MYTH #4: THE FIRST TEN PAGES

Written by Bill Mesce

In Hollywood terms, it would be tantamount to criminal negligence on my part to counsel you to ignore the 1st Ten Pages rule: that you only have those few pages to convince the reader your screenplay is worth reading to the end (let alone acquiring).

The 1st Ten Pages rule is a true, real fact, as much as death and taxes. And about as pleasant. Here’s how real I believe that rule is: I’ll put money down on the table right now that says a lot of script readers won’t even give you that much breathing space; you’re lucky if they give you the ten.

So, Bill, you might ask, if this is a real thing, why is it on the list of Six Screenwriting Myths? You’ve spent the last couple of months telling us one supposed rule after another is a lot of crap, and now you start off this installment telling us this myth isn’t a myth? Bill, ol’ boy, we are confused.

As well you might be, but as a work-up to an answer for you, let’s poke around into what this 1st Ten Page thing is all about.

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I first heard about it back in the 1980s when it was posited as a brutally practical tactic for dealing with The Pile.

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And what, may you ask, is The Pile? It’s that mountain of scripts that has to get plowed through by the poor low level Morlocks who do the reading for studios and producers and agencies and stars and etc. According to screenwriter William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, “…a major star may read two hundreds scripts a year, an executive twice that many.” Pity, then, the luckless executive’s assistant valiantly trying to winnow down The Pile and only pass on those scripts he/she thinks are worth the boss’s time. If the boss is reading 200-400, and those are only the ones the reader passes on, how many were read that didn’t get passed on? The numbers stagger.

No matter how fast you read, no matter how much you cheat by skimming, The Pile never goes stackofpaperdown. You’re reading into the night, you’re reading on the weekends, on the ride to work, you’re reading on the toilet, but as fast and as much as you read, there’s more stuff coming in the door, in the mail, over the transom, getting foot-nudged to you from the bathroom stall next door. The 1st Ten Page thing came about as a way to keep that poor reader from being found in his/her cubicle one day, crushed to death when The Pile toppled over (or from suiciding, or going berserk and setting the office on fire, or running screaming naked into the streets completely out of what was left of his/her mind).

Why 10 pages? Totally arbitrary number. Sounds better than nine or eleven. Has a nice, round, heft to it (and it’s not carved in stone, either; according to Goldman, during the time of Screen Trade – 1983 – screenwriters were aiming to score within a script’s first 15 pages).

Ok, so a two-time Oscar winner says this kind of thing was a fact over 30 years ago, and, if anything, it’s five pages harsher now. Let me ask the question again, Mr. Bill; why is it on the list?

Because, my friends, somewhere between then and now, some people in the movie business have gotten it into their heads that this constitutes good writing. Horrifyingly real and pragmatic as the rule is, it has nothing to do with good writing, and I’d put more money down on the table that says, in fact, it’s probably responsible for a lot of truly crappy storytelling.

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jaws-bluray-dvd-2074_BW_00012A_rgb-e1340587385599Like all the other myths we’ve addressed, 1st Ten Pages isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. Look at Jaws (1975, with a screenplay by Peter Benchley, author of the source novel, and Carl Gottlieb as well as several uncredited script doctors). That picture’s opening – its first ten pages – are about as perfect an illustration of the concept as an effective tactic as you’re going to find: young lady goes for some moonlit skinny-dipping while her would-be partner passes out on the beach in a drunken stupor. Said young lady then gets whipped around in frothing water like a puppy’s chew toy as some unseen denizen of the deep takes hold of her. She screams, the passed-out dude back on the beach barely stirs, and under she goes, a midnight snack for the monster shark which has now staked out this stretch of ocean as his personal buffet.

Even on the page, this hooks you from the beginning. Even in Benchley’s not particularly well-written book, he’s reeling you in from the outset.

Or consider the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987). The brothers pack more story into the opening minutes of Arizona than is contained in some entire movies, as the flick whizzes through H.I.’s (Nicolas Cage) criminal career, his meeting up with police officer Ed (Holly Hunter), their romance, marriage, discovery that Ed can’t have children, and their plan to kidnap one of the quintuplets born to a furniture magnate and his wife…and that’s all before the credits run.

