Welcome to this edition of the Real Fast Results podcast! Today’s special guest is Dr. Ken Atchity, who is a very well-known Hollywood producer. As a matter of fact, he is a producer and author who has also worked as a literary manager, speaker, writer, editor, and professor of comparative literature, among other things. During this exclusive interview, Ken shares insight on what it takes to sell your story to Hollywood. Without further ado, please welcome Ken to the show…
I think what we’re trying to get across today is giving our audience insight into how a story gets sold into Hollywood and whether they should have any hope of selling their story into Hollywood. That’s my goal.
Every book writer and storyteller would like to see their story in front of a maximum audience. That’s what I have dedicated my last 30 years to, is helping storytellers find their maximum audience, and I long ago realized, of course, that the maximum audience is the screen. We used to call it the “big screen” and the “little screen” before the advent of the flat screen in homes. Sometimes that screen can be as big as the one at the movie theater. But, in any case, television and film take stories around the world. There isn’t a country, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, that doesn’t love movies.
When you get a story told to the movies, the world gets to see your story. You know, it can be dubbed in 182 languages, etc. If the story came from a book that you wrote, then guess what? The book will sell many, many more copies than it ever sold before. We’ve had several examples of that in the last couple of years. The Lost Valentine with Betty White ended up selling a whole bunch of copies of the book, which was republished for the purpose.
Meg is about…after years and years of preproduction, Meg is going into production this summer in New Zealand, and we’ve already geared up the books to be sold again, even though they’ve been selling for 15 years now. They’ll really sell now because the movie becomes a commercial for your story, for your book. So, it will sell more books. You’re getting your story out to everyone, the people who read and the people who watch. That’s the exciting part about making a Hollywood deal.
I think the first and most important element your story needs to have is to be universal. It needs to be the kind of story that everyone wants to hear about. There aren’t that many stories in human experience, but we want to hear over and over again because every time we hear them anew, we actually hear things we haven’t heard before, and we think of that story in ways that we hadn’t thought before. Therefore, it applies to our life and gives us a better inkling of how to deal with this crazy hodgepodge of stimulation that we call life. Stories are…When we stop, and pause, and ask the question, “What’s it all about,” and “What would happen if a person like me got stuck into a situation like that,”…That’s kind of the ancient formula of storytelling.
So, its first quality is it has got to be something we care about universally. You can start with the Seven Deadly Sins, or the Seven Virtues, and it isn’t hard to figure out what people care about. Love, and hate, and fear, and loss, etcetera, these are all big human subjects for stories, and therefore universally applicable. That’s the #1 quality that you need to have. The second quality that a story for Hollywood needs to have is a hero. I use the word loosely because I know better, as a former professor of classics and Greek drama. I know that the real word is protagonist. The Greeks invented that.
The very first plays that were staged in Athens only had one actor. He was the protagonist. He was not only the protagonist, he was the only actor, and he basically came out on stage and acted out a story. Later on, some genius added the second actor, who was known as the antagonist, the one who tries to stop the protagonist because he has opposite goals. You know, we were off and running with drama when we had those two actors. We still need that first actor, the one whose story it is and who has to do things in order to make his story turn out either happily or tragically. So, that’s what the protagonist is all about, but he’s the first…He’s the actor, the one who causes action to happen, and he is the primary reason that we’re watching. That means the protagonist, the hero, has to be sympathetic.
Sympathetic is another ancient Greek concept. It doesn’t mean that we have sympathy because he lost his mother or he lost his daughter. It means that we are able to suffer along with him. That he’s got such charisma as a character that we instantly get his suffering and can experience, through him and with him. That’s what “sympathetic” means. So, we need a sympathetic hero. If someone’s completely unlikable, we lose interest within the first few minutes, but this hero doesn’t necessarily have to be a good guy.
