Thursday, April 30, 2015

Broad comedy tips: avoiding the "over the top" note

Jace asks:

Hope all is well! I'm hoping to get your insight on a topic based on your experience as a reader and observer of the industry. Specifically, my question is, is the word "broad" now a dirty word in the comedy spec market? I ask this because I've read a number of articles in the recent past that claim that buyers these days prefer comedies that are "grounded" - more realistic in nature. And also because I've seen a proliferation of these types of films at the theater, from "Horrible Bosses" to "Identity Thief" (notice how these scripts tend to have simple, obvious, straight-to-the-point titles).

My concern is that I've found a number of comedies that fall into this category well, rather unfunny. They take a situation that people can relate to, yes, but they seem to emphasize situations over actual jokes. As a result, they often leave me with a chuckle rather than an outright laugh. The 90s and the early-mid 2000s were rife with broad comedies, from "There's Something About Mary" to "Rush Hour" to "Anchorman", and the thing about these movies was, they were pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh because of their over-the-top situations. But it seems like managers/agents may look down on this category now. And also readers -- for example, I recently received feedback on a read for an R-rated comedy. The reader had mostly positive comments, but dinged it for being too "over-the-top". The thing is, that's exactly the tone I was going for! I thought people went to comedies to see exaggerated situations and characters -- things that would never happen in real life. I thought that's what made people laugh. But maybe I was wrong.

Anyway, was just curious about how you (and other readers) feel about broad vs. grounded comedies, and whether writers should try to "tone down" their scripts so they will have a more realistic shot in the marketplace (or avoid writing anything broad altogether). Would love to hear your thoughts!

Broad comedy is hard to do well, particularly on the page. I'd argue that when you're writing an ANCHORMAN-type film, it's critical that you nail the character voices. There's so much silliness in ANCHORMAN that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would probably read as if it's all over the map, with the writer just going broad in the hopes that balls-out jokes will be funny.

The reason ANCHORMAN works so well on the page is that Ron Burgundy and all of his news team are incredibly well-defined. You read that script (as I did a year before it came out) and you can hear Will Ferrell's voice delivering it. Champ, Brick, Brian - all of those guys have specific voices that don't sound at all like each other. The worst wacky comedies I've read often have interchangeable character voices.

Also note the size of the ensemble. If you're writing a two-hander comedy, you're going to have to give the characters depth beyond "One's the 'normal guy,' one's the fat, sex-crazed, beer swilling party animal.'" ANCHORMAN has guys who can be summed up in a line or two, but they're given really clever stuff to say and they all play off of each other like great jazz musicians jamming with each other.

Example - my favorite Brick bit might be the "I would like to extend you an invitation to the pants party." The joke is based on the well-established trait that Brick is really, really stupid. But that's just the starting point for the gag, which is that Brick mangles what the other guys told him to say to Veronica, "There's a party in my pants and you're invited." Also, it isn't just "Brick gag" as Veronica figures out what's going on and responds with exasperated patience while across the room the other guys snicker.

So we have a whole dynamic going on there - the middle-school mentality of the boys (they think this stupid joke is funny AND they have no problem taking advantage of Brick's nature to send him to do it), Veronica feeling like the only adult in the room and rising above it rather than railing against the immaturity, and Brick not really understanding what's going on. Everything there comes from character. It's not just a gag to check off the notecard "Brick says something stupid to rile Veronica."

There's a reality to that world, despite the broad gags. In a bad broad comedy, it feels like anything goes. That's where I - and I suspect many other readers - start to tune out. Give us character consistency and genuine development (by the end of the film, Ron has come around to Veronica in his own way) and you might see better reactions.

Tone plays into this too, and mastering the tone of a script that can go crazy broad like that news team rumble and snap back to something resembling reality is a high wire act. I don't even know if there's a good way to explain HOW to do it. It's more like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography - you know it when you see it. My own belief is that the characters and the story MUST be more important than the gag.

Character first. Elastic realties only thrive when the character is able to enter and exit them without being compromised.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mailbag: Getting repped off contest wins and "They don't get my symbolism!"

So I was going through the old inbox and found a bunch of questions I had by-passed, in some cases for nearly a year. Some of this is because I've not been doing many mailbag posts, some of this is because I wasn't sure if these questions really were relevant enough to answer and in some cases... well, the questions were just too long and involved.

Being succinct is your friend.

First up is Brian,

I'm a longtime reader of your blog and first off just want to say thanks for doing it. I had a practical sort of question (or at least I hope is practical): my screenwriting partner and myself have just won first place in a screenplay competition at a film festival in NYC, Visionfest 14. We placed as finalists a few weeks back and figured we'd take last place, but instead we won the whole damn thing. 

Now, we have worked (slightly peripherally) in Hollywood for several years and have been through some ups and downs as hopeful filmmakers, including making our own micro-budget feature film and racking up the festival rejections (still waiting on a couple dozen at the moment), as well as landing an established agent some years ago when we were not at all ready for an agent, thus resulting in a relationship that went nowhere. Long story short, our parents and friends are really excited but we have learned the value of low expectations.

That said, I'm wondering if you think there is any value to trying to get representation based off this win, since 1st Place does sound pretty good. Then again it's not the biggest competition and I'm sure most people never heard of it even in the industry, so I can't exactly go around like I won an Oscar...

Besides our film, this script is our main trump card. It's got three 8 scores and a couple 7s on the Black List site. Now we have this 1st place win, in one of the first competitions we entered. If you were us, just starting off, what practical next steps might you take to capitalize on these developments (if any)?Any words of wisdom you can provide, it's greatly appreciated!

