Archive for category Screenwriting

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Amazon Studios is only two days old, but already it’s being pounded on by a lot of people who either work in the film industry, or are at least reasonably informed about it. As of a few minutes ago, there are over seven hundred projects that have been created within the last forty-eight hours, all of whom have agreed to Amazon’s contest contract.

Haven’t heard about this yet? Head over to the Amazon Studio site and have a look around.

The handful of folks who’ve made an effort to actually understand the legalese of the contract (and yes, kids, it really is a contract, not just an entry form) have generally concluded that it stinks in that special way which only the most vile and moldering corpse can. I’ve read most of it and I’m inclined to agree. For those who enter, that contract guarantees that any intellectual property submitted will essentially remain susceptible to Amazon for the rest of eternity, not just those initial eighteen months. Subsequent revisions or contributions by others automatically cede all ownership and copyright to Amazon forever.

No professional writer will likely ever touch it, other than perhaps submitting something that’s lying in a trunk and which would otherwise never be looked upon again. I suspect there will be a few of those, but not many. At least one of the projects already posted claims to be a Nichols’ quarter-finalist, though I wonder if the writer realized how bad Amazon’s deal potentially is while rushing to post the screenplay.

The people who will dominate this arena will be amateur writers that have a lot of time available. Other attempts to create collaborative on-line screenwriting sites have all suffered from people who spend a lot of time up-ranking people in order to get others to up-rank their own material, and taking out the competition by down-rating anything that might possibly be better than their own stuff.

More than anything, the way Amazon Studios presents itself seems to paint a very clear picture that the company has done little or no research into those established collaborative sites, nor have they thoroughly considered the likely outcome of their “anyone can revise a project” philosophy.

Aside from the personality-focused circle-jerk community that will certainly rise to dominance, there is going to be an absolute rush by truly inexperienced amateurs to attach their names to the most popular scripts by providing rewrites. I wonder what that almost-award-winning script will look like after some fifteen-year-old in Sudbury has finished improving it. I will grant you there is a chance, a fractional-percentage-point possibility, that the results might genuinely be better. But let’s be honest. Folks, I’m not placing any bets on that horse, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t either.

In fact, my money’s going on this prediction – the entire thing will descend into a massive clot of rubbish from which it becomes nigh impossible to find the handful of promising scripts. The most popular projects will be those that most closely resemble existing, successful, and widely seen feature films. As someone else has noted about this (though I didn’t think to bookmark the page, but it’s too good an analogy not to use) if you crowd-sourced the invention of the perfect hamburger, you’d inevitably get something that was feature-identical to a Mickey-D’s Quarter Pounder.

Being original is hard work.

At the present time, it seems that about 2,000 films are produced annually for Western audiences, and about 450 of those are made in North America. That’s every movie, folks, not just Hollywood. The major movie studios produce far less than a hundred, though a precise figure is not easy to come by. Anecdotally it seems that studios only produce about one out of every hundred scripts that they option, and that represents only a fraction of the number of scripts that are actually pitched or submitted on spec.

And Hollywood is trying very hard to find product. Hundreds of people work as professional readers, slogging though piles of scripts so that a handful can be perused by time-challenged agents and producers. The kid in Sudbury wouldn’t even be able to get his script inserted into one of those piles – unsolicited scripts are legal nightmares waiting to happen, so if you’re not a known commodity, you’re not getting past the front door. This is, by the way, one of the reasons Hollywood seems like such an insular community to writers – were the floodgates opened to the 50,000 scripts that are registered with the WGA every year, there simply wouldn’t be enough time to read and review every last one. And let’s face it, those registered screenplays represent just a fraction of the total number of scripts that are out there right now. Folks, there are literally millions of un-produced movies sitting on dusty bookshelves around the world, and now there’s a place to show them.

With all the effort expended by studios to make profitable films, we see barely a handful of original movies come from within the ivory towers. Innovation is for independent production companies – studios have shareholders they must answer to and are fundamentally risk-adverse. Heck, the majority of those ‘original’ properties aren’t even being conceived by writers. They’re projects spearheaded by the studio to create product that fills certain niches. Writers are hired and told what the studio wants.

