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42 MENTAL REAL ESTATE


Let me take a last sip of Diet Coke, lick the cheesy yellow Cheetos gunk from my fingers, turn up the Rolling Stones, settle down in front of my Apple computer and type out for you the following words of wisdom:

Mental real estate is the most valuable real estate in the world.

The stuff is especially prized in Hollywood -- coveted more than beachfront access, a penthouse suite or a foothill view of city lights.

If you own some Mental Real Estate, you could be set for life.

If you don't got none, you better get your ass into that homesteading wagon, race across the plains and stake out your claim, quick... 'cause there's lots of other folk in on this particular land grab.

So -- what the hell is it?

Here's the idea: I name something, and you either recognize it, or you don't. Could be a person, place, or thing, like the classic twenty questions game. If you recognize the thing I tell you, that means it's taking up space in your head -- tangling up a few billion neurons -- residing on a chunk of mental real estate.

That makes it valuable, because if the thing is taking up space in your head, chances are, it's taking up space in a good percentage of other heads across the country. And Hollywood can use that. It's the main commodity of the town --

Hollywood buys, sells, and trades in mental real estate.

Let's give it a try.

Suppose I say to you: "Harry Potter."

Snap! Crackle! Pop! Like milk on a breakfast cereal, listen to those synapses fire. You hear Potter, and instantly know what I'm talking about. There have been "Time" magazine covers and lines of customers around the block and months spent on the bestsellers list and a big movie deal with Chris Columbus. Even if you haven't read the books, you still maybe get an image of a kid who goes off to school to study magic. If you have read the books, there's more in your head -- a whole world populated by wizards, Quidditch matches, owls that deliver mail, ghosts, dutiful students (and some not so dutiful) and fantastic creatures --

So... how hard is it going to be to get people to go see that movie?

Not too hard.

"We've got HARRY POTTER" says Warner Bros. smugly, knowing that there are plenty of people out there who recognize the title, love it, and are going to want to see it. That lets them proceed to spend millions of dollars on a film with a certain amount of confidence --

And executives love confidence, they have so little of their own. Not their fault, really, they're in a tough spot. To make and market a film, you need to collect together large amounts of money. The money comes from bankers and investors and stockholders, dour folk who tend to want to see it back, and then some. But money only comes back if people go see the film that gets made... which means you have to get people to go see the film... and people are more easily swayed to go see a film when they know something about it.

Which results in studio's lust for mental real estate, and helps explain a fair amount of strange Hollywood phenomenon --

Whoops, hold on.

Sorry about that. The doorbell rang; I had to pull on my Levis, slip into my Nike sneakers, and trot out to meet the UPS guy, and sign for my latest order from Amazon.com. It's my daughter's birthday coming up, so I got her a Simpsons computer game called "Virtual Springfield," the latest "Metallica" CD, and a cheatbook for the Nintendo 64 game "Zelda: Octarina of Time."

Okay, where was I?

Oh, yeah -- 'strange Hollywood phenomenon.'

We have to start with sequels and remakes. It's a common joke for films set in the future to show a movie marquee that announces DIE HARD 17 or SCREAM XIV. And did the world really need a shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO? Of course not. Remakes and sequels are commonly-cited evidence that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt --

Not true. There are plenty of filmmaking geniuses, wild screenplays and bold ideas floating around. What's lacking are money people willing to plunk down tens of millions of dollars on a film that lacks the safety net of some mental real estate -- an entirely different issue.

Creative bankruptcy is not the same as fiscal terror.

The complaint is not that sequels and remakes are made, it's that they're made poorly. Do a sequel well and you get the JAMES BOND, INDIANA JONES or BACK TO THE FUTURE series. These films managed to move out of the slum neighborhood of 'sequel' into the posh gated community of 'franchise' --

And in Hollywood, there's nothing better than a franchise. Man, that's like owning an entire National Park -- you know for sure that visitors are going to show up year after year, in carloads, and they're gonna buy the cap and T-shirt, too.

