Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Where would you have ended your favorite shows?

Yesterday I talked a lot about the Chuck finale and in looking around the internet, I've seen a great many fans opine that there were early finales that they'd prefer to think of as the end of the show.  It seems to me that's a great point of discussion.  If you could have ended some of your favorite shows at an earlier point, what earlier episodes would you have chosen as the finale?

Some ground rules: you can't rewrite history.  That is to say, you can't say, "I'd end Cheers in season 8, but I'd bring Diane back for the finale."  You can stop the show at any point - it doesn't have to be at the end of a particular season, but you can't invent a new episode or plot twist for the finale. And when you set the end point, you have to be able to defend why that particular ending works for you.

As an example, I probably would have ended The Simpsons with its 11th season finale, "Behind the Laughter." That episode is told in the style of VH1's "Behind the Music" and is something of a retrospective of the series, adopting the conceit that Homer and his family are actors who have been playing themselves as characters in the long-running series.  The next season is where The Simpsons really began its decline, and "Behind the Laughter" would have been a fitting swan song.

But that's just one example. What are your picks?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Is it really a happy ending? My disappointment with the Chuck Finale

Several days after the fact, I still can't quite shake my disappointment over the final episode of Chuck. Final episodes are always hard, owing to the difficulty of matching raised expectations and providing some level of closure for devoted fans who've stuck it out across several long seasons.  We've talked before about some of the best finales and the worst finales, and if there's one universal lesson, it's that it's hard to please everyone.

For the last five years, Chuck was one of my favorite shows for pure escapism.  The series dealt with an average guy who finds himself as one of the CIA's greatest counter-terrorism assets against evil spies, and in a post-9/11 world, playing terrorism and CIA ops for laughs are pretty rare.  Even Alias, which was similarly escapist, often treated some of its villains and overarching storylines with an almost melodramatic seriousness.

Chuck pulled off the incredibly difficult balancing act of treating the characters seriously enough to invest the relationships with a great deal of depth and growth, while never letting the James Bond-ian absurdity of some of the plots ever feel ridiculous.  We live in an era where we demand that our James Bonds and our Batmans be grim, gritty and "realistic," but Chuck's world was almost always a place where the audience could go for a fun romp.  Even so, every now and then that fun would be tempered by an incredibly dramatic beat - such as when Brandon Routh's Daniel Shaw shot Chuck's father in cold blood right before Chuck's eyes.  Fewer comedies could have killed off such a beloved character and not lost the audience, but it worked, due in no small part to the talented actors involved.

I don't think anyone would dispute that Zachary Levi's Chuck and Yvonne Strahovski's Sarah were the heart of the show.  In the pilot, she was assigned to be Chuck's CIA handler and to maintain that cover, she had to pretend to be his girlfriend.  It was probably inevitable that the characters would get together for real, and Levi and Strahovski's screen chemistry was always one of the show's best assets.  And as a writer, I get why the creators chose to up the stakes in the final episodes by threatening that coupling.

To recap the final arc in brief: Sarah gets captured by a bad guy who erases the last five years worth of memories from her, convinces her that her relationship with Chuck is just an assignment, and tells her that she is to use Chuck to break into CIA Headquarters.  Once there, she is tasked with stealing "The Intersect" and killing Chuck.  Without her memories of the last five years, Sarah reverts to being the cold, efficient assassin she was before her time with Chuck softened her, and the first hour of the finale is an exercise in breaking Chuck's heart in two as he has to admit that the Sarah he knew may be lost forever.

I want to deal with one issue before getting on to my bigger disappointment with the finale. The bad guy played by Angus MacGuffin - er, I mean, MacFadyen - is probably one of the least compelling "big bads" Chuck has ever produced. He first materialized a few episodes prior to the end and has no backstory or real connection with our characters. The idea of the villain turning Chuck and Sarah against each other would have been a lot more interesting if the antagonist was someone who had a personal beef with both.  Just putting Shaw in place of McFadden would have elevated this story further.  Shaw brings a history with him and if there's one thing Brandon Routh has shown in his last few appearances on this show, it's that he is great at playing a character the audience loves to hate. MacFadyen's character was little more than a plot device and it wasn't helped by the fact at least a third of his dialogue was him talking about how much he wants "a pristine version of the Intersect."  For a show that had been so good at creating its baddies and stunt-casting them appropriately, this character felt like a big swing and a miss.  It being the finale, that disappointment is, naturally, magnified.