I suspect that the number of projects at Amazon Studios will quickly grow into the thousands, then the tens-of-thousands. Since they are apparently trusting the denizens of Teh Interwebz to determine the best stuff, the winners are all going to look a lot like that cheeseburger.

Warner’s isn’t going to be interested in cheeseburgers. Oh, and for those of you who don’t understand what a “First Look” deal is, it means that the studio gets the chance to look at projects before the creator/owner takes them elsewhere. Studios usually make First Look deals with extremely talented people who’ve made them lots of money already so they can call dibbs on that person’s new project. They usually pay a lot of money for that opportunity.

I doubt Warner’s is paying Amazon a dime – and if they are, they’re foolish to do so. Amazon gets to tout the deal in a way that makes it seem like a winning screenplay is absolutely going to get made. What it really means is that the script will manage to make its way into the pile of other scripts on an anonymous reader’s desk, a reader who already has to eat a lot of cheeseburgers every single day.

The only consolation for the writers is that Amazon probably won’t forward the rejection slips. Unless they post them in the project…

So can any good come of this?

Maybe, but not in any of the ways that Amazon is presently anticipating, unless they’re really as evil as some folks seem to think they are. There are plenty of horrible thoughts that have occurred to me, but rather than conjecture I’ll leave it to you to consider the possibilities.

I think it’s very unlikely that Amazon Studios will be taken seriously by Hollywood, but it does shine a brighter light on the kind of crowd-sourced productions that are starting to flourish. There are independent documentary filmmakers out there who, lacking the budget to travel, are eliciting the aid of others to film footage for them. Even the BBC adopted this model for portions of the doc series “Virtual Revolution” that aired early in 2010.

What differentiates these efforts from Amazon’s is fairly simple but fundamental – all of them are helmed by a “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, someone who has final say on the productions as a whole. Amazon’s biggest error is to allow users to force changes on others’ projects, rather than providing originators ways to moderate changes selectively, or focus the crowd’s efforts on specific areas that need work.

The Open Source software movement works this way, and it works well, primarily because of the tools that developers employ while cooperating. Systems exist to manage and approve changes, to give programmers varying levels of access, and to create virtual managerial hierarchies for large projects. If Open Source developers were forced to limit themselves to the tools that Amazon provides, the entire movement would be toast within a week.

Message to Amazon – Phone Google right now. Those folks have been working for years to build on-line collaboration tools, and you might want to consider licensing some of their technology before things have spun completely out of control.

Message to Google – Don’t answer that call from Amazon. Build something yourself – a toolset that can be used for Open Source art projects – anything from a sketch to a movie. Hire a bunch of those underpaid Hollywood readers and get them to cherry pick the best projects, then broker those projects to major studios for a cut. Heck, at some point you’re going to need content for that YouTube premium service. Think of it as an investment in your own future.

For Amazon Studios to succeed, it needs a way for project owners to manage their projects and the communities that will grow around them. I actually believe that a committee might be able to come up with something far greater than the sum of its parts given strong leadership and direction. But the only thing Amazon is currently providing is a big bin to dump stuff into.

I already have one of those – it’s under my desk and it’s not where I put things that are important to me.


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Scott Pilgrim vs Me

Well I finally managed to get around to seeing “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, and the question that was on my mind when I started watching was “why did this movie do badly?” It had huge geek buzz, made an enormous splash at ComiCon, and was being touted as the “cannot fail” movie of the summer. And yet it tanked.

But the reason it fails is immediately obvious…

Michael Cera.

That’s it. The casting of the lead. I’ll grant you that the film is, in its editing, fairly unusual. The narrative can be a bit confusing initially, and it takes some time to become acclimated to the idea that we’re operating in a sort of alternate video-game universe (though I’m so far out of the movie’s demographic that I’m probably not competent to render an opinion). Now, in a few years, I don’t think folks will have a problem with this style, but at the moment it’s nascent, and the audience hasn’t really transferred the conventions of game narratives to passive entertainment. My guess is that people will eventually look back at this movie and consider it ground-breaking. The style is just running a few steps ahead of the zeitgeist.

