Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How many times do we need to re-learn that blacks and women buy movie tickets?

"African-Americans buy movie tickets. A lot of 'em. 

"If this concept makes you slap your forehead and exclaim in wonder, then you must be running a Hollywood studio. What, exactly, is it going to take to make this point sink in? Lord knows, I'm bored of it: It feels like every other year, I write an article that says, ''Wow! With (insert here: ''Waiting to Exhale,'' ''Soul Food,'' ''Love Jones,'' ''Boyz 'N the Hood,'' etc), Hollywood is realizing it's time to change its ways! Hold your breath because here come more movies that aren't just stereotypical hood flicks!'' If you listened and held your breath, you must be in a coma by now."

That above quote is from an Entertainment Weekly article by Rebecca Asher-Walsh.  Given that The Butler recently opened to nearly $25 million in its first weekend and then maintained the number one spot at the box office in Week 2 with a $16.5 million, it probably wouldn't surprise you that entertainment pundits are pointing out that Hollywood nets decent business when it remembers that there is a vast array of demographics to market to. 

What might surprise you is that article was written in 1999 - and it makes points that are still relevant today.  How is it that we still manage to be shocked that "wow! Black people buy movie tickets too!" when so many of the films aimed at that demographic manage to pull in the money.  Heck, if you check the EW archives, you'll see they've been "learning" this lesson since at least 1997.

I said last week that if I was running a studio I'd bet more on lower-budgeted projects.  I'd also try to market several films to minority audiences.  Tyler Perry has been a writer, director or both on 14 films in his career, with a lifetime total gross of $719 million.  That's an average of about $51 million a film.

Perry isn't in Michael Bay territory - but he doesn't make Michael Bay-sized movies.  A few of them have cost $20 million, but several of them cost far less. Budget figures aren't available for all of his films, so I can't provide an absolute total or average cost.  But it's pretty clear one factor in how prolific he is is the fact that he brings in an audience that more than covers his costs.

Yes, by now Tyler Perry is a brand unto himself, but who's to say other black filmmakers couldn't accomplish the same feats if given the chance?

The Butler's figures are also remarkable because the week-to-week drop in box office was a mere 33%.  Hilariously, conservative sites tried to point to this drop as a "win" for their "boycott," not realizing that ALL movies decline in their second weeks and that a 67% hold in box office is actually pretty damn fantastic. (Most major releases are consider impressive if they can hold half of their opening weekend gross into the second weekend.)

I'm not just harping on Hollywood being ignorant of African-American audiences.  We've gone through the same crap with female-targeted films too.  I swear I remember that as far back as The First Wives Club, there were articles about how Hollywood was poised to wake up and make more female-centered films in the wake of that movie's success.

For now, a real problem is that the movie business is increasingly focused on the global market and black movies don't really travel as well overseas.  It's the same problem the lower-budget movies face - it's not as sexy to chase a few million in profit when you can take a swing for a billion.  I think of it as the same psychology that makes people decide a $1 lotto ticket isn't worth it for a chance at "only" $20 million... but $75 million? Wow, I'd better get a ton of tickets!

I've been asked if I see The Butler changing anything for African American voices hoping to get their stories told.  I wish I could assure those aspiring writers that Hollywood follows the money and that all the old walls will come down.  Unfortunately, there's a lot of history telling me that this lesson will be forgotten until the next Tyler Perry opus. 

Addendum: Since I composed this post, it has since been suggested to me that it's simplistic to take the commonly-held industry belief that "black movies don't travel" at face value.  And I admit, there are places that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, so let's unpack a few variables. 

Will Smith is a global superstar, for instance. In the UK, a rather large portion of their pop culture celebrities are black as well.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Smith makes tentpole movies, but I guess the larger point there is that it's not impossible to sell an African-American led film to a foreign audience.  The international figures on Fast & Furious films (or reaching back even further, The Matrix) also might be an indication of possible inroads there.  Right now, we consider them hits largely because of their "event movie status."  Maybe they could be "gateway drugs" into other minority-headlined films.

So I guess that while we "know" studios don't expend the effort and the marketing dollars to release an African-American film abroad because they've not seen results, that could be causing a sort of vicious cycle. Money isn't being spent because there's no money to be made, but perhaps no money has been made because none has been spent.

So yeah, add that to one of my "fantasy studio exec" initiatives: "Expand marketing efforts for African-American films abroad in an effort to see if there is a market to be tapped."  After all, isn't the whole point of this post that we need to stop having to be re-taught the same lessons all over again?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A lot of thoughts on Kickstarter and crowdfunding

Several weeks ago, a reader named Andrew sent me this email:


I wanted to get your opinion on crowd sourcing. I saw your old post on Behind the Mask II but didn't see any other posts about crowd sourcing. What are thoughts on creatives using Kickstarter, Indigo and the like. Is it good, bad, the future of the industry?

I'm going to put a pin in that for just as second while I also bring up an email about last week's post on Spike Lee's Kickstarter.

I think you have to factor in this fact: Fans donating to VM or Braff KNEW what the movie was going to be. VM adapts a popular TV show, and Braff's is a sequel to a movie they presumably saw. Lee gives almost no info on what his movie is going to be, and literally just says, "Trust me." Now, I can trust Spike Lee to make an interesting, thought-provoking, even challenging movie. He's done it many times. I CANNOT trust Spike Lee to make a movie I want to SEE, especially since his description of a thriller with humor about people addicted to blood is not at all enticing to me, personally.

My guess his he was more forthcoming about plot details to his big donors, and maybe they were better able to "see" the movie. Basically, I think Lee did Kickstarter wrong.

In my post last week, I very deliberately tried to stay centered on the data and what could be drawn from the final result rather than focusing on if Spike Lee ran a smart Kickstarter campaign.  To me, what was more notable was that Lee's numbers appeared anomalous within the context of several large scale Kickstarters - the two most notorious of which also were met with their fair share of controversy while they were active.

A while back Indiewire ran a great article looking at how Lee course-corrected his campaign after some early missteps - many of which are noted in that email above.  I think there's definitely a case to be made that Lee jumped in too quickly before bothering to learn much about Kickstarter.  He was probably aware that Veronica Mars and Zach Braff cleaned up big, and thought "I've got fans.  I'll show up and get my money too."

I saw some people criticizing the fact that Mars Investigations was even compiling that data in the first place, which is a reaction that really disappointed me.  As someone who wants to learn from Kickstarter campaigns, it's not enough to know, "Oh, this known property got $5 million in donations.  It's essential to understand as much of the whys and hows of getting there."

To wit - the big lesson I've taken from a lot of campaigns is that you can have some great rewards at the $10,000 level, but it's perhaps even more critical to have a compelling $50 reward.  Find a way to make people feel like they're getting their money's worth there and you stand a good chance of getting that in bulk.

For Veronica Mars, if you gave $50, you got: "a digital version of the movie within a few days of the movie’s theatrical debut, a physical DVD of the movie that will include a documentary on the making of the Veronica Mars movie and the history-making Kickstarter campaign, plus other bonus features not available on the digital download...the T-shirt, plus the pdf of the shooting script...regular updates and behind-the-scenes scoop throughout the fundraising and movie making process."

I felt like that was a fair price for a lot of that stuff and so did the 23,226 other people who donated. That was $1,161,350 right there.  This comes to about 20% of the total campaign, but perhaps more significantly, that's over 50% of the campaign's initial goal.  I'm not going to break down all the numbers because you can certainly do that yourselves, but the point is - for most campaigns, that $35-$50 reward level is the sweet spot.  If you're planning your campaigns, make sure there's real value right there.  (I call it "the disposable income" level.)

I do want to give Spike Lee props for one thing - like Veronica Mars, he offered a DVD copy of the film as a reward and at the not-unreasonable level of $50.  That might a bit steep for a DVD under normal circumstances, but that's a damn good price for a Spike Lee autograph and a chance to be a part of his campaign.  I'm a little shocked that he only moved 448 of those things, but then there were cheaper items that also offered his autograph, so perhaps that hampered sales here.