In the second half of the show, Sarah realizes that Chuck is on the side of angels, but without her memories of the last five years, all she wants to do is stop the bad guy and then go off on her own.  During the mission, Sarah experiences a few echoes of memories that should have been erased.  In the show's final scene, Chuck finds her on the beach and tells her every last detail of their time together.  He wraps up by saying that his friend had this crazy idea that kissing her would bring back all her memories.  Sarah, looking at Chuck as if she desperately wants to remember everything she told him about, says, "Chuck, kiss me."

And that's where the writers leave us, with Chuck and Sarah's kiss.

As a writer, I get what they were going for.  They wanted to leave it up to the audience to decide if Sarah got her memories back right then and there, or if she got them back at all.  When pressed about it in an interview, writer Chris Fedek said, "I would certainly say it's not erased. It's not all gone. It hasn't been five seasons all for naught. It's in there. And the fun will be remembering it and falling in love again. How could you imagine anything better?"

My take: I get what the writers were going for.  Hell, I'll even conceded that it's the sort of romantic idea that sounds like a brilliant concept when you come up with it.  One of the clever conceits about Sarah's memory loss was that it allowed the show to harken back to its beginnings and explore just how much the characters have grown and changed. It's always a good idea to find a way to bring things full circle in a finale.

As my list of Best Finales shows, I'm not adverse to dark or ambiguous twists in a finale.  The Angel finale is a great example of both, as it ends with our heroes overwhelmed, but still ready to take on thousands of opponents in a battle that makes 300 look like an even match.  But then, that ending honored the tone and the style of the series.  Chuck is a different case, as it was never a show that seemed designed to end on such an open note.  Across its run, the show produced several episodes that nearly served as series finales and none of them left the status of the Chuck/Sarah relationship in quite so ambiguous a state.

I can't help but think this might have been a more interesting course of action to take at the start of this final season. (Comic book/novelist Peter David actually postulated last season that the 4th season finale could have gone in the direction of erasing Sarah's memory.)  If the writers wanted to use amnesia to explore the show's history, it could have been an arc that streatched across the entire season, or even just half the season.

Heck, even just confining Sarah's mind-wipe to the final episode might have worked better had there been more of a coda.  This article exploring what it takes for a film to have a satisfying ending has been making the rounds.  Several other bloggers have written articles about it, so I won't go in depth here.  One of major points that script doctor and producer Lindsay Doran makes is that an audience has a better reaction to a happy ending when they see the heroes celebrating their success as opposed to just seeing the success itself.

Doran says, "Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winners shares that victory with someone they love."

That's what was missing on Chuck. By fading away on the kiss, we don't see Sarah's reaction.  We don't see her and Chuck truly celebrating whatever connection they've rediscovered.  We don't get to see their friends happy for them in whatever life they end up building.  The show denies us a wrap-up that shows them finally moving into their dream home, settling down, raising the children they talked about.  We're shown the kiss, but not a hint of the happily-ever-after.  The writers have given us enough that we can intellectualize that happy ending is possible, but do we feel it?  A brief coda could have made all the difference.

"Give the audience what they need, not what they want," was a favorite motto of writer Joss Whedon.  Even though I can respect that Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedek may have made a bolder, less conventional choice in how they resolved the Chuck/Sarah relationship, I can't help but feel that in this case, what the audience wanted (Sarah to be restored as the person Chuck knew and loved) was exactly what they needed.

There was a lot I liked in the finale, too much for even that one moment to totally smear, but yet I can't help but feel that the ending hits a double when the writers have shown they were more than capable of hitting home runs.

For Chuck fans, Alan Sepinwall did a great 5-part interview over on HitFix.com.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hire me as your writer's assistant! And other favors

It's favor time!

Pilot season is in full swing, so I'll renew a plea I made last pilot/staffing season that anyone who's looking for a writer's assistant, please contact me.  I realize that a fair number of my readers are my competition for those jobs, but I'm sure that there's a percentage of my readership who might be doing the hiring than the job seeking. If you're enough of a fan that you read my blog regularly, you'll probably like me in person.  Another blogger whom I won't embarass by naming once told me that in person, I'm not the asshole I sometimes come across as here.

Favor #2 - Anyone have any insight into how I might be able to get press credentials for San Diego Comic Con?  I know there are some smaller outfits that have managed to pull this off in the past.

