There Is No Chosen One

The reality show Project Greenlight is, well, a reality show. It has precious little to do with how movies are actually made, and to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t ever produced a critical or a commercial hit. It’s not real Hollywood –

But right now, it is at least drawing attention to some of the very real issues faced by people in Hollywood who are trying to carve out a career with the disadvantage of not being white, male and heterosexual.

There are a lot of things to be said about Matt Damon’s statement, and the situation that led to up to it, and other people are saying them far more eloquently than I could. So instead of adding to that, I’d like to set out a proposal to make things better.

Let’s all remember – there is no chosen one.

In film and television, we recycle the myth of the chosen saviour who’s perfect for this situation, and has exactly the skills required, so often that we start to apply it behind the camera too. Somewhere out there, there’s a director/producer/cinematographer etc who is perfect for my project, and I just have to find them.

The thing is, that’s just not true, is it? Oh sure, there are “names” who’ll bring in funding (and that’s a whole other issue), but if you’re making a low-budget movie, hiring staff for a new TV series, making a web series, or even appearing on Project Greenlight, your choice is not “Ridley Scott or someone unknown”, it’s “someone unknown or someone unknown”.

So, putting aside names and reputations – your choice is always going to be between several people who are both equally talented and equally good for your project (albeit in fractionally different ways). I know, I’ve been there. you never end up with one obvious candidate. Never.

So whether you realise it or not, your decision is going to be largely arbitrary. You’re going to pick the person who made you laugh in the interview, or who you met last week at a party, or who your girlfriend’s brother’s best friend went to college with. (And all of those things are likely to lead you to someone the same race, sexuality, and probably gender, as you.)

Or you could make a different arbitrary decision. You could pick the black cinematographer, the editor who uses a wheelchair, the female director. Your decision is no less arbitrary than one made for those previous reasons, and you’re still picking from a pool of equally qualified and talented candidates – so why not deliberately pick the person who every one else is less likely to pick? That’s not positive discrimination or so-called “reverse racism” –  it’s as good a criteria for a decision between otherwise equal candidates as anything else.

If we all did this for a year, even, the spread of shiny white male faces who accompany every article in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter would start to look very different – and there would be no drop in quality in the films and television we’re producing at all. If anything, these super-motivated candidates seizing what might be their only chance would give more than the entitled guys who can always get a job elsewhere.

So how about it? Shall we give it a try?

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Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie, part three

Many’s the time I’ve left the cinema with friends and said “Wasn’t that movie brilliant?” only for them to respond, “Yeah, but I really wanted to know more about that guy/that machine they had/what happened when they met first twenty years ago.”

And it’s only just occurred to me that this is not the sign of a bad movie – it’s the sign of a very good one. It’s the sign of a fully-realised story world, a universe that’s not a picture that only looks real from one angle, but a hologram that holds up from every angle of scrutiny.

If a minor plot point or a walk-on character has such depth and such emotion invested in them that you want to know more, then the writer has done their job very well indeed…

Pacific Rim and the New Hollywood Paradigm

 

 

I confess, I’ve been following the development of Pacific Rim for a long time. Why? Because the story of this movie is the screenwriter’s dream.

Once upon a time there was an up-and-coming screenwriter named Travis Beacham, who’d written scripts that everyone loved but which weren’t getting made. It wasn’t his fault: that’s just how the business is when you’re starting out, a lot of near-misses.

But he did something about it. One day, he sat down and wrote the movie he’d always wanted to write – the movie that was so expensive and so crazy that it was never going to get made. And then one of the very few directors with both the commercial clout and the slightly offbeat vision to make that movie read the script – and it actually happened.

That could be our takeaway from the movie right there: sometimes the best advertisement for your skills is just to write the thing you really believe in.

As usual, I have a bunch of other stuff to say about this movie – including, once you’ve all had a chance to see it, digging into the very interesting character choices surrounding the female lead… However, what I want to talk about today is how Pacific Rim seems to be dividing audiences.

I absolutely bloody loved Pacific Rim. So did many other people I know, in the industry and out of it. But equally, for every glowing review I’ve seen, there’s been someone who hated it. It’s a Marmite movie if ever there was one…

So what’s going on?

What really interests me here is that people are having violently different reactions to the same elements of the movie. It’s not like, say, the fans like the characters, but the critic hate the action sequences, or vice versa.

Some people are saying the characters are nuanced and empathetic, some are saying they’re clichés. Some people are saying the plot is boring, while others hail it as original and constantly surprising. There’s not one element of the movie that isn’t being derided in one corner while being praised in another. And this interests me a great deal – because good is good, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are techniques for telling a story that have always worked and always will work. They’re hardwired into our brain.

But when we put them into practice, we have to make them very specific – and inevitably, we start to think it’s that specific expression of the technique that works, rather than the broader technique.

And then the specific expressions perpetuate throughout film culture. If a character behaves in this way, he’s well-drawn; if he behaves in that way, he’s a cliché, or unbelievable. This is a good plot twist; that’s a bad one. We see something work in a movie, so we do it in ours. And thus it becomes normal. It becomes “good”.