The franchise offers a semblance of security -- they think, you came once, you'll come again. And like the venerable Big Mac and fries, you're more apt to go if you know exactly what you're going to get before you get there. Hollywood wants you to love the movie they've made before they make it --

And so we get movies based on comic books and comic strips; historical events and current affairs; biographies; old television series -- including a seemingly endless parade of "Saturday Night Live" skit characters; and even popular songs ("Ode to Billy Joe"). For years, Disney animated films have chosen to re-tell stories that are sort of known but not really, taking squatter's rights on characters in the public domain; films such as LITTLEMERMAID, ALADDIN and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. (The exception is LION KING, and even that traded on a resort-sized chunk of mental landscape: the Disney brand name.)

If you don't know the story or characters of a movie, not to worry; Hollywood can still set their hooks into your frontal lobe. One technique, those ubiquitous ad lines that proclaim: "From the director of SPEED and TWISTER..." "From the writer of SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER..." "From the catering team that brought you MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II..."

Translated: "This is not a risk, this is not something you don't know, we are not an unknown quantity!" The studios realize most people will drive right past the little family-owned Taco Pete's Taco Stand in search of the safe corporate familiarity of the gleaming Taco Bell franchise. Audience awareness rules all, and that explains another bit of Hollywood weirdness: putting the whole damned plot of a movie in the trailer.

Trailers reveal so much these days, you buy a ticket to see a film on opening night to catch a few things you missed about the story the first time you saw it -- as a trailer.

And what are previews anyway, other than an effort by studios to grab some mental real estate while they have the chance? You're busy tearing open a box of Red Vines; they're filing for building permits on the part of your brain zoned for entertainment.

Finally, ultimately... if they can't connect with you on the story, or the filmmakers, or even the studio brand name; if there are no urban legends or fairy tales or national holidays to base it on; if there's no big name author or musical soundtrack to promote... no problem.

They've got one last thing up their sleeve.

Or more importantly, in your head.

The movie star.

Hi there.

You can't tell, but I took a little break. I had to drive in to the office for a meeting, so now I'm writing on a different computer.

On the way in, coming up the Santa Ana freeway, I can tell you that I heard Shaq O'Neal on the radio proclaim that the NBA is fan-tastic; I was reminded that the NBC's Thursday lineup is something that I must see, and that HBO's "Sex in the City" premieres this week. There were billboards advertising Disneyland fireworks, Sea World's new vulture attraction, and a giant b&w perfume ad featuring a supermodel pretending not to notice that her shirt has fallen open showing a goodly curve of breast but of course just covering the nipple (funny, I didn't catch the brand name). There was a billboard on the side of a bus questioning asking me if I Got Milk.

Now, this is all pretty weird when you think about it, but I want you to consider something even more weird: there are people who have value, the way brand recognition has value. Living, breathing individuals who reside in the high rise apartment complex of public consciousness.

Let's try our little test again. Close your eyes, and I'm going to say two words. Oh, all right, that's not going to work, just kidding. I'm gonna write two words, you read the words, and then close your eyes, and think for a moment. Okay?

Here we go.

"Tom Cruise."

Okay, what did you see? Maybe a guy sliding across the floor in his briefs, or slapping high five as a fighter pilot, or nibbling on Nicole Kidman's ear?

Tom Cruise! The smile, the rock climbing, the hanging spread-eagled by wire a foot above the floor. He was injured in Viet Nam, drove a racecar, and even managed to stare down Jack Nicholson in military court.

All of that is in your head. You know Tom; you and Tom are buddies. You've hung with him longer than some of your best friends; your relationship has outlasted more than a few marriages. Sure, you only see him every few months, but hey, you can almost always count on him for a good time.

The studios have long appreciated the value of stars. In the old days, everything the public knew about a top actor was carefully controlled; what they wore, where they were seen and sometimes who they would date. Even today we have such things as television's 'Q' number, a ranking of stars based on audience awareness and likeability.

This is why 'relationships' are so prized in Hollywood. Know a star, have access to a star, be able to get a star to even just read a script, and you're instantly someone who can help turn a project from 'not real' to 'real.' Consider that Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey command $20 million a picture, and their commitment to a film is anautomatic green light.