These are the kind of openings 1st Ten Page proselytizers proselytize about.

But one of the bad side-effects of the concept is a nasty tendency for some writers, desperate to grab a reader’s eyeballs and not let go, to frontload their scripts with a lot of over-the-top action and broad-stroked characters, essentially bludgeoning the reader into submission rather than craftily hooking him/her.

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Let’s look at the opening for Lethal Weapon (1987, screenplay by Shane Black). Young girl stoned out of her mine walks off a high-rise balcony to smash into a car floors below. Cut to undercover cop Riggs (Mel Gibson), making a bogus drug buy. Riggs crazily flashes his badge, guns come out, Riggs drops two of the four dope dealers, and when another takes him hostage, he calls for his fellow cops to not worry about him and to go ahead and shoot the bad guy. When the bad guy remarks how nuts Riggs is, Riggs head butts him and that’s that.

Now, there’s no denying these opening minutes set the stage. This ain’t exactly The French Connection we’re watching: over-the-top characters, more bad guys dropped than most cops shoot in a career, a self-destructive sharpshooting detective… Well, we could go on and on. It’s an opening where it’s impossible not to get an idea of how the rest of this flick is going to play.

Is this effective screenwriting? After a box office success and three money-minting sequels, you can’t argue with it.

But is it good?

As The Bard said, aye, there’s the rub.

If you like what Stephen King refers to as “moron movies” – movies you can kick back and enjoy while disengaging the thinking parts of your brain (as I have the many times I’ve watched LW) – I’d say, yeah, ok, Lethal Weapon is good. If, on the other hand, you’re more of a French Connection or Ronin guy (movies I’ve also sat through many times)…well then, no, not so good. In fact, by comparison, it’s absurd, it’s comic book storytelling.

But it’s symptomatic of a kind of screenwriting that’s come to dominate the commercial mainstream over the last 20-30 years: movies that pretty much play all their high cards up front. The characters and the plot are set up quickly (and to do it quickly usually demands simplicity and overscale) and we spend the next 110 minutes watching a plot unspool pretty much the way those first 10 minutes told us it would unspool.

You see it in thrillers, romcoms (Nora Ephron’s 1993 Sleepless in Seattle is an easy example; let me guess, these two cutsie-sweetie adorables end up together? No kidding!), broad comedies (2009’s The Hangover; gee, what’re the chances these arrested development-types will get into trouble? No kidding!)actually, it’s hard to find a mainstream flick that doesn’t do this.

Look at the movies that are leading the 2015 box office: Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Ant-Man, San Andreas. C’mon, seriously, you didn’t know where these movies were going even before the first 10 minutes was up? Did the characters introduced up front evolve in some sort of surprising, unpredictable way?

If you said you didn’t know and yes, that the characters and the movie still surprised you… Well, my friend, I’d say you don’t go to many movies.

The thing is, for big budget whammo-blammo flicks like these, that’s fine. Nobody’s coming to see great revelations of the human paragon when they plunk down their money at the ticket counter for one of these action-and-FX behemoths. But that 1st Ten Page thing has killed (at the major studio level) what used to be a Hollywood storytelling standard: the slow build.

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Let’s start with one of the all-time greats and look at an aspect that makes it one of the all-time greats: Citizen Kane (1941, screenplay by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz). Movie opens with the camera crawling around bazillionaire Charles Foster Kane’s lavish estate gone to seed, winds up in his bedroom just in time to see him – his face obscured — whisper, “Rosebud” and die. Cut to a faux newsreel account of this big shot’s life and death, then there’s a lot of exposition among the journalists who’ve watched this film-within-a-film (and whose faces we never see) about trying to find out the real story behind this guy, the clue maybe being his last word: “Rosebud.”

By contemporary standards, it’s not much of an open: slow-paced, heavily expository, and offers only the most arm’s-length introductions to the two characters who’ll carry us through the movie: Kane (Welles), whom we’ll only ever see as others see him with all the contradictions that entails; and the reporter tasked with digging into Kane’s bio (William Alland), whose face we will never see, and who is less a character than a device, a microphone for those who knew Kane to talk at.