Why do I give Lee props for that?  Because my biggest issue with Zack Braff's campaign is that there was no rewards level that offered a copy of the film - digital, DVD, or blu-ray.  There's a very important reason for that - Braff wants to be able to take a completed film to distributors and sell it for a lot of money. If he were to self-distribute - and giving copies of the film to his backers would count as such - it would tie his hands a bit and cut into his profits when selling the film.

Braff's thinking ahead and there's nothing wrong with being savvy - but it underlines how he could profit greatly from this act of Kickstarter charity.  With Veronica Mars, Warner Bros owned the property.  They agreed to distribute the film and they gave Rob Thomas permission to pursue the campaign.  But it's not as if Thomas could finish the film and then sell it to the highest bidder.  He doesn't have those rights - Warner Bros. does.

So as much as the Veronica Mars thing is disturbing in that a studio basically got a free movie, there's no other way for that film to be made, and the people holding the rights had zero interest in taking the risk on it.  I looked at my donation for Veronica Mars as a show of support for Rob Thomas's determination to make the film rather than subsidizing Warner Bros.  But having said that, I completely understand the positions of those who are concerned about studios looking to crowdfunding as free money.

Which brings me to a campaign I am very conflicted about.  Last week, the entertainment press reported that the film Reach Me had come up $250,000 short from its investors.  Faced with the cancellation of the project, director John Herzfeld, star Sylvester Stallone and producer Cassian Elwes turned to Kickstarter to make up the gap.

When I read the story, I was disinclined to support it because I could only imagine this opening the floodgates to even more projects like this.  Worse, could we see a case where a studio really holds firm on a low-budget film, knowing that crowdfunding campaigns will provide the expenditures that they'd rather not lay out?

And then I watched the video:



This video did everything right that Spike Lee's early campaign did wrong.  You can feel the passion of the people working on the film.  You get a sense of what it means to them and it adequately confronts the number one question any prospective backer would have - "This film is loaded with people richer than me - why can't they just pony up for it?"

I'd like to believe in Kickstarter as a place where talented people can find a way to promote their projects and get support based on the merits of their proposal.  I'll be frank - I've certainly given a lot of thought to attempting to fund a project of my own through crowdfunding, hence my interest in scrutinizing and understanding the success of other campaigns.

Let's not kid ourselves - Veronica Mars was only a success because it was a known property that had the original talent attached.  It was also achievable on a low budget.  It's rare that you'll find all of those factors coinciding on a known IP.  Braff's campaign similarly was targeted at an audience that was passionate for his earlier work and was very internet-savvy.  If Rob Thomas had tried to fund an original movie, I don't think he'd have been nearly as successful.  You're not going to see Joss Whedon start a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Firefly movie, that's for sure.

But for the famous who already have access in the industry, I wouldn't want to see this become anything more than an ultimate last resort. I'm afraid too much Hollywood panhandling will break Kickstarter.  I'd love to know that some talented young filmmaker got the opportunity to make their little $300,000 movie because of savvy use of crowdfunding.  The potential for an underdog to make good is the most exciting thing about crowdfunding.

I think Kevin Smith feels as I do.  Asked on Reddit about crowdfunding, he said he wouldn't pursue it for his own projects because:

"I'm feeling like that's not fair to real indie filmmakers who need the help. Unlike back when I made CLERKS in '91, I've GOT access to money now - so I should use that money and not suck any loot out of the crowd-funding marketplace that might otherwise go to some first-timer who can really use it. So if I can get away with it, I'm gonna try to pay for CLERKS III myself. As much as I love the crowd-funding model (and almost did it myself in early 2009 with RedStateGreen.com), that's an advancement in indie film that belongs to the next generation of artists. I started on my own dime, and if I'm allowed, I should finish on my own dime."

That's the utopian ideal of Kickstarter, and I know it's naive to think that there won't be people exploiting it.  There's also the fact that at a certain point, the support for those "elite" Kickstarters will dry up, as users perhaps share the same feelings as me and Kevin Smith.  Considering what we discussed about Spike Lee's Kickstarter last week, there might be a case to be made that the low support at the "grass roots" level of donors already points to crowdfunders falling out of love with Hollywood folks trying to crash the party.

So to return to the original question: what do I think about crowdfunding?  I think it's reductive to declare it all-good or all-evil.  I understand the perils that some have been crying about all the way since Veronica Mars made its goal in a day, but I also think the jury is still out on them.  I wouldn't blame those concerned about it for being vigilant, though.

But for the aspiring filmmaker most likely to read this post, I'd say that Kickstarter has the potential to help you see your project to fruition. In that, I would encourage you to really educate yourself about crowdfunding.  Understand why the successes were successes.  Examine the traits of successful campaigns.  Veronica Mars, Braff and Lee had options that you won't have, but their fame was only a factor in their success.  Braff and Veronica Mars especially knew how to run strong campaigns beyond just being famous.

The worst thing you could do as an aspiring filmmaker would be to just throw your project up on the site and wait for it to be discovered. Have a ground game, work your contacts, and maximize your exposure.  Spike stumbled early, but he had a huge safety net and a lot of people writing about his campaign.  You won't have either of those.

Is it the future of the industry? I don't think so - but for the savvy and talented, it could be your ticket INTO the industry.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My review of YOU'RE NEXT

This past weekend, I had a reaction to a film that was so counter to the pre-hype that I'm still struggling to understand how I saw the same movie as those who were singing its praises.  For about two years now, You're Next has been hailed as the next big thing in horror.  Critics have been mentioning it in the same breath as Scream, which still stands for me as one of the most ingenious horror-thriller screenplays of all time.

If you've followed my blog for a long time, you know I'm a fan of horror films, or at least good horror.  I also have read a lot of horror scripts over the years, many of them NOT so good.  (That's just the nature of the job. Most of what I've read en total is not very good.)  If you were to audit my Netflix history, you're likely to find an overrepresentation of horror-thrillers there, including a lot of movies that probably were panned upon initial release.  For some reason, I can enjoy doing an autopsy on a bad horror or thriller movie in a way I can't from a drama.

Most internet critics are huge horror guys and I guarantee they've had to sit through a far greater number of bad horror films than I have.  If anything, they should be more disgruntled than I am with all of the cliched elements that crop up all too frequently.  So when the flock says, "This is an amazing horror film," I feel safe trusting that as an informed opinion.

So that's why I don't get how people who've sat through the same bag of tricks time and again can come out of this movie not weary of many reused tropes.  My take on the film is this: It's a midnight movie.  It's not a game changer.  It's got a few inventive kills and the lead heroine is pretty badass.  I'll give the film credit for that - when Sharni Vinson's character really starts cutting loose and taking names about half-way through the film, it's pretty cool to see.

But for me, that's not enough to overcome some of the faults here. You're Next is just loaded with elements that kept ejecting me from the film.  The first act was slow, but when Vinson's character sprung to life, my faith in the film was renewed.  The last act or so really burned a lot of goodwill and over the last two days I've found the more I revisit it, the less impressed I am by it.  I don't even think it's a case of the film being built up so much that nothing could match the expectation.  For me, it's that it includes some elements that really don't work.

What might those be? I'm glad you asked.

Unrelated Kill to Kick off the Film - This one really irks me when I see it in screenplays.  It might be the biggest "bad script cliche" in the horror genre.  Typically, the writer presents a brutal scene with a minor character - in most cases, rarely mentioned again - being offed in gruesome fashion.  Bonus points if bare breasts can be involved somehow.  It's a scene that's often there solely to announce "Hey! This is a Horror film!"

I can almost understand the motivation for including this at the script level.  It's important to grab an exec's attention early, so you might as well include a scene that defines the genre of the film.  What I don't understand is that by the time the movie has been shot and marketed, the audience knows the kind of film they've bought a ticket for.  They're not ignorant of the fact it's a horror film, so why does that have to be spelled out in painstaking detail for them within the first three minutes?

