The following are sample synopses of real films. You may want to watch the film with the rating most likely to apply to your film, then write your version of a synopsis before reading mine. How do they compare? This isn’t a test, and there is no right or wrong. It is merely to demonstrate for you how to carry out the principles enumerated in the book. Your goal is to let the investor know what happens in the film while keeping the synopsis preferably within one page but not more than two. My versions are simply guides toward that end. In addition, don’t announce a rating unless you are sure it is what the film will receive. Please note that three of the synopses (The First of May, The Blair Witch Project and Moving Midway) are from business plans that I wrote; I had nothing to do with the other two films.
G-Rated Film, The First of May The First of May, SHO Entertainment’s first feature film, is a children’s story of two lost souls―one, an 11-year-old boy; the other, a 70-year-old woman. They fill a need in each
other as they run away together looking for something more in their lives. Young Cory, a lonely foster child, meets Carlotta, an aging gypsy, as she sits on the porch of her nursing home. One day Carlotta gives Cory a five-dollar bill to buy ingredients for “halvah,” a Middle-Eastern candy, even though she is not allowed to cook. Sybil, director of the nursing home, tries to get the money from Cory, but he avoids her and brings the ingredients to Carlotta that night. The task makes Cory late for dinner, and his foster parents, Dan and Michelle, send him to bed without dinner.
While Cory is off to school, Michelle learns she is pregnant. Overhearing his parents discussing how to tell him the news, Cory incorrectly assumes he is being sent back to the foster agency. That night he runs away and goes to say goodbye to his only friend, Carlotta. She decides to go with him. The two fugitives sell Carlotta’s halvah in a new town. After a nosy neighbor calls the attention of a foot patrolman to the pair, he chases them. Carlotta (now known as “Grandma”) and Cory travel to another town hundreds of miles away. There Carlotta finds a circus at which she worked 40years earlier; many old friends are still there, as well as Hannah Belle, an elephant she helped birth. Cory joins the circus and learns to juggle and ride a motorcycle, the latter his late father’s first love. Portia becomes his best friend. The runaways claim to Cory’s teacher that his school records and birth certificate were lost. After his teacher receives a disturbing reply to her request to the state for Cory’s school records, she overhears Cory tell Carlotta how happy he is to have gotten away before they sent him to an institution. Touched, she pockets the letter for the time being.
Finally Cory debuts as a motorcycle act. The crowd goes wild but Carlotta isn’t there―she has collapsed and is in intensive care at the hospital! Boss Ed, the circus owner, pays the hospital bill and gives Cory their severance pay as the circus family (including best friend Portia) leaves town. Outside the hospital, Cory drops the severance pay in a Salvation Army bucket, telling the bell-ringer, “God bless my Grandma, please.”
The next day, Carlotta wakes up and whispers that she is proud of Cory. Her heart monitor slows to a flat line; Cory rushes out as the monitor’s alarm goes off. Someone tackles him; it is Dan. He and Michelle are ecstatic to find Cory and ask him to be a big brother to their new child. “We want to adopt you,” Michelle says. Cory says he would like that, but he has to take care of Grandma.
Some months later, Cory has his first-ever birthday party. His new baby sister is seated in a swing. Michelle gives him some halvah to taste. As Cory calls it “just as good as Grandma used to make,” another voice says, “I’ll be the judge of that.” To the surprise of the movie audience,
Carlotta enters the room. She survived her heart attack and Dan and Michelle “adopted” her, too. As Cory goes out to play catch with Dan, he is shocked to see all of his circus friends gathered to celebrate his birthday!
PG-Rated Film, Big Fat LiarBig Fat Liar is a pre-teen fantasy romp about telling the truth and good defeating evil. Jason Shepherd is a 14-year-old who habitually tells lies to his parents, teachers, and anyone else. Drawing on his own life, Jason writes a composition for English class about a boy who is a big, fat liar. Hurrying to get the paper to school on time, Jason slams into the limo of Marty Wolf, a Hollywood producer scouting locations. Conning his way into the car for a ride to school, Jason accidentally leaves his paper behind as he gets out of the car. Naturally, his teacher and parents don’t believe he actually wrote a paper at all.
Desperate for a good picture before the studio drops him, Wolf decides to make a film based on Jason’s paper. Seeing an advance trailer for the film (which has yet to be produced), Jason realizes it is his paper. Telling one more lie (a “white one”) to his parents who are gone for the weekend, Jason and his best friend, Kaylee, decide to go to Hollywood. They foolishly believe that Wolf will tell Jason’s parents the truth. Arriving at the studio in Hollywood, the kids have to use a ruse just to get into Wolf’s office. Confronted by Jason, Wolf can’t believe that the kid doesn’t want money or fame, just a call to his dad. Getting the original composition from his file, Wolf sets it on fire.