First up, congrats on your win. Let's get right to the meat of it: "Can you capitalize on this win to get an agent?" My hunch is "No." I've never heard of Visionfest and I suspect that an accolade from the festival doesn't really make much impact for any potential reps.

However, I - and just about everyone in the business - HAS heard of the Black List site. If you really have three 8 scores, you should be able to leverage that into getting a few reads. Since you didn't ask about how to contact these agents and managers, I assume you've done your homework and have that ready to go. I'd send out a brief email that quickly introduces yourself. Give a one or two-line pitch of the script, mention the Black List scores and if there's some really relevant reason why you chose to reach out to that rep, maybe add that too.

But keep it short. See the length of your email to me? Try for half that length.

Next up is Lee:

I'm a lapsed writer, who after many years of working in an unrelated field, finally decided to sit down and write my screenplay. I've received a good mix of reviews and notes (positive & negative), and the feedback has been mostly helpful. However, I'm troubled by the fact that some of the "Symbolism" / "Subtext" I've injected into the story seems to be missed by all 5 of the reads I've received (3Pro's, 2 Friends).

I don't know if this is a case of "speed reading" or "skimming" on the part of the people doing the coverage, but they all seem to be missing the subtext that explains away many of the criticisms of the story (Example: Story is filled with bad people. Well, they are in a "Bad" place, aren't they? Say, is anyone else really HOT? Let's ask the guy over there in the Red Pajamas).

Is this a symptom of Script Readers skimming the script and therefore missing the added layer of "meaning" in the story? Or do I need to be more explicit and "Talk Down" to my audience who may not be paying close attention?

Ah, the "they're not getting my subtext" question. This is hard to answer because I haven't read the script, but if you've got five people who you really trust - three of whom are writers themselves - and none of them even got a hint of the symbolism, the odds are the problem is more with the script than the reader.

That's not to say that readers can't miss that stuff. I think in a read, people are more inclined to take everything at surface value unless there are some key dog whistles in there. I think part of the issue might be that you're expecting the symbolism to explain away what are being called out as mistakes or plot holes. I can definitely understand using inconsistencies to force an audience to think more about "Wait a minute, why the hell would they do that?"

But if the symbolism is done in service of leading an audience to a revelation, the problem might be that such revelation isn't present in the script. To launch off of your "hell" metaphor, in The Devil's Advocate, attorney John Milton (Al Pacino) is revealed to be the Devil. Before that big reveal comes, we get a few clues and winks that allude to this truth, but by the end of the film, it's spelled out for us - he IS Lucifer. In the case of this script, that reveal leads to the climax of Keanu Reaves's character's arc.

In your script, it sounds like there might be some symbolism without any payoff. Maybe it's reading to them the way that Pretty Woman plays off of the Cinderella metaphor lightly without adhering to it strictly (We get a "makeover" scene with her "Fairy Godmother/Hotel Concierge" but the script doesn't go so far to have Vivian pass herself off as someone else, leave behind a slipper and have to be identified by her lost clothing.) Maybe your readers ARE noticing some of these things you've thrown in, but don't realize you intend them as more than mere asides. So I guess in that case, the answer might be to use the symbolism differently.

This is always a tricky question to answer because I can't say definitively if the problem is the writer or the reader unless I read the material myself. If many people are missing it and perceiving this as a plot hole, clearly you have to make some changes, though.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How Marvel played the game well and how the boom inevitably leads to a bust

With the release of THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON upon us, not only has summer arrived, but the big boom of superhero films is about to explode. Seriously, enjoy 2015 for its mere 3 superhero film offerings because from here on out, things are going to explode. AOU is the eleventh Marvel Studios film, and soon the studio will ramp up from two films a year to three, even as Warners finally begins utilizing the DC Comics catalog for two movies a year as well. (And that's not even getting into the Marvel characters whose rights are still controlled by Fox - such as X-Men and Fantastic Four.)

Slashfilm put together a pretty handy list of all of the comic book-related releases, which you can see here.  The short version is that these are the total number of comic book films set for release each year:

2016: 8
2017: 7
2018: 5
2019: 4

(I'm not counting the Sony Spider-Man spinoffs listed at that link because all indications are those are on ice for now.)

Obviously there's been no shortage of thinkpieces on how long this boom can sustain. Eventually, there WILL be a crash. That's just simple logic at work. It would be naive to pretend that comic book films aren't a cyclical as every other genre that's gone through its hot and cold periods. Sitcoms were dead for years until The Cosby Show brought them back. Drama went through a similar fallow period, but was reinvigorated during the late 90s and early 00s by shows like The Sopranos. Genre TV got a big boost from Lost... until the proliferation of inferior Lost imitators like The Event ended up wearing out that genre.

Honestly, I'm not interested in trying to predict where the bust will happen. Proliferation of product will be a factor, but fortunately, a lot of these WB and Marvel properties can be fairly distinct from each other. In the hands of the right auteurs, these superhero movies don't all have to feel the same. Marvel's best successes have often come from recognizing the distinct subgenres that can make a Captain America film feel distinctly different from, say an Iron Man, or a Thor film. If you're gonna lump all the comic book properties into the same category, it's about as silly as calling THE MATRIX and JOHN WICK the same film.

When Warners announced its plans to roll out 10 superhero films over five years, Marvel loyalists were quick to accuse them of trying to "rush" what Marvel "took their time" doing. It was absurd to them that JUSTICE LEAGUE would be announced before WB saw how any of the standalones would go... but that overlooks that 2012's THE AVENGERS was announced right after IRON MAN opened in 2008. Warner's plan doesn't seem quite so crazy when compared to Marvel's pace. Marvel played the feature game well, but was we go into the big boom, it might be worth revisiting the road that got them here, just to remember they stumbled along the way too.