However, a good writer should be able to find a way to find a way to make that scene serve a larger purpose.  In Scream, the opening kill is not only the inciting incident, but it goes a long way to defining the killer and his M.O.  Scream is a completely different movie without that opening.  Most (bad) horror scripts I read treat the inagural dismemberment as completely extraneous.

You're Next falls victim to this.  I can't figure out what larger purpose the opening kills serve.  You could say, "Well, the neighbors had to be killed so that anyone who escapes the house has nowhere to run."  While that's technically true, the creators made a choice to have those neighbors exist in the first place.  It would have been just as easy to set our lead character's home out in the middle of nowhere.  Another issue is that those dead bodies never become relevant.  There isn't a scene where the lead characters explore the first victims' house and get the sense something is up.  We - the audience - know that a killer's out there, but our characters remain blithely unaware of this fact until the first of their number meets the business end of an arrow.

(This also exposes the "You're Next" blood-written warning as a completely extraneous element.  Why do the killers even bother with that at all, let alone for two people who they're offing just as in inconvenience?)

I've heard the vague justification that other neighbors had to be killed in order to give credence to the killers' cover story that this was just a random spree killing.  That's really flimsy and it suggests an insanely high degree of sociopathy on the part of the killers.  Which brings me to...

The killers' motivations and the explanation of them - I've already dumped some spoilers, but an extra warning here - I'm going to be discussing everything about the ending.  Last chance to turn back.

For more than half the film, we know very little about the killers and why they are engaging in this home invasion and murder.  They're personality-less beings behind Halloween masks.  In real life, random, senseless spree killings happen, but in movies we almost always know some aspect of what provokes these killers.  Even if the motives border on pure insanity, it's common convention that the film will attempt at some point to answer the question "why?"

Smarter viewers will realize once the siege is underway that every character we've met is either already dead or among the prospective victims.  Once we're halfway through the film and have not found out anything about the killers, it's a good bet that the killers are going to be revealed as having some connection with at least one seemingly innocent victim.  Someone in that house is going to be revealed as a collaborator, if not a mastermind - and there's little shock when that happens.

Nine times out of ten that collaborator will turn out to be the person who seemingly dies, but who's death remains unconfirmed on-screen.  There's a point where Crispian, who happens to be the boyfriend of our protagonist Erin, decides to make a run for it despite the risks of being taken out by one of the killers.  After that, nothing is heard from him for a while so the characters assume he's dead.  Strange how we don't see him die, right?  Gee, I wonder who might pop up in the third act.

Scream was brilliant because it anticipated how the audience was going to scrutinize the suspects.  It pointed a giant neon figure at the first suspect, then seemingly exonerated him.  It introduced that element of doubt that kept the audience guessing. ("They wouldn't be that obvious, would they?  But maybe that's what they want us to think. Maybe he's a red herring. I'm not going to fall for that.  Or maybe that's what they want me to think!")  The genius of that kind of writing is that it engages the audience so that when the explanation comes, it's like having the final few pieces of a puzzle snap in place.

In contrast, You're Next mostly holds back those puzzle pieces and then dumps them out at once while assembling them.  Sibling Felix and his girlfriend Zee are revealed to be working with the killers stalking their family.  In the second-worst expositional dialogue I've seen in a while, Felix recaps the plan with one of the killers.  It's a scene that mostly exists just as an infodump for the audience.  The sequence lacks the tension necessary to make that reveal anything more than an explanation.

So Felix has concocted this plan to murder his parents and his siblings so that he can inherit the family fortune.  The family's wealth was established earlier, I'll give the film that much.  What's lacking is any sort of rational motivation for going THAT far to get it.  Why now?  And what sort of a person would be party to a violent slaughter that is intended to murder both parents, two siblings, and at least one of the sibling's significant others'?

Unsurprisingly, Crispian turns up alive and as the mastermind of the plan.  Remember how I said the earlier scene was the second-worst bit of exposition dialogue I've seen in a while?  This scene is the worst.  In defense of the writer, the acting and the staging of the scene do this infodump no favors either.  There's kind of an infodump at the end of Scream too, but the audience has been given just enough information that receiving these finally nuggets prompts an "A-ha! That's how it all fits!"  There's not enough foreshadowing to make You're Next's reveal work in the same way.

Here's what I like about Crispian's plan - the notion that Erin was meant to survive and be an unbiased witness to the carnage.  Her role as the Final Girl is essential to the plan working.  That's actually a pretty sly move, and it's effective how Erin's badassery in the situation throws a wrench into the whole scheme.  As much as I complain that there was a lot here I've seen before, that's one thing I don't really recall having been done.

I still can't buy what would possess two brothers to murder their whole family, even for an inheritance.  The film doesn't really hint at any existing tension among the relatives at all, certainly no more than the average family.  For a spree killing that extreme, that brutal, there HAS to be some personal element to it.  This is amplified when you consider TWO siblings had to collude on this plan.  Maybe I could buy one of them being batshit crazy and sociopathic, but two?

(Also, if Erin was meant to be the unbiased witness, what does that mean for Zee?  Was she supposed to be killed?  Is there any element of the plan that doesn't work if Erin was absent and Zee played the role of the Final Girl?  What is Erin's survival going to accomplish that Zee's wouldn't?  Both of them are dating the key surviving conspirators, so if the police suspect an inside job, wouldn't they assume Erin to be a part of it as well?)

You know what might have worked for me?  If the initial plan seemed to be all four siblings plotting the murder of their parents, only to have the plan involve the siblings turn on each other in succession.  Think of it like a long-form version of the bank robbery in The Dark Knight, where the participants are killed by their collaborators after fulfilling their roles.  (Giving the siblings a more concrete motivation for the slaughter would be a must in this situation.  It can't JUST be about the money.)  I might have also gone for a Ladykillers scenario where the collaborators were perpetually taken out by other means too.

For the life of me, I just can't wrap my brain around the motivation for these two to kill everyone else.  We're just not told enough about those relationships where that is comprehensible to me.

On a more minor note, the second act is marred by the character behaving rather stupidly.  There's a point where someone is left alone and murdered in an upstairs bedroom.  When the survivors find out, that should pretty well indicate that the killer is in the house, right?  You wouldn't know it from their behavior, where not even Erin reacts accordingly to the fear that a killer has gotten in.

Tonally it's all over the place.  There's nothing wrong with mixing humor and horror, but the shifts are done randomly at the whims of the director.  The result is that some scenes come off as camp when playing them straight was likely the intent.  The two elements I spent the most time on were the biggest issues for me, but these minor elements still add up.

Maybe this is just one of those films that really thrives at a midnight festival crowd.  It's not totally without merit, but it's not one I think I'm going to feel compelled to revisit again.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A reader letter regarding my post on rape scenes

I wrote a piece earlier this week on rape scenes.  I know this is a theme that we return to at least once or twice a year on this blog, but given how often I see this abuse in stories, I think it's warrented to keep addressing this ground.  For one thing, I can tell that each new post reaches people who had not seen the earlier posts.  At the very least, it makes some writers give particular scenes a little more consideration, I feel it's worth it.

After that post, I got a very nice note from a reader named Diana.  With her permission, I'm sharing it with you in its entirety:


Two Giant Thumbs Up on this blog entry/topic and your comments. Really important conversation that I hope will be an on-going one. Especially appreciate your pointing out the all too unfortunate occurrence of male writers "writing rape scenes that feel like they were getting excited while writing it." I'll tell you, as a woman, reading those kind of scenes (in books or scripts) freaks my shit out. And what is equally disturbing is that those scenes can come out of the nicest guys! 

I remember a foreign film way back when about the brutality of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and its affects on women. (can't remember the title). It showed the lawlessness during that time, and the resulting roaming gangs of men. And the violence that was regularly perpetrated against women. It showed a brutal gang rape scene (that must have lasted at least a full 5 minutes of film time!) of two women in their home. It included the act of anal rape. It was riveting. Horrifying. Visceral. And realistic. It was not sexy in the least. And it was not done for shock value, though it most certainly left most of us in the audience in shock. 

