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What European film makers can learn from the Americans

Home » 24 FPS » Culture Clash – what European filmmakers should learn from the Americans.

Culture Clash – what European filmmakers should learn from the Americans.

As I write, I am preparing for the Berlinale which, for some, will be followed by MIP and the Cannes Film Festival. Many European producers will attend these events, looking for the same elusive thing: co-production money, which may not be easy to come by. 


For most European countries, the language barrier should not be a serious issue because they dub and subtitle. There is another problem that affects most European projects, however, and that is a reluctance to understand why American films and TV shows travel so well throughout the non-English-speaking world, where they get dubbed and reach very broad audiences.

I think that the reason lies in the explanation as to why so many European films, even those in English, do badly in the USA. And I don’t mean because the Americans are perhaps the most narrow-minded and chauvinistic movie audience in the world.

America is out of reach because they make films in a different way from what Europeans do. What does that mean? Essentially, there are five key factors:
1) They do have higher budgets and therefore luscious SFX.
2) They have bigger stars, which undoubtedly helps.
3) They have bigger marketing budgets too, which also helps.
4) Their scenes are much shorter than ours.
5) They use significantly less dialogue than European movies.

There is not much we Europeans can do about the first three factors; our industries don’t make enough profits to be able to reinvest to the same level as the Americans. Yet American movies travel around the world so well not only because they have higher budgets and bigger stars, but also because of very inexpensive factors like the length of their scenes and their prioritising of visual as opposed to dialogue-based storytelling.

Visual storytelling works on audiences irrespective of their level of education and literacy; short scenes mean leaving lots of detail for the audience to fill in themselves. This makes them feel good about watching the movie, as they actively engage in the process. A passive audience is the death knell of a movie.

Top that by having feel-good happy endings (indeed, you could say that this is a sixth key factor of American filmmaking) and you almost have a recipe for a successful movie. This is not to say that all movies must have happy endings, but if you do not have enough money to risk losing it, then making an auteur movie about depression and death, with too many talking heads and few or no scenes that need a big screen, seems to me to be negligent.

Is it too difficult to understand the implications of visual storytelling? Is it that producers, directors and writers simply don’t think about the impact of the form on the audience? I always get a buzz when the first couple of pages of a script have no dialogue, when my imagination is led seamlessly through a visual narrative.

If this is later complemented by an emotionally-engaging narrative, I begin to believe that this writer has got something special. If there is a high concept and compelling story and rounded characters, we have that rare thing: a commercial script. • @JulianFriedmann

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 27 (March/April 2012)

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The realities of co-production deals

Home » 24 FPS » Reality Check – the realities of co-production deals

Reality Check – the realities of co-production deals

Since the easy money dried up a couple of years ago with the demise of badly drafted tax breaks, finding production funding has become far harder. Gone, thankfully, are the plethora of middlemen who could raise millions from rich people who were able to avoid—if not evade—tax. Those middlemen might have made some think that producing was relatively easy, but the mass of films that came out of the decade of Section 48 were barely seen on any big screens. 


In getting rid of Section 48 and the appallingly abused tax breaks, the government did clean things up. But in their desperation to attract inward investment, especially from American studios, they made the basic tax break one that only applied if you did the work in the UK. So a big Spielberg production does wonders for the airline and hotel industries, for many crew and extras and for the balance of trade—but very little for British screenwriters, directors or independent producers.

If an independent producer seeks a co-production there are treaties they can use, but the basic tax break is not available if they shoot outside the UK. There is a cultural test you need to pass to qualify as a British film, but even if you do, none of the money spent on development is allowable.

The problem is that, broadly speaking, the British are unattractive to co-produce with. They have little or no development money for a start so, like many of our European counterparts, are forced to green-light films before the script is ready—a guaranteed way of minimising the success of a film.

The overall shortage of production funds means that co-productions have become more important. This brings its own problems, not least of which is the fact that the English language is so dominant in the movie business. While that is good news in many respects, as far as making us easy to co-produce with for our European neighbours, it has the opposite effect. The British are also known to be arrogant in co-production situations; even countries like Canada, South Africa and Australia, who speak the same language, are tended to be used as locations, rather than real partners. And America is out of reach because they make films in a different way from the way we do; their scenes are much shorter and they use significantly less dialogue.