My favorite example is Shakespeare’s Richard III, where this ugly, kind of crippled, stupid guy comes out onto the stage in a black costume and proceeds to tell us how unhappy he is with life because he’s constantly getting the short end of everything and that he’s finally decided to do something about it. He’s going to go out and kill his brother’s family and take the throne, after committing the 10 crimes that he predicts that he will commit. Within a few lines of this amazing opening, everybody is totally rooting for him, not because he’s a good guy, but because we are fascinated, mesmerized, horrified, by his candor. You know, his outspoken willingness to tell us how bad he is and that he’s going to do something about it, and we watch in horror for the rest of the play, until he finally brings himself down in ruins along with the whole kingdom.
There’s an example of a sympathetic hero. Or, the beginning of Lethal Weapon, the first movie, when Mel Gibson wakes up in his really sleazy-looking trailer and reaches for a beer can that’s open. He takes a slug of beer, stands up and takes a walk into his bathroom and pisses. Then, sits down again, pulls out his gun, and starts Russian roulette with the barrel of the gun in his mouth, and then we learn that he’s a homicide detective. Within the first few minutes of this, we can’t stop watching. Here’s a story in which the hero is a suicidal homicide detective, and of course, he’s matched with a partner who has only got a couple of weeks to retire after a long and happy career. So, this is called creating sympathy for the characters, and these are some of the qualities of a great story.
Those are three big things that you need to have to get your story sold to Hollywood. There are others. There has to be a very three act structure. What are the three acts? The beginning, the middle, and the end, not necessarily in that order, as a famous Italian director once said, but you have to have them. The ending has to be conclusive and satisfying. It can’t just be intellectual, and thoughtful, and [open ended]…Movies that have those types of endings are not huge blockbuster successes. People pay for stories, and stories as far as ordinary people are concerned, the audience, is “I want something that instantly drags me into the story, that keeps my attention the whole time, and then that punches me at the end with a conclusion so satisfying that I feel like I really got my money’s worth for my ticket. And, if I’m watching on television, that doesn’t cause me to push the remote at any time during the story, other than maybe to turn the volume up.
That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what we are all looking for in Hollywood. The good news about Hollywood is that it has become a lot more complicated than it used to be. It’s much more voracious for stories than it used to be because we have so many channels, and so many outlets, and so many ways of distribution. All of them have to be fed, like a dragon that’s eating rabbits. It needs rabbits every day. If it sees a rabbit it likes, then it will make a deal.
It chases rabbits, and you know, one of the things that struck me when I entered this profession, from the academic world years ago, is that there are people called “trackers” who spend their whole days tracking down the rights to stories, and calling people like me and saying, “Do you control the rights to XYZ story?” All they want to hear is “yes,” or “No, but I’ll tell you who does control them.” Then, they report back to their bosses, who pay them monthly just to track stories. I thought, “Wow, this is really the world of storytelling if people are tracking them, not to mention paying lots of money for them, and investing millions and millions into making movies out of them.”
Be creative. That’s where the creativity comes in. You want to have an ending that leaves people bowled over and thoughtful, and sitting there in the theater thinking about it because they’re so impressed by it. If it’s an action movie, it’s going to be a big, climatic action scene with explosions, and guns, and all of that kind of stuff. If it’s a romance, you want a very satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t always have to be a happy ending, although in today’s world that’s what mostly succeeds. I always use the example of the ending of Witness, where Harrison Ford’s character is leaving Kelly McGillis’ character, who lives on an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. He is a tough Philadelphia detective, and as they kiss for the last time and he gets in his car, the audience is heartbroken. They are thinking, “This is the most beautiful romance we’ve ever seen, and now he’s leaving?”
The director, Adrian Lyne, shows a very large place, a ranch or a farm, with a very long driveway. That was probably the most important thing, when they were location scouting, was to choose it for the length of the driveway because his last shot is of Harrison Ford’s car driving down that driveway. As it’s driving down, we see that it’s slow, it’s hesitating, and we’re rooting for him to make a u-turn and go back into her arms because she’s standing there in tears, watching her leave. Then, as it keeps going, and he doesn’t turn around, we start thinking, “Wait a minute, would I believe that? A Philadelphia detective decides to live on a farm with Amish people, or would I believe it if she jumped in his car and went to Philadelphia with him? Can I see a future in that?” And, you realize, you get resigned to the fact that that’s not the way this story can end.