And as it turns out, no superhero guy (or hubby/boyfriend) appeared in a fit of rage in that film to avenge the violence against these two women. After the rapists left, the women were simply left alone with their physical injuries and their shattered psyches. And their own rage. Of which they had plenty. 

And I think therein touches on another part (I think actually it's the crux) of the (inherent) problem with these many rape scenes of women penned by men: It is that the man (boyfriend/husband/superhero guy) gets to feel the resulting rage for the violation. And to act on that rage. Not the woman who was violated. 

Rape happens to women. A lot. So not ever showing rape of women would be sort of a denial of this horrible reality. And aside from the reality that some male writers might write such scenes a little too (disturbingly) gleefully,it's not even (just) the fact that the aftermath of the rape on the female victim is never really shown-- such as, say, the woman/girl sobbing and stuff. Or being an emotional/psychological wreck. Or even being terrified in the aftermath--maybe of men, maybe of just going outside. Whatever. No, it's not even just about those things. What's it's also about, maybe even more so about, is THE RAGE. And who gets to have it. 

Rage-- the feeling of rage-- is damn powerful. It can act as a driving force--- to address/counter feelings of powerlessness-- which a lot of male writers know, as they use it to drive the superhero protagonist (and yes to get us, the audience, all engaged, and to let us feel along, too, that something is being done to avenge this wrong). Unfortunately, the women (the victims) of these rape scenarios almost never get to benefit from this powerful feeling of rage-- and the possibility of acting on it-- either during, or in the aftermath, of their own violation and powerlessness. Nope, that all still goes to men. So they are left not only victims. But doubly so. 

As as you point out in your post "Let's talk about rape scenes", these scenes of rape/beatings of woman aren't being used as spring-boards for a female character's development. They are used so that-- I'm taking the liberty of loosely paraphrasing here a little-- the male protags gain strength from it (so they can dig down deep) and take (effective) action. Pretty f**ked up if you think about it. 

I wonder what would happen, if only as an experiment (maybe a year?), men (and yes, it's predominately men who write these scenes) took it upon themselves (as in required of themselves) that every time they penned a rape scene of a woman, the script would necessarily include the victim/woman herself getting to feel the resulting rage of that violation, along with getting to be the one to act on that rage. I can't be sure, but I'd say it's a safe bet you'd see a hell of a lot less rape scenes being written. 

So back to the Yugoslavia film. And how that brutal/shocking gang rape scene was eventually dealt with in it. As it turned out, at the end of the movie one of the two women who had been brutally raped comes across the 'leader rapist' in a refuge camp. Before he notices her, she slowly creeps/stalks up behind him and slits his throat (with a knife she'd just been using to cut an apple). It was plain and simple revenge. It wasn't particularly sexy. But it was very gratifying, I must admit. 

Anyway, thanks again for broaching this issue, and for your comments.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Spike Lee's Kickstarter campaign is not the success you think it is

Spike Lee's Kickstarter campaign ended this morning with him topping out at over $1.4 million dollars in donations.  He's the third-highest film campaign in history after Veronica Mars ($5.7M) and Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here ($3.1M).  After Veronica Mars walked away with its windfall, there was no shortage of editorials proclaiming that this could be the start of a trend - for good and for ill.  Some hoped it would bring independent filmmakers more opportunities, while others feared that studios and the privileged would take advantage of their supporters by getting them to essentially pay for the movie.  So does Spike Lee's success confirm any of that?

No.  In fact, I'd submit that when you stack up the number's on Lee's Kickstarter against Veronica Mars and Braff's, you'll find it hard to declare it a genuine success.

The website Mars Investigations has done a fantastic job of breaking down the numbers for all of the high-profile Kickstarters.  If you have any interest at all in crowdsourcing, you owe it to yourself to look at their charts.

First, let's consider the average donation to the Kickstarters.  Veronica Mars had 91,585 donors and a total of over $5.7 M, which makes their average donation $62.36.  Even though Braff raised less, $3.1 M, his average donation was pretty close - $66.76.  Spike Lee's average donation? $220.98

If you look at the "Pledges" chart, you see that Veronica Mars (36%) and Braff (40%) got a sizable number of their donations from the range of $100-$499.  Lee's donations at that level come out to only 9.1%.  So what's going on here?

A full 26.1% of Lee's donations were given at the $10,000 level or higher.  Guess how those numbers break out for Veronica Mars and Braff - $0.6% and 0% percent, respectively.

Spike Lee's second biggest donation level is barely a blip on the charts of two other Kickstarters that had surpassed their goals in a matter of days.  Remember, Spike Lee's project took over three weeks to hit its goal.

As for Lee's biggest donation level, that would be the "unlisted" donors. I'll let Mars Investigations explain what "Unlisted" means:

"If you add up the number of backers and pledges listed for each pledge level, you will notice that those sums are less that the total backers and total amount pledge. I've labeled those backers and pledges as "unlisted". Those "unlisted" amounts are due to shipping costs, people who pledge more than the pledge level, and people who pledge but didn't sign up for rewards."

So "unlisted" people would likely be those just tossing in extra money, people who don't care about rewards.  Here's how those figures break out for each project:

Veronica Mars - 4.8%
Wish I Was Here - 4.6%
Spike Lee - 42.8%

So again we have the other two landmark Kickstarters being consistent with each other, while Spike Lee's has a clear anomaly.  Better still, here's how the Unlisted people measure up as a percentage of overall backers:

Veronica Mars - 3.6%
Wish I Was Here - 6.3%
Spike Lee - 8.6%

So this is one place where Lee's project isn't so far off pattern.  But notice what this means - 8.6% of his donors contributed 42.8% of his money.

And that's not counting the 0.6% responsible for another 26.1% of his money.  9.2% of Spike Lee's donors are responsible for 68.9% of his campaign.

We can only speculate how that happened and why the numbers are so out of line with the other two famed Kickstarters.  I state that this is ONLY speculation - but to me, it looks like a lot of Spike's wealthy friends were kicking in money to help him save face.  The "grass roots" level donations weren't going to get him to the finish line, so people ponied up for the large rewards or just gave a lot of money outright to get Spike Lee across the finish line.

I don't think this points to anything other than Lee having people with deep pockets willing to put their thumb on the scale for him.  For this to be a true success, we should be seeing stronger participation in the smaller rewards levels.  For all of Lee's talk about bringing new people to Kickstarter, when you break out the numbers you can see that this isn't a green light for any independent filmmaker - even one with a following - to show up and collect their $1 million a month later.

Spike Lee got his money, but I don't think we can call this a true win where it counts - a win for the independent filmmaker in turning to crowdfunding as a sustainable resource.

(Much thanks and acknowledgements to Mars Investigations for their diligent work on the figures and charts.)

Let's talk about rape scenes

We've talked before about misogyny in film.  If you want a refresher in perhaps one of the worst scripts I ever read, check out the depravity I discussed in this entry.  It's not a topic I enjoy wading into, and yet the scripts I read often keep provoking the topic.

Most recently, KICK-ASS creator Mark Millar was interviewed about his work and the topic eventually turned to his depiction of violence against women, which many consider offensive and misogynistic.  I'm going to encourage you to check out the entire article, but these next few passages are what got the most notice:


Take some of his portrayals of women, for example. Millar has spoken out against the underrepresentation of female characters in comics, but his depictions of rape have alienated some readers. In Wanted, the sadistic protagonist gleefully commits rape over and over again, at one time bragging that he “raped an A-list celebrity and it didn’t even make the news.” In The Authority, a Captain America analog rapes two unconscious women. In issue four of Kick-Ass 2, a group of bad guys finds the young hero’s love interest, a teenaged girl named Katie, and brutally gang-rapes her. 

“You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” the ringleader says, punching her and unzipping his fly, “it’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.” 

Laura Hudson, the former editor-in-chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, thought that scene was deplorable, but typical of Millar. “There's one and only one reason that happens, and it's to piss off the male character,” she said. “It's using a trauma you don't understand in a way whose implications you can't understand, and then talking about it as though you're doing the same thing as having someone's head explode. You're not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don't understand, you shouldn't be writing rape scenes.”

