The premise, or what’s the point?

Michael Tabb takes a deep look at defining the premise of your story:

A premise is the core belief system of the script and lifeblood of the story. […] There can only be one premise per script from which all the ideas it contains serve, otherwise the script loses focus and its sense of purpose. Premise is hypothesis. It is the story’s purpose for existing at all.

For Tabb, premise is never explicitly stated. Rather, it’s the subtext for the piece as a whole.

It is not a word, theme, feeling, story, question, plot, or tone. It’s not about a person; it’s about the world in which we really live (even if your story is not set here). It is a strong statement with a point to make; it’s the theory the writer is trying to prove or disprove. This defines the author’s perspective.

Basically, it’s your personal answer to the central dramatic question you’ve raised in the story:

  • Do souls live on after us? / Souls are eternal and reincarnated.
  • Can you ever escape your fate? / No, and it’s foolish to try.
  • Is trust granted or earned? / Trust is only earned.

I agree it’s worthwhile to distinguish between “what I’m trying to say” and “how I’m saying it.” But I think premise isn’t the best word here.

Tabb is using premise the way a philosopher would, where it means something like “the proposition that forms the basis for a theory.”

In Hollywood, premise commonly means “what the movie is about.” It’s a very short pitch, basically interchangeable with logline. The premise of Die Hard is that a cop has to stop a band of robbers by himself in an office tower. The premise of Armageddon is that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and a team of misfits has to stop it.

One could argue that we’ve been using “premise” wrong. But we’re not going to suddenly start using it to mean something else. You’re likely to just confuse people by using “premise” a different way.

A better choice would be to pick a different term for what Tabb’s describing. Maybe “the point.” Or “thesis.” Or “assertion.”

Whatever you call it, I agree with Tabb that it’s best kept to yourself. Characters generally shouldn’t speak it in dialogue, nor should you discuss it with executives. Rather, let it be a touchstone that focuses your writing for this particular story. Work to expose it through scenes with characters in conflict.

Lastly, do you always know the answer to this question when you start writing? Not necessarily. Writing can be a process of discovery. It’s a Socratic dialogue with yourself. What matters is not knowing the point, but finding it.

Tuesday Reviewsday, vol. 3

One of my aims for 2016 is to leave more reviews for the products I love. Every Tuesday I’ll be writing reviews on the applicable store.

Today’s picks are:

If you’re looking for something to review, many readers are probably familiar with some of the things we make, including Highland, Weekend Read and Writer Emergency Pack.

Podcasts are especially review-dependent, because they signal to the powers at iTunes to feature certain shows. A review for Scriptnotes would be much-appreciated.

The one with Jason Bateman and the Game of Thrones guys

Scriptnotes: Ep. 235

With a live audience in downtown Los Angeles, Craig and John welcome actor/director Jason Bateman to discuss what he looks for when considering a script, and how to best work with a writer on a script.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, co-creators and showrunners of Game of Thrones, join us to reveal the challenges of writing the show so far in advance, working through arguments, and Craig’s secret backstory on the pilot.

Screenwriter John Gatins tells us his history with Hollywood Heart, the charity organizing the event. Our thanks to them, our sponsors and everyone who came. The night raised thousands of dollars to help disadvantaged kids across the country experience summer arts camp.

You can find more info about Hollywood Heart in the links below.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 2-4-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Five jokes, considered

Jesse David Fox assembled a list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy.

I don’t necessarily agree with many of his choices, but it’s a good excuse to look at a few jokes and appreciate why they work.

“What’s the difference between a pickpocket and peeping tom? A pickpocket snatches watches.” – Redd Foxx

It begins with a classic joke setup, but instead of a punchline, it relies on the audience doing the work of parsing “watching snatches.” It’s naughty rather than dirty, and better for it. This kind of joke would be difficult to fit into a movie, because it relies on that pause while the audience figures out the second part.

“Turn right here? [Pause.] Well, now that was my fault again. You see I meant the next street. Not this man’s lawn.” – Bob Newhart

Newhart’s comedy goes hand-in-hand with his too-obliging persona, but the setup here is solid: he creates the expectation of a car turning right at an intersection, and then defeats it with a surprise visual gag.