Actors are walking mental real estate.

Screenwriters, let me digress a moment to emphasize this point. Suppose you've managed to complete a screenplay and get it read by an agency. And the agency likes it, so they send it out to various production companies. Some of the lower level creative executives actually like it, so they recommend it to their bosses, and oh happy day, one of them likes it enough to buy it. So you take their notes and do revisions and drafts (some of them paid). At some point, the producers are finally happy with it, and it goes on to the studio, to the top honcho, the 'green light guy' who -- amazingly -- picks it out of a hundred projects in development as something the studio is actually willing to produce.

Sounds good, right?

Yep. But the shocker is -- nothing has really happened yet.

At least, not in terms of getting a film made.

All that happens now is the project gets set out like a plate of 3-layer cake at the buffet line, along with dozens of other screenplays, to be perused by directors sliding past with their flat orange trays. If a director grabs your cake, great, you have a movie; if he takes the plate of Jell-O sitting in the ice next to it, you're out of luck.

Worse, once a few directors pass by the cake, the studio declares it stale, or out of favor, and tosses it away.

And there are far more desserts than directors.

Why does it work this way?

You know why.

Because filming takes money which means they want some mental real estate which means they need name stars which means they only want certain A-list directors for pictures above a certain budget, because those directors are good but also because those are the only directors who can help get a big star.

I've often wondered why Hollywood has no real competition in the world. After all, the entertainment industry is a multi-billion dollar business. And it's glamorous as hell. And it seems, at times, like the place is run by idiots.

So why not another Hollywood, somewhere? Say, built in Arizona? Or southern France? Or outside of Sydney?

The reason it doesn't happen is, of course -- the movie star.

You can construct the sound stages and buy the film stock and even option the books, but if you don't know someone who knows someone who knows Tom Hanks, the venture isn't going to fly.

You can't put an offer in on the property if the real estate agent doesn't even take your call.

As long as stars exist, Hollywood is safe.

All right, more to the point. Should you get yourself some mental real estate?

Of course.

That's the whole idea.

The only question is -- how?

You probably don't have enough money to option Tom Clancy's next novel. And it's not so easy to get Julia Roberts to commit to your latest spec, or get in to pitch that "Lone Ranger" open assignment.

What to do?

Most screenwriters attempt a roundabout path, which is also the most difficult. They invent a brand new story, create some characters, write a script, then hope to find somebody to make it into a movie.

Once the film gets made, released and is popular, well, there you go: your own little piece of the mental real estate rock.

The drawback to this approach is that everybody else is doing it, too. So you've written a cool murder mystery, or romantic comedy. Great. Why would anybody pluck your script out of the thousands in the pile? How can you even get your script read, let alone nail down a commitment from a director and star, or gain the backing of a studio?

It can seem like an impossible task. Hollywood is simply not kind to the screenplay that arrives without a lien on some mental real estate.

To underscore this point, I offer a scenario that, when I bring it up, has never failed to make people in the movie industry laugh. A small laugh, mind you; a sort of nervous, apologetic half-chuckle. What I say is: "Imagine if J.K. Rowling had arrived in Hollywood with a spec script titled HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE.

It takes a few seconds, as they run the scenario in their heads -- and then that pathetic little laugh escapes.

Better to laugh than to cry, I suppose.

Because most likely her script would have been sent back unread, or 'covered' and passed-on. Or maybe optioned for $30 thousand and a committment for a rewrite and polish, with Rowlings forced to justify her choices in endless story meetings with non-writers, who then issue senseless and contradictory dictates for massive story changes. Then, after writing a new draft that is at best not much worse than the old, the project would get put into turnaround, and Rowlings would be booted off in favor of some new hot young male writer with a credit from the Simpsons Christmas special. Four rewrites later, the guy would still be executing studio notes from some failed agent turned development executive who's decided Harry needs to be older, more hip, more edgy, and living in America. And does he really have to be named 'Harry?'

To that, let us heave a collective sigh.

