Premise is King?
As a writer and a person with the occasional pretension, I often groan loudly when An Insistent Writer on a website somewhere repeats the mantra of small minded Hollywood types everywhere. Premise [or concept] is king. Really? You mean like:
Cutthroat Island. (85)
Should I continue? Do you want me to start over and list them alphabetically? How about by genre?
The point here is that the wisdom in the mantra is QUESTIONABLE at best. At worst, it’s downright ludicrous.
How about this for a premise:
Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, an offbeat young woman makes an unusual decision regarding her unborn child. (86)
What manner of psychologically unbalanced person would ever greenlight that script based on its premise? And yet, Juno, the movie based on this inferior premise, made over 231,000,000 dollars worldwide on a budget of 7.5 million. (87)
How about another:
A ballet dancer wins the lead in “Swan Lake” and is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan – Princess Odette – but slowly loses her mind as she becomes more and more like Odile, the Black Swan.
Black Swan went on to make 321 million worldwide on a budget of 13 million.
One more and we’ll call it a trilogy:
A family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus.
Little Miss Sunshine made 100 million worldwide on a budget of 8 million.
I point out the box office numbers of these three films because I don’t think anyone who wanted to be anything other than argumentative would say that any of these movies got made because of their premise. The next time we’re on a screenwriting site and someone says premise is king, can we all agree to ask that person to explain the box office success of The King’s Speech. (88)
This list of movies that defies the generally accepted maxim that premise is king is just as long as the list of movies that might get trotted out to defend it. For instance:
Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings together a team of super humans to form The Avengers to help save the Earth from Loki and his army.
True, The Avengers did make 1.5 billion on a 220 million dollar budget, but citing this movie as an example of what spec writers should be writing is insane. Don’t do it! No studio is ever going to greenlight a tentpole blockbuster with a dozen big name stars for a writer no one has ever heard of. Drop the delusion now before it hurts your pride. You are looking to spend AT THE MOST 40 million dollars of the studio’s money. If you assess your script at more than that, it’s time to start writing a different script.
My problem with the website malingerers who pretend that there is something worthwhile in the notion that Premise is King is that they always mean The Avengers, or “high concept”. And yes, if you stumble onto a particularly brilliant idea like… oh, I don’t know:
An action thriller centered on a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.
By all means, write your own personal Source Code, collect your spot on The Black List, and then watch the film made from your script go on to make 147 million worldwide on a budget of 32 million.(89) I’ll probably even review your script someday.
Of course, over the years, I’ve read hundreds of specs from hundreds of unknown writers and NOT ONE OF THEM has written Source Code. Why? Because high concept ideas that actually work are hard to come up with and even harder to execute. Take Source Code, fresh idea, right? I guess maybe if you hadn’t seen Groundhog Day it would count as a fresh idea.
[I’m not even trying to bash Source Code, which I liked. I am only pointing out that if it were easy to come up with a high concept idea that worked, every script you read would be high concept and work. For me, high concept is like the quiet scene in those old war movies where the grisly Sergeant says to his privates: “smoke em if you got em”.]
If you get high concept ideas, then write them.
They’ll probably be poorly executed and incredibly expensive, but I won’t stand in the way of your artistic expression.
However, if you’re more like the rest of us, and high concept ideas don’t just appear on your screen in all their glory, you can still grind a few atoms of truth from the maxim that premise is king. You just have to parse the statement for its deeper truth. I propose that what people really mean when they clutter up screenwriting forums with the nonsensical beginner screenwriting advice that premise is king, is:
A reader wants to read something unique.
That can mean high concept, and if you’re lucky enough to come up with one of those [and you also manage to execute it well], I salute you.
It can also mean creating a character with a unique perspective [Juno], creating a story with a unique metafictive component [Black Swan], or creating a series of characters whose unique dysfunctions somehow manages to sum to love [Little Miss Sunshine].
In each of these example scripts, the writer found a unique angle from which to approach her/his material. And in each example, the writer was rewarded with a sale AND big box office.
Am I recommending that you write a script like Juno over a script like Source Code? Yep. That is exactly what I am recommending. (90)
Algorithm 10 – Finding Your Unique Premise
1. Keep your production budget under 40 million
2. Think High Concept like Juno rather than High Concept like The Avengers.
85 This is just a list of the ones I’ve seen and thought of in the first three seconds of thinking. And yes, I knew Cutthroat Island was going to be terrible when I saw it. And yes, I only watched it because Geena Davis was in it. And yes, I was seriously crushing on Geena Davis at the time.
86 All loglines are from http://www.imdb.com/
87 Source for all box office figures is Box Office Mojo:
88 414 million worldwide on a budget of 15 million: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=kingsspeech.htm
89 Also notice that 32 million is less than my 40 million dollar cut off. Also notice that Ben Ripley was a working screenwriter and he still designed his sci-fi spec to come in under 40 million.
If I have time later, I’ll explain why I think 40 million is the magic number for an unknown.
90 As long as you realize that I’m not advocating you try and imitate Ms. Cody’s style or voice or even subject matter. In scaled back terms, I simply mean that you have more chance of impressing a reader with a new angle on typical story than you have of impressing them with your time travel opus that comes in six parts and has an accompanying novelization series available on Amazon for 99 cents the second Tuesday of every month.