BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Is Your Idea Commercial?
This week, we’re going to be looking at Beauty and the Beast.
It could be argued that a virtually shot-for-shot live action remake of an animated film that premiered in 1991 is an odd choice for a screenwriting podcast. Why not just talk about the original, brilliant script by Linda Woolverton that made this movie worth watching in the first place 26 years ago?
But with a record breaking 170 million dollar opening weekend, make no mistake, Beauty and the Beast is going to shape the future of big budget Hollywood movies. And that means it has a lot to teach us.
On the one hand, there’s some cause for concern. The Hollywood trend over the last few years of remaking old movies, rather than investing in new ones, has been troubling, not only for studio writers, but also for many producers, who have watched a great migration of top Hollywood writers into Independent Film, Self Production, and of course TV, where they have more opportunities to be challenged artistically, work creatively and develop original material.
But recently, we’re starting to see a shift with original movies like Get Out, La La Land, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight and Arrival not only winning awards, but also hugely exceeding box office expectations. We’re also starting to see a trickle up effect, as companies like Amazon and Netflix have started entering the feature film market– reinvigorating both writers and producers for the potential of a renaissance in feature films that can mirror the one in TV.
Which is why Beauty and the Beast’s success scared the crap out of so many big budget writers and producers, especially on the cusp of what seemed like a potential tipping point in the Hollywood model.
But though this may mean we’ll have to endure live action remakes of everything from Bambi to The Lion King over the next few years, I actually think the tremendous success of film musicals like Beauty and the Beast and La La Land suggests another step in the exciting disruption we’ve been seeing of the traditional Hollywood business model. And that’s exciting news if you’re a screenwriter.
Back when I was coming up in the industry, selling a musical was darn near impossible. I developed one with Robbie Fox, writer of So I Married An Axe Murderer, but even the powerful production company I was working for couldn’t get any investment. I wrote another with Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, writers of Broadway’s Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, which at one point had some even more famous directing and producing attachments. It seemed an inch from production before it all fell apart. I even wrote one with four-time Academy Award Winner Michel Legrand. Yup, same story.
These projects didn’t fall apart because they weren’t great stories, or because they didn’t have great writers behind them. Everybody loved these projects.
They fell apart because it was common knowledge in the industry that film musicals just “don’t make money.” Because “adult audiences just aren’t into film musicals anymore.”
You see where I’m going with this. It starts with 170 million dollars over one weekend.
Does that mean you should run out and write a film musical right now? Not necessarily.
Film musicals like La La Land and Beauty and the Beast succeed because of the love these writers have for the material. Not because they’re out there chasing the next Hollywood trend.
What it does mean is that if anyone ever tells you what’s commercial or not commercial, or if anyone ever tells you that your idea is commercial or not commercial, there’s one thing you know for sure. That person is lying to you. And they’re also lying to themselves.
Hollywood is a lot like high school. Trends come in, and trends go out. But it’s actually the rule breakers who set these trends– the scripts that blazed their own trail, and proved that they could be successful doing something new.
Unless you’re literally on the phone every day finding out what’s fashionable today (which is what producers, agents and managers do professionally), you can be pretty sure you have no idea what’s actually commercial or not today. And even if you did, by the time you finished writing the script that chased the trend, that fashion would have already changed.
Anyone remember Z Cavaricci pants?
If you’re my age, you do. They were the hottest thing ever for about 2 weeks back in the early 80s. Ridiculous things with flaps and buttons that made no sense at all. But if you were an 8 year old, and could get your hands on a pair, it meant you were going to be the hottest thing in elementary school.
I remember begging my mom for a pair of Z Cavaricci’s– saving up my pennies for months until finally I had enough (with a little help from her) to buy a pair. And then I finally showed up at school, feeling like the hottest thing on the planet, and pretty much convinced that this was going to be the day those other kids finally realized that I was super cool and that they should accept me as a cool kid like them.