But I’m also certain that folks will look back at this film and recognize that casting Cera in the lead was a horrible error, on par with the voice-overs that the studio demanded be appended to “Blade Runner” back in the day. While there can be little doubt that the film got green-lit partly because of Cera’s involvement, that’s just a clear indicator that the studio was imposing its perception of what a “lead geek” should be.

The basic mistake is that the “normal” folks running productions have a vision of what a geek is. Heck, maybe even Winter has a vision of the archetypical geek. What they didn’t get is that geeks *do not perceive themselves as geeks*. Geeks do not feel awkward, even though they are awkward. What they feel is that they’re normal, that they’re no different from the popular crowd, except that for some mysterious reason they’re not part of that crowd, and it makes them sad and/or pissed-off.

Geeks feel just as embarrassed by Scott Pilgrim’s ineptitude as normal folks do. They just don’t find any humor in it. The Borat-loving crowd may get a certain amount of amusement out of watching a geek fail, but they’re not going to emphasize with that character. Geeks watching a dude like Pilgrim just squirm – it’s too close to home.

And so Scott Pilgrim, while managing to be a cool movie, does not provide a cool central character.

Now let me get all writer-ish about this for a moment, because this is a really complicated problem to solve. These guys needed to create a character who was both a geek and an awesome dude. They needed to convince us to respect the guy even while he was bumbling about, make us feel sympathetic to his inability to connect to the *girl of his dreams*. And here’s the painful thing – they really managed to pull it off from a writing perspective…

And then some asshole decided that they needed to cast Michael Cera in the lead because he’s been typed as a geek. And that he needed to play to form as an uber geek.

Big. Freaking. Mistake.

What they needed to do was cast someone who was absolutely not a geek. If I had access to a time machine I’d have cast freakin’ Christian Slater – from the “Heathers” era – in the lead. They needed a lead who absolutely oozed coolness but “didn’t realize it”. Hell, I have a vague suspicion that Brandon (“It’s not my fault they cast me as Superman”) Routh was Winter’s original choice for the lead but got nixed and relegated to a lesser role. That would have worked amazingly well.

But instead, we get an actor who is so viscerally ineffective as a human being that we can’t accept his transformation.

Here’s the big secret… Geeks do not see themselves as un-cool. They see themselves as misunderstood. In their minds’ eye they’re Jedi freakin’ Knights who were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. They’re absolutely not thinking of themselves as lame assed losers. And this is where Hollywood goes totally wrong in doing geek-centric movies, ultimately managing to alienate both the mainstream audience and the ComiCon crowd.

You can call this the “Peter Parker Phenomenon” if you like because Toby McGuire managed to pull off this transformation in “Spiderman”. A guy who starts off as a lame-assed-twit and, by the end of the movie, manages to transform himself into an awesome SOB. Cera, sadly, does not have the range or ability to affect the same transformation (nor does Winter have the capacity to fake it in post). Result? Lame dude is still lame after the climax (and we even get a scene where his sorta-ex-girlfriend has to prompt him to do what he should by now be doing for himself – I *do* blame the writers for that bit of business by the way, but then again they may have had no choice in writing it).

Bottom line – Scott Pilgrim could have been a blockbuster. All it needed was a strong lead actor who could pull off “unintentionally un-cool” for the first half and then drop that affectation for the second half. Instead they cast someone who remains one-hundred-percent-un-cool throughout, and so the film dove into the ground at a thousand miles an hour.

I should mention that I have exactly the same issue with “Kick Ass”, but that movie managed to overcome the limitation simply by abandoning the geeky lead entirely in the second half, changing gears so that the twelve-year-old “Hit Girl” suddenly becomes the protagonist. Structurally a total gum-up, but it rescued the movie. “Scott Pilgrim” was not so fortunate.

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The End of the World as We Know It

It’s a funny thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve read an increasing number of blogs and posts that posit the future of cinema being increasingly creatively challenged. It’s as if only now folks are coming to realize that the movie industry has been encountering a great divide – at one end the tiny, independently produced character driven stories, at the other the air-fuel-bomb inspired Hollywood tent-pole action showcases.

Meanwhile, the handful of really talented writing and creative types have been quietly migrating to that bastard cousin of ‘important’ media – television.

