Budding Screenwriters - Teaching Tip 5th May 2003

Match up the following film titles with their respective summaries:

TOOTSIE
BIG
TITANIC
GLADIATOR

• The story of a man who dresses like a woman and becomes a better man

• Fictional romantic tale of a rich girl and poor boy who meet on the ill-fated voyage of the 'unsinkable' ship

•When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by a corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge

• When a boy wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body

In last Wednesday's Independent newspaper there was an article about how film scriptwriters put forward their ideas for new films to the film producers who contract them. Apparently, as the producers are so busy they require a 25 word description of the film & if the ideas in the 25 words are appealing enough the writer is contracted to write the film. The British Film Council is taking this idea to promote homegrown films in the UK. The article then goes on to give some summaries of well-known films. Great material for class!

Summary writing can be tricky &, apart from being needed for certain examinations, it can generally help with our students' writing. It focuses them on the subject & really gets them to think about the ideas & language they are using. A very nice way into this is using this article.

You could begin with a reading of the main body of the article, not the film summaries, or orally tell the group what the article is about, developing it into a listening activity. By the way, the headline of the article is written in 25 words - possibly begin with this & ask the students to reduce it to 10 words.

Then give an obvious example from the summaries by reading out the summary & inviting the students to guess the film. Next, hand out the films & summaries & they match them all up, leaving aside the films they don't know. Careful with the titles as the students might know the films but with a completely different title in their own language. I should go through them first to make sure. If this seems a lot, then only use half of the films & their descriptions. You could discuss which are good/accurate/humorous/silly/etc summaries. Personally, I don't think some of the summaries are very good, so you could discuss how they might be improved.

And then you're on to the students writing their own descriptions of five films. I would do this in pairs & set the 25 word limit. With this limit they will really have to clarify their ideas together, draft & redraft their descriptions. Think about the language they will need to do this in pairs & review some of it before they begin, in order to maximise the activity. As they are writing their summaries, go round & help out by offering suggestions & corrections.

To round off, have the students read out their summaries for all to guess the titles or put them on the walls for all to wander round, discuss & guess.

The film titles & the summaries
- the answers are at the bottom of the following article

Match the film titles with a description
TWISTER
GHOST SHIP
WHAT WOMEN WANT
JAWS
ALIEN
THE OTHERS
FLASHDANCE
SPLASH
SPEED
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR
A FISH CALLED WANDA
TOOTSIE
BIG
TITANIC
GLADIATOR
LIAR LIAR
MY LITTLE EYE
GROUNDHOG DAY
MEET THE PARENTS
MEMENTO
BEVERLY HILLS COP
DEAD CALM
THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
POLICE ACADEMY

• After an accident, a chauvinistic executive gains the ability to hear what women are really thinking

• When a boy wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body

• A salvage crew discovers a long-lost 1953 passenger ship but as they try to tow it back to land "strange things" happen...

•A police chief, a scientist, and a grizzled sailor set out to kill a shark that is menacing the seaside community of Amity Island.

• Jaws in Space

• Bill is trying to get his tornado-hunter wife, Jo, to sign divorce papers so he can marry his girlfriend, but Mother Nature has other plans

• When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by a corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge

• A young cop must save the passengers of a bus that has a bomb set to explode if the bus goes below 50mph

• Fictional romantic tale of a rich girl and poor boy who meet on the ill-fated voyage of the 'unsinkable' ship

• The story of a man who dresses like a woman and becomes a better man

• A fast track lawyer can't lie for 24 hours due to his son's birthday wish

• Grossly overweight Prof. Sherman Klump, desperate to lose weight, takes a special chemical that turns him into slim but obnoxious Buddy Love

• A man falls in love with the mermaid who saved him from drowning as a boy, not knowing who - or what - she is

• A woman who lives in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that her family home is haunted

• Five people apply to live in an isolated house together for six months whilst their every move is filmed, then things start to go wrong ...