Yeah, you guessed it. By the time that happened, those stupid pants were already out of style.
Unless you’re a huge agent or manager, by the time you get word of what’s happening in Hollywood, you’re usually already two years behind what’s actually happening today. Even producers who read the trades every day know they’re getting information that’s already many month’s old– deals that have been in the works forever that are only just now being announced. Information is currency in Hollywood, just like it is in elementary school, and people tend to sit on the real stuff for as long as they can, to make sure nobody can get the scoop on them!
So often as writers, we feel out of breath, chasing these trends, and always feeling like we’re just a few steps behind, a few moments too late to have the career we actually dream of.
But the truth is, what kind of script are you going to write under that much pressure? Most likely a crappy one. And you’re not going to have much fun writing it either. Because instead of writing the thing you are desperate to write, you’re going to be writing the thing you think you should write. Instead of going on an unforgettable journey with yourself and your characters, you’re going to be retreading the same ground other writers have tread. And since that journey didn’t evolve naturally from you, it’s likely it’s going to be filled with cliches.
So it’s time for a little tough love, that may scare you a bit, but also hopefully will set you free from this breathless trend chasing, and allow you to put your focus back on what really matters in your writing.
Even if you spent every day at the studio lot, following famous producers around and listening in on exactly what everyone wants in Hollywood right now, by the time you came up with the idea, wrote the first draft, and revised it to a place where it was actually ready for professional eyes, those producers are already going to have moved on to the next hot idea.
That may sound depressing, but I think it’s freeing. Because once you realize that you can’t time the market, it frees you up from all that pressure, all that feeling that you’re behind where you’re supposed to be, or not writing what you should be writing. It allows you to put your focus back on what really matters to you: not writing the script that “everybody wants” but rather, the one that only you can write.
At a recent First Fridays event here at the studio, we had a wonderful guest speaker, Alex Fumero, the VP of Programming for HBO. Alex had something profound to say about what he’s looking for when a writer comes in for a pitch meeting. For him to be interested, he doesn’t just have to feel like it’s a great idea with great execution. As VP of Programming for one of the most sought after networks in the world, he sees great ideas and great scripts every day. For Alex to be interested, he needs more than a great script. He needs to know why you are the only writer in the world who could have written this project in exactly this way.
In other words, Alex isn’t just looking for great scripts. He’s looking for something much more important– great voices. And voice is not something you discover writing the thing you “should” be writing. It’s something you discover writing the thing that you want to write, even if it doesn’t yet make sense to anyone but you.
(For an example of a hugely successful professional writer who did exactly that, listen to my Podcast on Arrival).
The truth is, trends come and go, and then cycle back around again. Some scripts (remember Juno) get picked up overnight and propel their writers to instant stardom, and others (remember Dallas Buyers Club) kick around for 20 years until finally the astrological conditions change, and “impossible” becomes “in demand.”
That means your success as a screenwriter is going to take some luck.
So as much as you’d like to feel like you’re in control. And as much as a million different gurus would all like you to think they have the formula for success. The truth is that formula does not exist.
The truth is, for success to happen, you’ve got to get a little lucky. You’ve got to have the right script, and get it to the right person at the right time.
And though you can’t control the events that will make that happen, you can make that luck a lot more likely to happen, by developing yourself as a writer, and writing the scripts that only you can write, so that when that door finally does open for you, you’re ready to go through it.
Sometimes that luck comes right away, and sometimes you have to wait a long time until the trends come back around, and suddenly your “not commercially viable” live action musical becomes the thing that everyone’s looking for.
But here’s the thing that’s worth remembering. Unless you take the time now to develop your voice, and write the script that only you can write, none of this is going to matter.
Because buying a script from a new writer, or hiring a new writer for a rewrite or work for hire project, is not a rational decision. It’s an emotional one. Rationally, producers know it’s a hell of a lot safer to buy a script from or hire someone with a lot more experience than you have in the industry.