Millar is of the exact opposite opinion, saying they are equivalent, and that his depictions of sexual violence are all part of his ongoing quest to push boundaries. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”

 Ho-boy.

I've railed in the past at people who are quick to toss around the "misogyny" label.  There's a distinction between something being sexist and something being misogynist.  The definition of misogyny is "the hatred or dislike of women or girls."  So when, say, Michael Bay reduces his female characters to one dimension, has them strut around in revealing outfits and then focuses the camera on their ass, is that misogynist?  

No.  Definite display of sexism, but it's not misogyny.  But Mark Millar's work?  That's getting really damn close to misogyny.  Does it make HIM a misogynist? I don't know.  It depends on if he really believes his own defense of that rape scene.

The sort of scene described above is part of a trope known in comic circles as Women in Refrigerators. It has to do with the disproportionate degree that female characters in comics are beaten, depowered, raped and killed solely to get a reaction out of the male lead character.  When you look at the list, it's hard to deny that it is a common issue.  But let's examine why this happens.

Most headlining comic book heroes are male.  Going back to the Golden Age of comics, a surefire way to get the hero emotionally invested in the story was to kidnap someone close to him.  In most cases, that meant his girlfriend.  Poor Lois Lane was probably tied up more frequently than a bondage enthusiast.  Now, there are exceptions - Batman's closest relationship was with his boy sidekick Robin and Wonder Woman's boyfriend Steve Trevor often filled the "Lois Lane" role in her stories - but when you're dealing with male heroes, most often you're going to have a lot of kidnapped girlfriends and wives.

Comics got grittier, and soon it was no longer enough to just kidnap the hero's loved one.  Now it was necessary to prove just how evil the bad guy was by having him do something horrible.  The trick is that the writers wanted to provoke the audience as well as the lead character.  Obviously you can't kill or maim the lead character because the story's over.  So it would fall to someone else close to the lead to become the punching bag.

And that's how we get The Killing Joke - where in order to prove that we're dealing with a new kind of Joker, he paralyzes the former Batgirl and possibly performs other unspeakable acts upon her.  Commissioner Gordon is also put through the ringer too, though not as badly.  The point is - the Joker is doing this JUST to piss off Batman.

If this was an isolated story, it wouldn't be so bad.  However, it would be a shame that the script barely deals with the impact of this attack on Batgirl herself.  If it was motivating something in her character, it wouldn't be a gratuitous display of violence crafted only for the purpose of getting a rise out of the male lead.

And that's where the problem lies. I totally get needing to show the bad guy is... well, bad.  And it's not like you're gonna provoke the audience if the bad guy does something to the lead's paperboy.  I get how a writer might arrive at writing a violent scene towards a female character and not have any sexist or misogynistic motivations behind it.  There is a dramatic purpose to be served.

I even get how one might arrive at rape.  If you want to do something horrible to a female character, but you don't want to kill her off, it's an obvious option to land on.  It's a violent act that shows evil, but it has the "virtue" of not maiming the character so she can still bounce back.  We rough her up, but she'll recover, good as new.

Ah.

Here's what Laura Hudson is talking about above.  Writers who write about rape don't always understand the implications of that trauma.  For the writer, the horror of the act ends when the rape is over.  The scene has served its purpose, the lines drawn and so on.  For the character, that's just the beginning.

I've seen this in a lot of scripts, in a lot of comics and a lot of TV shows. It's rare that an assault like that is used as springboard for a female character's development in the same way it's used to provoke the male character.  I find the KICK-ASS example above so repugnant that the only way to redeem it from being shock value would be if Katie was the main character and the rest of the story was about her journey. I've used a lot of comics examples, but don't think that doesn't mean the trope is isolated there. 

I also don't understand how most writers stand writing rape scenes, let alone end up writing rape scenes that feel like they were getting excited while writing it.  (I debated a lot about if I should write that last sentence, but I absolutely have read sequences like that where the writer took a perverse glee in inflicting that violence.  And if it horrifies you to be told about that, it should.)  Even so, I will concede that a story might call for that.  Don't take the message of this post as "never write rape."  But really, use some restraint.

I've made an effort here to try to understand how someone might "logically" arrive at a rape as their big plot twist without the motivation being misogynist in nature.  I'm doing my part to extend an olive branch to those writers.  Calling them "misogynist pigs" would have been a good way to ensure none of my message was heard.  In return, I'd hope that those who write such scenes would reach out and attempt to understand the position of Laura Hudson.  Those violent actions carry an impact that goes beyond their intent.  Meet us halfway, guys.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fun with Numbers: Moneyball with movies

If you saw Moneyball, you probably remember how Brad Pitt's Billy Beane revolutionized the baseball scouting mechanics by focusing not on the typical stats that seemed to assure success - but by scrutinizing a player's on-base percentage.  Thus, Beane was able to identify undervalued players who were capable of getting on-base and thus, in a position to score.  When you can stock the bench with guys less likely to strike out or get tagged out, your odds of bring those guys back to home plate also goes up.  And that means runs.  Several base hits can add up to being as good as a home run.

Unfortunately, in the film industry, we seem to have not learned that lesson.  Spielberg and Lucas got a lot of attention last month when they decried the negative impact of the studios focusing only on tentpoles.  Spielberg complained that Lincoln nearly ended up on HBO and they predicted that the whole industry would eventually implode when too many of these films tank.  Basically, Hollywood seems to be only going after the home run hitters.

But what about the movies that can get "on-base?"  Let's take a look at five of this past summer's sleeper hits.

The Conjuring - $20M Budget / $127M domestic gross / $193M worldwide
The Purge -        $3M / $64M / $83.6M
The Heat -         $43M / $155M / $204.8M
Now You See Me - $75M / $116M / $274M
This is the End - $32M / $96.5M / $112M

Total production budgets for those five films - $173M
Total worldwide gross of those five films - $816M

So even if you were to assume $40M each in marketing costs for those films, that means that less than $400M was laid out for a return of $816M.  Not bad, wouldn't you say?

Interestingly enough, Now You See Me is the only one where the domestic take of the worldwide gross was less than 72%. (57% of Now You See Me's gross came from overseas.)  And hey, look at that - all five of those films are original ideas.  Four of the five also happen to be R-rated, which is an interesting trend.

The Lone Ranger cost $215M (yeah, right), which means that for the cost of that film - all five of the summer sleeper hits could have been produced with plenty of money left over.  Thus far it's only made $87M domestically (outgrossed by all of the above films but The Purge) and a mere $217M worldwide.

Pacific Rim cost $190M, which is still more than those five films combined.  It's made $384 worldwide.  That's better, but it's still not great.

I'm cherry-picking, of course, so let's take a look at a film that's considered a hit: Man of Steel. It cost $225M to produce and took in $289M domestically.  Worldwide, that's $648M, which again, still doesn't really rival the five films there.  (Unless the marketing costs for those five films was significantly higher than assumed.)

Somebody at the studios has to notice this eventually.  I know that if I was running a studio, I certainly would be interested in getting five at-bats for the cost of one Lone Ranger.  This summer's been a grim reminder that while some big bets CAN get big returns, they're also capable of yielding large deficits.

There's money to be made from the base-hitters. Hopefully that won't be forgotten any time soon.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why THE SPECTACULAR NOW is so spectacular

There are a lot of virtues to be found in The Spectacular Now, but perhaps one of the most satisfying elements is the honest writing of the characters.  This is one of those movies where the viewer can't help but marvel at how authentic everything feels, even when it would be so easy for the script to veer into more common explorations of first love and high school cliques.  As I left the theatre, I couldn't help but think of all the ways this film would be very different if it existed in the universes of Can't Hardly Wait or She's All That.  It's become common to invoke comparisons with John Hughes' films when it comes to more nuanced portrayals of teenagers.  I wouldn't draw too many parallels between Hughes' better films and The Spectacular Now myself, but this film is impressive enough in its own way.

