Go East, Young Screenwriter: Beijing, Four Christmases, and the World of Possibilities
Just, just got back from China and, in a word: amazing! At the risk of blurting it all out and telling you everything I experienced — because there is so much to report — let me simply say it was one of the most informative and inspiring trips I’ve taken.
Frankly, I had some trepidation about going; it’s a long way and was scheduled during Thanksgiving. But in my never-ending quest to bring the storytelling principles of Save the Cat! to the world, and represent the readers of this blog when I do, it was my honor and privilege. And I was so graciously welcomed and treated while there, that any hesitation was quickly replaced with gratitude and delight.
Call me Chairman Meow. And call this a chance to think for a moment about markets beyond the ones we may be considering. If my experience in the past week is any indication, many more will head East in the future. For despite the fits and starts reported by those who have assayed this new world, the opportunities for the best and the brightest among us are too tempting not to consider.
Kevin Geiger is one such trailblazer. Kevin is a Disney alum, whose credits include Chicken Little and Fantasia/2000, now living and working in China full time. As President & CEO of Animation Options LLC (www.animationoptions.com) and a Sino-American enthusiast, it was his suggestion to invite me to speak to the filmmakers chosen from all over China at the Beijing Film Academy, meeting for a special month-long conference.
Joining Kevin in inviting me was Feng Wen, an author, filmmaker, and teacher, and the co-creator and co-director on the Chinese-American animated feature, The Road to Home, that Kevin is producing. Kevin writes about this project in Animation Magazine this month.
By accepting their kind invitation, I got the chance to give an hour-long talk titled “All Stories Are about Transformation” and teach a day-long class to China’s top filmmakers. I also got to meet with officials in the Chinese government who welcomed me as an honored guest.
Wherever we go in the world, the challenge is the same: It starts with “the poster” and “the idea,” and that is why Save the Cat! and my method of thinking about movies from the logline first was such a hit with my audience at the BFA. In addition to hearing about the 15 beats of my beat sheet, and my new secret weapon — the five points of the “Storming the Castle” finale — many were blown away by the fluidity of this model.
It also helps explain why one of the most popular movies in China this year is Kung Fu Panda. Between sessions, it was often cited as a film Chinese filmmakers should have made and a great example of one that marries Chinese themes and Western storytelling. As part of my talk, I dissected the 15 beats of the DreamWorks hit — and it hits them all. But I always kept coming back to the poster, the idea, the “What is it?” of every movie. If we are to compete in the global marketplace, we must always keep that in mind.
I started my class by sharing the experience I had on my first day in Beijing. I arrived, checked in to my hotel, then went for a walk. It wasn’t long before I found a movie theater. And there I was with my 100 RMB (the average price of a movie ticket) but what movie would I exchange my money for? I recognized James Bond, and the Brendan Frasier summer movie Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I was less informed about the Chinese film posters; what I would get for the price of my ticket?
And that’s the challenge.
China is rich with storytelling tradition, and now has the financial wherewithal, talent, and growing facility to compete with any film production on earth, but if you can’t attract an eager ticket buyer like me with a story that appeals on a primal level, with a poster that “resonates” and draws me in, how will I experience it?
It is the perfect example of the challenge we all face! Our ideas mean something to us, but unless we take the responsibility to attract the uninitiated with a concept that intrigues, my 100 RMB will be spent elsewhere.
For creators versed in Save the Cat! this is an opportunity to apply what we know to the biggest global market in history. If your target is such, if you want to create and produce successful franchises like Kung Fu Panda, it begins with thinking of an eager ticket buyer like me. The skills we bring to all filmmakers worldwide include creating clear, concise, primal, poster-driven stories, and demand for this skill is growing.
In addition to teaching class, I was honored to be introduced to a number of officials in the government as part of my trip. I loved meeting Mr. and Mrs. Zong, who made me feel so welcome, and Lijun Sun, the Dean of the Animation School at the Beijing Film Academy, who is a big proponent of blending Chinese and Western styles. I also had the honor of meeting Mr. Jing, Vice-minister of SARFT (the State Administration Radio, Film and Television), who is responsible for deciding which American films come to China. Last year, he chose only 20, Kung Fu Panda being one. And of the biggest Western hits in China ever, Titanic, ranks highest. Why? Why else? Poster. Primal. Boy and girl from different classes fall in love on a sinking ship. Got it. Here is my 100 RMB. I’m in!
And of course, because I am me, part of my trip to China also involved haunting the hotel Internet center to check on the progress of Four Christmases, which premiered during Thanksgiving back home. From the long list of spec sales that I perused in 2003 when I was first writing Save the Cat! I selected a few to discuss, and why they sold strictly on a concept level. Four Christmases was one of these. I dissected why that movie appealed to Hollywood, what cast it would draw, what the story was, all intuited from one simple logline. It came to fruition this holiday, opening #1 despite critical disapproval. Why? Poster. Concept. That’s what drew not only the studio that bought the script, but its cast and ultimately its audience. All based on a great, clear, primal idea! Congratulations to Four Christmas’ original screenwriters Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and co-writers Jon Lucas & Scott Moore on their success.
When I wasn’t loitering at Box Office Mojo, or giving talks, I also got to see the sights. And I am delighted to show you the shot I imagined when I was first invited: me at the Great Wall with copies of my book. As a postscript, on my last day in Beijing, I met with Xu Weiguang, Deputy Director of China Film Press, the #1 publisher of film books in China, who excitedly grabbed my book and enthused about the title and cover photo! Thanks to our meeting, mine will be one of three books on screenwriting published in China: Story by Robert McKee, Screenplay by Syd Field, and now Save the Cat!
It’s a great cover! I was told. It makes you want to know “what is it?” But I am not surprised. Hollywood taught me about “poster” — and taught me well!
Thank you again to all those who made my stay in China such a delight, including co-speaker Steven Brown from Cal Arts, and all the students at BFA. It was a fantastic experience from beginning to end, and one I hope more Western filmmakers will experience in the future.