I could have sworn I had a third favor to ask.  Dammit, it's definitely Friday.

Oh yeah!  I've been reinstated on Google+. Feel free to add me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You're not imagining it - the Oscars have gotten lamer and more out of step

Twenty years ago the Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards were an Animated family film, a tearjerker drama based on a best selling novel, a compelling drama based on one of the most significant moments of the 20th Century, and a period crime drama about the rise of a mobster. Those films went home empty-handed, losing to an intense serial killer procedural-thriller based on a popular best seller.

(For those too lazy to go to Wikipedia, the films were Beauty & The Beast, The Prince of Tides, JFK, Bugsy, and The Silence of the Lambs, respectively.)

Looking at the offerings in yesterday's nominations, I feel confident in saying that not only would the staid squares who comprise the voting members of the Academy not give The Silence of the Lambs the top prize, they'd probably never let it be nominated in the first place.  For that matter, I'd be shocked if Beauty & The Beast would be nominated either.

The Silence of the Lambs basically invented the serial killer genre.  Without it, there might not have been a Se7en, and without either of those films, there'd probably be far fewer serial killer thrillers made today.  You can feel the influence of The Silence of the Lambs across many films and even TV shows such as Criminal Minds. It wasn't just a well-made film, it became a part of pop culture.  You can toss off a Hannibal Lector one-liner and be pretty confidant that someone around you will recognize it.

Can you say that about any of the nominees this year?

This year's list of nominees is: The Help, Moneyball, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, Hugo, The Descendants, Tree of Life, The Artist, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Six of the nine are based on novels, but unlike the 1991 slate, the genres are significantly weighted towards drama.  In 1991, The Descendants probably would have been a dark horse like The Prince of Tides was - today, it's the only one that can challenge the presumed front-runner of The Artist.

I don't get the feeling that any of those films will penetrate popular culture.  There are some well-made films in there, but is there anything that's iconic or defining in the way that The Silence of the Lambs or JFK was?  That list is about as un-mainstream as you can get.  There's no Harry Potter, no Bridesmaids, no The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, no The Muppets - all well-reviewed films that were generally strong entries in their respective genres.  The variety of 1991 has given way to a nomination slate that seems to scoff at anything popular.  

To back that up, let's look at some domestic gross figures

Beauty & the Beast - $145 million domestic gross
The Prince of Tides - $74 million domestic gross
JFK - $70 million domestic gross
Bugsy - $49 million domestic gross
The Silence of the Lambs - $130 million

Five films that averaged $93 million - in 1991 dollars!  Two of the five films (40% of the nominated slate) crossed the $100 million mark.  If we adjusted for inflation, look at how that changes.

In 2012 dollars via BoxOfficeMojo.com:
Beauty & The Beast - $277 million
The Prince of Tides - $143 million
JFK - $134 million
Bugsy - $93 million
The Silence of the Lambs - $246 million

Average gross: $178 million in 2012 dollars

There are nine films that are nominated this year, and only one - ONE - made more than $75.5 million.  (That's about 11% of the slate.)  Their average gross comes out to $57 million.  Only one of the five 1991 nominees took in less than that in 1991 dollars.

Something has to change with the way the Oscar nominees are selected.  The films are significantly out of step with audience tastes.  If anything, the choices are even more conservative than they were two decades ago.  Granted, the Oscars have always had this problem, overlooking ground-breaking films like Citizen Kane and Star Wars in favor of more conventional choices.  But at least those two films got nominated in their respective years.  This year, some of the worthy mainstream choices didn't even get that far with almost twice as many slots available!

With results like this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership comes off like a collection of film snobs more concerned with with rewarding what they see as "serious films" instead of recognizing that good film can encompass a wide spectrum of work.  These nominees aren't a good representation of release year 2011 - but merely a small segment of that calendar.

Today's filmmakers deserve Oscar voters unafraid to cast a ballot for the modern equivalent of The Silence of the Lambs.  The Academy Award is an honor that should be open to all films - not just the "important" and "safe" ones.

UPDATE: a since-deleted comment suggested that I was being unfair by not allowing for the possibility that the nominated films would see a bump in attendance due to their nominations. That's a point covered by this article.

Just earning an Oscar nom can mean big bucks for studios. Best picture nominees that did not win the award earned on average $17.7 million once they were nominated before the awards show, and then another $4 million after the show, according to IBISWorld.