Determining they have to force Wolf to tell the truth, Jason and Kaylee get onto the lot via the Universal tour. Hiding out in the wardrobe and props department, they plot their revenge. By following Wolf around town, the studio, and to his home, Jason sees that Wolf is totally self-centered and mean to everyone around him. Eventually, Jason is easily able to win the sympathy of two key allies: limo driver Frank and Wolf’s secretary, Mondy. Frank has reason for revenge: he was a hopeful actor until Wolfwrote “loser” on his picture and sent it to every casting director in town. Mondy is tired of being blamed for Wolf’s mistakes.
Using practical jokes, Jason and Kaylee try to humiliate the producer into making the phone call to Jason’s Dad. They put blue dye in Wolf’s swimming pool and have Mary send him to a fake meeting at the house of the studio head with his body still blue and his hair still orange. Eventually, Wolf spends a day trying to get to the studio but is foiled by funny and outrageous pranks, such as his stalling limo, an apparently dangerous ride in a sports car, and being forced to parachute out of a helicopter. When Wolf finally makes it to the studio, he and Jason face off on a rooftop on the lot. Jason finally gets Wolf, who thinks no one can hear them, to admit that he stole the film idea from the kid’s paper and that he thinks the truth is overrated. At that point, a director yells cut and several cameras appear from nearby rooftops. To Wolf’s surprise and Jason’s delight, the whole scene is being shown on a big screen to Jason’s parents, the studio head, the employees of the studio, and the Hollywood press corps. Wolf is fired.
Big Fat Liar is made with Monty, Jason, Frank and everyone else involved in Wolf’s comeuppance. Wolf ends up as a party clown. Good wins over evil, and we know for sure that honesty is always the best policy.
PG-13, Big Eyes Artist Margaret Ulbrich leaves her controlling husband and moves to San Francisco with her daughter, Jane. While drawing portraits in a park, she meets Walter Keane, another artist. After a short courtship, he convinces her to marry him. After failing to convince a gallery to display their paintings, he manages to have them displayed at a jazz club. Arguing with the owner about their location on the wall next to bathrooms, Walter hits the owner over the head with one of Margaret’s paintings of a child with big eyes. The resulting newspaper coverage of the incident features her painting.
Having convinced his wife to sign the painting only as Keane, Walter tells everyone that he is the artist. She is upset to learn about it, but he points out that no one will buy a painting by a woman. She chooses to accept the explanation, as she prefers Walter to do the marketing. He even persuades Margaret to lie to her daughter who is locked out of the work room. Ten years go by with Walter being increasingly mean while keeping Margaret painting in the locked room and giving interviews as the artist. Eventually, he opens the Keane gallery.
The lies continue to grow. At the supermarket, Margaret sees a replica with giant eyes. The image haunts her; and, at home, she paints a new image of a child with elongated features and small eyes. She also asserts to her husband that she wants to sign the paintings. He claims they will be accused of fraud. He tries to appease her by having another line of “family” paintings including drawings by Jane. Margaret keeps uncovering lies Walter has told, however, and eventually she decides she can’t live with them―or him—anymore.
She tells Walter she wants a divorce. Confronted by a drunken husband, she locks Jane and herself in the painting room. He throws a match through the keyhole, but she stomps it out. Margaret and Jane leave in a car and eventually end up in Hawaii. When Walter receives divorce papers, he insists on 100 more paintings before signing. She agrees at first, and then sends one signed MDH KEANE. She also admits on a radio show that she is the real artist.
Walter gives interviews claiming that she is crazy and lying. She sues for libel which is dismissed, as she went along with the lie of who was the real artist. The court does accept the charge of slander, however. Margaret’s great advantage, in addition to the truth, is that Walter decides to defend himself. Frustrated by the lack of answers from Walter who rambles on and on, the judge decides on a painting contest in the courtroom. Margaret happily paints the requested portrait, while Walter gives excuses. Margaret wins on the defamation charge. Outside the courtroom, she is elated to sign her own name when a fan asks for an autograph.
Margaret opens her own gallery in Hawaii. The final shot will show a photo of the real Margaret Keane seated next to the actress Amy Adams who plays her in this film.
R-Rated Film, The Blair Witch Project The Blair Witch Project is a caustic and terrifying story disguised as a documentary. Structured similarly to investigative television programs such as In Search Of, the film tracks the disappearance of three young filmmakers in 1994 while shooting a documentary on the Blair Witch. A fabled witch in Maryland folklore, she is said to be connected to many unexplained events and strange deaths. With “real-time” immediacy, The Blair Witch Project shows the Generation X-ers horrifying journey into the supernatural and analyzes their fate with the scrutiny of serious documentary films, such as The Thin Blue Line or Roger and Me. In reality, it is a mockumentary along the lines of This Is Spinal Tap and mimics horror films in the same way the Scream and AlienAutopsy do.
