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December 04, 2012

Why Movies Are Awful: An Insider Report

Interesting blog-post from a screenwriter (responsible for The Thing 2, but don't hold that against him.

Most people have heard that it's the "suits" and the process of accommodation of the corporate people's demands that make scripts (and movies) so awful. I heard that, but then I've also heard that's a lot of a crap; that that's an easy line peddled by outsiders.

This guy, on the other hand, says "No, that's actually correct."

That first notes meeting is illuminating. You learn right away who actually read your previous script and who didn’t. You also discover what the other people involved want the movie to be. NOTE: Rarely will everyone want to make the same movie. You’ll get notes like “Can we make it more like [popular movie]?” Or, “This feels like it should be more in the [obscure art film] neighborhood.”


Perhaps finally this is the stage where it goes to the top studio execs. You attend another notes session and are tasked with notes you feel you’ve already addressed. Things like, “I don’t know what the characters are feeling,” or “What is this person’s arc and why is it so hard to figure out?”


This second full pass is where you’re tested. The biggest problem is realizing that some readers on the studio level don’t understand subtext. Or rather, they get it when they’re seeing a finished film, but with all the scripts they read (or coverage thereof) they have no subtext radar. It all blows by them. (Not every exec is like this, but it’s a common problem, and can sometimes extend to producers and other people in the process.)

About this time, your agent calls again and says: Don’t screw this up. For both of you.

Your new job: Spell out all the things you so artfully seeded through innuendo and subtle suggestion. Now you’re writing things in ALL CAPS and talking about how this is THE TURNING POINT FOR YOUR CHARACTER because she realizes SHE MUST BETRAY HER FRIEND to SAVE HER FAMILY. If you learned how to write from a certain LOST writer, you’ll be doing this already, along with statements like HOLY SHIT, this is the MOST HEARTBREAKING MOMENT WE’VE EVER SEEN.

Reading the draft back to yourself makes your teeth hurt. This isn’t representative of your writing, it’s more like a transcript of some frat boy describing your script to his buddies. And yet this draft goes over like gangbusters at the studio. You are called and thanked by the studio, and then the producer. Once a director/movie star/both get on board, it’s all systems go for this project.

Maybe that work has already been done, in which case, you’re getting notes from those people as well. If an actor is involved, the draft the studio loves to death will rankle the movie star. Why? Because in this draft you’ve written out all the subtext and given the actor no room for them to do their job. Actors hate drafts like this. It’s like a photograph of a starving child in some third-world country holding up a flag that reads “FEEL SAD.”

Movies really have become awful, haven't they? I don't mean politically; sure, there are a lot of liberal zingers put into movies for no very good reason, except to make the filmmakers think they've done something positive with the piece of shit project they're foisting on people.

Hollywood has always made most movies for a juvenile crowd. A producer, I think his name was Zanuck, worked out the logic like this: Girls will see anything boys will see, but boys will not see most things girls will see. Younger kids will see anything that older kids will see, but older kids will not see things made for younger kids. Adults will see most things that older teenagers will see, but older teenagers will not necessarily see things that adults would see. Therefore, the correct money-making demographic to make a movie for is a 17 year old boy.

Even though Hollywood turned out all sorts of juvenile dreck (and be aware, they always did; if older movies seem more adult to you, remember that's largely because only the classics survive and most of the juvenile dreck is forgotten and no longer seen), certainly they've gotten worse and worse about this lately. Virtually every movie has a number in the title-- to avoid this, some sequels and prequels avoid numbering, but even if they avoid that, we still know that X-Men: First Class is X-Men Part 0. (And that movie was halfway decent.) Everything is either a prequel, a sequel, or a remake; every movie made is an attempt at a financially "safe" exploitation of a property that's worked at least once in the past.

And everything is written for that 17 year old boy. The more years that separate me from 17 the more this grates. Almost every script is some kind of coming-of-age story about a young man with limitless potential if only he can learn to [x] (control his emotions, come to peace with his father's death or his living father's authority, etc., etc.). Those are not bad stories, necessarily. A lot of classics are in that mode. But when almost every movie is that sort of Edge-of-17 I-Can't-Wait-To-Find-Out-What-I'll-Be-When-I-Grow-Up power fantasy (competence fantasy, career fantasy, etc.), that's an awful lot of movies with the same basic theme and only the slightest differentiation between them.

Even in the Beach Party Bingo days of the late sixties, Hollywood still put out a decent number of movies made for adults. They weren't literally all for that 17 year old boy. Just most of them, and most of the exploitative ones. But they did attempt to target adult audiences, and produce some movies that weren't all about What I'll Be When I Grow Up but about the problems you face when you have grown up.

It's very hard to name movies made in the last 20 years which are made for adults. You can name a few, but they're few and far between. And they're increasingly mostly small-operation independent movies.

I used to despise independent and foreign movies. I wouldn't see them on principle. But with the major studios just churning out one adolescent power-fantasy after another (and usually poorly done adolescent power-fantasies at that), I am beginning to see the appeal.

Television used to be a vast wasteland of insipid corporate least-common-denominator writing, while movies used to be a notch above that. Now that situation is entirely reversed, and with a vengeance. I still prefer the form of the movie over television (I don't like episodic stories-- I like beginning, middle, and end), but there's little doubt that if you want to write interesting stories that aren't about a boy-man on the cusp of adulthood finding a Power Ring and learning to control his Go For It impulses, you should write for television rather than the movies.

A documentary called American Grindhouse discussed exploitation films. One point, I think made by John Landis, was that despite the low budgets, exploitation films actually offered a writer or director (or, commonly, a writer/director) a great deal of freedom, because so long as one delivered the Exploitation (whether Bikinis, Bikers, Black Revolutionaries, or Blood), the producers did not care at all what you made the story about. Deliver the three or four bits of nudity, shock material, or Current Teenager Fad material and you could otherwise do whatever you wanted.

I get that feeling about TV, now. Most shows are still pretty formulaic (every episode is mostly just a rehash of the basic situation and conflicts in the pilot episode, which, actually, they sort of must be), but you do occasionally see some things you weren't expecting, and hear some dialogue you weren't expecting, on TV.

In the movies, it's all entirely predictable. Almost every studio movie is just an assemblage of things that have worked in other movies for the last 20 years. And as Hollywood's hits are fewer and further between, every movie seems to be rehashing the same Moments That Worked from previous movies. Even in the very small creative space they're working in (movies for 17 year old boys looking to become awesome I Win At Life adults), they're not offering much variation or novelty.

For God's sake, do we really need Ridley Scott's Monopoly-- The Movie of The Game?

It's my guess that, given the ease of distribution via the internet, and plummeting costs of making a movie in the first place (making a cheap movie I mean-- as cheap movies become cheaper, the regular big-budget studio picture explodes in price), we'll see more and more micro-studios pop up, offering low-budget movies (but made by veterans who aren't idiots) offering more "alternative fare," and alternative will usually mean "featuring adults or adult themes." The actor Michael Biehn (Aliens, Terminator) was talking about this sort of thing on Adam Carrola. Although it was a TV show rather than a movie, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" illustrates this idea -- if your budget is low enough, you have the liberty to do whatever you like, and you might just wind up making something that hasn't been seen sixty three thousand times before.

digg this
posted by Ace at 12:27 PM

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