Thursday, May 19, 2005

Marketing From The Ground Up

So I received a question from the comments section of my Blade: Trinity review about my “marketing from the ground up” reference in the post. What that means in the simplest terms (which are the ones that are the most helpful) is asking the right questions so that the script and eventually the production stays on track, and tells a compelling story in the right way. It's about thinking of your audience and what they care about while you're writing.

It's about asking the right questions like:

1. What’s the story here anyway?
2. Who’s going to want to see this? Why?
3. What’s the clearest way to tell this story that has the most intriguing entertainment value?(What are we selling here?)
4. Does it have a fresh hook?
5. If this is a sequel or an adaptation, what does the audience expect?
6. Who would be the ideal director for this story?
7. Does every scene relate back to the central conceit(s) of the picture?


These are all questions that screenwriters should ask themselves when they are developing a project that they expect someone to spend money on. Because kids, it’s about show business. The entertainment industry. You, as the writer are developing a product and you have to know to whom you are going to sell that product. That’s how these producing decisions are made. As my friend Bill Martell says, “Buying a script is a 100% business decision.” I’ve ranted on some of this before so check in the archives. In the previous case it was regarding the use of title in a project to help its marketability.

So let’s get down to business and apply these questions to Blade:Trinity. This is important because we are dealing with a sequel here, and that means it brings with a TON of audience expectation and needs. Also, I have to remind everyone that much of this is subjective, and some of you may not agree with me, but when a group concurs (the important function of having a group of people reading your stuff) then you know that you either have it right or wrong and must take the appropriate steps from there. You want to get your story into the hearts and minds of as many people as possible. That means accessibility and marketability.

I also have to give props to Writer’s Boot Camp, which has in their methodology The Project Plan, which I have simplified and adapted for my own, easy-to-understand use. It is much more involved than what I’ve outlined here, but reinforces the concept that buying a script is a business decision. You have to have a great story that’s marketable, and every other aspect of the movie needs to back up the story and the marketability.

1. What’s the story here anyway?

The story as I gather it, is the vampires turn humanity against Blade so that they can complete their mission of resurrecting Dracula without interference, and subjugate mankind. Blade is stripped of his weaponry, contacts and even his mentor, Whistler, and must team up with a group of youngsters, the Nightstalkers, to take on Dracula and save the world.

Now this seems like a pretty cool story. I wish the movie had followed this premise and conceit more closely. The problem lies in several scenes, which don’t fit this central idea:

They resurrect Dracula to take out Blade – so why use humanity to do it? It’s not Dracula who kills Whistler, but the FBI. That takes all of the villainy out of Dracula doesn’t it? It also takes the fight out of Blade – he knows the FBI is being used, and he can’t fight back.

Why does Danika Tellos (Parker Posey’s character) make all the decisions? Once Dracula is resurrected then he should clearly be in charge and leading all the other vampires shouldn’t he? This is Dracula – the big bad of the movie.

The whole virus to wipe out all of the vampires seems too pat to me. I don’t have a clear idea as to how this could work in a movie like this, but I do know it doesn’t clearly work (for me) based on the above premise.

2. Who’s going to want to see this and why?

All of the people who saw the first two movies, horror fans, and new audience members who weren’t old enough to see the first and/or second movie. People see this as the third part of a trilogy, so they want to see the resolution of the Blade saga.

3. What’s the clearest way to tell this story with the most intriguing entertainment value?

Have Dracula come in at the Act One turnaround, and have everything go to hell as Dracula kills Whistler and destroys everything Blade has…or so he thinks. As the Vampires interrogate Blade, he is rescued by the Nightstalkers, who he must team up with in order to stop Dracula’s final assault on mankind.

This relates back to number one in that the clearer the story the better you can sell that story to the audience. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell the story in a new way (Memento?), but it means that the key concepts of the movie must be accessible by the audience.

4. Does it have a fresh hook?

Blade v. Dracula - the hip-hop vampire hunter versus the classic, king of all vampires in a final bloody showdown with the fate of humanity at stake. Let’s get ready to rummmmble! (I think this showdown occurred in the comics, but not here.)

And speaking of fresh, we have to look at the scenes in Trinity that aren’t fresh:

a. Whistler dies again. In their lair - again.
b. They are invaded in their own lair, just like in Blade and Blade 2.
c. Not only are they invaded in Blade’s lair they get invaded in the Nightstalkers’ lair. (And where were the anti-vamp devices? UV-lamps that pop on, Garlic sprays, etc.. It would have been cool to see the lamps pop on and everyone expect Dracula to get fried and he just smiles and shows his fangs. Cut to screams and bloodshed.)
d. Why did Dracula adopt Whistler’s form to invade the Nightstalkers?
e. We see the Pomeranian dog with a mouth like a Reaper from Blade2. Why? We’ve already seen it, and even the vampires agree that Reapers are a bad thing.
f. We see Blade again going after the familiars to get to the vampires, but in this case it’s during the day. It was neat that the Nightstalkers were able to de-crypt the software and trace all the medical supplies. Blade needs to be surprised by the talents of his newfound allies, and they need to be astonished at his old school ferocity, skills, and utter contempt for the vampires. This would have made the animosity between Blade and King much more real.