Finally, he reaches the end of the driveway and disappears from view as he turns, and you feel stunned by the beauty of the story and by the realization that some romance doesn’t have to end in wedding bells and have happy endings. It doesn’t make it less beautiful; it just makes it more real. So, there’s an example of enhancing an ending so that the story leaves you satisfied. And, notice that the director is filled with dramatic insight because he knows that it will take that long for the audience to be rooting for the ending he has chosen for this story. You know, if you did it too suddenly, you’d feel weird and dissatisfied. So, suspense and drama are what movies are all about, and if what you started with isn’t dramatic or suspenseful enough, you write a treatment to fit your story, and in that treatment, you make sure the ending is more dramatic than what your source material was.
I wrote a book about treatments years ago because I kept hearing the word, and I realized no one had a common definition of it. My partner and I, Chi-Li Wong and I, did a survey of 200 execs in television and film, and writers and directors, and got back responses. We used those responses to explain what a treatment is and to define what a treatment is. Basically, it’s a tool that has two functions. It’s a tool for focusing your story, like a diagnostic tool, and it is a tool for selling your story, a marketing tool. So, diagnostics and marketing.
I always urge the writers that we work with to write a treatment before they even start writing a script or anything else. The treatment is the perfect way to do it because you’re not invested emotionally in the pages you’ve created. Since they’re simply a tool, they’re not the final result, and you don’t have to moan and groan if we decide to change the sex of a character, or if we decide there are too many characters, you can just cut out the character and put him in the back of your head for another story sometime.
So, a treatment is very useful because it allows people to read a quick overview of your story, you know? It can be five to, say, ten pages long. There are no rules about that. We say a treatment is a relatively brief narrative, a loosely-written narrative. I always say the best way to think of it is like a passionate letter to your best friend, explaining the night that you walked out on your wife. You would not be using expository prose from sixth grade lessons; you would just be explosively describing, “I came home, and I found her naked in the middle of the living room, dancing with my neighbor who I thought was my best friend.” And, “blah blah blah…” You just instantly blurt it all out. That’s what a treatment is, and it makes someone immediately want to make this movie, basically.
That’s what a treatment is, and it’s one of several things you need to market your story. Another thing that you need is a pitch, which is a one-line pitch of your story that will be unforgettable, describing the situation in a way that makes the listener want to know how it comes out. As I said, the skeletal, generic pitch is, “What would happen if a gal like this found herself in the middle of a situation like that?” That’s what your pitch needs to be. Once you have that pitch, it’s called a logline, you can then email it to people in the industry who might be interested in looking at your story. They’ll then ask you, “I’m interested in the idea you have. Do you have the treatment, or what do you have?” And then, you send them the treatment to further hook them.
At the end of the day, if you started with a script or if you started with a book, they’ll ask to see that too, but it’s a sales scenario in which these are the tools that you use to make the sale. A one-page synopsis is part of it too. Like, you’ll have a pitch, a one-paragraph or one-page outline of the story. Well, not an outline; you shouldn’t use that word because that’s one of those sixth grade word that, synopsis/outline, nothing to do with drama, nothing to do with Hollywood. We want something that punches us in the face and makes us decide, you know, “you’ve got to see it”. That’s the biggest, probably…Most used sales pitch of friends to friends on the phone, or email, or text is, “You’ve got to see it.”
Then, they might say, “Well, what’s it about?” And you say, “It’s about a dog that waited for its master for 25 years, until he came home.” You know, that’s the pitch. “Okay, I’ll see it.” You know, “Who is in it?” “Richard Gere. ” “Okay, I definitely want to see that.” You know, it’s that simple. It’s not complicated psychologically; it’s just human.
Exactly. The treatment, what the beauty of it is…Let’s say your story is based on a book that you wrote, if your book doesn’t have a conclusive ending, now you give it one. If your book doesn’t have a well-defined “Act II”, with a lot of ups and downs and twists and turns, you make sure the treatment does. You might have to invent some of that stuff, but that’s okay. You’re the creator. You invented the story in the first place. Now you try to make the story a movie, and movies are governed by action. I always say there’s two kinds of action. One is, “He opened the front door and she shot him.” You know, “She was standing there with the shotgun and blasted at him.” That’s action.