So what does this mean for anyone thinking of co-producing? Simply, don’t plan to co-produce; don’t construct your stories with four characters from four potentially financing countries. It rarely works. Plan a story that is universal, emotionally compelling and visually engaging. When you have that right, then worry about the finance. Paradoxically, the more difficult the financial situation, whether brought on by adverse tax breaks or simply the recession, the more essential it is to get the script right.

Filmmaking should be a business, albeit an entertaining one. Connecting with audiences means the reliance on artificial co-production deals becomes less necessary. Really engaging scripts are rare, but they need not be. • @julianfriedmann

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 26 (Jan/Feb 2012)

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Remakes and adaptations


Trusted Source: Examining the popularity of remakes and adaptations

When all the bravado and puff of Hollywood is cleared away, and one sees how reliant the industry is on adaptations, it is not surprising that remakes of foreign films feature strongly in the annual line-ups—and I don’t just mean those of Stieg Larsson. 


Almost all art is plagiarism, if not of another artist, then of nature. Does that make it less admirable or valuable? Perhaps not, when the plagiariser manages to have better distribution and gets the art to a wider audience than the original.

The film—and literary—industry is obsessed with originality, as if it bestows some magic elixir, when it really should be obsessed with accessibility, that is, getting the film to the widest possible audience. The time-honoured debate about quality and quantity comes to the fore when a filmmaker expects to be paid millions, but has never shown that they have the ability to tell a story that will be accessible to a wide audience.

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So, here are 10 reasons why adaptations and remakes are so popular in Hollywood:
1. The thought that, ‘I can’t be fired for buying rights to a successful book; even if the adaptation is a huge flop, it won’t be my fault’.
2. If based on a best-seller, there is already proven audience for the product—which is comforting.
3. Telling stories is very hard. If someone has worked out how to tell a particular story well, why not copy it?
4. If an author has told their story badly, you may be able to see a way to improve it—although writing a good script is much harder than writing a good novel.
5. Financiers who know little about the film industry are easier to convince if there is a successful predecessor.
6. Financiers who know a lot about the film industry are usually more impressed by a novel—or, these days, a comic or computer game—than by a script.
7. If the author of the original material is dead then you don’t have to worry about upsetting them—and you can prove that you are even better than they were.
8. True stories must be convincing because they actually happened. (And if you believe this you have not read Aristotle’s ‘credibility is more important than truth’ mantra.)
9. Many adaptations can be co-produced, meaning two or more producers sharing the costs.
10. Film is essentially collaborative; with an adaptation you get two writers for the price of one.

Adaptations have become so ubiquitous that there are subcategories for the source material: novels, biographies, history books, television shows, comics, graphic novels, computer games, webisodes, to name some of the most popular. We now even have a Remakes Market, launched in 2010 and next taking place in LA in November 2011. (
It will be interesting to see how many films in the future acknowledge their source material, and how many claim originality. Check the credits. I bet that ‘inspired by’ will increase in popularity, at the cost of ‘based on’.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 25 (November/December 2011)



The failure of training

Home » 24 FPS » The Failure of Training – Why a lack of proper training is choking the industry

The Failure of Training – Why a lack of proper training is choking the industry

Can scriptwriting be taught? Judging by the proliferation of courses offering to teach this dark art, there are clearly many who believe that it is possible. 

Yet, in over 20 years of being an agent and teaching writers—more about the business aspects of their careers than about being creative—I have seen little compelling evidence to say that the way we are going about it is the right way.


One thing that most agents agree on is that there has not been a significant improvement in the quality of really good scripts over the last decade. In an article in ScriptWriter, Bicât and Macnabb noted that ‘the presumption is that if we keep training and retraining the writers endlessly to write and rewrite to some mystical blueprint, we’ll somehow achieve a great artistic and/or box office smash’. I believe, however, that we need to face the unpalatable truth, that the effective teaching of scriptwriting is nearly impossible. Since scripts are stories about people, what should be taught to upcoming scriptwriters is psychology—in particular, the study of human behaviour and motivation. These are recognised academic subjects and can be taught accordingly. Scriptwriting is not an academic subject, and should not be taught as one.