2008: Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk - Look up Robert Downey Jr's pre-IRON MAN credits. You've got great critically acclaimed roles in Zodiac, Good Night and Good Luck, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but then there's also the completely forgotten A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a supporting parts in The Shaggy Dog and Lucky You, and then Charlie Bartlett. This is a guy who was on his second (maybe third?) comeback. He was an unlikely superhero lead with a character who was not considered a heavy hitter by any stretch of the imagination.

What I'm getting at is, in the alternate universe where Iron Man bombed, there's more than enough foundation for the "Of course this had no chance of working" post-mortem. But before the film's release, Marvel had already started developing not only Iron Man 2, but Thor, Captain America and Avengers. That was an announcement they had ready to go the weekend after Iron Man opened, which means the plans had been in the works for a while.

It sort of makes you wonder how the script would have gone if Iron Man opened to a whimper and it was The Incredible Hulk that smashed box office records. Edward Norton was about as big a star as Downey was at that point. Would we have seen the Hulk become the pivitol axis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Fortunately Downey's casting turned out to be one of the most perfect instances of an actor becoming iconic as that particular character. It helps that unlike Norton's turn as the Hulk, he was the first to inhabit the role. Honestly, that might be the key to a lot of Marvel's freshness. On the DC side, we're on our seventh live-action Superman (ninth if you count the two SUPERBOY performers), our eighth live-action Batman, and our second live-action Wonder Woman. The Marvel Universe thus far really only has the Hulk as its rotating chair. (And Nick Fury, if you want to count the David Hasselhoff made-for-TV movie.)

It's Downey who carries the first Iron Man, and the first hour of that film is still one of the true high points in Marvel history. The script knows just how to introduce Tony Stark while giving Downey a chance to strut his stuff. He's a cocky asshole, but he's a charming, funny, cocky asshole and that makes it a lot easier to follow this guy. The goodwill of the film's first half makes it a lot easier to ignore that the second half of the film is a big weak, due in large part to some weak villains. It's an unfortunate Marvel tradition that their villains are generally weak sauce. On the other hand, it's nice to not be in the Burton/Schumacher mold of of the bad guys blowing the good guys completely off the screen.

In contrast to Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk is a serviceable but forgettable film. It's not bad enough to hate, but it's not really good enough to get excited about either. But then, it also came at a time when a comic book film could do all right by just getting on base rather than needing to hit a home run or else be called out for underperforming.

2010: Iron Man 2 - I think Marvel needed a failure like Iron Man 2, if you can call $623M worldwide a failure. (It earned more abroad than the first, but less at home.) Last year I called out Amazing Spider-Man 2 for feeling more like a business plan for future sequels than a story in its own right. After the ending of the first film teased "the Avenger Initiative" I was excited to see more Samuel L. Jackson in this sequel and the introduction of Black Widow looked promising too. What we got was kind of a mess of plotlines that get in each others way and a lot of material involving SHIELD that seems to be there just to keep them on the game board.

Director Favreau opening complained about the compromises he made on the film, which became his last experience with Marvel. It's probably also the weakest of the 10 films so far. Yet, we might owe it a debt of gratitude, as Marvel executives seemed to realize the folly of of this kind of story construction. Subsequent films have been much better about either integrating the larger storyline into that film's particular script, or at least minimizing the impact.

If we take MAN OF STEEL as WB's Iron Man, then Iron Man 2 needs to be the object lesson everyone involved with BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN should heed. BvS has a pretty full cast list as it tees-up JUSTICE LEAGUE, but hopefully most of the other heroes appearing in the former film are mere cameos. The titanic clash of Superman and Batman should be more than enough to fuel an entire film. Iron Man 2 fails because its part in teasing Avengers gets in the way of the presumably core story about Tony Stark. (It also doesn't help that Tony's arc - and the bad guy - are both weak on their own merits. Giving so much time over to Fury and Black Widow seems to have necessitated very surface-level scripting in the A-story.)

The second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier would prove to a be a much more successful instance of a "solo" movie playing with the SHIELD toys and utilizing other heroes well. Everything about that film feels much more organic than Iron Man 2. Let's hope Warners saw that too.

2011: Thor and Captain America - Chris Hemsworth's casting aside, Thor is one of the lesser Marvel films for me. It's another instance of SHIELD cluttering up the story needlessly and the whole enterprise feels like one of Marvel's cheaper affairs. I remember that after my first viewing, one of my strongest impressions was that I had a hard time seeing this as the same world that Tony Stark inhabits. The cheapness of the small town battle bugged me at the time (and reminded me of SUPERMAN II), but I've softened on that since subsequent summers have brought us a steady diet of city-destroying battles.

Captain America is my favorite solo film of Marvel's Phase One and it's probably the first time Marvel really succeeds at setting one of its properties in another genre. Hiring Joe Johnston, the director of cult favorite The Rocketeer, to helm this tale of Captain America's WWII origins has to go down as one of Marvel's savvier moves. Chris Evans probably doesn't get enough credit for how well-rounded he makes a Dudley Do-Right superhero, and part of why the film succeeds is because Steve Rodgers is a perfect contrast to the cockier, more ego-driven heroes Thor and Iron Man.

As much as Marvel gets flack for some formulaic elements in their films and the fact that most of the action sequences are previsualized before a director is even hired, they tend to be pretty good about nailing the characters. They're well-rounded, they're distinct from each other, and even in a weaker script, it tends to be fun to watch guys like Tony Stark and Thor play. Marvel's road to Avengers wasn't flawless at all, but the right elements were in place so that Avengers could galvanize all of them. In turn, this gave all the subsequent films a boost. Lately, superhero sequels tend to do better than their originals, but I don't think anyone would debate that a crowd-pleaser like Avengers did a lot more to draw people to The Winter Soldier and The Dark World than the original Captain America and Thor films did.