5. If this is a sequel or adaptation, then what does the audience expect?

The audience expects that this Blade movie will mix elements of hip-hop, blaxploitation, vampire movies, Japanese samurai and Hong Kong cinema and of course, superheroes. They expect that they will see scenes similar to, but slightly different from the above. They expect a continuation of the story elements presented thus far. They expect to be surprised, scared, astounded and shouting at the screen as Blade kicks Vamp ass.

6. Who would be the ideal director(s) for this movie?

Stephen Norrington, David Fincher, Joe Carnahan and a ton of other directors who’ve done movies, music videos, TV and commercials. My favorite out of this bunch would be Carnahan who has both his action and his character-driven story chops. Did anyone here see his short for BMW films’ “The Hire” series?

The reason you think of your director is that it inspires you visually to write something that has the same energy and tone as that director’s movies. It helps you develop those moments in the film that are needed to tell the story. It gets you excited. By adopting and adapting the techniques and habits of those you consider to be the “best” both in writing and directing, you develop your own style.

7. Does every scene relate back to the central conceit of the picture?

No. I’ve given examples above. If I give any more, my head’s going to explode, but I’ll try. There is just too much humor here for my taste. It’s good to have someone to play off the stoic Blade, but not at the expense of scares, action and drama. You also have a werewolf in this thing that looks silly.

We have to talk about casting and how each member of the cast has to relate to the others. I’m going to rag on Parker Posey a bit because she seems to be the odd duck here in terms of casting. All of the vampire women of the Blade series have been beautiful, gorgeous, and downright deadly. Posey is none of these. She would be a great librarian vamp or nun vamp, but not Danika Tellos. For the life of me, I can’t see Hannibal King wanting some from her. Her casting doesn’t reflect back on the other cast members - It sticks out like a sore thumb. (All this is NOT to say Posey is a bad actress – she isn’t. I like her work, just not here)

I’ll cop to the fact that a lot of this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but if they had taken the time to run through the script and break the mutherfucka’ down we would have had a better picture. This is why marketing it from the ground up is important and there are probably a multitude of reasons – political and otherwise – why this didn’t happen. The comments section alludes to a lot of it.

But the main thing is…

This is a big studio movie costing tens of millions of dollars!!!!

You would think that somebody in that system would have stood up and said, “Blade has no clothes, and doesn’t have any blood dripping off him either. We need to revise this script because it’s not a Blade movie.” This was a missed opportunity to send the series off with a high note because somebody/everybody didn't ask the right questions.

I’m not saying you should make everything ONLY to the audience expectation, but when you write something - a) keep the audience in mind, b) understand what your story is and c) make that story fresh and exciting . These are all good, simple questions so that you don't go off track and make a humorous Blade movie – oops!

So when you’re outlining your story for your script run through the questions above and knock out anything that doesn’t fit – not matter how good it is! When you write the treatment, ask those questions. After you’ve written the first draft, ask those questions. Send your polished first draft to at least four people who are good readers and can spot your bullshit, and have them ask the same questions. You will be surprised at what you discover…certain things you thought were perfectly clear – weren’t. Things you thought were cool – weren’t. Things you thought were original – weren’t.

It’s all part of the process of developing a script into a movie. If somebody doesn't ask the hard questions you get stuff like Blade:Trinity.

Now ask your questions. I've rambled far too long...


nshumate said...

I don't see those 7 questions are being "shockingly" businesslike or commercial. To my mind, they're standard questions that any writer who intends to communicate with and entertain his audience ought to ask. Writing and storytelling are kinds of communication; the writer and storyteller, then, should always keep audience in mind.

Bill Cunningham said...

And yet we end up with Blade: Trinity...

somebody's not asking these questions OR they're glossing over the answers.

Carnacki said...

Great post.

Bill Cunningham said...

Thanks. It's a bit rambling and in the clear light of day it needs some clarifying, but hey! That's what the comments section is for!

gmlumpp said...

I'm just happy "big bad" has made it into the lexicon. Although I hated it every time Willow would say it...

Great column, btw. I haven't seen Blade:Trinity, and I'm not planning on it anytime soon thanks to your posts.

RogerRmjet said...

Great column! I think the main reasons why nobody is asking those questions, at least from the producing end, is a) they don't know enough to, and b) they're afraid to. Lord knows, George Lucas could have used a few people asking those questions for Episode I and II, but who on George's payroll wants to stand up to him?

Aric Blue said...

Totally agree regarding Lucas. You watch the making of Ep 1, and he's surrounded by all these "yes men". Every time he throws out some crappy idea they're all "Great idea", "Yes", "Definitely".

That guy went creatively bankrupt about the same time his checkbook went through the roof.