away and start launching with it on your own. You do not know how long it is going to be the question of the day so that could ultimately bite you. Even when “universal theme” was the question of the day, I wouldn’t open a pitch with it, I wouldn’t even bring it up unless we were in the questions section of the pitch and someone sprang it on me and then sat back to see what I would say. (They get so crafty in those meetings sometimes.) You should know, though. In the back of your head, if you’re pitching, know what it is everyone on the planet is struggling with that is somehow touched on in your story. That is “universal theme.” Also referred to in literary circles as just plain “theme,” but it sounds flashier and more important to executives with “universal” tagged on there.
In one of my stories, the theme was: everyone is so dependent on formulas and shopping lists these days, everyone is looking for love by the numbers in self help books instead of in their hearts. (Okay, themes always sound cheesy, so shoot me.) In another, it was, everyone is so afraid of failure, we’ve stopped trying to succeed in order to avoid it.
Everyone is afraid of failure, everyone wants love. Those are universals. Know that stuff about your stories
But don’t open with it. Just remember the keywords are “universal theme.” That’s when they want to hear that. Not when they ask “What is the story about?” Whenever they ask, “What is the story about?” They are talking about concrete, action and verb driven plot.
And when people ask you questions in studio and production offices, remind yourself this is not a writer you are talking to. This is someone from the business building. They think in concrete substantial terms. Their questions revolve around concrete substantial answers. Tone is, “What other movie that made a lot of money is this like?” “What is it about” is solid plot. “Who do you see starring” means, not who were you thinking of when you wrote it or who do you really like who you think is talented, but who made big box office last week who could play it?
There are myriad examples of “mogul speak” vs. “writer speak.” They will change with every story and every meeting. The important thing to remember is, executives want answers in concrete, plot specific terms. And examples that relate directly to box office. Keep that in your head and you will be okay.
Also, there are catch phrases and terms in Hollywood. At one point, it was “edgy.” That’s a catch all term. People pick those up and use them to turn down projects they don’t have good reasons to turn down. “Um, I like it, but it is just not. . . edgy.”
One reason for this is, everyone is pretending this is a science and they have reasons, outside of what they like and what they don’t like enough, for turning projects down. “Edgy” is one day’s reason. Tomorrow’s may be different. It sounds good, for someone to say, “Oh that’s soft, it needs edges.” But that doesn’t mean anything. Saying, “More people have to die to make my boss think this is hip and will sell” means something. “It needs more edges” does not. It is just an excuse. They don’t have a good reason for not making the movie. They just don’t really want to. Hey, it happens.
It can also mean, though, that they can’t conceive of you being capable of writing something cool and hip like the story you just told them. Sure, you told them the story, but they don’t believe you. Why? You look wrong. Hollywood is an image oriented town. Movies are images. Smoke and magic. And how you look counts. If you hear “edgy” one too many times as a turn down? Look at the material. If there’s nothing wrong with the material? Take a glance at the mirror. If what you’re wearing would fit in at the next PTA picnic? Go shopping and buy something with “edge.” It can’t hurt. It might help.