Category Archives: Film or Videography

Guest Post–The Hook or The Gimmick


Notes from the Margins: The Difference Between A Hook and A Gimmick

Every executive will tell you that in order to grab their attention in a pitch or a script, you need to have a great original hook. Your hook is that special THING that defines what the new, original and commercial angle is on your concept. It’s the element of your story or storytelling that will make your script stand out and make the exec say, “I get it.”

Your hook can come from numerous places. It could be conceptual, it could be plot-based, it could be your location, your type of characters, your backdrop, your time period or setting or world, your theme, the characters’ goal, the consequences or stakes of the action in the story, etc. Truly elevated projects often combine two different hooks to make the story more dynamic or have a hook with an intellectual or emotional depth to it that takes the story to another level.

But these days, writers often get confused between a hook and a gimmick. And the two are not the same thing.

A hook is usually story-based. It is something ingrained and exploited in the plot and/or premise of your script. A gimmick is a cheap trick used as a selling tool to make an audience think there’s something different about the style or experience of the project but usually has very little to do with the substance of the story.

The hook of Twilight is that the teen love story was set against the backdrop of an ancient war between vampires and werewolves. The hook of Non-Stop is that it’s a mystery heist film and a hijacking action film set 35,000 feet up in the air. The hook of the Oscar-Winning Her is that it’s a love story between a man and his operating system set in the near future.

Creating the hook of a story is the screenwriter’s job. Creating or exploiting the story’s gimmick is usually the job of a marketing department. Very often a project’s gimmick may come from its hook but a great gimmick will NEVER mask or excuse a poor story.

The films that do the best these days within the studio system are ones that have a strong story and hook AND a strong connected gimmick that can be used to sell it to its target demographic.

Gravity did well based on the gimmick of how it was shot and how the technical aspects come across in gorgeous 3-D surround sound theaters but also how that gimmick was used to enhance the emotion and hook of the story – one woman, trapped alone in space, fighting to survive.

Pixar’s Wall-E had a wonderful hook of a lowly love struck robot that must save his crush and the world. But the gimmick of Wall-E, and what many were talking about, was how half the film had no dialogue and was also a message movie about consumerism and a cautionary environmental tale.

The 1985 cult classic Clue had a great story gimmick in that its whole third act is 3 different alternate endings with different possible killers confessing until the truth is revealed. Tonally, it worked great with the rest of the story and added more twists and turns to the climax of the film.

But when the story is poor, gimmicks usually don’t work and often backfire.

Perhaps the best example of this is Movie 43, one of the worst abortions to ever happen on screen which currently sits at 4% on rotten tomatoes and won big at this year’s Razzies. It was a series of disturbing short films directed by big names and starring even bigger names that were connected by an insanely flimsy set up. The gimmick was basically – look at all these huge name stars we got together, it MUST be good, right? But alas, it was not.

From Justin to Kelly (I’m sorry Kelly, I still love you) was a project born out of gimmick rather than story. The studio wanted to capitalize on the popularity and possible real-life romantic relationship between its two biggest reality stars at the time and Kelly’s growing musical following. I’m guessing the writers spent exactly 4 days on the script.

Battlefield Earth had a not-so-secret gimmick in that it was obviously connected to Scientology and it put this gimmick above story. And any time you put gimmick above story in the concept and development stage, your movie is doomed.

Bad Grandpa used the proven gimmick of the Jackass-style gags and physical pranks to lure people to the theater thinking that’s all it was, but it was actually an attempt at a narrative feature that just happened to have a half dozen of those hilarious pranks in it. But the gimmick was stronger than the story and was the only thing promoted in the trailers. Did it do really well at the box office? Yes, it did. I’m not saying a gimmick CAN’T work – only that it usually doesn’t if the story isn’t equally strong if not stronger.

I recently had a client whose story was a pretty straightforward spy/comedy with some decent story twists but then the third act was basically a Choose Your Own Adventure gimmick where he thought audiences would be able (collectively) to choose which version of the ending they wanted to see. Obviously this gimmick wouldn’t work in theaters for 1000 logistic and financial reasons. But it didn’t work on the page either because it made the writer’s vision for the story unclear and unresolved. It made the whole resolution of the story confusing and unsatisfying.