We look at Marvel as infallible now and some of that is projected backwards towards the start of their plan. I actually think that does a real disservice to the talent involved, making it seem like it was easy to reach the heights of Avengers and Phase 2 in general. It's foolish as fans - and VERY foolish as storytellers - to think any of this is easy. Marvel became the king of the mountain through trial and error in a time when they were mostly the only game in town.

As WB and Fox ramp up their own Marvel-style shared universes, there will undoubtedly be stumbles. But also, there are expectations now. Let's say that BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is the homerun it needs to be, but SUICIDE SQUAD and WONDER WOMAN do so-so business and don't impress audiences much. Does that hobble anticipation for JUSTICE LEAGUE in a way that the weak three-punch of Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Thor didn't become a liability for Avengers?

Here's what Marvel did right - it put their guys on base and then Avengers hit a grand slam. Then it followed up those grand slams with another home run (Iron Man 3) a solid triple, in commercial terms if not artistic ones (Thor: The Dark World), and two more home runs (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy).

Are DC and Fox playing in a game where they can afford just to get on the base? They're going to take more lumps for doing so, to say nothing of the fact that it puts a lot more pressure on the clean-up batter.

MAN OF STEEL's worldwide take of $668M puts it above the original Iron Man ($585.2M), as well as all the other pre-Avengers releases. Avengers, ($1.5B), Iron Man 3 ($1.2B), Guardians of the Galaxy ($774M) and The Winter Soldier ($714M) are the only Marvel releases to out-gross it. If BvS can hit near a billion, WB is very much a contender.

Let's also not forget to the casual viewers, they don't draw the same Marvel/DC distinctions that most people do. If Marvel has a dud that happens to coincide with some "growing pains" bombs released by WB and Fox, it's probably not great for the comic book brand as a whole. It's one reason why the whole Marvel/DC fanboy clash has never made any sense to me. You can't be rooting for your "enemy's" failure because what's bad for WB's business is bad for Marvel's business. Marvel absolutely wants to remain number one, but I guarantee you they don't want to see WB go broke competing with them.

In the next five years we'll be seeing a lot of comic book films, but there's also a lot of diversity within that genre. Let's all hope for more hits than misses. The studios have already committed to exploiting these IPs over original ideas, so they might as well be GOOD films.

And who knows, maybe if enough of them succeed, a few savvy gamblers might take their winnings and put a few chips elsewhere on the board.

I know. That's probably a more ridiculous notion than anything ever found in a comic book.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why does the Fast & Furious series get respect and Michael Bay doesn't?

 Brendan asked me on Twitter:

As the foremost Bayesian of our time, your thoughts on this Ben Kuchera piece?

For the uninitiated, Ben's reference to my expertise is a nod to my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, which is currently available on Amazon. Go here to read the announcement if your memory needs refreshing. A brief primer on my view on Michael Bay can also be obtained by reading my review of TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, a film I called "the most brilliant and subversively political film you'll see all year."

Mr. Kuchera puts forth a very interesting opinion piece and while I will be quoting some relevant bits here just to give my stance some context, I encourage you to read it in full. A key statement comes at the start:

"Many of the same people who heap scorn on Michael Bay are unapologetic Furious 7 fans. The entire Fast series has earned the sort of open fandom that is only matched by superstar franchises like The Avengers. Why do people seem to hate the Transformers series but the equally dumb car racing films get a "free" pass?"

I want to highlight how this is less Kuchera's own statement than it is a summation of "conventional wisdom." However, it's critical as far as establishing the goal posts for any discussion that follows as the question takes as a given that Transformers films are "dumb" and the Fast series is "equally dumb." If you've read my book (available for only $4.99 on Kindle) you might understand the fallacy of the blanket statement, at least in its simplicity.

As I discussed in my Age of Extinction review, this final Transformers sequel is a subversive deconstruction of the entire event blockbuster genre. Indeed, my discussion of the second and third films in the series draws greatly on the idea that Bay himself is frustrated by that sort of product, and has essentially become a prisoner of that genre. After the frustrating failure of some of his original ideas, it often feels like Bay returns to this series in repeated efforts to blow it up once and for all. There is an intelligence at work in those films, but it's put in service of the message that the characters presented as heroes are actually the true villains. It's the cinematic equivalent of Bay catching our underage selves sneaking a smoke and punishing us by demanding we polish off the entire carton.

The Fast films have no such pretensions, and until Tokyo Drift's writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin returned for a second go-round in the film's fourth entry, there was very little narrative or creative continuity. They began as a series of mostly disconnected one-offs until the fifth film tied threads from all the disparate movies together into one glorious Ocean's Eleven-like gift. The Fast films embrace their history, warts and all, when it probably would have been just as easy to ignore the second and third films, sticking to the movies that feature only most of the original cast.

With that comes the sense that everyone involved WANTS to be there. Everyone in front of and behind the scenes is having a ball making it. The stunts are insanely ridiculous at times, often in complete defiance of even the loosest concept of physics. But they look cool, and even in the midst of a chase, the characters usually let us see the adrenaline rush on their faces. It's a roller coaster ride you can't stop laughing at. It owns its implausibility, as if to say "We know this would never happen, but do you care?"

That's a sharp contrast to the Transformers series, where the actors play the peril as terrifying, not something getting their blood racing in all the right ways. Though Bay's metatexual criticism tends not to be perceived by most viewers, on some level they must recognize the films' direct disappointment in its audience. Both films are chocolate brownies, but the Fast brownie is the one saying, "Have another bite. Don't I taste great?" The Transformers brownie pipes up as you draw it closer to your lips and says, "Excuse me, do you have any idea what I'm doing to your hips?"