This Sundance hit is directed by James Ponsoldt from a script adapted by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, from the Tim Tharp novel of the same name.  Adding to the strong pedigree is a fantastic cast, toplined by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, backed up by a murder's row of excellent supporting actors.  Ponsoldt is coming off of a writing and directing turn on last year's Smashed, which made an excellent case for Mary Elizabeth Winstead being a long-underrecognized talent. (Winstead shows up here as well, in an all-too-brief turn as Teller's sister.)  In a strange way, The Spectacular Now is a natural companion with Smashed, as both deal with alcoholism with more nuance and insight than the vast majority of films that address the topic.

The film is a coming of age story, but it would also be accurate to call it a film about an alcoholic that never invokes the word "alcoholism."  Teller's Sutter is in a funk after being dumped by his girlfriend (the increasingly ubiquitious Brie Larson) and after a wild night of getting it out of his system, he's discovered on a stranger's lawn by classmate Aimee.  It's a surprisingly well-handled Meet Cute that transitions rather easily to the two of them bonding during a drive.  The next thing we knew, Sutter is offering to have lunch with Aimee the next day at school.

They're from different worlds in terms of their school identities, but one of the early smart choices that the script makes is it doesn't fall into the cliche view of high school that only exists in movies.  There was a period during the late 90s and early 2000s where every teen movie had a scene where a character broke down the cartography of the school cafeteria clique-by-clique: the jocks, the nerds, the burnouts, the popular kids, the atheletes and so on.  A lesser script would have made Sutter big man on campus, wearing a letter jacket and surrounded by football playing meatheads.  Meanwhile Aimee would have been an arty nerd with glasses and overalls.

Was anyone's high school experience THAT on-the-nose? My school certainly had people that fell into those categories, but few were rigidly in one catagory and there was a lot of overlap in cliques.  In weaker teen movies, you can spot the archetypes just by looking at them.  Here, Aimee and Sutter don't immediately look like they belong to different worlds.  They're teens, not archetypes.

Sutter's popular, but that's the result of a big heart rather than more archaic notions of high school infamy.  Yes, the hot girls know he's the one to come to to score booze, but his best friend looks like a textbook example of the "geek" stereotype and one of the first things we see Sutter do is try to set his friend up with a "regulation hottie" (to borrow a term from Mean Girls.) It's hard not to like this guy, and Teller's charisma really helps sell that this is the kind of guy who'd make friends easily.  There's an ease and a confidence to his interactions that almost effortlessly disarms whoever he's talking to.

There's also a small moment that underscores how un-conceited he is.  When a fellow classmate asks Sutter for advice in how to deal with a woman, Sutter is shocked advice would be needed, pointing out the guy is class president, popular and the founder of a charity.  Sutter's mother is right when she says he has a big heart, as he not only seems to see the best in people, but he's often a catalyst for bringing it out.

Because Sutter is life of the party, it doesn't initially seem that odd to us when we see him drinking.  Underage drinking isn't exactly a revelation, and especially in teen movies, where half the time writers barely pay lip service to the legalities.  But over time, we notice that it's rare we go more than two scenes without being reminded of Sutter's flash.  He drinks at parties, he drinks on the job, he drinks while hanging with Aimee.

Sutter's girlfriend seemingly dumps him because she catches him in a car with another girl.  He explains it's an innocent misunderstanding - and it is - so our impulse is to say "what a bitch!" with regard to the ex.  But about midway through the film, the ex regards Sutter and his new girlfriend and privately asks, "Have you turned her into a lush yet?"

If you're looking for a moment that redefines the entire film, it might well be that single line of dialogue.

Aimee has been hanging out more and more with Sutter, and at first we feel like we're seeing the typical story where that one perfect guy recognizes the beauty in this girl that every one else has overlooked.  There's a brief stretch of the story where Sutter seems poised to be the male equivalent of Natalie Portman's Garden State character - the free spirit who awakens the hero's drive and passion.  But the script doesn't take that path, and it doesn't make the mistake of turning Sutter into a female fantasy of that perfect guy who will see her for what she is.

The sweetness of those earlier moments is tempered by other scenes where Sutter can't help but stare at his ex across a party, or chat with her on IM.  We see Aimee blossoming under Sutter's attention, but we also fear the moments when Sutter screws up, goes back to the ex and stomps Aimee's innocent heart.

That moment never comes.  But do you know what we do get plenty of? Sutter introducing Aimee to alcohol.  Sutter buying her a flask.  The two of them sharing drinks even as they bond.  Instead, we start to understand that Sutter's ex may have dumped him not over an imaginary indiscretion, but because of his lack of direction and his over-reliance on the booze.  Indeed, "Have you turned her into a lush yet?" is a question that makes one realize perhaps the ex-girlfriend feared that's what her relationship with Sutter would do to her.

It's poignant to see moments that demonstrate how Sutter is so good for Aimee and yet also so bad for her at the same time.  Aimee's deflowering is one of the more beautiful and honest depictions of such a scene in recent film history.  There's an intimacy to the performances and the direction that allows the audience to get swept up with the young love without feeling awkward at witnessing their first consummation.  When moments like that are played for laughs or titillation, it's easy to distance oneself from the scene.  This scene doesn't take that out - going straight for the raw, honest emotion.

Even as Sutter brings out the best in her by encouraging her to be more independent, we can't help but notice her own flask becomes more ever-present in scene after scene.  I don't believe Aimee is an alcoholic, nor do I believe Sutter's drinking makes him a bad person. They genuinely love each other, which makes it all the more difficult to accept the conclusion that they might not be right for each other.

I don't wish to delve too deeply into spoilers for the end, but this next paragraph will spill a few details.  It's interesting to me to contrast this film's ending with Ponsoldt's Smashed. The earlier film concluded that no matter how much Winstead's character loved her husband, she was never going to be able to deal her alcoholism in that environment.  She had to move on from him, and that was depicted as the right choice.  The Spectacular Now flips that somewhat, having Sutter push Aimee away for what he tells himself is her own good.  And yet, the ending makes that split less definitive.  While The Spectacular Now is a great love story, there's an argument to be made that it's a spiritual prequel to Smashed.  Does that comparison diminish the happy overtones of the ending? Perhaps, but it does not diminish the film iteself.

The Spectacular Now is a film that left me with a lot to say - a unfortunate rarity these days.  The more I think back on individual moments in the film, the more in awe I am of all the creative collaborators involved - writers, actors and the director.  As I said yesterday on twitter, if Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber aren't nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, something will have definitely gone amiss.  Teller and Woodley also do fantastic work, but I fear their youth and the lack of showiness to their roles will lead to them being overlooked.

I feel pretty confidant in saying that The Spectacular Now is all but a lock for my Ten Best of 2013 List and if you're a fan of strong characters and compelling drama, it'll find a place on yours too.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The art of asking a good question

Though I've been doing what I can about keeping up with reader mail, there's no denying that the last few months I've fallen behind.  If you've sent an email and I haven't responded - either via the blog or directly - I'm sorry about that, but real life has gotten in the way a lot lately.  I had some time this weekend to dig into the mailbag and after rereading several emails I had set aside, I found I had a few things to say.

It's totally understandable that new people would be discovering the blog every week.  Heck, that's what every blogger hopes will happen.  It's a good thing to have an expanding audience.  However, I received more than one email that started with a sentence like, "I just discovered your blog and I wonder if you can tell me how to get representation."

I hope this doesn't come off as dickish, but the "How do I get an agent?" question is one of the most frequent questions any screenwriting blog has.  So when faced with a new blog of over 900 entries, it might be a good idea to poke around, maybe see if there are any relevant tags about "getting an agent."  I even have a whole video series on "I Wrote It, Now What Do I Do With It?"  I get that there are a lot of tags to go through, but you can do a word search for the appropriate tag, or even Google your question along with "Bitter Script Reader" and see what pops up.

Here's why I bring this up - I assume that the way most people approach me through the blog is roughly the same as how they'd approach any working pro in the industry - ESPECIALLY writers.  You're not going to get off on the right foot with those people if you ask them a question while pretty much making it clear you haven't done any legwork yourself.  When I find a new blog, I'll often take a glance through the archives to see what topics they've covered.  It's certainly something I do before I email someone for an answer.

