In baseball you can hit a dying quail, throw BBs, play the hot corner or slam a round-tripper. If you're gonna talk astrophotography you have to know your Messier objects, binning and scaling, star trails, the ecliptic and gas-hypered film. Hollywood, too, has its own peculiar, ever-changing language.
William Goldman has the famous line: "Nobody messes with the cinematographer, because nobody knows what the hell a damn f-stop is -- but everybody knows the alphabet." My writing partner, Ted, feels that writers should band together and create a secret language so producers and development executives can't mess with us quite so easily.
My own feeling is that this secret language should be based on grammatical terms. You know, play into those universal fears people have, that they really should know what the hell a dangling participle is, but don't and probably never will.
I can just hear the meeting: "Well, that certainly won't work," the writer tells the executive. "We diagrammed the act, and found that the adverbial phrases were throwing off the plot meter. If anything, we've got to emphasize the iambic underpinnings -- especially in a compound-viewpoint story!" That ought to shut them up. But while screenwriting still lacks a proper specialized vocabulary, Hollywood in general certainly has its own terms and phrases. Here are just a few:
ABOVE-THE-LINE: Generally, those positions which are filled before principal photography begins: screenwriter, producer, director, etc. (people commonly listed in a film's opening credits). 'Below-the-line' costs are those costs (people and materials) associated with actually making the picture. So if so-and-so has agreed to star in the picture at $6 million, your budget may be at $20 million, but you're said to have 'high above-the-line costs' -- before a single frame of film has been exposed.
ACTIVATE: Producer-talk, as in "We need to activate the lead." When a character is deemed too passive, or not intrinsic to the storyline.
ARC: As in 'character arc.' This is the transition that a particular character undergoes during the course of the picture, as shown in the series of scenes in which that character appears. Can be quite separate from the actual plot.
BOILERPLATE: Of the 50 or so pages in your contract, 45 of them are pretty standard. What's being haggled over is the first (or last) five (basically, whether you'll get $30,000.00 or $300.00; points; sequel rights, etc.). The rest of the pages are affectionately known as the contract's standard 'boilerplate.'
BUTTON: As in 'button the scene.' The final joke or line of a scene that gives the entire scene a sense of completion.
CHARACTER SIGNATURE: That moment (or those moments) in a picture where a character shows his true nature. Also the defining characteristic that makes the character memorable.
COVERAGE: A synopsis (and assessment) of a screenplay, done by a 'reader' or 'development assistant.' At best, it allows executives to read only those scripts that are considered to be of very high quality while still being apprised of others. At worst, it's a possible 'no' that can kill a screenplay before it can get to the right person. Note: Books, plays and magazine articles get 'coverage,' too.
CRATER: If your film opened poorly, it didn't 'bomb,' it 'cratered.'
D-GIRL: A derogatory term for any of the legions of intelligent, ambitious women in the industry who probably should be making more important decisions but instead are relegated to working as 'development assistants'; i.e., reading scripts, writing coverages, attending story meetings. They work very hard, have little-to-no power, and get less credit than they deserve.
DEAL MEMO: Good agents are busy people, working for several clients, negotiating more than one deal at a time. A deal memo is sometimes sent out to confirm (and put in writing) verbal agreements reached over the phone. While technically not legally binding, it's an unwritten rule in Hollywood that a deal memo is as good as a signed contract; it's a 'done deal.'
DENSE: Often applied to scripts by people who fit the description themselves. Ostensibly it means the screenplay is full of detail and hard to read. In truth, it's a tell-tale sign that the executive hasn't had time to read the script.
DEVELOPMENT DEAL (or STEP DEAL): The paid process by which a story (usually told at a pitch meeting) becomes a screenplay. The studio agrees to finance the 'development' of the story; commonly, the writer is contracted for at least two drafts and a polish. It's called a step deal because the studio can cut the writer off (and not have to pay him any more) at any 'step' along the way.
DO A DINO: Outdated parlance for 'going out of business' (a la Dino De Laurentiis).
DO LUNCH: Is not said in the industry much any more. Nowadays, you leave out the event (lunch, meeting) and just mention the people, or the place: "I've got Dodie at 2" is okay; also "I have a one o'clock at Morton's."
DRY: As in 'dry humor.' This means the executive didn't get some of the jokes; the script is 'too cerebral.' Sometimes the producer will ask for more 'wet humor' which is of the universal visual/pratfall variety.