In the movie version of this joke, the punchline would happen before the car turned. (“Turn right here. (beat) No, not this man’s lawn.”) Alternately, the car drives onto the lawn, likely during the initial pause.

“I was raped by a doctor…which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” – Sarah Silverman

I was in the audience for the taping of Silverman’s Jesus is Magic special, and laughed so much it hurt the next day. Like many of her best jokes, it relies on a premise of “I’m a terrible person for saying this but…”

As dialogue, this kind of joke is easy to give to the right character. The same hold true for this one:

“The other kid we have, she’s a girl, and she’s 4, and she’s also a fucking asshole.” – Louis C.K.

This line from the Girls pilot also walks that line of knowing you’re saying something insufferable:

“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” – Hannah (Lena Dunham)

I don’t have reason to write many jokes. Most of the projects I work on are either dramas or premise-funny rather than punchline-funny. But I always admire well-crafted jokes. They’re tiny works of magic.

It’s franchises all the way down

Over lunch, I wondered aloud how many of the 100 top grossing movies were either sequels or the first film in a franchise.

Take a moment and think about it.

Of the top movies, what percentage are part of a larger franchise? And we’re only looking at theatrical. For this exercise, home video sequels don’t count.

Around the table, guesses ranged from 50 to 83 movies.

The answer is 86. Yes, 86 of the 100 all-time worldwide top-grossing movies are part of a franchise. (See Update 2 below.)

Here is the list:

Rank Title Type
1 Avatar Franchise Origin†
2 Titanic Single
3 Star Wars: The Force Awakens Franchise
4 Jurassic World Franchise
5 Marvel’s The Avengers Franchise
6 Furious 7 Franchise
7 Avengers: Age of Ultron Franchise
8 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Franchise
9 Frozen Franchise Origin†
10 Iron Man 3 Franchise
11 Minions Franchise
12 Transformers: Dark of the Moon Franchise
13 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Franchise
14 Skyfall Franchise
15 Transformers: Age of Extinction Franchise
16 The Dark Knight Rises Franchise
17 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Franchise
18 Toy Story 3 Franchise
19 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Franchise
20 Jurassic Park Franchise Origin
21 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace Franchise
22 Alice in Wonderland (2010) Franchise Origin
23 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Franchise
24 The Dark Knight Franchise
25 The Lion King Single
26 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Franchise Origin
27 Despicable Me 2 Franchise
28 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End Franchise
29 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Franchise
30 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Franchise
31 The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Franchise
32 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Franchise
33 Finding Nemo Franchise Origin†
34 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Franchise
35 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Franchise
36 Shrek 2 Franchise
37 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Franchise
38 Spider-Man 3 Franchise
39 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs Franchise
40 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Franchise
41 Spectre Franchise
42 Ice Age: Continental Drift Franchise
43 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Franchise
44 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Franchise
45 Inside Out Single
46 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith Franchise
47 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Franchise
48 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 Franchise
49 Inception Single
50 Spider-Man Franchise
51 Independence Day Franchise
52 Shrek the Third Franchise
53 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Franchise
54 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Single
55 Fast & Furious 6 Franchise
56 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Franchise
57 Spider-Man 2 Franchise
58 Star Wars Franchise Origin
59 Guardians of the Galaxy Franchise Origin
60 2012 Single
61 Maleficent Franchise*
62 The Da Vinci Code Franchise Origin
63 The Amazing Spider-Man Franchise
64 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 Franchise
65 Shrek Forever After Franchise
66 X-Men: Days of Future Past Franchise
67 Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted Franchise
68 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Franchise
69 Monsters University Franchise
70 The Matrix Reloaded Franchise
71 Up Single
72 Gravity Single
73 Captain America: The Winter Soldier Franchise
74 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 Franchise
75 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Franchise
76 The Twilight Saga: New Moon Franchise
77 Transformers Franchise Origin
78 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Franchise
79 The Twilight Saga: Eclipse Franchise
80 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol Franchise
81 The Hunger Games Franchise Origin
82 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation Franchise
83 Forrest Gump Single
84 Interstellar Single
85 The Sixth Sense Single
86 Man of Steel Franchise
87 Kung Fu Panda 2 Franchise
88 Ice Age: The Meltdown Franchise
89 Big Hero 6 Single
90 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Franchise
91 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 Franchise
92 Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones Franchise
93 Thor: The Dark World Franchise
94 Kung Fu Panda Franchise Origin
95 The Incredibles Franchise Origin
96 Fast Five Franchise
97 Hancock Single
98 MIB 3 Franchise
99 Iron Man 2 Franchise
100 Ratatouille Single

Films marked † have a sequel in production or very nearly so. Films marked * could be considered single or part of a franchise.