And of course a box office win yields a bigger boost—an average of $27.5 million between nominations and the awards show, and another $15.4 million after winning an Oscar.

I should point out that 2010 Best Picture Winner The Hurt Locker only got a bump of about $4 million from the time of its nomination through the end of its theatrical run, while last year's The King's Speech pretty much doubled its $57 million gross during the six weeks leading up to the Oscars, and then left its run with $134 million.

Just for comparison, The Silence of the Lambs wasn't even IN theaters during or after the nominations, having opened the prior February.  It spent its first five weeks at number one in the box office, taking in $68.8 million in that time frame alone!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Oscar nominations

Oscar nominations will likely have been announced by the time most of you get around to reading this, so let's get some reactions.  What surprised you the most?  Which film deserved to be nominated but wasn't?  Which nominations were the most richly deserved?

And perhaps most importantly of all - how many of the nominated films have you seen? I still have way too many front-runners to see.

Have seen:
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Descendants

Haven't seen (among many others):
Midnight in Paris
The Artist
My Week With Marilyn
Young Adult
The Help
War Horse

For whatever reason, this isn't a year where I've been compelled to check out most of the front-runners. Anyone else feel that way?

Monday, January 23, 2012

The problem with the third act is the first two acts

Cary left this question on the Facebook page a while ago:

"I'm writing a horror screenplay. In watching a lot of horror movies, I find that so many of them have fantastic setups, but often fall apart in the third act. Any general thoughts on how to avoid that?"

I struggle with this answer a bit because Cary didn't offer any specifics as far as his assessment of "fall[ing] apart in the third act."  Without knowing precisely what I'm responding to, it's hard to come up with an effective course of action.

There's an old joke: "The problem with the third act is the first two acts."  Essentially, the reason an ending might suck is because there's not been an effective set-up for any sort of destination.  A film might have a cool set-up and it might even have some engaging set-pieces to keep things going in the second act, but if it's all smoke and mirrors, it becomes tricky to conclude something that was lacking in depth to begin with.

This is why a lot of guys like me say you need to know your ending before you start writing.  You wouldn't jump in your car and just start driving for days on end without planning your endpoint.  If you don't have a destination, how can you develop any sort of route?  Sure, you might end up somewhere, but without knowing that at the outset, how can you stumble upon the best path to that endpoint?

The horror movies that fall apart in the end are often the movies that don't have much going for them beyond a cool hook.  I think I've complained before about The Unborn, which starts off with a clever idea about a college-aged girl being haunted by the twin she never knew about because the baby died in the womb, strangled by the girl's umbilical cord.  Eventually we learn that the twin's spirit is trying to be born into the world.  Along the way, it terrorizes the girl, killing several people around her and eventually going so far that the girl, played by Odette Yustman, submits to an exorcism.

There's some interesting use of Jewish folklore here and for a while the film holds together.  And then we get to the ending.  Remember - throughout the film, the main girl has been haunted, terrorized, threatened and attacked by this evil spirit.  We're left with the impression he's trying to kill her.  The final scenes involve Odette Yustman's character learning that she's pregnant with twins, presumably from a sexual encounter with her boyfriend shown early in the film.  It's been a while since I saw this, but I remember feeling that there was a pretty clear implication that the spirit was going to be born into one of those babies.

Wait, what?  So this spirit's been doing time in Odette's womb since early in the first act.  Presumably, all it has to do is wait out the next nine months and he can pop out alive.  Maybe - MAYBE - if Odette was considering having an abortion, the spirit might decide drastic measures are needed to sidetrack her, but she doesn't even know about the pregnancy until the film's final minutes.  Given that, why the hell is the spirit pulling all these parlor tricks that will lead Odette on a path to figuring out the truth, and why on several occasions does it all but attack her, placing her life in danger?

I want writer/director David Goyer to explain to me what his thinking was here.  Maybe I misunderstood some critical plot point, but the script leads the audience by the nose in so many other places, I doubt I'm too far off base.  I chalk this one up to Goyer being taken with the idea that the girl not only fails to banish the spirit, but that (in a Twilight Zone-type ending) she'll actually give birth to it.  In this case, the third act falls apart because the writer fell in love with a clever idea that doesn't work within the logic of the film's first two acts.