ELEMENT: The project begins with the screenplay. After that, 'elements' get attached: stars, producers, a director, maybe a really hot special effects guy. With enough elements, you have a package -- hopefully one that makes it harder for the studio to turn down the project. (Agencies such as CAA are particularly adept at 'packaging.') Note: If nobody wants to work with your 'element', you now have an 'encumbrance.'
FANNYBUMPER: A crowded party, the type where making connections is more important than having fun.
FAST TRACK: Projects put on the fast track are in theory so good they're ready to into production with a minimum of studio tinkering. Nowadays, though, everyone claims to be on the fast track, so a really good project is said to be on the 'super fast track.'
FLAVOR-OF-THE-MONTH: If you've just sold a spec script, directed a critically acclaimed debut feature, or starred in a well-received low budget film, you're the flavor-of-the-month: nobody knows who you are, everyone wants to meet you, and you could spend the next three months taking meetings and getting lots of free food.
FOURTH WALL: In a play or a sitcom, the imaginary 'wall' that the audience gazes through to see the action. (Good thing the stage designer left it out, or we wouldn't be able to see the actors!) The scene doesn't have to be in a house or building -- the fourth wall is the unacknowledged camera, watching the scene. Which leads to BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL, when an actor looks into the camera, speaks directly to the audience, acknowledging their presence.
GOOD WITH STORY: Almost exclusively applied to those people in the industry who are bad at something else.
GREEN LIGHT: When a studio finally reaches that elusive stage where they're satisfied with the script, the director, the producers, the budget, and the major stars, they 'green light' the picture, which means they're planning on actually going ahead and making it. Note: If you're close, lacking perhaps the commitment of one element, or you're just one polish away, you may have a flickering green light.
HELM: To direct. As in "(So-and-so) is set to helm (film) in the spring."
HIGH CONCEPT: Over-used term, known to all, disliked by many. Origin is most often attributed to Steven Spielberg, who reportedly said he favored "Films where you can relate the central idea in one sentence." Advantage to studios is that if the film can be told in one line, it can be advertised in one line.
HOME RUN: A hit film. Producers don't look for directors who will just do a good job; they want one who will take the material and 'hit a home run.'
INDIE PROD (or INDY PROD): Short for 'independent producer.' Studio executives rarely quit or are fired; instead, they 'turn indie prod.'
LEGS: When a film remains popular for several weeks; a drop-off of anything less than 25% from opening week to the next means the film 'has legs.'
MacGUFFIN: Alfred Hitchcock's term, widely adopted, for the device upon which the plot turns. Could be a bit of microfilm (as in NORTH BY NORTHWEST) or, say, letters of transit (CASABLANCA). Hitchcock reportedly felt that the actual nature of a MacGuffin was not as important as the nature of the story it engendered.
MID-SIX FIGURES against HIGH-SIX FIGURES: The writer, star or director has made a deal in the $400,000.00 to $600,000.00 range, against around $750,000.00 if the film gets made. But the studio doesn't want the exact price known, so precedent isn't set for other, comparable deals.
MOW: Short for a TV 'Movie of the Week.'
NON-PRO: Someone not in the film industry. No matter how professional they are (doctor; lawyer; President of the United States) in Tinsel-speak, they're a non-pro.
OPEN: When a film does great first week business, it is said to 'open.' Term is often applied to stars and directors, who, after establishing themselves in the marketplace, are said to be able to 'open' a picture.
OUT OF THE LOOP: If you don't know something, you don't say that you don't know -- you say that you're 'out of that loop.'
OVER THE HILL: Your destination when you start in Hollywood or Century City, and you're heading to Warner's, Columbia, or Disney.
PAGE ONE REWRITE: Polite term for when they want a new draft, but only want to pay a rewrite price.
PAGES: Producers and development execs never ask for 'the screenplay'; instead they say, "When can I see pages?"
PITCH MEETING: Where you tell the story, in person, from start to finish, in an attempt to get a development deal. Best advice ever given for a pitch meeting: know your story.
POINTS: Short for 'percentage points.' Simply, the percentage of the net profits of a picture that is yours. Net profits come after the production costs, overhead, prints, advertising, and interest are paid... and (many would say) only after a lot of creative studio accounting.
POLISH: Also described as 'straightening out some of the dialog.' This is when they want a complete rewrite, but only want to pay a polish price.