What our audience sees initially is that in October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittesville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. One year later, their footage was found. Three students—Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams—set out to make a film about the local Maryland myth of The Blair Witch. Before departing into the woods, they interview the townspeople about their belief in the witch, gathering as many variations on the story as the number of people interviewed. They go into the woods with a new camera, camping equipment, and no fear. By having the actors themselves shoot the film, they are able to make the film more believable than if it were staged and shot by a traditional director. As strange events occur, the students become lost in the woods and increasingly terrified. One student disappears and odd occult symbols are found every morning, no matter where the tent is pitched.
The film lures the viewer to a level of emotional involvement not possible in a narrative format by using the traditional techniques of non-fiction narrative to spellbind them with the “true” events, which unfold on the tapes. Since the actors improvise much of the language and action in the film, we cannot know all the events that will occur, the language that will be used, or the potential rating for the film by the Motion Picture Association of America. The fate of the filmmakers is depicted with the same calculated obscurity as the rest of the film. The audience is shown that their demise is an unpleasant one. But who actually did it, when, and how, is never revealed. Similar to the results from exploring UFO’s, the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot, the mystery is not solved.
Documentary, Moving Midway
The white-columned Southern plantation, like the cowboy or the skyscraper, is an American icon. A globally recognized emblem of the Old South, and more lately a hotly contested political symbol, it owes its ambivalent, ever-shifting mythology not only to history, but to a century of popular art including novels and movies like Gone with the Wind. And behind the myth, of both yesterday and today, lies a reality no less complex and emotionally potent.
Growing up in Raleigh, N.C., Godfrey Cheshire spent frequent weekends at his family’s ancestral home, Midway Plantation, ruled over then by his eccentric great-great aunt, “Miss Mary” Hilliard Hinton, who tried to keep the plantation as it had been at the end of the Civil War. Much about Midway did indeed remain as if preserved in amber until recently, when its latest owner, Cheshire’s first cousin Charlie Hinton Silver, announced his intention to uproot and move the old mansion and its outbuildings. The reason was not an unfamiliar one in the booming New South: Raleigh’s urban sprawl threatens to engulf the once-bucolic property in strip malls, condo developments, and fast-food franchises.
But can a plantation really be transplanted? That question now divides Cheshire and Silver’s extended clan, and Moving Midway documents the emotional reactions to Charlie’s unorthodox plans from his brothers “Possum” and “Winkie” Silver (as colorful in person as they are in name) as well as Cheshire’s mother, “Sis” Silver Cheshire, who worries about potential disturbances by the house’s demonstrative ghosts.
And ghosts aren’t the only challenging reminders of Midway’s long history. Plantations were, of course, constructed on the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Recently, Cheshire’s family has begun reconnecting with descendants of Midway’s slaves, and some of these African-Americans participate in the film’s reconsideration of the plantation’s place in history and the contemporary South. One person in this group with a claim to the plantation’s history, Dr. Robert Hinton, a professor of African-American studies at NYU who believes his grandfather was born a slave at Midway, journeys to the plantation in search of his own family’s roots. He also finds 96-year-old Abraham Lincoln Hinton, Godfrey’s blood cousin.
As a film critic, Cheshire examines the links between the Southern plantation’s reality and the luxuriant popular mythology that grew out of (and often obscured) it, especially the contentious imagery of movies ranging from Birth of a Nation to Mandingo. In interweaving these cultural explorations with Charlie’s attempts to preserve Midway by relocating it, Moving Midway offers audiences the chance to see a plantation not only as a charged icon but as a current, lived reality. The investigation’s climax is an event fraught with both symbolism and suspense: the actual moving of Midway and the discovery of the family’s true roots, their forgotten cousins, the black Hintons.
The original synopsis for the film was written in the future tense, as you would do in a business plan when raising money for a documentary to be shot in real time. I wanted to use Moving Midway was an example that doing that type of documentary can bring surprises and may necessitate changes in the original script. The reconnecting of the family through Robert Hinton and Abraham Lincoln Hinton happened after filming started. The filmmakers made changes to accommodate the extended family in the film and let the investors know how the finished film would differ from the original synopsis.
NC-17–Rated Film You are on your own. I’ve never written a synopsis for a producer or director who expected his film to get an NC-17 rating. If you do, remember that you have to explain the problems with distributing such a film.