And note: what a difference a little mental real estate makes.

Now, to be fair, as a writer, you do have an important weapon on your side to get something read and made: the high quality of your work. The astute reader will cite AMERICAN BEAUTY and THE USUAL SUSPECTS as screenplays that traveled the long road and survived.

Let it be said: I'm always in favor of sheer genius. Quality can win out, and quality is always required, I think, no matter what the project. (A minor drawback: making it solely on quality writing depends on getting a quality read, and that's a half of the equation you can't control.)

But I will presume your writing is top notch, and that you're writing with passion and inspiration; I'm not arguing to abandon quality --

But I want to give you another weapon, too.

Forgive me as I shrink a few inches, apply some lipstick, don a print dress and look at you from over my glasses as I mix a bowl of cookie dough. Yes, I have become your mother, in order to say this: "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man."

Meaning: It's just as easy to be passionate about a story with some known elements as it is to be passionate about a story with no known elements.

So, there it is. Step One on the search for mental real estate: resolve to write your screenplay with some kind of known element.

All right.

You're thinking it, so I'll say it.

Isn't this 'selling out'?

After all, there's something truly unsettling about speaking in such a crude and calculating manner about story ideas.

Shouldn't inspiration be sacrosanct, granted by the muses, perhaps; or allowed to bubble up out of the subconscious, derived from some glimpsed and forgotten image or half-remembered childhood trauma? Or more like love, maybe, left to emerge from some happy mix of chance or destiny, divine permission granted by the random swirl of life itself?

Anything less has to be considered gauche... calculated... crass commercialism at its worst, right?

But...

But...


Consider Frank Darabont.

Early in his career, Darabont secured from Stephen King the right to make a short film from one of King's most personal stories, "The Lady in the Room." King was happy with the result, and so optioned to Darabont the rights to the novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

There's no doubt Darabont benefited from the Stephen King brand name. But there's also no doubt that the work Darabont did was superior, in no way compromised -- Darabont had real passion for the story. I daresay the mental real estate aspect of adapting King was hardly a consideration -- a pleasant bonus that came along with the chance to work with superior material that he truly admired.

Now, consider that Darabont didn't do anything that you couldn't have at least tried. And consider that at least half of all films produced trade on some known quantity.

Should half of your scripts do the same?

Now consider... Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

This duo has managed to stake out a neat little corner of the mental real estate market, with films such as THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, MAN IN THE MOON, and ED WOOD. They chose to tell the life stories of Larry Flynt (of Hustler fame), comedian Andy Kaufman, and an obscure fifties director. Let's call that little subdivision, 'biographies of semi-famous people whose life stories make fascinating films.' Not highly known elements, sure, but known nonetheless.

And notice that ED WOOD caught the eye of Tim Burton as a project he wanted to direct. One of the advantages of writing on a subject from the public domain is you might find someone else in the industry who's a fan of your choice as well. Now to be fair, Burton has created plenty of his own mental real estate, with films like EDWARD SCISSORHAND -- but note that he got his start with the short film FRANKENWEENIE and PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, both based on known characters --

And then there's the NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a film Burton produced --

And, of course, BATMAN --

And most recently, consider SLEEPY HOLLOW, the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman (screenplay by Andrew Walker, based on the story by Washington Irving). Now, dammit, I know that tale has been in your head since you were a kid, it certainly was in mine.

Why didn't one of us write that script?

If missing that idea doesn't piss you off just a little bit, well... it should!

Some more examples of mental real estate --

-- James Cameron put his lovers on the doomed ship TITANIC, picking the best-known disaster of all time as the setting where he would risk his career --

-- it was called, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE not MARLOWE IN LOVE (kudos to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for that excellent screenplay) --

-- Ron Howard decided to shoot APOLLO 13 and THE GRINCH, despite the fact t that everyone knew the stories, including how they ended --

-- JAWS was not just another "there's a guy who kills another guy and a policeman investigates" story. Benchley chose to write about a giant 30-foot Great White man-eating shark --

-- Even the quirky screenplay BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (written by Charlie Kaufman) as odd, unique and ambitious as it was, had a big chunk of mental real estate sitting right there in the title --

By now the reader is way ahead of me. Point being, all these projects are of high quality, none were hurt, and all were helped to production, I think, by having some kind of known element.