I had another client who wrote the same script twice – once as a comedy, once as a drama – and thought that studios would make both versions for both audiences. The only major difference was that the comedy had about 10 more decently funny lines in it. There are concepts that could potentially work in two different genres, but you need to know which is stronger and which you feel more comfortable writing. The gimmick of having written two versions of the same plot was what he thought would entice agents instead of the story itself, which was incorrect.

A handful of years ago, I had a pitch session at a conference where the writer donned a large rubber butt as a hat and pitched the sales gimmick of his concept instead of the story. Even if the story and pitch were brilliant it wouldn’t have mattered cause all I was staring at was a large rubber anus like it was a third eye. I can guarantee that pitch would have gone better without the gimmick. In fact a general rule I always give new writers pitching is leave the gimmicks at home – they never help and usually make you look all the more amateurish. And I feel the same about writers who employ gimmicks on the page instead of really crafting a compelling story.

There is a difference between a marketing or production gimmick and a writing gimmick. The former is something the writer has very little say about. Studios will very often turn an otherwise perfectly fine 2-D film into a 3-D extravaganza because the ticket prices are higher and they think the 3-D gimmick brings people to the theaters. Dolby Digital 3-D Surround Sound, Smell-O-Vision, 4-D, not to mention Marvel and Disney’s gimmick of incorporating many of  their Avengers characters into all their different films so that audiences think they need to see ALL of them in order to follow the stories. These would be more production and marketing gimmicks.

Brilliant marketing gimmicks included those created for Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which used the angle that they may or may not be true stories and it used its gimmick of casting utter unknowns to play into that.  Paranormal’s marketing campaign also included the creepy, grainy “night-goggle” footage of people reacting and screaming in fear while watching the film. Very effective. They took what was different about the hook and story and translated that into a masterful marketing gimmick. But the gimmick did not damage or derail the story.

Sometimes the gimmick of a project is in its casting and that’s also something the writer usually has no control over. The Expendables, Escape Plan, Righteous Kill, Grudge Match, Scream, and romantic comedies that reteam beloved duos like the upcoming Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore film Blended are all films whose gimmick was the casting and not the story. In some of these cases, the story or action was strong enough to compliment the gimmick. In others, not so much.

But this is why it’s so important for writers to create a hook and story that can overcome bad casting or bad production or marketing gimmicks and sell on its own merit. You need to know what is special and sellable about your concept and hook, and the answer to that needs to lie organically within the pages of your story. If it doesn’t, then you’re not writing smart enough and you’re relying on others to figure out what is great about your script.

Guest Post from Cindy McDonald of The Unbridled Series


Uber thanks to Cindy for sharing with us on a topic I know absolutely nothing about, but which is getting more and more important for authors. It’s all about exposure. (Cue face blushing.) Um, let me rephrase. It’s all about putting it out there. (Cue redder face blushing.) Big gulp. It’s about creating a video trailer to promote your book via YouTube and other video sites. Take it away, Cindy:

Have you taken a look at the book trailers on YouTube? Some are really cool, terrific graphics, very exciting. And some are well…not so cool. Book trailers are the latest tool for authors to use to put their books in front of potential audiences. Great! Another way to advertise my book—Lord knows drawing readers in is a major obstacle for authors, and a book trailer may just be the boost that my novel or series needs, right?

Whoa! Slow down cowboy, because I’ve got a tale to tell, and it ain’t pretty. My first book DEADLY.COM was getting ready to release last September, and I just couldn’t wait. I knew exactly how to get the proper attention for my new series—a book trailer! Hey, if Spielberg can do it, so can I.

The trap was set. Me—the idiot—was going to set out to film a book trailer. So, I rented a fellowship hall at a church, and then I placed this ad on Craig’s List for an actor:

Audition on June 22 for an actor: Dark-haired ruggedly good-looking between the ages of 25-30 to film a book trailer. Will provide food, and a DVD as payment. Please send resume and a head shot with response. Will provide time and location for audition, if qualified.