To paint either series as "dumb" is to miss the point. Both of them often struggle with plotting. Furious 7 has a lot of weakly-motivated plot developments, but it also had to deal with their production being completely upended by Paul Walker's death mid-shoot, so most audiences are inclined to treat those lightly. But once you take plot off of the table, it becomes more noticeable that Fast films earn a lot of good will from their characters. Most of the main players in the series are criminals to one extent or another, but they also have their own sense of honor and loyalty. They do bad things, but they're not bad people. This is why the finale of the latest film is so affecting - it's purely about these friends saying goodbye to Paul Walker's character in their own way. Yes, a lot of the audience's emotional reaction is a result of transference of Walker's death onto the exit of his character. Even if our mourning for Walker isn't profound, we can perceive the actors working through their grief on-screen and their sorrow surely strikes a chord in the hearts of anyone who has lost someone.

It's an emotional depth never really attempted by Transformers, and one that probably could not be matched even if one of the leads perished mid-installment. The robots are ostensibly good people, but they bring nothing but pain and destruction to Earth. It's the inverse of how we perceive Fast's Dom Torretto and his crew. Instead, Bay takes figures whom popular culture tells us should be heroes and inflates them so the scale makes their failings impossible to miss. Do you really want to root for Optimus Prime, or do you want to shout at him and Megatron to take their bar brawl somewhere else?

The humans in Transformers find their lives only made worse by contact with the Autobots. Unless you count Sam landing two ultra-sexy girlfriends in a row, there's really nothing aspirational in any of the movies. There's no moment to make the audience go, "Damn, I wish that was me!"

Certainly Kuchera's article is onto something when it highlights the multicultural nature of the Fast films. That cannot be ignored as a factor in the Fast series success. However... that works because the movie already is pitched at a tone that makes it easy to love. Swap Shia LaBeouf out for Michael B. Jordan and trade Rachael Taylor for Naya Rivera and you would still have a movie that keeps harrumphs at the audience for showing up for it.

So yes, the article grazes a bullseye when it says, "Michael Bay movies tend to be cynical; they feel like the creative team and interchangeable stars are taking the audience for granted at best, and at worst exploiting our worst impulses. The Fast and Furious franchise, on the other hand, are made by creative teams that are clearly invested in the franchise and care about showing the audience a good time. They're not cynical, they're hopeful, which is a great thing in a huge-budget action film."

Where we go wrong is in assuming Bay doesn't know what he's doing. He knows EXACTLY what he's doing - it's the audience who often misses his point.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

THE FLASH was my favorite new show this year

With most of the TV season behind us, we can now fairly make a call as to which new shows were the best, which were the worst, which returning series were the most improved, and so on. Today I want to tackle the first catagory there. It probably will come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog that THE FLASH was probably my favorite new show of the season. My geekhood is well-documented. What might strike you as more notable praise is that my very non-geek wife also loves the show.

I had a feeling that the CW had a hit on their hands when my wife walked into the room two minutes into the pilot and before long, instead of checking her email and doing work on her laptop, she was as riveted to the screen as I was. Comic book shows always have to potential to play too much "inside baseball." Go too far in that direction and you run the risk of a non-geek audience feeling alienated. At the worst, you'll end up with scenes that make the uninitiated actively aware there's a gag they're missing.

The quintessential worst-case scenario is GOTHAM's brand of winking at the audience. The pilot features a scene with Edward Nygma, whom fans will realize is the future Riddler. He appears here as a forensic expert who delivers his finding in the form of riddles. You could almost feel the writers elbowing you in the side during this scene saying, "Get it? Get it! It's cuz he's gonna be the Riddler!" Even people only vaguely familiar with Batman probably got that one, but the gag only calls attention to its own unnatural construction. It's clumsy even before one of the cops delivers the line, "If I want riddles, I'll read the funny pages."

THE FLASH's counterpart to this gag came in Week 2. We learned in the pilot that Dr. Caitlin Snow's fiance had been killed in the explosion of the STAR Labs particle accelerator (the MacGuffin that provided Barry Allen with his powers and charged up a legion of characters who can serve as the adversaries of future episodes.) In the subsequent episode, Caitlin mentions her fiance's name in passing: Ronnie.

I grabbed the remote and paused the show, "Wait, did I hear that right? What did she just say?" My wife confirmed that Caitlin said "Ronnie." My reaction: "Oh shit! They're going there!" The significance completely lost on my wife was that Caitlin is fated to become the villain Killer Frost... who usually bedevils the hero Firestorm... who is a merging of two people, one of whom is Ronnie Raymond. Bear in mind, if I wasn't there, my wife wouldn't have even noticed this shoutout because Caitlin's line was completely organic to the scene. It was a beautiful way of throwing an Easter egg those steeped in geek lore without puzzling new viewers.

This is something THE FLASH does regularly and I give them a lot of credit for not turning the show into a "No Geeks Allowed" reference zone where things only have meaning if you know the lore. Everything the series uses from the comics, it takes care to re-contextualize for the audience. Series creators Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns and Andrew Kreisberg know what they're doing.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise. All of these men are veterans. Berlanti is one of the best writers on TV (I'll say it again, seek out EVERWOOD on DVD if you never saw it) and co-created companion show ARROW with Kreisberg (along with Marc Guggenheim). Also, in addition to being DC Comics's Chief Creative Officer, Johns is one of comic's biggest writers of the last fifteen years or so. The vast majority of my favorite DC stories since 2000 or so have been written by Johns. His relaunch of GREEN LANTERN might count as one of my favorite comic runs ever and provides ample evidence the man knows how to build an epic. It also needs to be noted that Johns had a very strong run on THE FLASH, so he understands this corner of the universe intimately.

