7 Timeless Business Lessons You Can Learn from Hollywood Screenplays

image of hollywood boulevard street sign

I love movies. In fact, movies are what led me into copywriting and eventually to building a successful software company.

Better explain that one, huh?

Back in 1997 when I bolted from the big law firm and moved down to Austin, my plan was to become a screenwriter. Feast or famine, damn the consequences, starving artist type stuff.

Well, instead of writing screenplays, I got caught up in the Web 1.0 boom, and read a lot of books about the film industry in my downtime.

Turns out, being a screenwriter in Hollywood ranks somewhere below “best boy” and “key grip” when it comes to actual influence. Not exactly inspiring.

The only way to have true influence in the film world as a writer is if you are also the director and/or producer. That fact made me realize that I am really an entrepreneur, not a pure writer.

And being an entrepreneur is so much like being a Hollywood writer / director / producer, except you operate in the real world. But often the writing part gets neglected, and that ultimately hurts the business.

I’m not only talking about writing in the content marketing sense. Anyone starting a business is primarily responsible for both the big story and the day-to-day tales, in one way or another. Online, that responsibility is amplified by the benefits that great storytellers enjoy in the social media environment.

Odds are you’re the writer / director / producer of your own business. So here are a few concepts and tips on how to the nail the story — while you’re also directing and producing a profitable business.

I’ve based this loosely on Alex Epstein’s Crafty Screenwriting, and I offer links to a few screenwriting classics down below.

1. Hook

This is the element of a movie and a business that makes it unique. Your USP, your elevator pitch, your remarkable benefit. Without this, the odds for success go way down. Your audience must have a compelling reason to do business with you.

2. Plot

Plot is where the meat of the story takes place. In business, this is where you live your big story. Without a cohesive plot, the movie is a mess, and that’s true for any business as well, online or off.

3. Characters

In these days of the micro-business, you’re definitely the bankable star that needs to carry the flick, but the people you employ and contract with are also characters in your business story. Cast them well.

4. Action

In film, action is what characters do, while dialogue is what they say. In business (especially online), actions speak louder than words when it comes to how you treat your customers and clients. But action in business is more than that — you’ve got to actually implement those big ideas of yours, rather than waiting for someday to come along.

5. Dialogue

While action is key, the dialogue can make or break a film or a business. Thanks to social media, we can now speak and listen to our customers and prospects. Start a real dialogue, listen and respond well, and these “outsiders” become star characters in your story, too.

6. Genre

In film, genre refers to the general audience classification a particular movie falls into. In business this is comparable to your niche. If a film speaks to the wrong genre, it can fail spectacularly. It’s the same in business if you have a great product but you’re speaking to the wrong audience.

7. Rewrite

The magic in any script (and therefore any movie) is not in the first draft, but in the editing. While in business it can be bad to constantly change directions, it’s often the case that your initial story will need tweaking, based both on feedback and changing circumstances. And sometimes, you’ll need to do a total rewrite to stay competitive. The key to that challenging task is to stay ahead of the curve, and proactively modify your story rather than reactively trying to change course to save the ship.

Creating a winning business and writing a winning screenplay are oddly similar tasks. And if you want to learn how to tell better stories and write better copy, you could benefit from learning the craft of screenwriting and applying it to your business and marketing efforts.

If you’re interested in telling great stories, check out these classic screenwriting books:

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field.

So here’s to you and your winning business story …

Editor’s Note: This is a Copyblogger Classic post, originally published in September, 2006. We’ll be republishing classic content from the archives from time to time, updated — as this post has been — to be sure the advice is as relevant as ever.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger, CEO of Copyblogger Media, and Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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Reader Comments (35)

  1. says

    cool post, nice stuff. the syd field book is awesome, i second. i would also like to add a recommendation for the book 20 master plots and how to build them. one of the clearest, simplest, and most useful books on story structure i’ve seen.

  2. says

    I second that emotion of the kids blog and this post has given me an idea.

    Thanks Brian. It won’t be a moneymaker, but it will make buzz… I hope.

  3. says

    As an editor, I also appreciate your emphasis on rewriting. You wouldn’t believe how many writers I work with who think their written words are some kind of holy text.

  4. says

    I like the way you think. I’m an arts buff who’s trying to become a blogging entrepreneur. You put things in terms I understand. Thanks!

  5. says

    Julien, cool! I like Alex’s book a lot… it’s very practical in approach and very well written, which makes it very analogous to a good copywriting book.

    I just found out he has a blog.

  6. says

    Great article, it reminded me of something I learned a long time ago and lost track of over the years.. it’s back to Stanislovski and cat watching for me.

  7. says

    Great post.
    There is a fellow by the name of Cliff Atkinson who uses the same analogy regarding PowerPoint presentations which I found really interesting. (beyondbulletsdotcom)

    Most presentations are not only shockingly boring, they are also less than memorable. He adopts the story telling framework as well which really works in my view.

  8. says

    It is amazing how you can view the world through lenses of your profession and a blogger?

    Suddenly, Hollywood becomes a blog topic and is related to your occupation. Who would have thought?

  9. says

    This is a classic: easy to read, concise, great information.

    I’ve recently thought about recycing some of my posts.

    Question about recycling posts: My early audience was about 5 people so it’s not like the information will be a repeat for most folks, but is this really a good idea?

  10. says

    In regards to Plot, “In business, this is where you live your big story.”

    There are times I forget to live my story. I start to lose focus and my Hook becomes unclear. Consequently that affects the validity and quality of my content. Words become nothing more than an insignificant collection of letters if there is no genuine action/meaning to back them up.

    Thanks for the insight Brian. I love all of you guys at Copyblogger! (in a completely internet-platonic kind of way)

  11. says

    Brian – very interesting to learn this all started with you pursuing screenwriting. My career took a similar path, so hopefully that means I’m on the right track!

    I’ve read the McKee and Syd Field books, but not the one you based your post around. Thanks for the tip.
    Another book that I’d recommend is “Good Scripts Bad Scripts” by Thomas Pope. It takes a look at well known movies that were winners and losers, and why those stories did or didn’t strike a chord with an audience.

    I’m willing to bet it’s been mentioned on Copyblogger before – but anyone who writes anything should read Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.”

  12. says

    Robert Mckee’s book “Story” is a ostensibly about screen writing, but it’s one of the best books about writing I’ve ever written – I can’t recommend it enough! it’s completely dedicated to the art and craft of telling a compelling and engaging story.

  13. says

    Great post Brian! I love the succinctness of the message and the film making analogy. It makes the point really clear. I love the idea of being a micro business – hey the nimbleness and flexibility is a big advantage. You can take and implement decisions immediately and change the business direction for the better. But it does mean you’ve also got to work on your public image and get people to like you – after all, we don’t always buy the product / service – we’re buying the person behind the product. And because the owner is the rock, it’s essential customers “like” and trust you. I like the idea of the “bankable star” and you’re so right Brian, there are lots of innovative ways to connect with your audience to build that all important 2-way conversation and dialogue.

  14. says

    Great post, Brian! The seventh tip is the one that really speaks to me. I often find myself changing tidbits of my previously published posts almost every day because I find parts where I think different words would better fit to convey my message more clearly. Rarely, I’d even end up almost rewriting an entire post because I know how to better portray my idea later, but I find it better to just write an entirely new post in this case.

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