The dominance of structure as a central tenet in the teaching of scriptwriting has attracted those students with analytical skills rather than creative skills. What aspiring scriptwriters also need to be taught is the collaborative nature of the craft. Unlike other creative occupations, many of which tend to be solitary, scriptwriting is best done in collaboration with others on real projects. In order to collaborate effectively and successfully, student scriptwriters must learn the industry’s requirements and modus operandi. By and large, such craft skills are not academic subjects and are best learned on the job, in the real world. Indeed, equally important—and something that cannot be taught—is life experience.

If the number of high-quality scripts is not increasing, it would appear that the academic, theoretical teaching of scriptwriting is failing the industry. No one can seriously argue that the British film industry is in great shape. If it is in better shape than it was 10 years ago, it could be because of strategic support systems for tax-benefit financing and the late UK Film Council’s largesse. But the great scripts are simply not there.

I believe that one of the most important reasons for the failure of the British film industry to achieve some kind of lift-off is the failure to train the right people in the right way.

In the opinion of many, there is actually an increase in the number of mediocre scripts that circle around industry desks. What we are witnessing is the continued growth of an unregulated development industry, made up of increasing numbers of courses offering to train anyone who can afford to pay, and this has resulted in a huge script mountain. And, as more and more ‘students’ choose to be trained to write scripts, so new courses are continuously made available.

I believe that one of the most important reasons for the failure of the British film industry to achieve some kind of lift-off is the failure to train the right people in the right way. This is why there is a lack of great scripts and it is primarily this—not the acknowledged lack of access to screens for British movies—which is holding the industry back. And the same is largely true all over Europe.♦ @julianfriedmann /

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 24 (September/October 2011)

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Acting the part - the dynamic between writers and actors


Acting The Part – The dynamic between writers and actors.

As a writers’ agent, I am used to the old jokes about how the poor writer is at the bottom of the food chain, pecking order, totem pole and so on. Like the one about the actress being so dumb that she tried to advance her career by sleeping with a writer. 


Sadly, it is true that writers are not accorded their rightful place by many in the industry, who claim great respect for the idea of the script while actually showing little for the writer. It is also true that the actress was probably tired of macho, self-centred producers, and wanted to sleep with someone who could actually hold a conversation. Did you see the bumper sticker about divers? They do it deeper. Gardeners do it in beds. Well, the one about producers said that they do it prematurely.

How often is a film ruined, not because the script was bad, but because the producer chose to go into production before the screenplay was ready? And how often do actors—probably correctly—see that the script has weaknesses, but the writer is not brought in to understand the comments and do a considered rewrite? Instead, the rewrite is often a rush job by the director producer, or a distant relative of one of them.

Actors sometimes have insights that writers can learn from.

Actors sometimes have amazing insights that writers can learn from, and producers should work harder to bring about meetings between the creator of the characters and the people living as those characters. I was really impressed by Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski’s books, and think they should be encouraged reading for writers. What actors do with body language is so important, perhaps even more so than what they do with dialogue, but when do writers get taught to write scripts without it? The first course I ever did was with the legendary Frank Daniel, and the exercise we had to do every night for 10 nights was to write scenes without dialogue. While writing this piece I looked back at the reams of notes I took during this course, extracts of which can be found at

The coming together of actors and writers during a project is something I wish producers would bring about more often. A good piece of casting is more likely to green-light a project than a good script with no casting; film financiers, distributors and broadcasters are in thrall to it. For example, would the Wallander TV series have happened if not for star Kenneth Branagh? Very unlikely. The simple fact is that producers tend to value casting above all else. If a script doesn’t hit the mark right away they often either fire the writer, who is actually capable of getting the script right, or drop the project entirely. Once casting is attached and the green light is closer, producers just don’t want to hear that the script is not ready. We need to solve that problem before our film industry can really take off. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 16 (March/April 2010)

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