It also doesn't hurt that the series boasts probably the best cast of any CW series, and possibly any comic book show. I only knew Grant Gustin from his stint on GLEE as a character I actively disliked seeing on screen. Now I'm wondering if I should go back and revisit those because Gustin has owned the role of Barry Allen from moment one. He's fun and charming, but if you had to describe him in one word, it would probably be "likable." It's nice to see a superhero lead who doesn't have to spend a wealth of scenes brooding and being moody. There's a lot of weight on Barry's shoulders, but the show regularly shows us what a rush these powers would be. Barry's having fun with his ability and when he has fun, WE have fun. It's a nice change of pace to see a hero enjoy the things he can do.

And did you ever think you'd see Jesse L. Martin on the CW? He brings such intelligence and emotion to the character of Joe West, Barry's foster father and mentor. There's an interesting showdown among Barry's father-figures: West, Barry's own incarcerated father Henry, and Dr. Harrison Wells. Henry is played by John Wesley Shipp, the first actor to play Flash on TV back during the 1990 series. It's stunt casting that feels less like a stunt because Shipp and Gustin have great father/son chemistry. Wells's portrayer is another coup for the CW - Tom Cavanagh.

Recent eps have revealed that Wells is actually the evil Reverse Flash in disguise, the same man who killed Barry's mother 15 years ago. Barry's father went to jail for that crime and Barry himself has recently realized that his father is innocent and that through a quirk of time travel, he is going to end up back in that past while battling Reverse Flash. The question is, can he change history to save his mom? Should he?

The last ep showed us Reverse Flash killed the real Dr. Wells that same night and assumed his identity. Everything he's done since then seems to have been to make sure Barry gained his powers, which Reverse Flash needs so he can siphon that energy and use it to return to his home in the 25th Century. I'm laying all of this out because I want to make a prediction: When Barry eventually finds himself in the battle with the Reverse Flash that sends him to the night of his mother's death, I think he won't save her. But I'd bet he WILL save the real Wells and bring him back to the present. Thus, history can stay intact and the show has a way of keeping Cavanagh in the mentor role once the Reverse Flash story ends.

(Wells has told Barry he can't change the timeline, but that's been shown to be a self-serving lie. Last week revealed that in the original history, the particle accelerator didn't become active until 2020. Reverse Flash/Wells brought that about in 2013, seven years early. Everything Wells has said one should or shouldn't do with regard to time travel should be considered suspect.)

I like the occasional hints that Wells isn't totally evil, as when he compromises his own evil scheme in order to save Ronnie Raymond. Cavanagh plays "good" Wells with such integrity that we actively want to find reasons for him not to be a bad guy. I'm really looking forward to seeing the show peel back more layers on this guy in the final stretch of episodes.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Danielle Panabaker has shown a variety of sides to Caitlin's character. We meet her as a colder, almost all-business type, eventually explained as her mourning the loss of her fiance. In flashbacks we see a less burdened Caitlin and recent shows have given Panabaker to bust out great comic timing as Caitlin's Type A personality attempts to be carefree. Few things have made me laugh harder on this show than her line reading of " I would like to start a tab," pronouncing each word as if it's the first time she's said it, and with verbal quotes around the word "tab." (Okay, I probably laughed even harder a few minutes later when a completely sloshed Caitlin attempted karaoke, and later still when an even drunker Caitlin accused Barry of sneaking a peek at her in a state of undress.) I'm enjoying this version of Caitlin so much that I'm wary of losing her when she embarks on her comic-mandated destiny. She's got great chemistry with Barry that it would be a shame to waste.

Carlos Valdes's Cisco took a little time to grow on me, but he's a fun geek-surrogate for the audience. It struck me recently that he might be the "Willow" of the group in that you can get easy audience investment in the peril by threatening him. (Yes, BUFFY fans, he's also got "Xander" qualities too.) Candice Patton does well with what she's been given as Iris, but I'm looking forward to her being let in on the secret. Her storylines can only go so far while she has to play the role of the person kept in the dark.

When a cast works this well, you can't overlook the contribution of the casting director, and David Rappaport is clearly the CW's star for these shows. He's also worked his magic on ARROW and just cast the SUPERGIRL pilot. SUPERGIRL also has what looks like a strong call sheet for a superhero show, and with many of the same creatives involved, I am anticipating that show like none other next fall.

This is probably a good time to heap some praise on Berlanti's producing partner Sarah Schechter, who collaborates with him on all three shows. I've seen a producing team like that be worked like crazy on just ONE show, so for this duo to take on three series simultaneously shows that they're an exceptionally well-oiled machine. In the old days of the site Television Without Pity, EVERWOOD fans used to lovingly say "Damn you, Berlanti" every time an emotional moment hit them in the gut. I kind of want to say "Damn you, Berlanti, for making TV writing and production look so easy!" (The man became one of the youngest showrunners in history at age 27 after doing a major rewrite over a weekend on a Dawson's Creek episode.)

THE FLASH really is the first true, unadulterated superhero show we've had since the original FLASH series. LOIS & CLARK was much more focused on the relationship than the superheroics. As a prequel SMALLVILLE seemed determined to keep Clark out of costume as long as possible. GOTHAM follows suit in that vein, telling less of a Batman story and more of a tale about everything that preceeded Batman. AGENTS OF SHIELD sticks to a lot of non-powered characters, a trait shared by AGENT CARTER, another wonderful show I've raved about. Even ARROW doesn't quite fit the bill as a superhero show because its lead is non-powered.