Overall, the key to not having a third act fall apart in a horror film is the same as not having any film fall apart in the third act: have a story to tell - not just a cool hook or premise.  If the third act sucks, it's often because something in it isn't meshing well with the rest of the script

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Free-for-All: Vertigoed movies

You might have heard about Kim Novak's, um, issues with Oscar favorite The Artist reusing some of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score in it's climax.  The internet being what it is, it didn't take long for that to inspire an internet meme.  The blog "Press Play" kicked things off:

Press Play contributor and film editor Kevin Lee followed this Novak/Lucas line of thought to its logical -- or illogical -- end. Just for the hell of it, he matched the Vertigo cue used in The Artist with the last three minutes of the Death Star battle in Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, uploaded it, and sent the link to several Press Play contributors to get their reactions. 

And it's here that things got interesting: rather than generate cheap laughs at the expense of Novak, Lucas, The Artist or Star Wars, the mash-up inspired delight. Simply put: Kevin's experiment confirmed that Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score is so passionate and powerful that it can elevate an already good scene -- and a familiar one at that -- to a higher plane of expression. Score one for the master of film scoring! 

We encouraged Kevin to put the same piece of music under a bit from Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace and the training sequences from Rocky and Rocky IV. Same result: The scenes seemed deeper, subtler and more haunting, solely because of Herrmann's music. 

Check out their Star Wars/Vertigo mash-up below, and click here to see the full article with dozens of submissions.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tyler Gillett & Joel Church-Cooper's "Domesticating"

I got some excellent and encouraging script notes earlier today, so I'm far too busy brainstorming my next rewrite to come up with a blog post.  I'd ask that you use the next four minutes to watch the first episode of the webseries "Domesticating."  It's written by Joel Church-Cooper and directed by my good friend Tyler Gillett, who directed Books and is a member of Radio Silence (the group formerly known as Chad, Matt & Rob.) 

While I'm getting in plugs, the team at Radio Silence is headed to Sundance this weekend in support of their new film V/H/S.  Hit them up on Twitter and wish them well!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If George Lucas can't get an unmarketable movie made, what chance do YOU have?

From an excellent New York Times article about George Lucas:

This was a new feeling for George Lucas. He made a movie about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire — a movie loaded with special effects like no one had seen before. Then he showed it to executives from all the Hollywood studios. And every one of them said, “Nope.”

One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?” Lucas says, astonished. “Isn’t their job at least to see movies? It’s not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, ‘I’ve got this little movie — would you see it?’ If Steven (Spielberg) or I or Jim Cameron or Bob Zemeckis comes in there, and they say, ‘We don’t even want to bother to see it. . . .’ ”

Lucas sighs. It’s true that the movie, “Red Tails,” is a biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen rather than a space opera starring the Skywalker clan. But the snub implied that Lucas’s pop-culture collateral — six “Star Wars” movies, four “Indiana Jones” movies, the effects shop Industrial Light and Magic and toy licenses that were selling (at least) four different light sabers this Christmas — was basically worthless. When “Red Tails” opens in theaters on Jan. 20, it will be because Lucas paid for everything, including the prints. 

Let that sink in - George Lucas is responsible for six of the most successful films ever made (ten if you include the four Indiana Jones films) and studio executives still had no interest in making or distributing his passion project.  It this wasn't some character drama set in 1400s Europe - this was a film set in World War II with plenty of action!  Now perhaps the box office failure of 2006's Flyboys was fresh in everyone's mind ($60 million budget/$13 million domestic gross).  Or it could have been, as Lucas stated during a recent visit to The Daily Show, that the all-black cast would be a hard sell abroad.

Either way, for up-and-coming screenwriters, this paints a chilling picture.  Every studio in town not only had no interest in making the first non-Star Wars or Indiana Jones film that George Lucas produced in over two decades, they couldn't even figure out how to market it!  If every studio in town is too scared to take a chance on George Lucas, what chance do any of us have of wandering outside the box?

This reminds me of the story about how a studio executive suggested that, instead of making Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg and the studio make a large donation to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exec's logic was that "no one" was going to see a black-and-white movie about the Holocaust.

When you're writing for yourself, you can tell any story you want.  When you need someone else's money to tell that story, you're going to have to convince them they'll not only get their money back, but also turn a profit on it.  This is why marketability is one of the things that readers like me have to weigh.  I'm sure we've all pushed forward commercially dubious material when it's well-written, but marketable screenplays will already rule the day.  That's the way the system has always worked and it's never going to change.  You can bitch about how unfair that is, or you can attempt to work within it.