Which means, the only reason to buy a script from, or hire a writer that doesn’t have a ton of credits, a powerful agent, and a long history of working with you, is if you believe that person can give you something nobody else can give.
And that’s how you break into this crazy industry.
Though we all dream of that big spec sale, for many writers, the script that launches their career is not the one that gets made. It’s often the script you’ve written that a producer wishes they could make, that convinces them to hire you to write the project they actually can. To come on as a “work for hire” writer, or to rewrite a script that feels like it’s missing something.
What a producer is buying when they hire you in this way is not just your craft. It’s your voice. The thing that you bring to a script that no one else could bring. Which is why writing, and writing, and writing is so frickin’ important. Because it takes practice to grow to a point where you can bring your specific voice to the often rigid parameters of somebody else’s idea.
Which brings us back to Beauty and the Beast.
Did you notice how completely different in tone the live action version of Beauty and the Beast felt from the original?
Despite following the blueprint of the original nearly shot for shot, Director Bill Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, bring a completely different voice to their remake, translating the tone of the film from that sweet traditional Disney technicolor spectrum, to one that’s much darker and more complicated. A kind of fantasy that feels much more like the world of Pan’s Labyrinth than anything we’d come to expect from Disney.
Without ever neglecting his responsibility to create a big, magical Disney musical that whole families can enjoy, Condon nevertheless weaves his own voice into every moment, darkening and deepening the film, and even finding room within the script to find subtle ways to explore the themes of sexuality that have driven his work since Gods and Monsters.
This is the next lesson that every writer can learn from Beauty and the Beast, which is just how malleable tone can actually be.
I often get asked by students in my classes: What if my comedy isn’t funny? What if my drama is getting unexpected laughs. What if my noir doesn’t feel scary or my thriller doesn’t feel thrilling, or my action scene doesn’t get my adrenaline pumping? What if I just wrote a beautiful dramatic scene that doesn’t fit in any way with my broad comedy? Or a goofy comic scene that doesn’t fit in any way with my dark thriller?
It’s easy as an emerging screenwriter to feel out of control of your tone. Sometimes in early drafts, things simply don’t come out the way you expect them. Or, to take an example from Beauty and the Beast, you’ve got a character like Belle’s father, Maurice, whose farcical inventions fit wonderfully in the animated version, but would feel completely out of place in the Pan’s Labyrinth world of the later draft.
But as Beauty and The Beast shows us, tone is actually shockingly malleable. Maurice’s character can be played for jokes, or he can be toned down and adapted for pathos and magic (think for example of the beautifully surrealistic scene under the tree, when Maurice is rescued by the Enchantress Agathe). Tone is more about how things happen than what actually happens. And that means you can adjust it, to serve both the creative and the commercial needs of your screenplay.
It’s also why it’s so important as you rewrite to really look at how you put every line of dialogue, every action, every word on the page– to make sure you’re actually capturing exactly what you see, hear and feel exactly as you see it in your head. A single word can dramatically change your tone, and with it the audience’s experience of your story. Which means sometimes if your script is not working, it’s not really about the what. It’s rather about the how.
I’m reminded of something Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy Classes here at the Studio, once said to me. Jerry was a showrunner and writer on shows ranging from The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls, Married With Children and countless other hit sitcoms. And what he said was this “First, you have to write it true. Then you figure out how to make it funny.”
I think this is one of the best lessons in tone any writer could have. And it’s reassurance that once you’ve gotten your personal truth out on the page, even your “least commercial” ideas, or the ones that least seem to fit with your current structure, can be adjusted tonally in order to deliver what you or your audience wants or needs.
So I hope you’ll take some inspiration from Beauty and The Beast, and from the vast array of new and disruptive films and TV shows we’ve seen this year, to disrupt your own thinking about what your screenplay has to be, and to start opening your mind to what it actually could be if you were to write the screenplay only you could write.
What’s the screenplay that only you could write? And what would it take for you to get it on the page?