Wow! I got quite a few responses—who knew there were so many good-looking men out there willing to work for food and a DVD? Impressed? Don’t be.  Only three of the twelve actors that qualified for the part actually showed up, and let’s just say that pictures can be VERY deceiving!

The first actor that showed up right on time for the audition did indeed have dark hair. He was more photogenic than he was good-looking, but that wasn’t the biggest problem. He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and he weighed about one-ten. He was a pip-squeak, and his acting skills were….to be kind…not very good.

The second actor that walked through the door did not fit the bill at all. In fact, he had sent in a bogus head shot just to get an audition! The man must have been sixty-five, although he claimed to be forty-two. When I explained to him that he was simply too old, and too grey, and too wrinkled, he said, “I’m an actor, honey. I can act younger.” Seriously, buddy? Needless to say, he was asked to leave…quickly.

Ahhh, but the third actor that came through the door was just right. He was tall, dark, and very ruggedly handsome, and his acting was much better than the first. Good thing, because they were the only three to show up for the audition.

Okay, cut me a break, Spielberg probably gets a much better turn-out when he holds auditions, but this wasn’t a shot at fame and fortune—it was food and a DVD. Anyway, this was working! So, I rounded up a film crew, rented camera equipment, and went to a nearby stable that had white fencing for as far as the eye could see to ask permission to film. They were thrilled to let me film. I own a horse farm, but my fencing is black, and in my book series, Westwood Thoroughbred Farm has white fencing—details, have to stick with the details.

Viola! I was ready, and on a sunny, hot day last July I met my camera crew and the handsome actor at the farm to film the trailer. I had a blast! I was doing something that I had never done before. As a professional dancer and choreographer for twenty-six years, I had worked many stage productions, but this was an entirely different ball game—or should I say “project”. It took a mere two hours to film the short trailer, and within two weeks the trailer was on YouTube. God, did it stink! It was awful! At my publishing manager’s request, I removed it from cyber space.

Okay, now I’ve written two more books of The Unbridled Series, HOT COCO and Dangerous Deception, and I really, really, want one of those cool book trailers, but what’s an author to do? Those baby’s are expensive. But then out of the blue the break that I’d been waiting for happened: One of my FB friends who is also an author posted a link to a website where you can make banners and trailers. I was on it within moments, www.bannersnack.com. My daughter and I made a trailer for Dangerous Deception,HOT COCO, and then one for my first book of the series, DEADLY.COM—they turned out great! Hey, they were cool! But they didn’t have any background music—bummer. So my daughter started playing around with the Windows media file right on my lap top—she made two fabulous trailers right there on the lap top with terrific music for the background. It was easy, it was free, and I was so much happier with result. We uploaded them onto YouTube.  Who knew? Oh well, lessons learned.

Am I getting the exposure that I so desired when I filmed that disastrous trailer? Well…no, but I’ve got two book trailers that I’m very happy with, and my daughter and I had an absolute blast creating them.

You can view my trailers on the “books” tab on my website: http://www.cindymcwriter.com/

We’re not done yet. My next book from The Unbridled Series, AGAINST THE ROPES,  is set to release in June, my daughter and I will be creating a trailer for the new book very soon, and you will be able to find it on the “coming soon” tab on my website—an excerpt from the book is already there for you to read.

If you’ve been thinking about a trailer for your upcoming book or one that you’ve already published, I hope that I’ve given you the tools to create one. And if you do, have a great time!

Get Money for Your Creative Project


Let me introduce you to Kickstarter, the venture capital site for creative projects. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  www.kickstarter.com

Kickstarter says it is “a funding platform for creative projects. Everything from films, games, and music to art, design, and technology. Kickstarter is full of ambitious, innovative, and imaginative projects that are brought to life through the direct support of others.

Since our launch on April 28, 2009, over $350 million has been pledged by more than 2.5 million people, funding more than 30,000 creative projects.”

How does Kickstarter work?

Thousands of creative projects are funding on Kickstarter at any given moment. Each project is independently created and crafted by the person behind it. The filmmakers, musicians, artists, and designers you see on Kickstarter have complete control and responsibility over their projects. They spend weeks building their project pages, shooting their videos, and brainstorming what rewards to offer backers. When they’re ready, creators launch their project and share it with their community.

