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How to Fail to Write Commercial Material (FREE EXCERPT)

On Friday I showed screenplay pages from the "How to Fail" motion picture that never was (yet).  On Thursday I detailed How to Write a Bestselling Book.  Now here's an excerpt from "How to Fail," a footchapter called:


Don't adapt from something popular – Novels, plays, musicals, and even theme park rides are great source materials to use in crafting a commercial hit. Bad source materials? The fine print on the back of prophylactics boxes, dreams the annoying girl in the office told you she had the previous night, the “how we were established” stories on diner menus, and tracts from religious fringe groups. In fact, don't adapt your screenplay from anything. Just write it straight from your mind, loosely based on your meager life.

Curse a lot – I'd bet the top ten highest grossing movies of all time have a sum total of twelve “shits,” two “fucks,” and zero “twat-lickers” in them. I mean, would Gone With the Wind be the box office adjusted highest grossing movie of all time if Rhett had said, “Frankly you cunt, I don't give a motherfuck”?

Neglect to involve aliens or other creatures – Americans will go in droves to theaters if you include a non-human in your movie. In fact, it's harder to think of unpopular movies featuring creatures than high grossing flicks without creatures. Even Titanic had Billy Zane in it.

Make animating an impossibility – Another easy way to make a flick commercially viable is to cartoon it up. No one would have put up with the bullshit of Pinocchio if it were live-action. Geppeto and the long-nosed wooden son he built? How perverse! But turn it animated and everyone's on board. Daft kids like to look at cute anthropomorphized shit and miserable parents that no longer get to go to real films like to pretend these animated pictures are truly deep (“The humor was going right over little Anna's head!”)

Labyrinthine plot structure – Most people are dumb, barely able to follow the intricacies of a Leave it to Beaver rerun, much less a script that plays with time, flashforwards and flashbacks, dream sequences, countless characters, and tons of concurrent action. You want to be commercial? Write a three-act script using the Aristotelian drama pyramid and include a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist, a few supporting characters for comic relief (one of which is gay and bitchy or black and sassy), and plot points that hit you hard over your head, preferably with musical cues.

Ambiguity – Is that guy good? Is that dude evil? Are they in love? Answer these questions immediately, in the first act, if not first few minutes, of your commercial script. Also, tie up all loose ends by the movie's end, even if you've written something you plan to turn into a franchise. Hollywood figured out how to make sequels to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Chinatown, even Gone With the Wind. They can easily figure out how to make a sequel to your PG-rated profanity-free alien movie starring Billy Zane.

Intelligent characters – Not saying you want dumb characters per se (unless they're pure comic relief or endearingly retarded) but you can't expect to have a commercially-viable script with overly intelligent characters in it. Unless they're huge nerds and/or scientists, of course. People want to see characters on screen as mediocre of mind as them.
A. You especially can't have intelligent males in your script. The male lead should be brash, cocksure, and sexy, but never wise. That's not allowed or how else would the female lead learn him sumpin'?
B. The female lead can be somewhat wiser, but she must also be way emotional. Crying, dreaming, and bouncing around like a train wreck of a pinball. Stable women have no place in commercial material.

Unlikeable characters – In commercial movies, even the bad guys are likable in that rakish, foreign “Ahh, he's had a rough life” kinda way. And the good guys are the most glad-handing, nicely coiffed, sexy but not sexual folks everyone would want to be friends with. Actually, I'd never want to be friends with those kinds of people. I'd rather be buddies with irredeemable assholes that always have a witty insult ready and have nothing but scorn for the confederacy of dunces around them.

No morals, especially “Love conquers all” – I have no clue if those noted fables were big box office draws back in Aesop's day, but I suspect sixth century BC Greeks lined up early to hear public readings of The Fox and the Grapes (“Great date reading!” – Socrates). You know why? Because people like their entertainment to be summed up with a simple moral: “We despise what we can't have.” “Slow and steady wins the race.” “Frequent liars are never believed even when they tell the truth.” “Mean aliens suck, dude.” “Friendly aliens are cool, bro.” And, of course, “Love conquers all.” But love doesn't conquer all. It doesn't conquer anything but boredom and horniness. Dictators with lots of brainwashed followers and state-of-the-art weaponry conquer all.

Perverse sexuality – Just like love conquers all in commercial product, beautiful displays of making love conquer the screen in this same product. Dim red-filtered lighting, romantic mood music, the use of luxurious California King size beds, and face-to-face not-sweaty-but-glistening missionary intercourse. Maybe, some still-bra'ed women-on-top with the naughty region covered by silk sheets if the scene is particularly steamy. Anything else is too perverse and will hurt the movie's earning potential by about 0.5% per thrust. Doggy style is for fucking hookers. Reverse cowgirl for porn. Blowjobs for low-budget indies. Cunnilingus can be hinted at but cut out of the scene by the time the man has kissed down the woman's body to her naval. That's the threshold between good box office and throwing the script on the slush pile. And, for the love of God, if you want to make a commercial product, no anal.

Big budget yet high brow – Big budget movies are great in theory. You know, the whole “gotta spend money to make money” corollary? CGIed battles between monster and alien and Billy Zane armies are gonna cost a ton but the public craves these mindless action scenes that eat up huge chunks of running time without advancing plot in any way. Audiences love explosions and slaughterings and telling their friends, “I read in Entertainment Weekly that final car chase cost twenty-five million dollars to shoot!” So it's fine to write those scenes into a movie, but don't you dare write a costly non-action, high-brow, highly-talkative scene into your script. You know, one where perhaps two cultured east coast liberal homosexuals debate and then demonstrate atom smashing techniques at the Fermilab.

If you somehow get a big meeting with some fancy Hollywood execs to discuss the potential of your non-commercial script, be sure to act aloof. When their assistant offers you a beverage, request the best Scotch in the building. Who cares if it's eleven in the morning on a Tuesday? When they say stuff to you like: “It's a great concept, but can we make it more...broad?”

Don't say: “Why yes, of course, anything to help us get this picture made!”
Say things like: “Not a fucking chance you turn my masterpiece into some hacky mall movie bullshit.”

THEM: “We're not saying you have to make the gay character straight but can we make him into one of those woo-wooing lispy harmless homosexuals?”
YOU: “Nope, he's got to be more perverse than Boise, Idaho's Gay Pride Parade and queerer than John Waters on LSD.”

THEM: “Does that scene really need—let's see, by our count—two-hundred-and-fifty F-bombs in it?”
YOU: “Have you been inside a synagogue lately?! That's how they talk, man.”

THEM: “Does the male lead have to be so brazen when he notes, and I'll read straight from your script: 'I'd rather jerk off than fuck you with a balloon on the end of my stinky cock?'”
YOU: “What exactly is your problem with realism? You don't get out of the house a lot, do you?”

THEM: “Finally, what about the title? We're not sure people will pay $12.50 to see Fucking on the Rag.”
YOU: “Actually, I would consider changing the title, giving it a lil' more commercial appeal. What about Menses Mayhem?”

All that will guarantee your script never gets optioned and certainly never gets made and most definitely keeps you bartending well into your thirties.


If you enjoyed that, why not grab "How to Fail"?  Now only $2.99 on Kindle!

Also this week, I discussed:

Why Did You Write a Book?
Poking the Box and Failing Promiscuously
The "How to Fail" Enhanced Ebook That Never Was

I also had a fun interview with The Lost Ogle and wrote a guest post for Three Guys One Book about how I fell in love with reading.

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