question of the day

So I thought I’d make a blog entry out of a question Dave asked me in the comments section of an earlier entry, re: how this town is starved for scripts that the powers-that-be that make movies (or get movies made) can fall in love with, get wildly excited about:

If that is what they want – and they are afloat in an OCEAN of scripts, why is it that they bemoan having nothing new, and then put out crappy down-to-the-lowest-common-denominator schlock films one after another, remake every movie that does not require or deserve a remake and flood the theaters with … the same thing over and over?

Oh gods, I could go on about this, and I probably will [edited later to add: …and I see that I did]. Off the top of my head, and of course this is just my opinion.

In general, the system is broken and needs to be reinvented. The people I’ve met and know in the film industry — the suits as well as the writers — are actually very smart, often charismatic, very much in love with what they do (and also a bit bitter and disillusioned themselves — to quote one, “Oh, it’s a terrible business, terrible”) but the whole process of developing, making and marketing a film has become such a huge sprawling complicated obscene and obscenely expensive machine that odds are at some point something will break — and it does. Which is not to say that other people involved with that machine aren’t simply idiots themselves; of course they are. But I haven’t met them, or at least talked with them enough to know that I did meet them. Or maybe I’m just in denial. It wouldn’t be the first time.

1) It’s an extraordinarily difficult business, very expensive and very difficult to turn a profit, now that so many people (movie stars) now demand a cut of the gross, and that certain salaries (movie stars) have ballooned beyond all sense and reason. (I think as writers we kind of understand this in a vague abstract sense, but in my experience writers just make really lousy business people and I’m not sure we understand this enough). This is one reason why the studios were being so stingy with the writers — under the current system, at the end of the day there just isn’t much money left to share with them, and as we know the writers are always the ones who get screwed (see previous note about lousy business sense). So the industry reacts by becoming more and more conservative — you risk your job & your future every time you make the high-profile, multimillion-dollar, diaster-prone decision to greenlight a film. People have become so scared and risk-averse they will greenlight only the things that seem even remotely guaranteed to make money, because they’re connected to something that’s already made money in the past. Foolproof? Hardly. But they’re clutching at straws.

Add to this that the movies regarded as intelligent adult well-made entertainments — The Kite Runner, for example — don’t make money. You could argue that it’s because a film like that was not distributed or marketed properly, that the right word did not quite get out to the right audience in time. (So thank god for the Oscars and other awards — people may complain, and they do, that they only award the boring films that nobody sees, or the wrong films, or whatever, but if it wasn’t for those awards and the fact that producers know that those awards will give a movie a longer life or even a whole new life, audiences would have even less choice in the movie theatres than they do now. But I digress). But even if you’re right, studio execs don’t see it that way — they say, “This is clearly not what the people want, so we will not make any more movies like this. We will focus on that thing about the hot mutant blondes instead.” (A recent notorious example being a high-level exec at Warner Brothers saying they would no longer do movies with female protagonists because Jodie Foster’s The Brave One had tanked as well as another movie starring a big-name actress that came out around the same time but for the life of me I cannot remember what it was. Forget that Brave One was an unnecessary remake and a poorly conceived idea that didn’t really resonate with audiences. Those cursed female protagonists, begone with them!)

In other words, if audiences made different choices, we would get different movies, so some of it really is our own fault — we’re getting what we’ve let them think we want. And we get what we get until we’re suddenly presented with a different kind of choice too good and fresh to ignore (JUNO — so much for not wanting female protagonists) so that it makes the kind of money that wakes up the execs to this notion that now we want something else.

2) It’s extraordinarily difficult to make a good movie, period. I think we tend to forget this. As the saying goes, you can’t make a good movie from a bad script, but you *can* make a bad or mediocre movie from a good script, because some element of an immense collaborative process just goes wrong — the director doesn’t get the tone right (I saw a great, edgy, black-comedy script produced by a famous well-respected actor’s production company turn into a hideous failure at least partly for this reason) or the movie stars pull rank and make threats & tantrums to rewrite their parts more to their own liking, which fucks up the rest of the screenplay. In other words — that bad movie you just rolled your eyes at in disgust as you rued the loss of your price of admission? It didn’t look that way on paper.

3) An OCEAN of scripts, sure, but that doesn’t mean an ocean of GOOD scripts. A truly good, original yet accessible script is still so rare and sets off such community shockwaves that even if it doesn’t get produced it gets passed around and everybody talks about it and that writer is suddenly on the radar and taking some meetings. But I see the same problem with wannabe screenwriters that I do with wannabe fiction writers — they don’t read enough. It’s even worse with aspiring screenwriters because they think it’s enough to watch movies and read some screenplays — they don’t make the connection between reading and absorbing the deeper principles of storytelling, or between storytelling and imparting a distinctive, informed worldview, something interesting to say that no one else is saying just now, even if it’s ‘just’ an action or genre film. They read Syd Field instead, confuse form with formula, and churn out stuff that just isn’t good enough. Or they forget what a screenplay truly is: a blueprint for a story told through compelling visual images (rather than, as Hamlet once put it, words, words, words, words!).

This goes for some of the suits too — executive MBA types who consider themselves story analysts but don’t really understand or respect the writing process — they take a good script with a unique singular vision, then muck it up by bringing in ten different writers to rewrite and rewrite it. Everybody thinks they can write, which means that writers don’t get the respect they deserve and — except for the handful at the top of the pyramid who are proven money-makers — they’re regarded as disposable and replaceable. So even when you start out with a unique project, that singular compelling vision often gets diluted and diluted until it’s as generic as everything else.

In other words: execs still need a great script to fall in love with, so that they can then drive it into the ground.

4) …Oh, screw it. I’m depressed now. I’m going to go have a beer.

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