It’s worth taking a closer look at the 14 films that never got a big-screen sequel, and why:

Titanic, 2012, Interstellar, Gravity
You can’t sink the same boat twice. (Or blow up the same planet/shuttle.)

There was apparently talk of a sequel at some point.

Forrest Gump
Eric Roth actually wrote a sequel.

The Lion King, Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out, Big Hero 6
There are rumblings of a Big Hero 6 sequel, and it’s not impossible to imagine big-screen sequels to all of these.

Inception, The Sixth Sense
DiCaprio has never done a sequel. But could you do Inception 2 without him? Sure. And you could do a Sixth Sense sequel without Bruce Willis. I bet we’ll get one of these.

Not a hit, not a bomb, but not crying out for a sequel. Also, it’s low enough on the list that it will be knocked off soon.

Whenever you talk about the top-grossing movies, the first question is always, “What about adjusting for inflation?” (Also known as, “What about Gone with the Wind?”)

Fine. Let’s do that.

Here are the top 100 movies of all time, adjusted for inflation:

Rank Title Year Type
1 Gone with the Wind 1939^ Single
2 Star Wars 1977^ Franchise Origin
3 The Sound of Music 1965 Single
4 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial 1982^ Single
5 Titanic 1997^ Single
6 The Ten Commandments 1956 Single
7 Jaws 1975 Franchise Origin
8 Doctor Zhivago 1965 Single
9 The Exorcist 1973^ Franchise Origin
10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937^ Single
11 Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 Franchise
12 101 Dalmatians 1961^ Franchise
13 The Empire Strikes Back 1980^ Franchise
14 Ben-Hur 1959 Single
15 Avatar 2009^ Franchise Origin
16 Return of the Jedi 1983^ Franchise
17 Jurassic Park 1993^ Franchise Origin
18 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 1999^ Franchise
19 The Lion King 1994^ Single
20 The Sting 1973 Franchise
21 Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981^ Franchise Origin
22 The Graduate 1967^ Single
23 Fantasia 1941^ Single
24 Jurassic World 2015 Franchise
25 The Godfather 1972^ Franchise Origin
26 Forrest Gump 1994^ Single
27 Mary Poppins 1964^ Single
28 Grease 1978^ Franchise Origin
29 Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 Franchise
30 Thunderball 1965 Franchise
31 The Dark Knight 2008^ Franchise
32 The Jungle Book 1967^ Single
33 Sleeping Beauty 1959^ Single
34 Ghostbusters 1984^ Franchise Origin
35 Shrek 2 2004 Franchise
36 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969 Single
37 Love Story 1970 Franchise
38 Spider-Man 2002 Franchise Origin
39 Independence Day 1996^ Franchise Origin
40 Home Alone 1990 Franchise Origin
41 Pinocchio 1940^ Single
42 Cleopatra (1963) 1963 Single
43 Beverly Hills Cop 1984 Franchise Origin
44 Goldfinger 1964 Franchise
45 Airport 1970 Franchise Origin
46 American Graffiti 1973 Franchise
47 The Robe 1953 Single
48 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 2006 Franchise
49 Around the World in 80 Days 1956 Single
50 Bambi 1942^ Single
51 Blazing Saddles 1974^ Single
52 Batman 1989 Franchise Origin
53 The Bells of St. Mary’s 1945 Single
54 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 2003^ Franchise
55 Finding Nemo 2003^ Franchise Origin
56 The Towering Inferno 1974 Single
57 Spider-Man 2 2004 Franchise
58 My Fair Lady 1964 Single
59 The Greatest Show on Earth 1952 Single
60 National Lampoon’s Animal House 1978^ Single
61 The Passion of the Christ 2004^ Single
62 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith 2005^ Franchise
63 Back to the Future 1985 Franchise Origin
64 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002^ Franchise
65 The Dark Knight Rises 2012 Franchise
66 The Sixth Sense 1999 Single
67 Superman 1978 Franchise Origin
68 Tootsie 1982 Single
69 Smokey and the Bandit 1977 Franchise Origin
70 West Side Story 1961 Single
71 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2001 Franchise Origin
72 Lady and the Tramp 1955^ Single
73 Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977^ Single
74 Lawrence of Arabia 1962^ Single
75 The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975 Single
76 Rocky 1976 Franchise Origin
77 The Best Years of Our Lives 1946 Single
78 The Poseidon Adventure 1972 Franchise Origin
79 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001^ Franchise Origin
80 Twister 1996 Single
81 Men in Black 1997 Franchise Origin
82 The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957 Single
83 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen 2009 Franchise
84 It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 1963 Single
85 Swiss Family Robinson 1960 Single
86 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975 Single
87 M.A.S.H. 1970 Single
88 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 1984 Franchise
89 Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015 Franchise
90 Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones 2002^ Franchise
91 Mrs. Doubtfire 1993 Single
92 Aladdin 1992 Single
93 Toy Story 3 2010 Franchise
94 Ghost 1990 Single
95 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013 Franchise
96 Duel in the Sun 1946 Single
97 The Hunger Games 2012 Franchise Origin
98 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl 2003 Franchise
99 House of Wax 1953 Single
100 Rear Window 1954^ Single