Choosing to write a story with known elements in no way lessened the passion of the filmmakers for those stories. And as a bonus -- there's usually a reason why something is known, right? Because it's good. Choosing to work with known elements can be a great way to alignyourself with some high quality material.

And it can give you an amazing power -- access into people's heads should not be taken lightly. It should be used to most effectively tell your story, on a story worth telling. The great accomplishment of TOY STORY was not that we all remember playing with toys, it's that those memories were used to tell a moving story about friendship.

Can we put the idea of 'selling out' to rest?

Okay, so... from the above list, you've no doubt already picked up on a couple strategies to grab some mental real estate. You can option material, look for stories in the public domain, consider famous figures and historical settings, etc.

(And don't even bother to complain that you don't know how to option material. Here's the big secret: you pick up the phone, call someone, and make an offer. Don't know what to offer? Do 30 minutes of research on the Internet, or ten minutes talking to an entertainment attorney, and you'll know. Keep in mind that the rights to SPEED RACER sold for one dollar and truckload of passion. That could have been you.)

Now, let me offer a couple other strategies that may be a bit less obvious:
THE ICONIC CHARACTER

One of the reasons there was a GLADIATOR movie last summer, I think: everyone knew the word 'gladiator.' It called to mind the Coliseum, Rome, deadly swordfights, Christians being fed to the lions, the whole thumb's up, thumbs down thing.

All that stuff was in people's heads, valuable mental real estate, free for the taking -- because nobody had ever made a movie about it. At least, not one in recent memory. It was known and yet unknown, and that's what helps a studio executive commit a hundred million dollars to a picture.

Films as varied as THE WEDDING SINGER, THE CANDIDATE, WATERBOY, DRAGONSLAYER, FATHER OF THE BRIDE, THE GRADUATE, MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING and even THE GODFATHER make use of an iconic character that already exists in people's heads. Sure, the stories should be great, yes, the writing needs to be great, but I'm convinced that the presence of an iconic character can help usher a project to the screen.

This doesn't mean that you should run out and write the next CABLE GUY movie. Not all iconic characters are created equal. It helps when your iconic character calls to mind situations and character relationships. But I will point out that CABLE GUY did at least get produced...

Ted and I worked on a film coming out next year called SHREK... which is about a huge, smelly, strong ogre named, you guessed it, 'Shrek.' One reason for the green light, I'm convinced: there's never been a movie starring an ogre. Hopefully, that film will claim that particular terrain.

(By the way, it drives me nuts that with all the animated films and live action films done over the last 80 years, there's never been a film starring elves. Elves, dammit! Everyone knows elves. How could there not be an elf movie? Not the Santa Claus elves, I'm talking the ones who dwell in the deep forest, the big shimmering Shakespearean Elves. Sure, there's MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT'S DREAM, and the upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS movie, but it's time the elves stepped up and took center stage, took a starring role. Will someone please write that movie?)
COMMON SITUATIONS

Among the other 'free' and available parcels of mental real estate out there, some could be described as 'common situations.'

An example: of this writing, the film MEET THE PARENTS seems headed toward the $180 million mark, while the movie ALMOST FAMOUS, released about the same time, is working hard to crack $30 million.

My theory: 'meeting the parents' is a common situation, one that everyone 'knows' and most have experienced, and so carries with it some mental real estate value. 'Hanging out with a rock band and writing a magazine story' doesn't have the same value. (Of course, not to mention the mental real estate provided by Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller.)

So in addition to iconic characters, common situation can be just as valuable. You can easily find the common situation in films like BLIND DATE, BACHELOR PARTY, THE GRADUATE, ANIMAL HOUSE, HOME ALONE, or KRAMER VS. KRAMER. While not commonly experienced situations, there are also commonly known situations in films like A SIMPLE PLAN (finding a large sum of money); THE GREEN MILE (a man faces the electric chair); and IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU (winning the lottery).

