Continuing this week's series of tips - specific aspects of craft and creativity I've found in spec scripts that sell, based on my years of reading screenplays and doing notes on studio projects...
Tip #4: Scripts that sell speak to universal subjects in a distinctive voice.
One knowledgeable answer to the question, "What do the studios want?" is: The same but different.
They want yet another comic book super-hero franchise installment, but they want it with a new spin - say, featuring a darker-than-dark villain whose spooky nihilism calls the hero's very existence into question (see: The Dark Knight). They want yet another comedy about an unwanted pregnancy, but they want it from a new angle - say, from a contemporary teen's arch, blackly comedic POV (see: Juno), or from the POV of an unlikely boy-man slacker-shlub who can't believe he even got to sleep with a hottie, let alone got her Knocked Up.
It's for this reason that, should the movie live up to its effective trailer, this Christmas's Sherlock Holmes is going to be a gazillion-bucks-making franchise-starter. What could be more old hat than Holmes? Right, but we haven't seen this Holmes before - muscular and action star-like, with the winking wit of Robert Downey Jr. in the role and an anything-but-stodgy Jude Law in the place of his traditionally fat and nerdly sidekick, Watson. The trailer makes it look like Lethal Weapon in hip Victorian drag.
One secret to "high concept," along with originality - that lightning-in-a-bottle element that can't be manufactured or faked - is an original take: a fresh, inspired point of view on a familiar idea that has inherent universal appeal. This is where "personal voice" comes into play on a field that often seems anything but personal. The individual writer who has a truly unique take on a same-old notion is the one who wins the day.
Thus, a few years back, over the same six-month period, I read at least four different spec screenplays entitled Always a Bridesmaid. The plight of "the woman who never gets to be the bride" was clearly a movie that wanted to get made. But the one that actually did - Aline Brosh McKenna's savvy 27 Dresses - got made because it had the quirkiest, smartest angle: its heroine was The Ultimate Bridesmaid, a woman who lived and breathed other people's weddings... and got unwittingly involved with the very guy who wrote her favorite weddings column (while her older sister snatched the man of her dreams, thus replicating our heroine's always-a-bridesmaid dilemma).
Why go see a movie about a guy who's scared to meet his fiancee's parents? Well, what if his prospective father-in-law is an ex-CIA agent with lie-detector equipment in his basement... and our hero is a nurse? Casting Robert De Niro was the coup, of course, but Meet the Parents had its distinctive take already there on the screenplay page.
Here's the takeaway to consider: When you approach the market with your spec script, you're asking people to spend millions of dollars on your story, enlisting thousands of people in bringing it to cinematic life. So what sauce did you put on that very pricey sandwich? What makes your script just different enough to make us sit up and take notice?
If your concept isn't rife with originality, your execution should be. I can't count how many "bunch of guys go to Vegas and high jinks ensue" specs I've read over the years. But "guys wake up after a wild night's bachelor party in Vegas and have no idea what happened to them, or where the groom is?" I've only read one of those, and you know what became of it.
The funny thing is, nowadays practically every spec comedy that's got guys, Vegas and/or a wedding in it is being pitched as "the next Hangover," but that's a load of crap. The Hangover became a monstrous hit because it was driven by a mystery. Yes, it had good guy gags. But its writers' decision to tell the story by "leaving out last night" is what made the movie special.
Nothing's more commonplace than boy meets girl, yet rom-com specs sell every year. Sometimes it's the concept (see: Boy meets girl at the end of the movie, aka Sleepless in Seattle), sometimes it's the execution (see the it's-literally 500 Days of Summer). But something unique and distinctive must be put into the mix.
Think about your movie. What spin, take or tweak are you adding to the equation, that'll make the same thing different, and get it to the screen?