The ^ indicates that a film has been re-released, which can raise its rank. When in doubt, I’ve labelled films as Single (e.g. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

What can we learn from looking at the inflation-adjusted list? Well, of the top 100 movies, 49 are neither a sequel nor the start of a franchise. That’s a huge difference from the non-adjusted list.

Hollywood didn’t always make sequels from every hit.


A few observations I’ve made from this exercise:

  1. Franchises are a huge part of how Hollywood makes money, not just now but historically.
  2. Franchises have to start somewhere. You don’t get Minions without Despicable Me (which isn’t in the top 100).
  3. Some franchises I’ve ignored (e.g. The Hobbit, Transformers) have made bank.
  4. James Bond is a good business to be in.
  5. There’s a reason studios don’t want you to kill the hero at the end of the movie.

Update #1 (1/29/16):

A reader asks what percentage of the top movies are sequels — that is, part of a franchise but not the origin.

On the non-inflation list, 73 of the top 100 are sequels.

Update #2 (1/30/16):

In the first list, I had mistakenly marked Gravity as a franchise. It’s a Single. So that knocks the total number of franchise movies down to 86.

In the second list, readers pointed out that several of the Single movies actually did have sequels: The Sting, Love Story and American Graffiti. I’ve adjusted the number of non-franchise movies down from 52 to 49, and fixed the graphic.

Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, comes out June 17th. Here’s the trailer. It’s certainly going to exist, which means Finding Nemo counts as a Franchise Origin.

A person could reasonably argue that the Avatar and Frozen sequels won’t happen. But as someone who knows both the industry and the people involved, I very strongly suspect they will. I’m keeping them as Franchise Origins.

Weekend Read can read scripts aloud

Weekend Read, our app for reading screenplays on the iPhone and iPad, can also read them aloud. Here’s how to do it.

Ask Siri to “speak screen.” If you don’t already have Speech turned on, Siri will offer a link to the proper settings page:

siri setting

Tap Open Settings, then switch on Speak Screen.

speech settings

While you’re here, you can also choose a speaking voice in the Voices menu.

Then go back to Weekend Read and open a script.

To have it start reading aloud, swipe down from the top of the screen with two fingers, or just ask Siri to “speak screen.”

A set of controls appears, allowing you jump forward and back paragraphs, and adjust the reading speed.

speech HUD

Once you start it speaking, you can even change apps and it will keep going.

How did we do it? Honestly, we didn’t have to do a lot.

Almost all of this is built-in functionality provided by Apple’s Accessibility features. Behind the scenes, Weekend Read converts everything to Fountain, a plain-text format that feeds right into the system. By keeping it simple (and not cheating with view controllers) it just works.

For an upcoming version of Weekend Read, we’re working on small improvements such as “Mary says” and automatic expansion of abbreviations like “INT” and “V.O.”

You can find Weekend Read in the App Store.