The thing is, I think that the watershed moment really occurred several years ago – specifically when “The Wire” became the single most respected bit of dramatic character-driven writing to ever find an audience. Yeah – “The Wire” is the creation that television needed to finally put a metaphorical stake into the heart of Hollywood.

What happened?

Well, let’s face it, “The Wire” was emphatically NOT the first TV show to present well written drama, complex metaphor underlying stories, or anything else that it did so well. It was simply the first show to package all that shit into a single box and get noticed by a larger audience (and the first one where writers managed to convey a very complex bit of business while the characters never uttered a single word that wasn’t a variant on the f-bomb). The award for first-to-the-post with ridiculously clever plotting that dragged viewers back week-after-week goes to “Twin Peaks”. Flawed as it was, with the writers making it up as they went, it made for compelling television. The award for “morality tale well told” goes back to the sixties and “Star Trek”, which was the first TV series to truly grapple with socially relevant issues in a palatable format — while some might argue “The Twilight Zone” should hold that mantle… as much as I’d like to agree that Rod Serling was a tremendous inspiration, it was “Star Trek” that really grabbed hold of the audiences’ cerebral cortexes and squeezed mercilessly.

However, it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that we really witnessed intelligent writing forced off the feature-length cruise liners and left to swim for TV’s shore. Let’s face it – Hollywood has abandoned character for spectacle. If there’s a choice to be made between an intimate moment of dialogue or a big-freaking-explosion, we know which way that axe is going to fall. Boom, baby, boom.

Meanwhile, television, lacking the insane budgets of theatrical features, has quietly become the haven of folks interested in telling actual stories. Sure, TV writers are not adverse to blowing up the occasional building, but they have the security of knowing that the audience is ultimately more hooked to their series because of the characters and the slowly developing arcs that now stretch out over dozens (and potentially hundreds) of hours of media. An exploding building is an indulgence – a bit of fun. The bit of dialogue where one of the main characters reveals that they feel responsible for the heretofore-unrevealed death of their sibling – that’s the real hook.

You see, in the old days, TV was dominated by a singular principle… You did your 22 or 44 minutes of programming, and at the end of any episode the characters needed to be in exactly the same place as where they started. The golden rule of the TV series was that “nothing must change”. At the end of every episode of “Gilligan’s Island” the island-dwellers remained just as stranded as they were at the start. Every episode of “Star Trek” concluded with the crew still on their infinitely unending ‘five year mission’.

But sometime during the nineties television changed. Perhaps one of the instigators was “The X-Files”, where the show became more about the overall progression of the character’s individual quests – folks tuned-in not just to watch the ‘monster of the week’, but to find out if Mulder would uncover some tiny hint about the grand mystery he was pursuing. Heck – maybe it’s even more essential than that, since the crowd watching “Moonlighting” during the 80’s were really just waiting to see if the sexual tension between the leads would ever be resolved (and look what happened when it finally was…) We could even make a case for “Ren & Stimpy”, which utterly eschewed environmental consistency and simply dumped the characters into whatever random environment facilitated the story – a choice which was entirely foreign and frightening to the broadcaster at the time (and resulted in the creative evisceration of the program and its premature demise).

At some point during that era, television went from being an episodic media where the initial state of the characters was locked and unchanging, into a media where the continuing development of the characters became the primary hook that held the audience rapt. How astoundingly different that is from the most successful series of the sixties and seventies – Imagine if “All in the Family” had begun with Archie Bunker as a hothead bigoted asshole and then transformed him OVER THE COURSE OF YEARS into a sympathetic, reasonable advocate for racial tolerance? If you’d even suggested that intent in the seventies you’d have been laughed out of a network pitch session. Nowadays? That’s actually a pretty compelling premise (though you’d have to start with Archie being a Clansman who slowly turns on his ‘associates’ and risks life and limb – so drama more than comedy).