This is a roundabout way of saying that if you are lucky enough to get the email address of a working pro, do a little research before shooting them an email.  I know that I'm far more likely to respond to a brief email from someone who clearly has made an honest effort to make sure I haven't already covered their query.  That's often the difference between an email that gets answered and an email that gets ignored in favor of more pressing ones.

Another point that you'd do well to consider - keep your email brief.  Most of you are pretty good about this, but every now and then someone will beat around the bush in their emails, maybe telling me their life story before settling on what will inevitably be a question asking if I can help them get an agent.  When I get one like that, I can't help but think that meandering queries like that are why they haven't gotten an agent yet.

I bring this up less to complain about the kinds of emails I get, and more to give you all something to consider as you write emails to agents and managers who you are approaching for representation.  You've got to make a good impression in a limited amount of time, so don't expose yourself as ignorant and don't make the email an imposition to read.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: The Prestige and ambiguity

In recent weeks, I happened across two separate articles about The Prestige - both of which seemed to have been written under the assumption that a critical plot point happened a particular way.  My beef - that's not how I've seen the movie at all.  When I took to Twitter to clarify that my interpretation was right, I found plenty of people who agreed with me, but a surprising amount of people who clung to an alternate interpretation.  There was also one guy who felt I'd blown his mind by making him examine the film a different way.

The point of contention: The magician played by Hugh Jackman has paid Nicola Tesla to create a device that will transport him from one place to another, making it the signature act of his stage show.  The first few times Jackman's character tests the machine, he's frustrated that his test subjects - top hats - go nowhere.  At least that's how it appears until after several attempts he goes outside and some 30 yards away, there are a pile of hats.  Thus, it's not a transporter, it's a duplicator which sends the duplicate some distance away.

This is reinforced later when Jackman tests the machine on himself, only to have a duplicate appear, which he promptly shoots dead.  After that, Jackman figures out how to use this in his show.  As the machine is activated, a trap door is also triggered beneath it, which leads to a water tank wherein the person standing on the platform drowns.  Thus, when Jackman steps into the machine the trick ends with one Jackman materializing at the other end of the theatre, while the other one falls to his death - every night.

Here's my assertion - the duplicate is the one who materializes at the back of the theater.  Thus, the Jackman who finishes the trick is NOT the same Jackman who steps into the machine.  The Jackman who steps into the machine dies every night.  However, since the clone carries all the memories of the original, he never experiences that death and thus, would regard himself as the "real" Hugh Jackman.  But he's a clone several times over.  The original Jackman is long dead, having given his life in service to the greatest magic trick he'd ever accomplish.

Other people seem convinced that the duplicate is the one who ends up in the water tank every night.  That Jackman is merely murdering his duplicates again and again.  For this to be accurate, the machine would have to transport the original Jackman, while leaving behind a duplicate in his exact position and also accomplish that so seamlessly that the original article appears not to vanish - not even for a second.

That's hard for me to believe. (It also means that the "real" Jackman dies unceremoniously when his first clone shoots him as described above.) It feels more convoluted when the simpler solution is that the original stays where he is and the duplicate is projected elsewhere.  I'll concede that the film doesn't make explicit how the machine works.  We know what Jackman believes to be the truth, but that's not the same thing as being certain he's right.  I also think it's no accident that the film leaves open my interpretation of events.

What strengthens my conviction in my interpretation is that it simply makes for a more resonant story.  Jackman killing his clones again and again is little more than a shocking plot twist, but it doesn't resonate.  But a man who's essentially committing suicide night-after-night in service to his art? That's potent and dramatic, especially if he doesn't even recognize the full weight of that.  After all, the Jackman who takes the bow has the memories of stepping into the machine and ending up at the rear of the theatre.  From his point of view he's immortal.

But in practice, his life only lasts as long as the time in between shows.  Tell me that's not a better ending.

Even better - John Gary pointed out to me that something I failed to appreciate.  Early in the film, Jackman's wife dies when a trick goes wrong.  More to the point, she drowns during a failed water escape.

She drowns.  How does Jackman commit suicide every night?  What method does he choose to snuff out the inconvenient "extra" Jackman?

He drowns him.  Every night, Jackman steps on stage and takes his own life in the same way his wife tragically lost hers. It's like a penance he cannot ever fully pay.

All of this galvanizes my resolve that my interpretation is most likely the "correct" one.  The ambiguity is there so that we can discover it for ourselves rather than have it pounded into our heads directly.

That said, there are people who cling to their alternate interpretations rather firmly.  So for today's talkback, I thought I'd solicit the audience about instances where they came away from a film with one firm interpretation, only to encounter someone who had a completely different understanding of the story.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why Save the Cat didn't destroy screenwriting: it's all been done before

This is a replay post from a couple of years ago, but recent events have convinced me that it merits spotlighting again.  My buddy J.J. Patrow did an excellent comparison that placed the screenwriting philosophies of several leading "gurus" side-by-side.  One of these gurus was Blake Snyder, whose book Save the Cat was recently eviscerated in a Slate article that targeted it as the reason that Hollywood movies suck.

I detest linking to the article, but I need to pull out at least one excerpt.

When Snyder published his book in 2005, it was as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood. The book offered something previous screenplay guru tomes didn’t. Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed “beat sheet”: 15 key story “beats”—pivotal events that have to happen—and then gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.

The problem I have with blaming Save the Cat for all of this is that there really isn't anything new in that book.  It might be presented differently, but Synder's overall philosophy isn't too dissimilar from storytelling tenants that have been around long before film itself.  So without further ado, I'll turn the floor over to J.J. Patrow:


THE SAME OLD THREE ACTS
By J.J. Patrow

Although good screenwriting isn’t easy, it can be learned through study and practice. That’s what we’re taught to believe. And we must believe it because thousands of people have been inspired to learn the craft, generating a huge market for screenwriting lectures, classes, workshops, instructional videos, and how-to books. It has also generated just as many reader opinions about which screenwriting guru offers the best advice.

Some authors champion a paint-by-the-numbers approach. The “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” in Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder comes to mind. Other authors counter that step-by-step guides are misguided. In the introduction to The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay, by David Howard and Edward Mabley, Frank Daniel states that ”…the worst thing a book on screenwriting can do is to instill in the mind of the beginner writer a set of rules, regulations, formulas, prescriptions, and recipes.” (xix) And yet others choose the middle of the road. Andrew Horton writes in his book, Writing the Character Centers Screenplay, that writers should blaze new paths, but still “…pay attention to story and structure and other elements.” (2)

If there’s one reality that all how-to authors seem to agree on, however, it is that there is a saturation of screenplay books, but their work is worth your time and money. It’s special. Maybe this is true. But one should question if new screenwriting books are really fresh, seeing as most of them visit – or rather, revisit – how to construct the same old three-act story.

The generic construction of the “Hollywood Three-Part Screenplay” is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t require too much discussion. I don’t mean to imply that the nuances of screenplay writing are simple, but learning to recognize the essential building blocks of the Hollywood screenplay and their proper order is fairly basic. And this basic knowledge is what most screenplay books seek to impart. The result is that they end up parroting each other. Sure, the average author may bring a more accessible voice, a particular emphasis on character or genre, a unique set of details, or even a set of fresh terms for pre-existing structural components, but the meat of the subject goes unchanged.

Most authors of popular screenwriting books spend a lot of time discussing the three-act structure, which was thoroughly explored by Syd Field in the 1970s. Odds are he inspired them to write a how-to screenwriting book in the first place. And prior to Field there was already a well-documented tradition of the workings of three-act stories, which originated in mythology. These had been discussed for centuries and can be found in the writings of Aristotle to Joseph Campbell. So it is not a stretch to imagine that a lot of what screenwriting books offer is partly a review of earlier works.