Let’s get a bit more modern-day and look at a movie we’ve already cited several times in this series: The Godfather (1972, with Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo adapting Puzo’s novel). The movie opens on a character we will only ever see once more in the movie, and then only briefly – Bonasera the undertaker (Salvatore Corsitto) – who has come to the Godfather (Marlon Brando) looking for revenge against the young men who assaulted his daughter; a throwaway as this story element will never be revisited. Bonasera is followed by a parade of other visitors to the Don, looking for either favors or to pay tribute on this, the day of the don’s daughter’s wedding. We are introduced to an ensemble, not really knowing at this point who the pivotal players are (and with no indication that the movie’s focus will change, as Brando’s don is sidelined for part of the movie by an assassination attempt, replaced by his oldest son [James Caan] who will be murdered, placing leadership of the family with youngest son Michael [Al Pacino]); or what the major plot driver will be (there’s just a few tossed off lines during this opening sequence about setting up a meeting with drug dealer Solozzo, and it is not until that meeting — which occurs well into the movie — that The Godfather finally gains its forward momentum).

About ten years ago, I interviewed Andrew Goldman, part of the program planning staff for HBO’s sister channel Cinemax for 30 years and eventually holding the position of Vice President of HBO/Cinemax Program Planning. Andy is such a brainiac about all things film, TV, and pop cultural, he now teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I think some excerpts from that interview are worth pulling up here:

“These days, we learn about character through CGI,” says Goldman.  “How many movies are there today where you actually spend time learning the tics of a character?”  Having not long before caught a rerun of the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake on one of his company’s channels, he gives the example of the 1968 original, pointing out how much screen time viewers spend with the lead character of Taylor (Charlton Heston) before the main story kicks in.

“Heston has several soliloquies that perfectly represent a feeling of the time – a sense of disillusionment with the human race.  Those scenes also carry a more universal discontent that still feels relevant today.  It’s maybe a good half-hour or more before the hunt in the cornfield where we see the apes for the first time.  It gives us time to know Taylor, and you know something?  He’s not a very nice guy!” Goldman ticks off Taylor’s abrasive elements:  arrogance, condescension, misanthropy, a haughty disdain for the rest of humankind; he’s a bundle of foibles.  That kind of moral complexity, Goldman feels, was a trademark of movies of the time.  “The hero did not have to be a stalwart.  Taylor is actually something of a prick, but we identify with his discontents.”

(Let me interject here with a relevant, emphasizing point: if it wasn’t for the giveaway of the movie’s title, there’s nothing in that opening half-hour of Planet of the Apes to tell you where the story is going.)

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Goldman then looks at the Planet of the Apes remake, pointing out how, instead of that breathing space at the head of the original, the action starts almost immediately.  “It can’t be more than ten minutes into the movie before (lead) Mark Wahlberg is off into space, he crashes, and not long after that he’s running from the apes.  (As a character) there’s nothing to him!”

There was an ethos of time-taking in story-telling in the best movies of the 1960s/1970s, says Goldman.  “We used to watch a character breathe.  We used to watch characters take their time assessing other characters.  You snuck into a character’s life.  It was a bleeding-over (into commercial films) of the cinema verite process of documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s.  Pauses are good; that’s when you get to know characters.”

 

The slow build may not have been the only opening stratagem, but it was certainly a mainstay for decades in movies of all sorts. In the 1962 WW II epic The Longest Day (with Cornelius Ryan adapting his book for the screen, and additional scenes written by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon), the first hour of this nearly three-hour extravaganza consists of nothing but the movie’s all-star cast (there is no central character; the movie, like its source book, is a mosaic portrait of the Normandy invasion) fretting about whether or not the D-Day landings are going to go off or not. That’s it; no action, no main character, just a lot of jabber from dozens of characters about will-we-or-won’t-we.