I suppose what got me thinking about this was ultimately the discovery that Frank Drabont, the guy responsible for writing one of the finest dramatic screenplays ever crafted (go re-watch “The Shawshank Redemption” immediately if you didn’t flash to it at the mention of Drabont) is now producing a TV series about a post-apocalyptic-zombie-takeover which is focused primarily on how the ‘characters deal with the day-to-day difficulties of survival’. Man, can you say drama-heaven? Yeah, I knew you could. The best way to build tension between central characters is to put external pressure on them, and the end-of-the-freaking-world is about as intense as it gets. Give them a goal, force them to work (unwillingly and with opposing intentions) together, and you’ve got a great stage on which to play. I just wish I’d thought of it first. Then again, I still have “Warped”, and an insane AI that is determined to kill everyone at a moment’s notice, so perhaps I’m not doing so badly (yes, I’ll post it in the screenplay section Real Soon Now).

What I’m really getting at here is that theatrical motion pictures are destined to become spectacle rather than compelling entertainment. For human beings, real bottom-line entertainment is about learning – we spend our lives hungry to further our understanding of the people around us, to improve the ‘models’ we hold in our brains that inform our decisions. We are compelled to understand marginal personalities because we don’t encounter them daily and do not have readily available responses to them. We are fascinated by the Dexters and Stackhouses because we don’t have expertise in coping with those interactions otherwise. And so we watch.

“Quality” entertainment is really just a prophylactic that conceals learning and processing – we all seek a better understanding of the world around us (which, to a great degree, explains why “The Social Network” has been so successful – everyone is pretty much baffled by the Facebook phenomena). Good entertainment is really nothing more than cleverly disguised social education. The other sort of entertainment – spectacle – is what Hollywood has become expert in providing. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying and fails to provide the illumination we crave.

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Star Wars: The Musical

If you’ve ever experienced a bad case of writer’s block then you know how frustrating and debilitating it can be. In my case it generally spasms through me when I reach a point in the story and realize it’s gone off the rails – usually because I’ve been unconsciously (up to that point) relying on some essential trope or clich├ęd character.

In August I had found myself wandering into the second act of my Fallout Shelter script when the whole mess just stopped making sense. I knew what needed to happen, but the whole thing suddenly became too convenient — I’d painted my characters into a corner where any action they took would either undermine prior decisions or be utterly non-dramatic.

I fiddled with it for about a week before realizing that I wasn’t actually getting anything written. Typing and deleting does not count as writing – I might as well have been batting out “All work and no play makes Nick a dull boy.”

What I needed to do was write. Anything. And I realized suddenly that it had to be something entirely for me, something with no commercial value whatsoever. As I stood in front of my DVD stockpile, eyes wandering, I ended up pondering the nearly adjacent copies of 2009’s Star Trek and the original 1977 Star Wars and I suddenly had an awful, horrible thought.

“What if J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Wars?”

And then I had an even more terrifying possibility spring to mind…

“Heck, what if Michael Bay rebooted it?”

The whole thing just rolled out in front of me. Rewrite Star Wars in the style of Transformers. And I wouldn’t stop there. I’d mercilessly strip away all of the naive charm, the childhood wonder, everything that made Star Wars what it is, reducing it to an explosion filled summer tent pole movie. I’d turn Obi Wan Kenobie into a drunken has-been! Hell, I even thought about making it a musical, but that would have been too much work.

It took just three days, and by the end it was everything I’d imagined it would be and worse. And, it’s probably exactly the movie that’d get made if Star Wars went into production now, and not thirty-three years ago.

Like Frankenstein before me, I had created a monster, built upon the skeleton of a classic motion picture, stitched together with bits of flesh sliced from twenty-first-century blockbusters.

But that monster ripped through my writer’s block. It didn’t solve the problems I was having with Fallout Shelter – it allowed me to see that those problems were so fundamental that the entire story needed to be told differently. I’d lost sight of the original premise and gotten so wound up in intricacies that I had written myself not just into a corner, but into a maze.

Done with that.

As an afterthought, I sent copies of the script to a few of my friends, suggesting that I’d found it on the net and was concerned that it might be legitimate. Those who read some of it and replied responded with suitable outrage.

My sincere apologies for that, but those of you who did peruse the script would never have been honest about how infuriating it is if you’d known it was me.

Anyway, for the personal amusement of those who weren’t on the mailing list, I now present Star Wars in a way that I hope never comes to be.


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