Panel: Screenwriting for an International Audience [video]

by Andrew L. Schwartz

The second annual Orb Media and ScreenCraft’s China-Hollywood Screenwriting Fellowship is open for submissions — final deadline is January 18th!

China is the world’s fastest growing premiere film market. They are a close second to the number of cinemas in North America, and the demand for high-quality scripts has never been higher. With more and more studios producing films directed at global audiences, it’s clear this trend hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly in Hollywood.

Through the China-Hollywood Screenwriting Fellowship, Orb Media and ScreenCraft are facilitating a bridging of cultures between Hollywood and China that provides an avenue for screenwriters to have their work reach a global audience. Last year’s Fellowship winner had their work optioned and is slated for production.

To learn more about screenwriting for an international audience, ScreenCraft, in association with the Writers Guild Foundation, recently hosted a panel featuring Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, the co-writers of the Avatar sequels and Planet of the Apes franchise, and Sam Brown, the current Head of Development at STX Studios.

Here’s what they had to say —

ScreenCraft: How do we inspire audiences worldwide? What do you think accounts for the international popularity of titles like Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and Jurassic World

Sam Brown: For studios, it comes down to a universal visual component; something that doesn’t rely on specific languages, idioms or political situations. There is something fun and universal about seeing a huge dinosaur running rampant in an amusement park — you don’t need to speak any language to understand the visual spectacle and fun that that can create.

Amanda Silver: It’s always great to have characters that bring something essentially human to the party so that people in any culture can relate to it.

Rick Jaffa: Having an existing IP gives you a leg up because there’s a built-in interest in titles like Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park. People are interested in seeing what will be done with the story, and what will be new. With properties that people love…Jurassic World, Planet of the Apes, Avatar, Mulan, etc., you have to offer the audience something new and something different, but you also have to deliver on the stuff that they love about the existing work.

SC: In screenwriting, specificity is a strength. How do you balance being very specific to maybe a certain setting, culture or character while also making it accessible?

AS: The strength is always in the specificity and the relatability — you may have to educate the audience about a certain culture, but the specificity of the characters and the setting is what grounds the drama. Audiences can smell it when you’re only making a movie for the money; if you’re not grounded by the detail it feels false.  For example, in The Godfather the opening wedding teaches you everything you need to know about being in an Italian-American crime family during that time.

SB: The Godfather is a good example because it’s a very specific portrait of an Italian-American family in organized crime, but the themes the movie explores are very universal. They’re universal themes explored through the lens of characters that are painted in a very specific way. I can’t relate to being a gangster, but I can relate to some of the themes that the characters are going through.

RJ: It’s a family story and all families have their issues. You’re talking about a group of people that were really doing horrible things, but you liked them because of their specificity, their family code, the relationships with one another. If you don’t do the research and you don’t get to know the world, you find that you’re writing stuff you’ve probably already seen in another movie or television show.

SB: I would argue that a huge component of the audience’s engagement in a character and a movie is related to the amount of homework the writers, filmmakers, and everyone involved has put into every single element of that production. If there are a hundred pages written about a character that doesn’t even come through on screen, they do come through in the actor’s performance and the way the film’s presented.

SC: Rick and Amanda, what is your process for dealing with a very large property? You dig really deeply and surround yourself with research, but how do you find the heart of the story?

AS: It’s always the character’s journey. You don’t go into a story with the character already alive. You have to blow life into them; do research, spend time with these characters and sooner or later they come alive with a journey that you’ll go on with them.

RJ: The very first thing we ask is; “Why are we making this movie? Why are we telling, or retelling, this story? Why does the character need this journey? Why now? Why is today different from any other day?”

SC: Sam, what’s your process like when working with writers?

SB: To create is different from critiquing; our job is not to be the funniest, smartest people in the room, our job is to identify and hire people that are smart, creative, funny and clever, and empower them and give them the resources they need.

When we approach a note, we offer our thoughts conversationally — if one of us isn’t feeling something, the feeling behind that may be worth exploring. What is your intent with this character, act, or scene and did that resonate or come through to me, and will it with the audience as well? Sometimes, it’s the note behind the note.

AS: When we get a note that we know is off, we also know it’s coming from someplace. So, maybe the suggestions might be wrong, but it’s very instructive to know that something hasn’t landed.

SC: How does the international structure of STX as a business affect what you guys try to champion?

SB: We think about things in global terms. The movies we’re making here in Los Angeles are being consumed around the world, and it would be imprudent not to acknowledge that and not try to build movies for that audience. But that isn’t the first thing we think about, the first thing we think about is story — is this a good story, is it worth telling and is it told well? Then, we do the secondary and tertiary analysis — is this something that by its very nature will only resonate in certain select markets, or does it have the components that allow it a chance to work in the international marketplace — it comes back to relatable themes.

SC: Rick and Amanda, when you are working on these larger properties, what do you feel is the most important emotion that you want your audience to feel?

RJ: They have to feel something. We usually go for two emotions; hope and fear; when we go into a sequence; we want the audience to hope one thing happens, and fear that the one thing is never going to happen.

AS: They have a rooting interest in every part of every page; when we write a script that’s working, we know that at every moment we know what we’re trying to get the audience to feel.

On becoming a working writer — 

SB: You won’t know if you have both the talent, but almost more importantly, the constitution to be a working writer until you’ve written your tenth screenplay. The sooner you can get through to your tenth, the sooner you’ll know.

This is also a good way to stay away from a trap that a lot of people can fall into; laboring through one screenplay and tweaking that screenplay for years. You have to do your ten thousand hours because it’s a learned thing. At the early stages of your career, you’re so fixated on having someone option or buy your script, which is a huge, rare, and special achievement, but it’s a continued labor.

RJ: I really believe in the ten thousand hours thing because we’ve been at this for thirty years and sometimes we realize we’re just now learning something new. We also really pay attention;  we go to the movies, or watch a television show and ask, “What is it about this that is moving me, or isn’t moving me?”

AS: You’ve got to love it, you’ve got to love the writing, because it’s a hard business.

Watch the whole panel below.


Together, the Hollywood film industry and Chinese film market are poised to become the epicenter of entertainment and Orb Media and ScreenCraft’s China-Hollywood Fellowship are at the vanguard of this emerging market. There is an unlimited amount of potential for screenwriters hungry to explore universal themes that appeal to audiences everywhere.