PREP: Short for 'preparation.' It's the amount of time the director has to get ready; simply, the number of weeks (or days) between when he is hired and the first day of principal photography.
RULES: As in "What are the rules?" Standard note which all development executives are trained to ask writers on any and all fantasy or science fiction scripts.
SCRIBE: A person who writes screenplays.
SHOOTING SCRIPT: This is the draft of the screenplay that has the numbers down the side. The screenplay is no longer just a selling script; it's now an actual blueprint for the production of the film.
SLAY: As in "She slayed them at the audition." Or "It's been a while since I saw a film that really slayed me." When a performance or a film is overwhelmingly good, and demonstrates a huge amount of talent.
SPEC SCRIPT: A screenplay written outside the safety of a development deal is written on spec, short for 'on speculation.' The advantage is, since the writer took all the risk, he can command a higher selling price; the disadvantage is that maybe nobody will want to buy it. Note: If your spec script has no 'elements' attached, it is a 'naked spec. '
SPIN: Short for topspin. Can be used to indicate 'uniqueness' -- especially uniqueness that creates powerful scenes, e.g., in LETHAL WEAPON, teaming a death-wish cop with a family man created a lot of good 'topspin.' Term is useful to execs who can ask for something even when they don't know what it is; they say "It needs a different spin."
STAMP: Most often refers to the director's artistic interpretation of the material, his 'style' as it impacts the project. "(So-and-so) will come and put his stamp on it," is a typical phrase. Very useful neutral term for seeming to give praise without really doing (important for industry screenings): "It's got your stamp all over it!"
TAKE: Somewhere between 'response' or 'reaction' and 'intent' -- because a director's 'take' on a screenplay is usually how he desires to change it.
TAKE A PASADENA: Nobody in Hollywood says 'no'; the diplomatic response is "We're going to pass on that." Then you get to tell your friends "(Studio X) took a Pasadena." Your agent will ask them if it's a hard pass (don't waste postage sending it to us again) or a soft pass (we might look at the next draft).
TANSTAAFL: Short for 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.'
TEN-PERCENTARY: An agency, such as William Morris. Term often used in "Variety"; 'ten-percenter' refers to an individual agent.
TENTPOLE: What every studio would love to have: a film (or a character) so successful that it helps finance other projects. The James Bond films 'tentpoled' United Artists for many years.
TOPLINE: To star in a picture; sometimes used for those who head a studio or agency.
TURN UP THE HEAT: Term used by almost exclusively by non-writers (producers, directors, executives) to writers; it means they feel there ought to be more jeopardy and danger in the screenplay.
TURN UP THE VOLUME: Used for some element or story point that already exists in the screenplay but needs to be stronger. Often used by executives who have missed the point entirely due to a hasty read.
TURNAROUND: When a studio develops a project and decides not to proceed, the project is put into turnaround, which means it's available to be looked at by other studios. The Hollywood version of free agency. If someone wants the project, they must pay the original studio all of the fees and payments associated with the project -- known as the 'turnaround costs.'
WANNABE: A person trying to enter the film business, especially a writer.
WEB: A television network. ABC is the 'alphabet web.'
WEBLET: A web wannabe.
WE'RE GOING IN A DIFFERENT DIRECTION: This means the current writer has just lost his job.
WE'VE DECIDED TO MOVE FORWARD: This means somebody has just lost their job.
WHAMMO!: Producer Joel Silver's term for exciting surprises in a script, even better if they were visually spectacular. Reportedly, a good WHAMMO! had to hit at least every ten pages for him to feel the story was working.
WRITING SAMPLE: What you have when your spec script doesn't sell.
YAKKER: A talk show.
YOU'RE PUSHING AN OPEN DOOR: This is producer-talk for, "I already agree with you, stop arguing the point."
So the hope for the wannabe is to write a naked spec that gets picked up by a ten-percentary, and so the scribe becomes a flavour-of-the-month.
A studio then pays mid-six figures against high-six figures for the project, calls it a potential tentpole franchise, puts it on the fast track, and you get a flickering green light.
But then the studio does a Pasadena when the polish comes in, because they read the pages and the character arc of the lead was weak, so they lost faith it would attract the proper elements.
Everyone decides to move forward, and now you're in turnaround, and you're not even sure why -- your executive doesn't know, of course, he was 'out of the loop!'
Congratulations, you now speak Tinsel-speak. George Orwell had nothing on these guys!