7 Takeaways From ‘Masterclass: Writing & Developing Feature Films’
John Hilary Shepherd, Head of Development at Flying Rhino Productions and Production Head Ryan Thompson, recently attended a virtual event with the ScreenCraft community to share some helpful tips and strategies for writing and developing feature films. Shepherd is a powerhouse producer whose credits include Academy Award-winning film 1917, Black Swan, Hacksaw Ridge, and Rocketman.
The lively discussion was moderated by ScreenCraft’s Brand Manager Neha Dutta and touched on many different topics of interest for up-and-coming writers.
Watch the full panel below or continue on for the highlights.
Learn the Business...It Doesn't Matter How
Both John and Ryan went to film school (AFI and MetFilm School in London, respectively), and it gave them both a solid introduction to the process of writing, producing, and making films. But there’s more to having a career in Hollywood than going to film school. Both worked at production companies; John also worked at a top agency (CAA), before becoming a writer on the TV show Nurse Jackie.
Ryan came to L.A. after studying in London and worked as a P.A. before making the leap into film financing. ‘You learn a lot going through all those different jobs,” said Ryan. John emphasized the importance of student internships as a great way to make connections and learn the business.
Script Development is Very Collaborative and Always Different
Both John and Ryan made clear that there’s not one specific development process for film. So much of it depends on where the story came from (IP, remake of a previous film, or an original spec script), but it usually will require getting lots of notes and making changes to the screenplay.
John said most producers will want to keep the original writer for as long as they can through the development process. “I’ve never met any producer who would immediately replace them,” said John, especially if it’s a spec project because the original writer knows the world and characters better than anyone. “There are cases where the original writer is too busy… or they’ve creatively given everything they’ve got so we need an additional take.” He adds that sometimes a new writer will be brought it for a dialogue pass or if it’s about a female character, they might bring in a female writer – every project is different. “Black Mass had 11 writers, three or four directors, and they each did their own drafts,” said John, proving that there is no cookie-cutter development process.
Flying Rhino Productions is open to a lot of different kinds of stories.
When asked what types of stories John and Ryan’s production company, Flying Rhino Productions, is looking for, Ryan said, “[All stories] pretty much across the board.” The story has to be commercial, but it also has to touch them emotionally.
But they are open to genre films. “Ryan loves horror,” said John, adding, “We are excited to find a new take on that horror idea. Horror is great for younger, greener writers because it is a lower price point for financiers. First-time writers and directors often start in low-budget horror.”
John also said to look into the different subgenres of horror and consider trying a fresh take on the haunted house story, but other genres are popular now, too. “Serial killers are hot, both theatrically and for streamers,” said John. He also really likes stories that are a mash-up of genres like Happy Death Day. “Grounded sci-fi is a very hot genre. Something more contained, like Looper, Arrival. Everyone wants the next John Wick – in terms of IP, a real kind of action-y, young movie like that – where are the books? It’s tough to find them.” He also points to, “Uplifting, true-life stories like Hacksaw Ridge that are broadly appealing and very relatable true stories.” He said he often googles “untold stories of the Civil War, etc.” “You find interesting material,” said John.
ScreenCraft asked John to share what the hottest genres were in the industry right now.
- Franchisable Horror Ideas: Haunted house stories, creature features, serial killers. Clever twists, genre mash-ups, great scares.
- Four Quadrant Family: Spielberg movies, kids & teens acting up in original situations
- Grounded Sci-Fi: Unexplained phenomena on earth, contained stories on other planets
- Action: Everybody wants the next John Wick, think old school Jean Claude Van Damme revenge stories
- Uplifting True Life: Broadly appealing, relatable, interesting true stories, something that will make me head to Wikipedia to read more about it
- Fresh Takes on IP: Something different done to public domain characters like Dracula, Cinderella, Dickens, Poe, etc
- Dance Movies, Food Movies, Heist Movies: Or these mashed w/ another of the above genres
Have someone proofread your screenplay.
John says he reads a lot of scripts. “2000-plus scripts with the whole staff over the 50 weeks. One of the easiest things a writer can do is eliminate the speed bumps. Fix typos. Dropped words. Have someone else do a proofread. Don’t be sloppy.
In meetings, writers should be confident, not cocky.
John says the writer should try to, “Present the best version of yourself.” He remembers taking a meeting with one writer who was starting to get a lot of heat and he was just annoyingly cocky. He didn’t want to meet with him again. He says it’s important to like the person because you’re going to spend 18 months with them developing the screenplay. Executives like to see writers with confidence, not ones who are cocky.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself as a writer.
While a writer’s manager may try to put them in a box, John says, “Don’t define yourself too narrowly.” Most writers can work in many genres and tell many types of stories. Don’t limit yourself.
John and Ryan were former judges for ScreenCraft’s 2021 Feature Screenplay Competition where they met with 10 of the top writers and chose one screenplay to option and develop.