Nearly every movie, at some point, has been boiled down to a single sentence in order to impress a producer, entice a star, or grab a reviewer's attention.
"Dashing archaeologist goes looking for ancient treasure and finds danger and romance" may once have been used to summarize Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For other movies, the plot is all too easily captured in a single sentence--say, "Aliens attack Earth and lose."
Justin Heimberg, a screenwriter who has made hundreds of quick movie pitches, sees an opportunity to package this Hollywood staple as a parlor game for fun outside Hollywood. Justin and his brother, Jason, recently published their book, The Official Movie Plot Generator: 27,000 hilarious movie plot combinations.
The book is not a catalogue of comedies. Rather, it's a flipbook of cards in three stacks for the three parts of a movie plot: the protagonist(s), the action, and the twist.
A random flip of the stacks produces a film in which: "The Sesame Street Puppets ... struggle to get off heroin ... in this documentary narrated by James Earl Jones."
A summary of the first script Heimberg and his brother sold could have come right from the pages of their book. "A twenty-six-year-old guy throws in the towel in life and decides to retire to a Leisure World community," as Heimberg puts it. That script, along with five others the brothers Heimberg have written, are still in development--a film-industry limbo from which only one in seventy or eighty movies emerges.
The biggest star Heimberg has pitched a script to is Howard Stern. Huddled around a speaker phone in Los Angeles with producers and writers, Heimberg and his fellow writers had precious minutes, as Stern traveled through New York City, to pitch their idea for a remake of the 1979 teen comedy Rock 'n' Roll High School.
The proposed plot: "Someone won an MTV contest to host a concert at their local high school, and the community was up in arms about it," Heimberg says. Unfortunately, "I don't think he heard a word we said. He was very polite, but I think his cell-phone reception wasn't that good." (Stern ended up hiring other writers for the movie, which is still in production.)
Now living near his hometown of Gaithersburg, Maryland, Heimberg says the idea for the Movie Plot Generator developed during his five years in Los Angeles as he and his brother condensed their scripts to catch phrases and were also approached by producers to turn sketchy ideas into screenplays.
"After we got pitched the seventh 'someone becomes a nanny' story," he says, "we began to think, 'Okay, let's get these formulas down.'"
The Heimberg brothers shopped their book concept to a few publishers but soon decided to publish the book themselves, in small runs.
So far, they've placed or sold 4,000 books, with another 6,000 headed to print. Justin Heimberg's longtime friend Dave Smith '95 has joined the venture as an investor and head of marketing and sales. And the book has garnered favorable attention from Newsweek, National Public Radio, and other media outlets.
Heimberg's previous humor book, Would You Rather? (Plume Books, 1997), has sold more than 100,000 copies. (Heimberg wrote the first version of it for a Duke freshman-writing course.)
Despite the Movie Plot Generator's ironic tone, Heimberg says he is not a complete Hollywood cynic.
"Every time I've sold a pitch, I've liked the idea," he says. "And every time I've had something polished, but I've thought it was a stupid idea or I thought I was selling out, I didn't end up selling it."
A young man with big dreams ... moves to L.A. and writes wacky book about movies ... in this true story with a valuable life lesson.