Despite being considered a classic actioner, another WW II thriller – The Dirty Dozen (1967, Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller adapting E.M. Nathanson’s novel) also takes, by contemporary standards, a hell of a long time getting going. Granted, the movie starts with a shock as Major Resiman (Lee Marvin) stands witness to a hanging, but he then proceeds to an extended yak-fest of a briefing about his assignment leading a behind-the-lines mission of a dozen convicted criminals. Reisman then meets the prospective Dozen for the first time at a military prison, then there’s another long stretch of jawing as Reisman interviews the principals among them. We’re a good 20 minutes or so into the movie’s 2 hr. 30 min. running time before we’ve got a handle on the basic plot and major players, with all of that info delivered through nothing more dazzling than expository dialogue.

Consider that just about every private eye movie ever made – from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon (John Huston adapting Dashiell Hammett’s novel) to 1966’s Harper (William Goldman adapting Ross Macdonald’s novel, The Moving Target) to 1974’s Chinatown (screenplay by Robert Towne) starts with similar gab parties: enter the client, there’s a ton of exposition to set up the case (most of which, we usually find out at the end of Act One, to be b.s.), and then there’s still more exposition as our gumshoe begins his initial poking around into the case.

Even in movies from that more patient era which did opt for a punchy opening, it was hardly the shoot-the-works kind of opener that seems de rigueur now.

I mentioned The French Connection earlier (1971, Ernest Tidyman adapting Robin Moore’s book). The movie opens in Marseilles, we follow a man never identified who seems to be tailing a certain car, the man is abruptly assassinated by hitman Marcel Bozzuffi, there’s some cryptic conversation between Bozzuffi and his boss (Fernando Rey), then the movie cuts to Brooklyn where two NYPD detectives (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) bust a street-level dope dealer; an action with no connection to the main plot. It’s a beginning with a lot of 1st Ten Page pop: the killing in Marseilles, Hackman and Scheider on a frantic foot chase through a stretch of New York that looks like war-ravaged Beirut, but, unlike Lethal Weapon, it’s all life-sized, taking place in the same world where the rest of us live…and has kept us interested by not telling us where this ride is taking us. We’re about 12 minutes into the 104-minute movie before Hackman tips to the low-level hood he suspects might be involved in something worth his interest. It’ll be another 12 minutes before Hackman and Scheider connect the hood with a major narcotics figure and now – 24 minutes into the movie – the main plot finally kicks in: Hackman/Scheider’s investigation and their cracking of the – ta da! – French Connection.

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So, what’s the point of the slow build? What advantage does it have over today’s standard, over-energized, breathless 1st Ten Pages?

The idea, as Andy Goldman tells us, is to give the audience a baseline; a sense of what “normal” is before taking us to more highly dramatized levels. That “breathing space” Andy Goldman spoke of was about us getting to know the “before” of a story’s characters before a story’s action began to energize, twist, and possibly even pervert them. What would the nightmarish last half of Deliverance (1971, James Dickey adapting his novel) be without its four-suburbanites-on-a-lulling-backwoods-idyll first half? Or would the introduction of the titular big ape in King Kong (1933, screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, and an uncredited Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, and Leon Gordon) be as impressive early in the movie instead of coming about one-third of the way into the film? Or how disturbing would Jack Nicholson’s descent into homicidal, delusional madness have been in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980, Kubrick and Diane Johnson adapting Stephen King’s novel) if it had been tipped early? Would Pixar’s lovely tale of love between robots, WALL-E (2008, writing chores handled by Andrew Stanton, Pete Doctor, Jim Reardon) have the same heart-aching sweetness if we hadn’t first spent almost 20 minutes alone with WALL-E, getting acquainted with his loneliness, his childlike wonder and respect for vestiges of a past he never knew, and his longing for connection?

From classic thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) to rat-a-tat comedies like The Out of Towners (1970), arty tours of the demimonde like Midnight Cowboy (1969), high cinematic art like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), vintage sci fiers like the original The Thing from Another World (1951), goofs like The Big Lebowski (1998), stately docudramas like The King’s Speech (2010), John Wayne punch-punch bang-bang Westerns like El Dorado (1966), and art house faves like The Artist (2011), the slow build demonstrates both its pliability and its strength in drawing an audience into the texture and flow of cinematic storytelling whether it was Saturday matinee schlock (any John Wayne flick) or convention-defying high art (any Stanley Kubrick flick).