To better explore this, it is helpful to visually demonstrate the way certain authors instruct their readers to write screenplays. Each offers an interesting take on storytelling and has plenty to offer, but they are clearly dipping into the same source. Indeed, before someone declares that the “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” is revolutionary, they should read Field or Campbell. Even Snyder suggests this in his introduction.


Aristotle presented the basic three-act structure in Poetics. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.




Joseph Campbell, having spent a lifetime studying mythology, noted similarities in the story structure of the classic hero journey in A Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. He found that in most mythological stories there was a beginning (the Call to Adventure), a middle (the Road of Trials), and an end (The Return). George Lucas made great use of Campbell’s insights when writing Star Wars. And Stuart Voytilla, in his book Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythical Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films, outlined how the components of Campbell’s hero journey applied neatly into many Hollywood films.




Writing in the 1970s, Syd Field defined the essential components of the three-act screenplay as consisting of a set up, followed by a confrontation, and then a resolution. He also added additional story landmarks, such as the inciting incident. Whether he realized it or not, these landmarks fit quite neatly into Campbell’s model.





Blake Snyder, a fan of Campbell and Field, created a “Beat Sheet” that parrots those who came before him, though he uses his own terms. His placement of story landmarks, such as when to “show what needs to be changed,” is a variation on Campbell’s “Call to Adventure” and Field’s introduction points for the story’s “Situation” and “Premise.”



Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot, explores the character arc between the key three-act points, which he calls The Beginning: “Life As It Was,” The Middle: “Life Torn Apart,” and the end “Life as it Now.” Although quite detailed, these emotional markers are also in keeping with Campbell.



In his book, The 3rd Act, Drew Yanno explores the end of the film and how it relates to a question posed in the beginning, further complementing the works of his processors. He defines the three acts as the Question, the Debate, and the Answer.


When all the graphs are overlaid there are clearly similarities between each book. 



Unfortunately, following this chart will not guarantee a blockbuster, but it will illustrate a point. Each of these how-to authors is not as different from each other as some might expect. Consider this the next time you read a new screenplay book and, when you sit down to write, remember the words of Robert McKee: “Your work needn’t be modeled after the “well-made” play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.” (Story, 3)

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Note: I've long had problems getting Blogger to display images properly.  For those of you who want these charts in their complete sizes you can download a zip file of them here

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Please don't let them put Wilfred to sleep

I'm going to ask you guys for a favor. If it is at all within your power, please check out the sitcom WILFRED this Thursday night at 10pm on the FX Network.  I've heard rumblings that the show's low ratings this season have cast doubt on the show's chances for a renewal for a fourth year.  In fact, this week could make all the difference for the show's survival.  If this season truly is the end of the line, then that would be a shame as WILFRED is one of the most unique shows on TV. In fact, it's one of my favorite current shows. (Full disclosure: I'm friends with one of the actors, but I'd be a fan of the show regardless.)

I think of WILFRED as sort of an adult Calvin & Hobbes if Hobbes was a dog - and a Machiavellian sociopath.  Elijah Wood plays Ryan, a former lawyer who starts seeing his neighbor's dog Wilfred (Jason Gann) as a human in a dog suit.  Wilfred has a biting sense of humor and a near omnipotent ability to manipulate a situation to his ends, even when Ryan thinks he's seen through the dog's agenda. Many of Wilfred's schemes involve playing on Ryan's crush on Wilfred's owner Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), with the dog alternately seeming to help Ryan look good in front of Jenna or often putting him in compromising situations for reasons that suit Wilfred's ends.  After another couple of seasons, TVTropes.com might have to rename "the Xanatos Gambit" to "The Wilfred Gambit."

In three seasons, the show has only begun to explore the question of what Wilfred is and why only Ryan sees him as a man in a dog suit.  Indeed, the most obvious solution would be that Ryan is having some kind of mental breakdown.  Though several episodes have toyed with that possibility, we can't help but notice that Ryan is aware of how crazy it is that he talks to a dog.  Would a truly crazy person be that self-aware?

To be honest, I don't care so much about the eventual reveal of what Wilfred really is.  I enjoy the ambiguity that exists while we are left in the dark.  If Wilfred is a creation of Ryan's mind, it would mean that Ryan is exceptionally good at manipulating situations AND that he needs Wilfred's machinations to manufacture a justification to act out in this way.  If Ryan created Wilfred, it likely came from some need to take control of his life.  Or perhaps, Ryan needs Wilfred's "manipulations" to "force" him to do something that he can't justify doing on his own.  He does something not because he wants to, but because the dog's scheming forces him to.

A little like Son of Sam. Hmmm.

I've forgotten to mention just how funny the show is, in ways both silly and darkly funny.  The show wrings a lot of humor from the cognitive dissonance of seeing a man in a dog suit act in ways familiar to every dog owner.  This particular sequence always reminds me and my wife of our dog.



And then there are the moments of darker humor, where Wilfred recounts being "rescued" from an attic by some nice German men.


Please, if you want to support a TV show with a voice unlike just about any other show on TV, please sample Wilfred.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My process for reacting to feedback

You might have noticed my posts were slightly scarcer over the last couple of weeks.  That's because I've been involved in a rewrite on my latest thriller spec.  Since that has sapped a lot of my creative energy, I thought I'd use the post today to talk a little about my rewriting process.

I have about ten trusted readers.  When I finish a first draft, that screenplay goes out to five of them.  These people are members of my writing group.  Most of them are aspiring writers at various levels of their craft, with a few aspiring producers among them and one director with a feature to his name.  We're all used to eviscerating each other and more importantly - we're prompt about it.  Usually I can count on a group meeting within a week of sending out pages.  It's pretty common to walk out of one of those meetings having gotten a barrage of notes and a sense that you'll never be able to please anyone.  (No meeting is complete until one of our members says dryly, "Is there anything else we can help you with?")

So after that, I retreat to work on my rewrite and then I send it to my second wave of readers.  This group includes a few young pros, many of whom are repped and some who have previously worked as readers.  Their occupations include a VP of development and a director's assistant.  A curious trend emerged with this most recent draft.  The young pros - who have written excellent scripts but haven't read professionally - RAVED about the script and had few major nitpicks.  They saw the script exactly as I did and went on at length about some of the things they loved about it.  Those were the kinds of emails you cherish as a writer because you come away feeling, "Wow! They get it EXACTLY as I intended it."

But from the development VP and the pro reader there was an interesting trend in their notes.  They kept finding things wrong that the pro writers didn't.  Interestingly, they agreed with each other on most of these points (despite the fact these two have never met or communicated.)  Their list of "fixes" was longer, though while they both felt it needed work, their reaction trended positive enough that I knew I was on the right track.  (And in fairness, VP said that this was looking like it could be "your best script yet.")

So what I took from that is that in a lot of ways the script works on its own terms so long as its read by people who totally give themselves over to it.  That's no mean feat, so I was pleased to accomplish that.  However, I cannot ignore that a more "hostile read" would probably uncover more issues.  (There's also the fact that Reader and Dev VP have a better understanding of where the bar is set as they interface with scripts more regularly than the pros.)

Basically, I have to write a script good enough to be loved by people who aren't prepared to love it.  That seems pretty basic, but it's a hard note to follow with wild praise ringing in your ears from people who get it.

So after I finish this rewrite, it'll go back to the first group and I'll use those reactions to gauge if it should be passed on to Group 2 again, or if the script is ready for my "big ticket contacts" - the people I only get one read from.

I like to alternate reads between the two groups because it ensures that at least two drafts will be reacted to with fresh eyes and then on rewrites, there will be more substantive changes for each group to react to since they're alternating drafts.

As I wrap this up, I'll also be starting on a new TV pilot project and also outlining a new horror thriller.  My current script is a low budget thriller that I have designed to be something I could possibly shoot myself, while the horror/thriller is another low budget idea in the vein of what Jason Blum produces. 

After writing a couple "big" scripts, I was ready for a change and I just happened onto two ideas that aimed more for the microbudget side.  I didn't specifically set out to "write to the market," but when an idea comes to you in a genre that happens to be hot, you'd be a fool not to pursue it.