A well-written logline will get you access to the managers, agents, and producers capable of putting your ideas on screen.
You have a brilliant idea for a movie. Scorcese won’t be able to resist it, Spielberg or Cameron either! You have to tell someone, so you invite your best friend over for dinner. Plates cleared and drinks full, you dive in. You describe the beats in poetic detail. You weave in backstory and motivation. Conflict! Plot twists! Sound effects! You look up expecting to see awe and instead find glossy-eyed distraction. Self-doubt creeps in. Will Martin love it? Will Steven and James even read it? Then you remember all the times you’ve watched others struggle to describe a movie they loved. “Go see it,” they say. “Trust me,” they promise.
Describing a movie is difficult because movies weren’t meant to be described, they were meant to be written, directed and seen. If you want to hold your friend’s attention (or more importantly the attention of managers, agents, and studio executives) you have to learn the art of selling a story and that starts with a great logline.
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Technically, a logline is a precise one-sentence summation of a screenplay that follows a fairly straightforward formula: protagonist + catalyst + protagonist’s goal + antagonist/conflict. It sounds easy enough but when it’s your own work in question, whittling down a hundred and twenty pages of set pieces, dialogue and career hope to a 30-word blurb is a helluva thing. We’ll get into how-to a little further down but first, let’s cover why.
Loglines are a deciding factor at every step of the creative process. Agents and managers receive hundreds of submissions every month and read only a fraction. Loglines are the first step in their weeding out process. Do they occasionally miss out on bankable talent? Sure. But more often than not the process works.
Loglines are the first hurdle in the producer, studio executive relationship as well. When Producer A says, “I’ve got a great script! You’ll want to fast track this one!” the first thing Studio Executive B is going to ask is, “What’s the logline?” Movies are created by artists and financed by executives. Loglines are the established connection between them. You’ll still have to deliver the goods but a well-crafted logline will get you in the room.
As mentioned above the basic formula of a logline is: protagonist + catalyst + protagonist’s goal + antagonist/conflict. You’ll need to include each element but you don’t have to follow the exact order. For instance, in a disaster movie, the catalyst may take precedence over the protagonist(s). If this formula feels frustratingly vague, well, it should. Just try to remember that a logline gets you in the room and talent gets you on the screen. Let’s look at the loglines from a couple of blockbusters to show how a good concept can lead to a great movie.
Logline: During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.
Word Count: 33
Protagonist: Captain Willard
Catalyst: Assassination mission during the Vietnam War
Protagonist’s goal: Kill a renegade colonel
Antagonist/Conflict: Man vs. man. + survival in a hostile environment
When you read that logline you immediately think of Francis Ford Coppola’s layered masterpiece but to illustrate the importance of talent in the creative process, read that logline again and replace Captain Willard with John Rambo. It is suddenly a very different movie, right? Don’t try to pack your full vision into 30 words. It simply won’t fit. Get in the room, you can showcase your talent later.
Logline: A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him.
Word Count: 27
Protagonists: Three groomsman
Catalyst: Drunken misadventures and a lost groom in Las Vegas
Protagonist(s) goal: Comedic search and rescue
Antagonist/Conflict: Pre-wedding ticking clock
The Hangover had a funny concept and the logline sets the stage for an easily imagined comedy. The finished product was, of course, due to great writing, acting and directing but any executive with access to studio cash could see the potential. Now, imagine if they had read this logline instead:
Logline: Three groomsmen roofie themselves during a bachelor party in Vegas and wake up with no memory of the night before. During a madcap sprint around Sin City, they piece together clues–a missing baby, a stolen tiger–until they eventually find the groom and return to Los Angeles in time for the wedding.
Had the writers submitted this logline, it’s unlikely the script would have been read, let alone made. Ironically, it’s the introduction of specific details from the script that does the most damage. The fact that the memory loss was due to roofies is only funny via Zach Galifianakis’ character. Baby Carlos requires context. The stolen tiger requires context. Without the full story, the details aren’t funny and the concept isn’t as compelling.
For a screenwriter, loglines are an easy thing to loathe. They feel like something the studio should farm out to a junior marketing associate. But like it or not, they are an intricate part of the movie-making process. Don’t write your logline for other writers. Don’t write your logline for that friend of yours who zoned out. Write it for the decision-makers; the managers, agents, and producers flipping through ideas and hoping that talent will follow. Pique their interest with a logline and capture their imagination with your screenplay.