But, dialog is also action in a movie. It’s not action in a restaurant where you overhear someone at the next table because mostly people are saying kind of inane things like, “How are you feeling today…Oh, I’m feeling okay. How about you?” This kind of dialog is not dramatic dialogue. Dialog is…You know, there’s a famous scene from China Town, Robert Towne’s script, in which the detective, Gittes, is with the leading lady, and he says, “I want the truth,’ and she says, “My sister…She’s my sister.” And, he slaps her and he goes, “The truth, god damn it, I need to hear the truth,” and she goes, “My mother,” and he goes, “I just want the truth,” and he slaps her again. “My sister, my mother, my sister, my mother…” Then finally, “She’s my sister and my mother.” This dialogue suddenly reveals why this woman is so tortured and why, you know, the things that have happened in the story have happened.
It’s extremely dramatic, with very few words. There’s a great line in a Hemingway short story that I also love, in which these two people are sitting and waiting for a train in Spain and he is jabbering away, talking about like, “It’s fine, you’ll just go there and let a little air in, and then everything will be fine, and we’ll be just the way we were before, and there’s really no big deal to it.” The girl is not saying anything, and he keeps talking. “I’ll go with you if you want me to. I mean, I’m willing to do it, but you can do it by yourself,” and so on. And, she says, “Would you do me a favor?” “I’ll do anything for you. I told you, I’ll do anything for you.” Well, she says, “Will you please, please, please, please, please stop talking.” The next line is…The man did not say anything for a moment, and then he said, “Would you like a beer?”
You realize, at that moment, that there is no future for this couple, that he is not on her wavelength, and that they are headed in a different direction. That’s all done with dialogue. There’s hardly any action in the story. You know, there’s hardly any physical action. It’s done with only dramatic dialogue, which is action. And so, novels have much non-dramatic dialogue in them, connectives that get you from one place to the other, but when you actually want to turn it into a film, you need to get rid of all of that and replace it only with the dialogue that moves things and makes things happen.
It’s difficult. That’s my first word of wisdom. It’s not easy. Think about it. Everyone in the world would like to have their stories told by Hollywood, but the great part about it is the difficult part. The fact is, when you succeed you will have done what everyone in the world wants to do. So, you need to be your own decider here and not listen to the advice of anyone. Just go for it, and never stop going for it. Just learn as much as you can about the business (It’s called “show business” for a reason), and about how it works. That is our #1 goal…is to help you to understand the business procedures by which it works so that you have a chance there, and never forget that they are looking for you as much as you’re looking for them.
I always say, “People think of it as a dark, slow-moving river that you can never get across. In the middle is an island with beautiful trees, and flowers, and beautiful people.” Once you get on that island, even though it was difficult to get on it, guess what? It’s going to be even more difficult to get off of it. That’s because once you’re in there, they want you to [stay], and they become loyal to you because they’re proud of the fact that you crossed that island. They recognize you for that. So, it’s a great goal, and it’s a goal that never gets old because no matter how old you are, you can still sell stories and Hollywood is still listening to them. You know, people say, “How many chances do you get at Hollywood?” Well, you get as many chances as you are willing to take. That’s how many you get.
If you’re interested in selling your story to Hollywood, you can definitely head on over to http://realfasthollywooddeal.com/ . There, you’ll find an on-demand webinar that I helped to produce. It will take you much more in-depth into how to go about selling your story, you novel, your short story, your story idea to Hollywood. It’s completely free to check this out.
The aim of the webinar is to help you to take that next step in your education, or at least dip a toe and find out whether or not you want to take the journey. You may not. The fact of the matter is that it is difficult, but for a lot of people it’s well worth it. That’s up to you to decide. The webinar that’s being offered for free is an on-demand webinar. You can go, and register for it, and basically start listening to it within 10 minutes from right now. Again, you can check out much more thorough training on this topic at RealFastHollywoodDeal.com.
IMPORTANT: If you listen to the on-demand webinar and wish to continue your education I have a special coupon code which will save you $300 instantly – please you the coupon code PODCAST when you check out.
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