• A group of hippies travelling through 1970s Texas fall prey to a trio of murderous brothers and their cannibal grandparents

• Male nurse Greg Focker meets his girlfriend's parents before proposing, but her suspicious father is every date's worst nightmare

• Four very different people team up to commit armed robbery, then try to doublecross each other for the loot

• Phil, a sarcastic weather man, finds himself having to live the same day over and over again

• While on a sailing trip, in dead calm sea waters, a couple come across a ship with one survivor who is not what he seems

• Peyton Flanders seems to be the perfect nanny, but secretly she's out to wreck the lives of the family she's supposed to be helping ...

• A man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt down his wife's killer

• An exotic dancer from the wrong side of the tracks dreams of becoming a ballerina

• The Mayor decides to make it easier to join the Police Force, but the new recruits are the last people you'd call in an emergency

• A freewheeling Detroit cop pursuing the murder of his friends finds his methods under question in the very different culture of Beverly Hills

http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/media/story.jsp?story=401706

Budding British screenwriters, invited to pitch movie storylines in 25 words, delight producers, get green light.
Will they achieve celluloid greatness or lose the plot?

By Ian Burrell and Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
30 April 2003

The best ideas are always the simplest. That, at least, is the hope of the British Film Council, which is using an old Hollywood studio hook to reel in talented home-grown screen- writers: tell me your story in no more than 25 words.

The council announced yesterday that it had already paid out tens of thousands of pounds to writers it hopes will script the next generation of commercially viable British films.

Four ideas for scripts were successful. Among them was Peter Michael Rosenberg's idea for a film called The Cleaner. His pitch read as follows:

"When a crime-scene cleaner haunted by his past uncovers evidence that suggests LAPD cops are working as assassins, he becomes their next target."

That 24-word sentence earned him £12,500 in development money - more than £500 a word.

The pitch for Storage by Chris Denne and Matt Winn was: "Terror stalks a storage facility. Survival for those trapped inside depends on the secrets in those endless units. But some doors are better left locked." They were awarded £5,000, plus £2,500 to hire a script editor.

The council is making no apologies for its nod to one of the more vulgar ways that Hollywood does business. The so-called "high-concept" pitch has long been considered a byword for crass commercialism in the film world, a symptom of studio executives' reluctance to focus on anything for more than a minute.

On the other hand, its virtue stems from the fact that if writers can sum up their work as one catchy idea, there is every chance that audiences will latch on to it too.

The council acknowledged that its scheme was based on a comment by Steven Spielberg, who once said: "If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it's going to make a pretty good movie."

The original pitch for Jaws - the 1975 Spielberg film that first introduced the notion of the cinematic blockbuster and helped to transform the entire industry - stated simply: "A police chief, a scientist and a grizzled sailor set out to kill a shark that is menacing the seaside community of Amity island." The synopsis for Alien, made four years later, was shorter still - "Jaws in Space."

The council said that it hoped the "25 words or less" programme would help professional writers to "focus on the concept at the heart of the story". Writers with an agent were invited to compose pitches for films in three genres: comedy, thriller and horror. The council received 370 applications and hopes to finance about 12 ideas a year. Grants for genres including romantic comedy will be announced next.
Shoeless Joe, a film idea by Andrew Clyde, is based on this single sentence: "A holiday of a lifetime across the desolate heart of the Australian outback turns into a living nightmare for five friends." The pitch for Egomania, a joint composition by Paul Alexander and Simon Braithwaite, runs: "Hotshot young lawyer Michael Stark becomes so successful, so arrogant and so full of himself that his ego decides to go solo - with disastrous consequences."

The winning teams have been given up to eight weeks to complete a first draft. Ultimately, the hope is that one or more of the scripts will be good enough to produce.

Natalie Wreyford, of the council's development fund, said: "The four projects we have chosen are great examples of good genre writing. I really hope this initiative will encourage UK writers who have the ambition to write commercial genre films and provide some exciting new screenplays for the rest of the industry." Clearly, the council believes that the Hollywood approach will be refreshing rather than an exercise in dumbing down.