To Robert Towne, Oscar-winner for his brilliant neo-noir Chinatown, this business about front-loading scripts to provide a hook defies common sense. Interviewed for the 1981 book (see? This was an issue even then!), The Craft of the Screenwriter, Towne pointed out the routinely overlooked yet obvious fact that even if the beginning of a movie sucks, “They’ve paid three-fifty or five dollars…They’re there. They’re not going to go anywhere.”

So, with such a tonnage of examples to the contrary, how did the 1st Ten Pages doctrine evolve from a tactical option to a time management tactic to a dominating aesthetic?

Like any other long journey, one step at a time.

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Once upon a time, people used to read books. For fun. And now they don’t.

Ok, that’s an unfair, monumentally broad generalization, and an overly simplistic explanation of how 1st 10 Pages got where it is today.

But I think you’ll find, as you look back over cinema history, that what was, once upon a time, a new medium trying to find its voice often aped the architecture of the novel (which some cinema aestheticians have argued is – or was – the movies’ closest structural relative). The slow build – the patient, careful laying down of a foundation of circumstances and character – was a regular part of literary storytelling. One could even argue that at least some clearly artistically ambitious films – say Kubrick movies, David Lean epics, Francis Coppola’s best work, just to name a few – aspired toward the same dramatic gravitas of a fine novel, and often did so by mirroring the same stately elegance of one.

(WARNING: SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION APPROACHING!)

In my 2007 book, Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema (still available on Amazon, kids!), I spent three rather dense pages explaining how the literary aesthetic that was a part of cinema storytelling for decades, and particularly prominent in the 1960s/1970s, was steam rollered by a more rushed, action-driven dynamic beginning in the late 1970s and which now dominates the commercial mainstream. Let me boil it down for you:

The MTV generation of the 1970s/1980s – the first generation growing up with cable and who spent their youth flipping through the cable spectrum – begat an even more ADD-sensibility as their kids grew up enveloped by videogames, the Internet, and smart phones (I recently read an article showing how kids as young as four are comfortable and adept with portable tech like tablets). And now those kids have grown up to become the first rank of script readers sincerely believing faster is better.

Entered into evidence:

In a 2003 article, “Plotting 401,” for Hollywoodlitsales News, Eva Peel put forth the case that plots of certain genre movies had “improved” because they had “…taken to cramming 20-30 percent more plot beats into two hours— than your average action movie or thriller made before 1990.” So, by her lights, Francis Coppola’s paranoia classic The Conversation (1974) isn’t as good as Tony Scott’s vaguely similar (plot-wise) bang-chase-boom thriller, Enemy of the State (1998), and the slick but improbable, they-lived-happily-ever-after 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is better than the moody, almost melancholic 1968 original. That’s like saying a six-pack of Budweiser is better than a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne because it has more fizz.

The 1st 10 Pages concept isn’t something these perusers and evaluators use as a method of chipping away at The Pile; it’s the way they think.

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Screenwriting, as a profession, isn’t about personal expression, about telling a story one feels compelled to tell, about exploring the possibilities and limitations of the form. To be blunt: it ain’t art. Never was.

It’s about survival. “Movies are like wars,” Robert Towne said. “The guy who becomes an expert is the guy who doesn’t get killed.”

You don’t get to do diddley unless you write stuff readers think (and I emphasize this point; “think,” not “know”) people will pay to see. If the readers are afflicted with Hollywood’s particular brand of attention-deficit mindset, and they’re serving an audience with a similar affliction, well, as I said at the top of this piece, you’d be making a serious career error ignoring the idea of kicking off what you’d hoped would be a meditative piece on the human condition with some huge explosions and a cigar-chomping protagonist declaring, “Long, dark nights of the soul are for wussies.”

You want to work? You want to get paid to work? You want to work again? Then you do what you have to do.

I wouldn’t be the first person to compare the screenwriting profession with prostitution. The purpose of this particular entry is to remind you that, yeah, you do what you have to do to eat…just don’t confuse screwing with making love.