Thinking along these lines, a "Harry Potter" spec script might have had a chance to be a movie -- if someone in Hollywood was clever enough to spot it. The Potter books have something that most other fantasies don't have, even ones that are just as inventive, well-crafted, and charming.

Yes, that's right, I know the secret of the popularity of the "Harry Potter" books. There's a big chunk of mental real estate at their core.

The brilliant thing that J.K. Rowlings did, that no one -- amazingly -- had done before, was this: she wrote about going to school.

What's the biggest part of a kid's life from about age six on?

Going to school.

How many kids go to school?

All of them.

So simple, and just sitting there, right in front of everyone.

Rowlings took the single most dominant aspect of a child's life -- the most common experience we all lived through, and share -- and made it really cool.

What kid wouldn't rather ride the train to Hogwart's and study magic, than trudge off to the local elementary school for some boring lecture on grammar?

Going to school... such a simple, common, everyday activity -- and that's what they mean when they say, 'accessible' and 'something readers can relate to.'

While nowhere near the massive success of the "Harry Potter" books, Ted and I can attest to some first-hand successes in Hollywood with 'common situation' mental real estate:

-- Our first screenplay sale was on an idea everyone knew, but had never been done: the monster under the bed. The movie didn't turn out very good, for a number of reasons -- but look for Pixar to explore the same territory, and far more effectively. With MONSTERS, INC., they've chosen for their next film the world of under-the-bed -- which just goes to show, prime real estate never goes out of style.

-- As producers, we set up the screenplay JINGLE, written by Bill Marsilii, which explores the universal idea of 'being good.' One of Santa's Helpers gets left behind on Christmas Eve, stranded at the house of a bad little girl. The only way he can get back to the North Pole is if Santa comes back to the house, and he'll only come back if the little girl is good. We always tell kids to be good around Christmas, but what does that really mean?

-- We're also producers on a screenplay called INSTANT KARMA, written by Paul Hernandez. It's about a small-time crook who gets reincarnated as a fly, and then has to work his way up the food chain, back to being human. How many times have you heard the line, "Don't kill that fly, it might be somebody you know?" Amazing to think that there hasn't been a movie about that!


THE EVERYDAY ITEM

Sometimes the thing, the item that's sitting right in front of you, can make for a great film idea. Consider TOY STORY, or ANTZ. I was going to show by example to illustrate this point, but then I realized I didn't want to list our best ideas here --

So, then, here's one that's not so great that it can't be discussed.

I read in the paper the other day that one of the top executives at Qualcomm lost his laptop computer. Police weren't sure if it was a common theft, or some grand bit of corporate espionage.

So I started thinking: laptop computer.

Common item, one that everyone knows.

Could you build a film around that? My approach, giving it just a bit of thought, would be to do it along the lines of one of my favorite films: WHAT'S UP, DOC?

In that film, there were four suitcases that got switched from one person to another, in a grand case of mistaken identity. Fun to do the same thing with laptop computers, maybe, which do kind of all look the same.

Hey, like I said -- not the greatest idea. But it illustrates the point.

I guarantee you, as you sit there reading this, there are at least two items within your line of sight that would make fantastic topics for films. Million-dollar ideas that Ted and I plan on writing and selling, ideas we think are as good as TOY STORY.

I'm not going to tell you what they are.

Certainly, in the course of your day tomorrow, you will walk past half a dozen more.

If you spot them, and stake your claim by writing them well, fine, they're yours, and deservedly so... but if we get to them first...

The race is on!


THE RECYCLED ITEM

It should be noted that it is the nature of mental real estate that it can be recycled. Hollywood is forever rediscovering topics, formulas and genres that worked before, but simply fell out of favor. Whether it's disaster films, the historical epic, adventure serial or the slapstick comedy, there seems to be a natural cycle of forget and rediscover. Seems to last about 20 years or so.