But that leads us to a very narrow definition of ‘good’ storytelling techniques. And there are other paradigms, other characters and plots and ways of telling a story, that we’ve neglected for a long time, and which are due to re-emerge and change the way we view story. There are probably paradigms that we haven’t even discovered yet.

A few voices in the industry have been saying for a while that the way we tell stories on screen is changing. Linda Aronson may be the best known theorist on the subject, but she’s far from the only one.

So what if, with its fresh and surprising plot choices and character traits, Pacific Rim is the first of the New Paradigm Hollywood Blockbusters? What if Pacific Rim is the future?

That’s a future I want to be part of. And from now on, I’m deliberately setting out to raise my game, find out what these new storytelling techniques are and use them – and maybe make a few of them up as I go along…

Game on, people! Who’s playing?

Good Intentions

By now, I expect you’ve heard all about The Black List’s new initiative, hosting scripts by new writers in a searchable database in exchange for a small fee, and for a further fee, having those scripts read and rated by professional readers.

(If you haven’t, go to http://blog.blcklst.com/author/admin/ for full details. Or alternatively, watch founder Franklin Leonard being interviewed by The Bitter Script Reader puppet at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhXQ6_POV3A )

Lots of smart people have already weighted in on this, lots of good questions have been asked, and in fairness, Leonard’s been very open to those questions and provided sensible answers to them. So my two penn’orth  probably isn’t needed. But that’s never stopped me before!

I’m not normally in favour of reading services – few of them provide insights on your work that you can’t get by joining a good writers’ group, and the fees can be astronomical  – and I’m definitely not in favour of any other service that claims it can get your script to the people that matter in Hollywood (because none of them can).

However, if ever there was an initiative that a) was genuinely trying to help writers find producers and producers find scripts, rather than just make money out of the niave, and b) had a chance of success, it’s this one. Leonard’s Hollywood contacts are second to none; and more importantly, he’s established as a man whose instincts can be trusted.

I don’t know whether this will work. Producers are busy people, and their assistants have enough to do dealing with the deluge of scripts that pour through the letterbox every day – even if they need good material, do they really have the time to go out and look for it? But I applaud Leonard and The Black List for trying to make a difference – and if I had a suitable script ready to go right now, I’d probably post it on their site and see what happens…

 

What Amazon Studios Should Actually Be Doing

Here’s the really ironic thing about the whole Amazon Studios controversy.

People keep telling us the movie industry is on the verge of massive changes. Legal downloading, illegal downloading, narrowing of the theatrical window, overseas revenues outstripping US domestic revenues, crowdfunding, internet TV…

I’m not saying any of these things are bad. There are ways they could harm the industry, if badly handled, and ways they could be enormously good for all of us. But the fact is, there are practices going on right now that are harming the industry, and if we’re going to embrace systemic change, now would be a good time to tackle them.

You’d expect Amazon Studios – with it’s determination to provide a whole new approach to the movie business and create a new business model that generates new ideas and encourages fresh talent –  to be doing exactly that.

Unfortunately, their entire ethos for producing new scripts is entirely founded on the one thing that makes so many Hollywood movies bad. Too many cooks spoiling the broth.

For years, Hollywood has effectively been on a slow drift towards crowd-sourcing scripts. We don’t call it that, but that’s what it is. Most studio tentpole movies have several credited writers and dozens of uncredited ones. When a hot book or character or even board game is acquired by a studio, they invite in dozens of writers to pitch their take on the material – and, it’s alleged, take anything they fancy from those pitches, expecting the writer who gets the job to forge it all into some kind of coherent story.

Even once the development process is over, the tinkering continues. Production is regularly shut down for emergency work on a script, which may or may not solve the problem. Release dates are moved, and some movies shelved indefinitely.  Just last week, a well-known screenwriter was hired to rewrite the script of a major movie that’s already finished shooting, so they can have months of reshoots to repair whatever they feel is wrong with it.

This is a dumb way to run a business. And while I appreciate that no producer or exec wants to be in that situation, and the pressures of money and release dates can force scripts into production before they’re ready, maybe it’s time we all took a step back and refocused the business on what matters. You can have the best release date in the world, the most amazing ad campaign, and a cast to die for, but none of that will save you if you have a script that isn’t ready yet.

So, Amazon Studios, here’s what you ought to be doing. If you actually want to make money out of the film industry, stop pissing about with prize money and test movies and open-source scripts with endless amateur rewrites pulling the story in different directions, and make the most of your big advantage –

You’re outside the system. You aren’t burdened with release date schedules and over-excited marketing departments – because you have a whole new product delivery system that bypasses theatrical distribution!  So make the most of your freedom, and do the one thing that’s always worked.

Go out into the real world and find an experienced writer (or writing team) with a strong concept, good characters, and a passion for their craft. Work with them – yourself, in private, not by deputizing the development process to random people leaving their opinions on your site – and make that movie as good as you possibly can.

Then, and only then, make the damn thing.

If you’re not prepared to do that, then any real writer is bound to ask themselves whether you really want to be in the film business at all.