Every project creator sets their project’s funding goal and deadline. If people like the project, they can pledge money to make it happen. If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers’ credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged. Funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing.

To date, an incredible 44% of projects have reached their funding goals.

Can Kickstarter be used to fund anything?

We allow creative projects in the worlds of Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater.

Everything on Kickstarter must be a project. A project has a clear goal, like making an album, a book, or a work of art. A project will eventually be completed, and something will be produced by it.

Do backers get ownership or equity in the projects they fund?

No. Project creators keep 100% ownership of their work. Kickstarter cannot be used to offer financial returns or equity, or to solicit loans.

Some projects that are funded on Kickstarter may go on to make money, but backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not financially profit.

What are the fees?

If a project is successfully funded, Kickstarter applies a 5% fee to the funds collected.

In the US, pledges will be processed by Amazon Payments, while in the UK, pledges will be processed securely through a third-party payments processor. These payment processing fees work out to roughly 3-5%. View the US and UK fee breakdowns.

Who is Kickstarter?

We’re 46 people based in a tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side. We spend our time making the site better, answering questions from backers and creators, and finding great new projects to share with you. Every day is an adventure — we get to experience projects as they happen! Say hello or come work with us!

More Cover Design AND Video Marketing Ideas for Your Book


Today I found the blog of “Ink Slinger in Inner Space” Karen Gadient. She is both author and  graphic designer. A single post on her blog stimulated this entry.  Karen designed the cover jacket for a recently released science fiction book.

Stimulating Thought Number One: Here’s another source for an illustrator for either cover design or for the innards of a picture book. Mark this post for future reference. Karen has a portfolio tab on her blog. I loved the quality and detail of her art. The art on the book cover shows another dimension to her style–her diversity–since the cover is completely different from the illustrations in her portfolio.

Link: http://karengadient.com/2012/11/02/debris-dreams-the-kickstarter-book-trailer/

Stimulating Thought Number Two: Karen provides a link to the young author’s promotional video trailer for his book. What?! Promotional video??? I thought video trailers were solely for hyping movies or rock albums. What do I know? Not much, evidently. Now young authors are using YouTube and such to distribute promotional videos touting their books. Brilliant. Free Advertising. And if you are clever or creative enough, you sell books!

Stimulating Thought Number Three: An author can ask for money for marketing from the public. Karen introduced me to Kickstarter, a web site devoted to connecting artists of all sorts with persons interested in funding the arts. Indie authors needn’t starve to promote a quality project. But I’ll write more about Kickstarter in a future post.

Wow, Karen! All those great ideas from a single post! Thank you!

Using Video to Sell Your Stuff


Good pep talk from Drew Keller to help you use videography to its best advantage for selling your works via social media. If you are an Independent or Self-publisher, you need to watch this:

Calling all writers who do their own marketing, selling, etcetera. Watch this video.

1,000 Words Per Day Habit


Ray Bradbury, the author of classic Fahrenheit 451, died recently.  Stephen Miller, Wall Street Journal reporter writes of Bradbury:

“His view of books and libraries as cornerstones of civilization and communities inspired Fahrenheit 451, which Mr. Bradbury wrote on a rental typewriter in the basement of a University of California, Los Angeles library.”

Mr. Bradbury was unable to afford college, so he haunted libraries. He educated himself through reading. Over time, he developed skepticism toward technologies that could be turned against humanity. The dystopian consequence of nuclear war was explored in some works. Yet, he lauded what he viewed as positive technologies: he extolled space exploration.

By the time of his death at age 91, Bradbury’s body of work included science fiction, autobiography, film scripts, stories for television, short stories, magazine articles for the likes of Life magazine, children’s books, poetry and text for coffee table books.

According to his obituary on CBS News Sunday Morning, Bradbury developed the habit of writing one thousand words per day. It was this habit that enabled Bradbury’s productivity. He continued writing into the 2000’s.

Mr. Bradbury ordered his own tombstone. He summarized his identity simply:

“Author of Fahrenheit 451.”