Whatever your feelings about Hollywood, it’s impossible to deny its influence on all of us. Even though many purposefully disregard Hollywood’s conventions, methods, and structures, we’re still affected by them. And to be honest, there’s a lot we can learn from them. We’ve recently been digging into Blake Snyder’s classic screenwriting book Save the Cat! And while much of it is as “Hollywood” as you’d expect, there’s a lot of gold in there too.
For example: loglines.
Loglines aren’t something most independent filmmakers (especially those operating exclusively in the short form on, say, Vimeo) have to think about. And yet the process of crafting a logline can be incredibly valuable.
Not sure what a logline even is? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Here’s a quick primer to get you up to speed.
A logline is one sentence that explains what a film is about. In Hollywood, they’re used to sell ideas to big studios that don’t always have time to read a script or listen to a full pitch.
Here are a few examples from Snyder’s book:
4 Christmases: “A newly married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parent’s homes.”
The Retreat: “A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him.”
Die Hard: “A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.”
Seems pretty simple, right? Nope. Writing a good logline means not only understanding your project thoroughly, but also understanding your audience and knowing why your film is worth their time.
Whether you’re producing a 90-minute feature or a 5-minute short, it’s vital to know what you want your audience to take away from your film. So while you may not need a logline to pitch your film to investors, going through the process of writing one will force you to clarify your creative vision. To know without a doubt what your project is really about.
“The point is that a good logline, in addition to pulling you in, has to offer the promise of more.”
Snyder suggests keeping four things in mind when developing a logline for your project.
“The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony,” Snyder writes.
What’s irony? In this case, Snyder is talking about a hook. Something unexpected. Something that makes you want to know more. “Like an itch you have to scratch,” Snyder says. But, of course, in order for your logline to have irony, your film must have irony also. What is surprising about it? What happens that your viewers wouldn’t expect? These questions aren’t just core to your logline; they’re core to your project. And if you’re not sure, then your viewers probably won’t be sure either.
A good logline is one that sparks an entire film. It inspires the reader to tell herself the story after hearing just one line. Snyder gives the example of the logline for Blind Date: “She’s the perfect woman — until she has a drink.”
Snyder: “I don’t know about you, but I see it. I see a beautiful girl and a date gone bad and a guy who wants to save it because…she’s the one! … The point is that a good logline, in addition to pulling you in, has to offer the promise of more.”
If your logline can create a mental picture all on its own, you know you are working with rich material. If a single sentence can tell the story, imagine what the whole film will do.
This one is geared toward filmmakers looking for investors, but there are creative implications here as well. Snyder recommends your logline have a “built-in sense of who it’s for and what it’s going to cost.” If your film is a cheap indie production aimed at an audience that’s similar to the audience for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it’s important to make it sound that way in the logline. Indicate that the film won’t have too many different locations and it will have a small cast. Investors are not only interested in whether the story sounds viable, but whether the entire production sounds viable.
Even if you’re not looking for investors, it’s still important to consider your audience and production costs. Who is going to see this and will it appeal to them? How much is this going to cost and can I actually make it happen? Answering these questions will help your film find success whether it’s online or on the big screen.
Good titles matter in the box office, sure, but even online. Even on Vimeo where a title and a thumbnail are often all it takes for someone to click in or click past.
One of our favorite Vimeo titles of all time is Håvard Byrkjeland’s Whateverest. Not only does the title perfectly capture the strange feeling of ennui laced throughout the film, but it also serves as a metaphor for the subject’s entire life.
Snyder says that, like the logline itself, a good title needs irony and needs to tell a tale. But, most importantly, the title needs to tell you what the movie is about. Again, it sounds simple, but nailing the perfect title is one of the hardest things to do. It is worth wrestling over.
Snyder strongly encourages his readers to pitch their loglines to friends, family, strangers, whoever, in order to get an honest feel for whether or not their story is interesting. His reason for doing this is simple: Eventually you’re going to need to pitch your logline to a studio executive, who will then need to pitch it to someone else, and on and on. It needs to be road-tested beforehand.
Even though you might not need anyone’s approval before going out and shooting your film, we love the idea of working out your logline and ideas out loud before jumping into production. Oftentimes a conversation about a project will help you understand not only what your audience is interested in, but what you’re interested in as well. Like all the ideas above, it will help you pinpoint what your project is actually all about and make the final result that much more compelling.
Writing a logline might seem like an unnecessary step when it’s so easy to just pick up your camera and start shooting. And there is absolutely a place for spontaneous projects like that. But oftentimes creating something truly great, something that really resonates with people, takes a lot of refinement. It takes work. It’s worth slowing down for. We recently talked to a filmmaker who told us she was on the 109th draft of her next film. She said she felt like she was finally getting close to the truth.