As an example -- you'd think that FANTASTIC VOYAGE has been done, so there's no need to do it again. But really, how many of today's moviegoers saw it? Or even the Joe Dante-directed INNER SPACE? And so we get the upcoming OSMOSIS JONES, the story of a white blood cell and a cold tablet teaming up to fight infection.

On the drive in to the office here, there was an ad on the radio for a VH-1 documentary, about 'the band that influenced the Backstreet Boys and inspired every word Mike Meyers ever wrote.' What was the name of the band?

The Beatles.

I kid you not. How funny that in order to hook listeners into seeing a documentary on the Beatles, they chose to push a tenuous connection to the Backstreet Boys and Mike Meyers, each with (apparently) higher current mental real estate value.

Maybe your idea has been done before -- but has it been done before lately?

I would be remiss if I ended this column without pointing out that Hollywood itself operates using its own specialized brand of mental real estate.

It's a small community, and runs according to its own language and culture. "Universal is high on the script; I heard that Jay Roach is interested in directing" may not have any impact in the Midwest, but it certainly does in the halls of William Morris.

The thing to remember is, everyone in Hollywood lives with the same fear: that all the hard work won't amount to anything, because the project they're working on will never get made. Most projects fall into this category. So there's a desperate need to 'make things real' by attaching known elements.

This is why credits are so crucial. If you've written a successful film, executives want to be able to put you on another. This lets them boast "We've got the guy who wrote AMERICAN BEAUTY" to the next element they need to make the film, whether it's a star, or director, or someone with money...

This is one of the reasons why credits are so crucial. Credits are a form of mental real estate. (This is also why the 'possessory credit' is such a big deal -- directors were smart to claim the top publicity spot on a film. It helps them turn themselves into parcels of industry mental real estate, and everything -- money, power, creative control -- flows from that.)

The really smart folk in Hollywood -- and they impress the hell out of me -- go about inventing themselves, turning themselves into 'brand names,' at least within Hollywood. Folk like Shane Black, Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Kevin Smith. Sometimes the brand comes complete with an outfit -- Joe Esterhaus' trademark Hawaiian shirt, the John Milius beard, Joe Dante's vest, Robert Rodriguez and his bandana, Spike Lee with his glasses and cap.

The Hollywood brand of mental real estate also helps explain why it's crucial to decide whether to work with a writing partner early on, and what type of screenplays you want to write. Establish yourself in the Hollywood mind as a comedy writing team, for example, and that's the territory you'll be assigned.

Okay, so at the end here, I'll admit that maybe I just really like the phrase 'mental real estate.' I know there are already terms for this kind of thing, like 'public consciousness,' 'brand awareness,' 'corporate image,' and 'name recognition' --

But those phrases don't carry the connotation of value, they don't convey an idea of real wealth.

There's gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds.

Cash.


Stocks and bonds.

Rolls Royces and Ferraris.

Malibu beach property.

Van Gogh paintings.

And most valuable of all -- mental real estate.

Still don't believe me on all this?

Oh, c'mon -- I helped write THE MASK OF ZORRO, the Steven Spielberg project starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins. Steven Spielberg is that guy who directed RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, remember? Ted and I also wrote ALADDIN, the Disney film with Robin Williams playing a genie, directed by the guys who did LITTLE MERMAID and HERCULES; we also worked with them on TREASURE PLANET, based on "Treasure Island" by Robert Loius Stevenson. And we made contributions to GODZILLA, SMALL SOLDIERS, and MEN IN BLACK, you know, the UFO film that starred Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, directed by Barry Sonnenfield. We wrote LITTLE MONSTERS, y'know, about the monster under the bed. And we wrote Robert Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS starring Donald Sutherland. We helped design THE ROAD TO EL DORADO with Elton John and Tim Rice -- those are the guys who brought you YELLOW BRICK ROAD and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, respectively. And we also worked on ANTZ, which starred Woody Allen, of ANNIE HALL fame. And... and... we also did the upcoming SHREK movie about an ogre with Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, and oh, and did I mention we've worked with Steven Spielberg?

I think I did.

C'mon, you know you can trust me --

I'm the guy who writes WORDPLAY.




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