Why Log Lines Are Stupid
So, I finished my second screenplay this Friday. It’s a story about a family dealing with the effects of the 2002 Washington D.C. Beltway snipers and the siege that accompanied it. If you are not familiar with that October in Washington D.C., then read the Wikipedia, it is actually quite informative. My story details several different members of one family, dad, son, daughter, and their peregrinations through one terrible day in October. It’s about a lot of things, the toxic effect of the media, suicide, teenagers, drugs, mental illness, but mainly how we manage to live with violence and how it affects families.
And now I have to think up a log line, a one or two sentence summary of the plot and characters, and this is tough. Sure, I have whipped the story into screenplay-shape and I am prepared to write a synopsis, even a treatment, but a sentence I can’t do. The story is just too big for a sentence, and I don’t feel like condensing or abbreviating it for the sake of a sale. This is my movie, the only ninety-three page PDF I would protect with my life. And it’s just too big for tweet-length.
I do not think that’s a bad thing, either. In fact, I’m quite proud that I haven’t succeeded in writing the log lines. Let’s face it, some great log lines make terrible movies:
Example #1: A San Francisco couple, Brad and Kate usually spend the holidays somewhere exotic, but after fog grounds every plane at the airport, they are obligated to visit their extended families, all four of them; as they meet their extended family, they learn how truly different they are and reconsider whether this relationship is right.
Example #2: Sherlock Holmes must solve a case that baffles all of London when the recently hanged satanic Lord Blackwood returns from the dead to terrorize the city and kill Holmes.
Example #3: Super-intelligent monkeys!
The first example is Four Christmases, and let’s face it, even that log line makes it sound terrible. There’s no saving that one. Sherlock Holmes (2009), however sweet the logline, was so poorly paced and dense, I felt obligated to apologize to my mom after taking her to the movies. And three, well, you would think Congo would be an awesome movie, but it was one of the greatest cinematic failures ever, as everyone who has seen that movie would attest.
My point is larger than that, though. Now a big disclaimer: I am not comparing my movie to Seinfeld, but who could possibly write a convincing log line to that? Remember, before the show, Jerry was a semi-successful comic who had appeared on a few sitcoms and The Tonight Show and not much else. How could he possibly sell it with a sentence or two? As Larry David said, it is a show about nothing. That’s the log line. Nothing ever happens to George, Jerry, Kramer, or Elaine on the show, and yet it is invariably hilarious. You would have to read a script to understand the many coincidences, funny characters, comic maneuvers, and dialogue that makes this a gem.
Don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t judge a screenplay by its logline. Unfortunately, a snappy sentence or two will make or break whether anyone wants to read it. But if you really have to convince someone with a sentence, is it worth it? Not when a screenplay is ninety to a hundred and twenty minutes and not a quatrain.
What do you think?
“Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” by the Temptations, a song that inspired this post.