In the 50s, DC Comics relaunched their Flash character with a new costume and new identity. This is a moment historically remembered as the birth of the Silver Age of comics. (Some say that Silver Age ended with Barry's death in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, appropriately enough.) THE FLASH series seems poised to be a similar vanguard for the current era of superhero TV shows. With each ep getting better than the previous, I have faith we're in for a helluva ride.

If you haven't checked out this show, what are you waiting for?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Short film DRINK is an impressive calling card for director Emily Moss Wilson

Almost a year ago, I attended the local film festival Dances with Films to see a short film that my friend Austin Highsmith acted in called DRINK. I had met the director, Emily Moss Wilson, once at a party but otherwise didn't really know much about her or her film. When I found out the short was 23 minutes, I got a twinge of the same gut reaction I'm sure some of you might be feeling.

"23 minutes?! In the short film world that might as well be Gone With The Wind! Who makes a short that's the same length as your average sitcom sans commercials? If you're gonna take that much of my time, you'd better deliver!"

As far as I'm concerned DRINK delivers. I was rivited to the screen the whole time. The production value is fantastic, the acting is great, the visuals are appropriately unsettling at times. I completely bought into the world that Wilson and her team created. This might be one of the best shorts I've seen.

In talking to Emily post-screening, she cited The Twilight Zone and The X-Files as two of her big influences and said that one reason DRINK came in at the length it did was because they wanted it to play like a pilot for a Twilight Zone-like anthology series. For my money, it works.

Every now and then, we see some flashy VFX-driven short somehow get featured on Deadline or some other website and everyone seems to "ooh" and "ahhh" over the VFX that was done at a pittance, if not a total favor, and gives a total pass to the story. I'm tired of viral shorts that are little more than sizzle reels for stunt teams or VFX wizards. You want to impress me? Tell me a story.

If some film school punk can upload a 3-minute showcase of his knowledge of After Effects and suddenly have studios fighting begging him to come in for meetings, there is no reason that DRINK shouldn't be a fantastic calling card for Emily Moss Wilson. She sustains the tension and intrigue for a full 23 minutes - not an easy feat.  I want to see what she can do with a feature. This is a helluva lot stronger calling card than most short films I see.

Please check out DRINK, "A Twilight Zone-inspired cautionary tale about a young mother forced to come face-to-face with her deepest desire."

STARRING Austin Highsmith, Nolan Gross, Noah Swindle, Jake Muxworthy, Carter Jenkins, Virginia Tucker, Ron Harper
Directed by Emily Moss Wilson
Written by Emily Moss Wilson and Larry Soileau
Produced by Greg Wilson and Benjamin Grayson

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Black List Table Reads podcast is coming April 16th!

Big news (for real!) on this April Fools Day! The Black List continues to expand its brand with a weekly podcast called The Black List Table Reads, launching April 16th on Midroll Media.

Black List founder Franklin Leonard presents a new script every month, read by a rotating cast of talented actors, along with interviews with members of the Hollywood screenwriting community and beyond. The first featured script read for episodes 1-4 is Balls Out, written by Malcolm Spellman (producer of Empire) and Tim Talbott (winner of the 2014 Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award).

The full press release is below, but I've gotten a few additional details and clarifications from Franklin Leonard. These Table Reads will be separate entites from the Black List Live series that thus far has had four successful live shows in Los Angeles. "The podcast readings will be studio recorded. No live audience," Leonard said. "The live staged readings will continue as they always have and will remain scripts selected from the annual list."

While the podcast will draw from the annual list, the intent is also to showcase scripts that have been hosted on the website at Franklin Leonard confirmed that to qualify there will be "No opt in necessary. The scripts that we do identify via the website will be those that receive high scores and work particularly well for the medium." He reiterated, "Though in all likelihood, many of the scripts we do for the podcast will come from writers who have hosted scripts on the site, that won't be the only place we find them. Case in point, our first script, BALLS OUT, was on the annual list."

The cast for the first script has yet to be announced, but you check the podcast out yourself on April 16th. Midroll Media's press release follows.


Spontaneanation, CARDBOARD!, The Black List Table Reads and Womp It Up! Expand Earwolf and Wolfpop Universe of Entertainment; Company Continues its Investment in Content; Entices Audiences with New Episodic Shows & Serialized Storytelling

LOS ANGELES, APRIL 1, 2015 -- Midroll Media, the leading digital media company providing a 360-degree suite of podcast production, distribution, and monetization services to artists, entertainers, and thought leaders, announces its spring rollout of four brand new shows, Spontaneantion with Paul F. Tompkins, CARDBOARD! with Rich Sommer, The Black List Table Reads, and Womp It Up! debuting throughout the month of April to be added to its slate of programming. The new shows underscore Midroll’s ongoing strategy of working with the best talent to develop original, entertaining, and innovative podcast programming, while expanding the breadth of its podcast audience.

Host, comedian, and actor Paul F. Tompkins, actor Rich Sommer, innovative film executive Franklin Leonard, and actresses and improvisational comedians Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham bring their unique and highly anticipated podcast shows to the company’s owned-and operated comedy and pop culture sites, Earwolf and Wolfpop. The unveiling of the new slate of podcasts continues to highlight the unprecedented momentum of both the medium of podcasting and Midroll Media.

“Midroll is committed to providing great original audio, and this spring we have some wonderful new shows lined up. Comedy fans who love Comedy Bang Bang, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, and Improv4humans will be excited to know they can now get new, weekly shows from favorite performers Paul F. Tompkins, Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham," said Chris Bannon, Chief Content Officer for Midroll. “And our new Wolfpop shows mirror two major pop culture passions: Rich Sommer’s CARDBOARD! celebrates the huge community of board game fans; Franklin Leonard’s Black List Table Reads captures the imagination with pure audio storytelling, with performances of some of Hollywood's most desirable scripts.”

