You just wrote a 100 page movie. You want to submit it to a production company, or an agency, or a management company, or screenwriting contest.
You need to write a synopsis. No problem, it’s only a page. Wait a minute… you need to boil the whole 100 pages down into ONE page?
If you’re going after OPM (Other People’s Money) through the traditional L.A. sources they’re going to want a logline and synopsis. Even if you’re going the micro-budget route, you’ll need that synopsis for promotional materials, for the Kickstarter fundraising campaign, for potential investors on any level of movie-making. It’s simply expected.
The reason it’s expected is that folks are busy (insert: lazy). Why the hell would they want to read the 100 page script when they can read one page to make a decision on if they’re interested? This is the logic of the query letter. It’s also the logic of Sundance Labs, which makes a synopsis one of the key pieces of information in its application.
You’re not going to be able to get around it. You’ve got to learn how to write a synopsis. What’s it take to write one of these damn things? It takes a reductive mind. You have to come to terms with what your movie is ultimately about, to learn to boil your movie down. And don’t roll your eyes… To quote Glengarry Glen Ross—“You think I’m shitting you? I am not shitting you.”
Here’s how the thought process went with the synopsis for my micro-budget film CHAT. Step 1 was creating a one-pager for the Kickstarter campaign, which you can check out here. This is what I started with:
“CHAT is a unique look inside a fragmented mind…the mind of Falcon. Falcon is photophobic, unable to handle light as you or I would, making his universe an alien landscape. When his daughter goes missing in the world of online adult chat, he enlists the help of a cam model, Annie, and starts a quest that will lead him to break through his isolation. As they try to pull his daughter back from the brink, events lead to a strange twist that will change their world for keeps.”
This is the 90 page script boiled down into a paragraph. It’s the two-sentence logline expanded into a paragraph. Notice how the tone sticks with STORY. As opposed to the Director’s Statement, which I wrote to be more visceral, more visual:
“CHAT is a raw, harrowing look inside a deranged mind. Seen through Falcon’s distorted point-of-view, the film plunges the viewer into a Lynchian world of dizzying florescence, 15 watt light bulbs, latex cat-suits and liposuction. Nothing is as it seems to be. Disturbing characters appear and disappear. Time and characters fold back on themselves. Falcon is photophobic. Acute light disorder has made his world an alien landscape. Searching for his daughter who has disappeared shortly after going to work in Adult Chat, this is a world of glaring light and LCD screens, of isolation and loss of human connection. Falcon, looking out with red-rimmed, hyper-sensitive eyes, must look through his pixilated filter and try to pull his daughter back from the brink. A dark, contrasted palette punctuated by flashes of light and color will evocate the aura phase that haunts Falcon. Through this prism Falcon struggles with the reality of the situation– The reality-illusion culminating in the drone of XXX webcam chatter, echoes from cyberspace and the digital divide. CHAT is a daring and disturbing cinematic experiment that takes us inside the mind of a mentally-ill father for an unrelenting 90-minute ride. An inventive aural assault that suggests the gray middle zone between reality and a broken mind’s perception of it, a unique look inside a fragmented mind…the mind of Falcon.”
Understand that a synopsis isn’t a treatment. Defining our terms:
Let’s define our terms. Synopsis is not a treatment.
• 3rd person
• Present tense
• Observable behavior (nothing in the head “he thinks—decides—considers)
• Prose Paragraph format
• Limited Dialogue
Approximately 1 page of treatment per 10 pages of screenplay (this, a loose rule as evidenced by James Cameron’s 97 page Titanic treatment)
Think of a treatment as a prose paragraph beat sheet. Broad strokes, multiple pages.
• ONE page (the reason it’s often called a “one-sheet”)
• A pitch to read/sell the story
• Zero dialogue
• Zero secondary characters or subplots
• Zero backstory
• Hold to A-Story elements of protagonist and antagonist
Eventually, I expanded the CHAT synopsis from a single paragraph to a single page, looking like this:
“Opening his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes is Falcon. Knocking a Xanax down with three cups of Espresso, he nervously dresses in a suit and tie, placing on powerful contact lenses and sunglasses. Stranger in a strange land, he enters a non-descript office building. Partial glimpses inside multiple rooms… Chat models in various states of undress, chatting into computer cameras, office cubicles made to look like bedrooms. This is an Adult Chat studio complex, and business is very good.
Falcon stands before Syd, a toad. Syd happens to own this adult chat complex. Falcon happens to have a daughter gone missing for a week. Her last contact– working here. Falcon wants answers but Syd, and his Ivy League partner, Geoffrey, offer precious little. Escorting him out, Falcon is told that one of the models, Annie, was a friend of his daughter, Mary Rose.
FLASHBACK. Syd and Annie welcome a new girl to the biz– Mary Rose. Annie will tutor her. Meanwhile Geoffrey pulls Syd aside. He tells Syd he’s tired of this business arrangement, that he’s carried Syd too long, he is buying him out and has the power to do so. Syd appears at the offices of Doctor Lauren, a Picasso with the liposuction needle. She bankrolled Syd’s venture into adult chat. With Syd being cut out, the money train will end for Doctor Lauren— which is unacceptable. She and her partners— some nasty types, including a goon ex-cop named Detective Csonka, demand the money flow continue. She concocts a murder plot.
BACK TO THE PRESENT, Falcon and Annie search for Mary Rose. Clues emerge. Annie discovers a book that was Mary Rose’s, and a gun… Falcon breaks into Dr. Lauren’s office and is discovered by Csonka, who tortures Falcon with a pair of Halogen mag lights. Falcon is knocked out and bloodied. Annie vows to confront Geoffrey the next day and if nothing comes of it, they will go to the police.
FLASHBACK. A woman in black latex catsuit leads Geoffrey on all fours by his silk Brooks Brothers tie down the fluorescent corridor. They enter the bathroom. Syd and Csonka move with guns from his office, taking positions outside the bathroom door. Syd about to go inside, but stops…looking to Csonka with freaked-out rat’s eyes… one more breath… and in he goes.
Opening his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes is Falcon. Knocking a Xanax down with three cups of Espresso, he nervously dresses in a suit and tie, placing on powerful contact lenses and sunglasses. This is déjà vu. The same motions that opened the movie, Falcon with almost identical movements.
What follows will be the sound of police sirens, sure, but also the drone of adult webcam chat, echoing from cyberspace and the digital divide. The world will hear about what happened here, and it will become legend, for a news cycle or two, then forgotten. The world will go on, but the revelations will shake Falcon, Mary Rose, and us, to the core.”
Sure, writing a synopsis is a drag. It’s also a necessary evil. Because sooner or later you’re going to have to no—in your bones—what the damn story is.
The sooner the better.