According to a council spokesman, British writers are not always comfortable preparing scripts for feature films. "There are great television writers and theatre writers in the UK but there is not a tradition of great film writers. We don't live in that culture," he said.

"That culture" has been endlessly lampooned because it tends to result in films that are loud, flashy and full of references to previous, financially successful Hollywood titles, without necessarily abiding by any of the basic requirements for satisfying drama such as character development - or indeed character of any kind.

Screenwriters who have been through the pitching process explain that it is a matter of grabbing the executives' attention and making them feel that you are, in effect, handing them a pot of gold with a brilliant, highly marketable idea.

"I've pitched stories and I knew within the first line that I sold it," one screenwriter, Robbie Fox, said during a discussion of the screenwriting trade last year.

"I pitched this movie to MGM and the first line of the script was: 'One fine sunny day, three surgeons' wives went to the fat farm for the weekend.' And I saw the executives smile, and I just knew."

Some people in Hollywood argue that the "high concept" pitch is actually passe, a relic from the 1980s that went out of fashion with the rise of more challenging independent films over the past decade.

But many screenwriters insist nothing has changed. The money men need to be convinced an idea can sell, and that means thinking up the advertising slogan before the script has even been finished.

The Hollywood Way: The original pitches for 25 classic movies

WHAT WOMEN WANT: After an accident, a chauvinistic executive gains the ability to hear what women are really thinking
BIG: When a boy wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body
GHOST SHIP: A salvage crew discovers a long-lost 1953 passenger ship but as they try to tow it back to land "strange things" happen...
JAWS: A police chief, a scientist, and a grizzled sailor set out to kill a shark that is menacing the seaside community of Amity Island.
ALIEN: Jaws in Space
TWISTER: Bill is trying to get his tornado-hunter wife, Jo, to sign divorce papers so he can marry his girlfriend, but Mother Nature has other plans
GLADIATOR: When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by a corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge
SPEED: A young cop must save the passengers of a bus that has a bomb set to explode if the bus goes below 50mph
TITANIC: Fictional romantic tale of a rich girl and poor boy who meet on the ill-fated voyage of the 'unsinkable' ship
TOOTSIE: The story of a man who dresses like a woman and becomes a better man
LIAR LIAR: A fast track lawyer can't lie for 24 hours due to his son's birthday wish
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: Grossly overweight Prof. Sherman Klump, desperate to lose weight, takes a special chemical that turns him into slim but obnoxious Buddy Love
SPLASH: A man falls in love with the mermaid who saved him from drowning as a boy, not knowing who - or what - she is
THE OTHERS: A woman who lives in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that her family home is haunted
MY LITTLE EYE: Five people apply to live in an isolated house together for six months whilst their every move is filmed, then things start to go wrong ...
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: A group of hippies travelling through 1970s Texas fall prey to a trio of murderous brothers and their cannibal grandparents
MEET THE PARENTS: Male nurse Greg Focker meets his girlfriend's parents before proposing, but her suspicious father is every date's worst nightmare
A FISH CALLED WANDA: Four very different people team up to commit armed robbery, then try to doublecross each other for the loot
GROUNDHOG DAY: Phil, a sarcastic weather man, finds himself having to live the same day over and over again
DEAD CALM: While on a sailing trip, in dead calm sea waters, a couple come across a ship with one survivor who is not what he seems
THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE: Peyton Flanders seems to be the perfect nanny, but secretly she's out to wreck the lives of the family she's supposed to be helping ...
MEMENTO: A man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt down his wife's killer
FLASHDANCE: An exotic dancer from the wrong side of the tracks dreams of becoming a ballerina
POLICE ACADEMY: The Mayor decides to make it easier to join the Police Force, but the new recruits are the last people you'd call in an emergency
BEVERLY HILLS COP: A freewheeling Detroit cop pursuing the murder of his friends finds his methods under question in the very different culture of Beverly Hills

If you have any more ideas for helping with summary writing, please post them for all to use in the Forums.

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