Spring Rollout of Fresh, Original Shows for Earwolf & Wolfpop-- Spontaneanation Leads the Charge.

Throughout the month of April Midroll introduces shows hosted by Earwolf fan favorites like Tompkins, whose show leads the pack with his show debut on April 1st, then releasing on Mondays following launch. Both Tompkins’ and St. Clair’s shows join Earwolf’s comedy fold, curated by Scott Aukerman, while Sommer’s and Leonard’s shows join its sister site, Wolfpop, curated by Paul Scheer, as the first new shows on the network since its launch in November 2014. See below for show descriptions.

April 1st - Spontaneanation with Paul F. Tompkins

Paul F. Tompkins has appeared on Earwolf more than any other guest, and for good reason. He’s been writing and performing comedy for twenty years, racking up a countless number of accolades. Longtime podcast comedy and improv all-star Paul F. Tompkins hosts Spontaneanation. It's a completely improvised show, from monologue to interview, to long-form sketch. Join Paul, his special guests (including Michael Sheen, Aimee Mann, Kaitlin Olson, and Dave Foley), and his incredibly talented friends from the world of improv--hailing from The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Superego, and other first-rate Los Angeles collectives--for an hour of comedy that none of them ever see coming. Fans can catch new episodes of Spontaneanation Mondays on

April 9th - CARDBOARD! with Rich Sommer

Actor and new podcast host Rich Sommer loves board games. But we're not talking about the stuff of your grandparents’ rec room--things have changed a lot since people started to gather around the bridge table. Whether you're a serious player or a newbie, give a warm welcome to your personal board game evangelist. Ty Burrell of ABC’s Modern Family joins Sommer for the fun as his first guest on episode one. Grab your game of choice, discover a new one, and get your cocktail pairings ready for CARDBOARD! with Rich Sommer, coming every other Thursday on

April 16th - The Black List Table Reads

The Black List Table Reads takes the best and most exciting screenplays Hollywood hasn't yet made, and turns them into movies for your ears. Black List founder Franklin Leonard presents a new script every month, read by a rotating cast of talented actors, along with interviews with members of the Hollywood screenwriting community and beyond. The first featured script read for episodes 1-4 is Balls Out, written by Malcolm Spellman (producer of Empire) and Tim Talbott (winner of the 2014 Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award). Follow the coveted stories as they unfold on The Black List Table Reads Thursdays on

April 20th - Womp It Up!

Womp It Up! is the latest spin-off of Comedy Bang! Bang!, featuring Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham in character. The show joins the ranks of other Comedy Bang! Bang! offspring The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project and With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus. This formidable duo also created and star in the critically acclaimed Playing House on the USA network, which was recently renewed for a second season. So slather cream cheese all over your Digiorno and get ready to get WOMPED because everybody’s favorite intern, Marissa Wompler (St. Clair) is throwing on the cans for her brand new school project podcast Womp It Up!. Her teacher/mentor/co-host/former sniper, Charlotte Listler (Parham), will be there to DJ and divvy out love advice, joined by other special guest stars. Get a front-row seat to the madness of the Marina Del Rey lifestyle! Catch all of the antics bi-weekly, Mondays on

Audiences and Advertisers ‘Hungry’ for New Content and Listening Experiences

As mainstream awareness continues to grow, the appetites of both audiences and advertisers grow, too. Last month Edison Research's The Infinite Dial 2015 reported that "monthly audio podcast consumption grew from approximately 39 million monthly users in 2014 to approximately 46 million in 2015."

The surge in popularity of the podcast medium has also caught the interest of advertisers who are attracted by the authenticity and intimacy of the native advertising experience created by host read and fan-appreciated ads. While the business of podcast ads continues to evolve, podcasts as entertainment are drawing larger numbers--and brands want to be where audiences are flocking.

Midroll, recognized for its expertise in monetization and its relationships with both brands and podcasters, represents more than 200 podcasts to advertisers, including shows on its owned-and-operated networks along with other popular off-network favorites. With the challenge of keeping inventory high as advertiser demand for shows skyrockets, the newest programs from Earwolf and Wolfpop all debut this month with launch partner advertisers: Audible, Cards Against Humanity, Harry's, Loot Crate, MeUndies, R&R Games, Squarespace, and Xero.

“Just as audiences are listening to our shows, we’re listening to and learning from them as well. Earwolf and Wolfpop provide key insights for us, allowing us to delve deeper into new episodic shows and serialized storytelling,” said Midroll Media CEO Adam Sachs. “We are supremely excited to welcome the newest members of our growing creative family, in order to delight audiences old and new with the newest shows.”

All Earwolf and Wolfpop podcasts are available for streaming on iTunes and Soundcloud.

April Fool's Reboot trailer script

Let's not try to be too cute this year. We all know it's April 1st. You're all too smart to fall for some prank where I claim to have some kind of insider script and build an elaborate web around it. Besides all that does is turn the comments into "Ha! I didn't fall for it!"

So bravo! None of you fell for this April Fools. That means you're free to enjoy the following short script on its own merits.

What's it a short script of? Well, dear reader, that would be telling. Half the fun is in the discovery. Given the way nostalgia reigns these days, I'm probably sacrificing some page hits by not plastering what the gag is, so I'll say that to an extent, this is my commentary on how certain reboots - like the upcoming TERMINATOR film - are being handled. (Actually, it might not be a bad idea to check out the TERMINATOR GENISYS trailer here.) More than a lot of my other posts, I'm very curious to see you guys react in the comments.

I've embedded scans of the script pages below. You can also download the Mystery Reboot Script in PDF form here. (it's less than six pages!)