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05/11/2002 - Old News

I like to while away the productive hours scanning the Internet for film and screenwriting articles, as many of us do, and in reading one I came across an interesting sentence. An aspiring screenwriter said something to the effect of: "Ok, I know to use only two brads, no typos, no period pieces, no camera direction..."

No period pieces? Is that true? I've never heard that, although it sounds like it might not be bad advice for a novice screenwriter attempting to catch the attention of an agent or development executive. I asked around a bit and no one I asked had heard of that either. But is it good advice? Again, we're talking about amateur writers trying to gain access to Hollywood through query letters and other cold approaches.

What would be the rationale for such a prohibition? Well, for one thing, when agents schmooze with production executives the question is often asked, "What are you looking for?" The chirping answer is always "Anything good!" The modifications to that ridiculously broad statement usually go like this: "Well, you know, we're looking at pictures in the 10-20 million range, and, you know, we're looking for broad comedies, or horror movies, and uh, well, we are interested in cool youth-driven leads..." And so on.

What the development executive won't come out and say is that they want a market-friendly piece. Something that isn't likely to die at the box office. Something they won't get fired for producing. The more sure-fire elements for the market include youth-driven pieces, scary movies, sexy movies, male-targeted pieces, movies that can engender hip soundtrack sales... in short, movies that shout out from the shelf at Blockbuster Video.

Period pieces are hard to guarantee on this market. They tend to appeal to off-target groups, especially older and female audiences. Not only that, but they also can cost more. Costumes, set design and location expenses can be significantly higher on such pictures, although you could argue that at least there aren't any digital effects...except movies like GLADIATOR did use CG to replicate the original Coliseum.

Wait a minute - GLADIATOR made a bundle and swept the Oscars! What am I saying?

Yes, GLADIATOR, PEARL HARBOR, TITANIC, FROM HELL; all these are period pieces that succeeded mightily with the public. But they weren't spec scripts, they were set in motion by producers and directors who first conceived of the piece, then honed the story to fit. Or, in the case of FROM HELL, a revered and elevated comic book series was adapted by respected hands.

Even stately period pieces like GOSFORD PARK or THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE aren't spec scripts. At least, I've never seen drawing room period pieces fight their way onto the scene via the spec route. They're typically nurtured by professionals who have some credits securely under their belt.

Take another look at the boffo period pictures listed above. GLADIATOR was a revenge tale full of fight scenes. PEARL HARBOR was a money-shot filled war movie. TITANIC was a disaster movie. FROM HELL was a horror/thriller.

Often when people write period screenplays they assume that the period IS the genre, and it isn't. The way to bring a period piece to life is to avoid lingering over the period-ness and focus on the drama, horror, or romance underneath. Bring the story to the forefront and let the historical period underscore the action.

So what if your specialty is bringing to life a bygone era? Am I saying you should can your Ming Dynasty romance? Yes and no. Yes, you should consider sending out something a little more accessible to the agents and production companies and no, you shouldn't throw it away entirely. A well-written period piece is something you can present later in your career as a passion project, or at the very least a departure writing sample.

Period pieces are strange. They can tap deeply into the audience, pulling out a fascination with the ancient past, with unchanging human truths and the inexplicable events that made human history go one way instead of another. There are ways to craft a mesmerizing period spec, but you must find some unique take on that period or its historical relevance. If you can craft a "Wow" period piece, then go for it. Otherwise, save it for your three-picture deal.


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