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03/06/2006 - THE END OF THE SCREENPLAY
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THE END OF THE SCREENPLAY by Tom McCurrie


For this issue of the StudioNotes newsletter, I'm writing about the end. Not the end of the world, of course (though nowadays you never know), but the end of your script.

Now it's true the first ten pages of your script are the most important. If you don't hook the reader in these early pages, there's no way he's going to finish the rest of them.

But the way you end your script is important as well, for that's what the audience takes with them when they leave the theatre. This means the final moments of your story are pivotal when it comes to word-of-mouth.

For screenplays, there are three types of endings:

The Happy Ending. Here the hero beats the bad guy, gets the girl and overcomes his inner demons (not necessarily in that order). The Happy Ending usually gets the best word-of-mouth, so scripts with this type of ending are extremely attractive to producers, agents and managers. (Example: DIE HARD [1988] and its numerous clones.)

The Unhappy or Downer Ending. Here the hero gets his butt kicked by the bad guy, loses the girl and succumbs to his inner demons (not necessarily in that order). The Unhappy or Downer Ending usually gets the worst word-of-mouth, so scripts with this type of ending are extremely toxic to producers, agents and managers. (Example: HEAVEN'S GATE [1980] -- no clones of this one since HEAVEN'S GATE sunk an entire studio after it flopped.)

The Bittersweet Ending. Here the hero wins the day but loses something along the way, leavening the victory with sadness. Befitting their ambiguous view of life, scripts with Bittersweet Endings get mixed word-of-mouth, and equally mixed receptions from producers, agents and managers. (Example: THE HUSTLER [1961], where Paul Newman becomes the King of Pool, but it costs him the love of his life.)

Personally, I think Bittersweet Endings are the best because they reflect the reality of day-to-day living: sometimes you're going to win, and sometimes you're going to lose. Both Happy Endings and Downer Endings have always struck me as false, because nothing ever remains happy, or a downer, for long.

But with falling ticket sales and fragmenting audiences, Hollywood wants stellar word-of-mouth more than ever. So if you're a new writer without a box-office track record, go for as happy an ending as possible.

This doesn't mean you need to succumb to formula, however. One reason box-office is falling is because movies are becoming too predictable, and a Happy Ending is nothing if not that. But if you make the journey to that Happy Ending entirely unpredictable, you will challenge and delight audiences in equal measure. Nuff said.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.

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