Put yourself in the studio's shoes - and ask if they have reason to expect a return on their investment.  As much as it pains me to say - think like a studio executive.  Those guys might be to skittish to take a risk on the creator of Star Wars - but they're not afraid to insult him by snubbing the screening of his film.

If that doesn't chill your bones, I don't know what will.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Do awards and nominations matter?

Sunday night the Golden Globes were presented, with The Artist taking home Best Picture in the Musical or Comedy category, while The Descendants grabbed that trophy in the Drama catagory.  The Oscar nominations are due to come out next week, all of which me to ask...

Does any of this mean anything to you?

How much effect do the various award nominations and wins affect your viewing habits?  For me, it has some impact, but not a great deal.  Most years I end up seeing 3 or 4 of the Best Picture nominees prior to the Oscars.  I'll confess that there are years where I've sometimes sought out films out of obligation to remain "in the loop" more than out of genuine, passionate interest.  But then, in many ways, it's my job to stay abreast of current films as much as possible.

I assume there are a fair number of you who aren't currently working in the industry.  Will an Oscar nomination for a particular film make you more likely to see it?  Or are your viewing habits consistently dictated by your own tastes?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Stop wasting my time!

I've had it up to here with shitty writers.  No, you know what?  I'm not even going to dignify the "work" those morons do by equating them with real working professionals.  The people I'm talking about are hacks, plain and simple.  They're dilettantes who think that because they have seen a lot of Jason Statham movies and pirated a copy of Final Draft that they are entitled to churn out 125 pages of garbage and expect people to read it.

There are plenty of produced writers who are favored targets of internet critics (and let's be honest, they often end up in the crosshairs of this blog too.)  I'm talking about the Ehren Krugers of the world, the Friedberg/Seltzers, the Neveldine/Taylors, and whoever is to blame for G.I. Joe.  Let me just say, if you think those guys are the worst the writing world has to offer, come do my job for a week.  At the end of that week, you'll beg to read every draft of Friedberg/Seltzer's latest piece of crap.

What depresses me is that for every bad script I've read lately, I've not been able to banish the thought that this hack has robbed me of at least three hours of my life, once we count the time it takes to write the coverage.  Usually it's longer than that, because longer scripts take greater effort to read, to follow and to write up.

What makes most of these scripts bad?  Inexperience and laziness.  A new writer is bound to make mistakes because they don't know any better.  That's not a problem.  Making mistakes is good, it's healthy, and you can learn from making mistakes.  But make those mistakes in private.  Don't reveal your ineptitude to an outsider.  Your early scripts aren't meant to be seen by anyone.  They're the training wheels.

But how do these scripts get to me, you may ask?  Agents are supposed to provide one screen against that.  The problem is that there are a fair number of agents who don't seem to give a shit.  They'll push anything out there and give a Development Exec a hard sell on something that wouldn't survive its first round at Amazon Studios.  A bad agent isn't going to be looking out for me or my boss - they're just trying to get their clients read.

I have to assume that the worst of the worst that reach me do so through some kind of personal connection the writer has to someone at my company.  Some distant cousin of an production accountant just wrote a screenplay for their college screenwriting class and suddenly it falls to me to read their "heartwarming" independent film about a mute eight year-old boy who deals with the pain of an abusive home by teaching an ostrich how to fly.  Or perhaps the writer managed to schmooze the right person at a party and they said, "Sure, send it to me."

If you're the hack who has that sort of contact, let me give you a nickel's worth of free advice - don't push that script out there until you know it's ready.  This is where "laziness" comes in.  Read, re-read, and then rewrite that screenplay to within an inch of its life.  You might not get a second chance at submitting, even with the close connection in the company.  In fact, when I get a whiff of the favor scripts, I sometimes come down even harder on every aspect of the screenplay.  Your script will get such a strong pass that your contact will be too embarrassed to EVER bring something with your name on it into the company again.

Getting your script read is less important than getting the RIGHT script read.  Before you pass on a script, pretend there's a very angry guy like me on the other end, who will seize upon every weakness and bring it to light.  I'm like those cancer-causing body scanners at the airport - I see everything.  So if this script is hiding a bomb in its ass, it's not going to get past me.  Don't pretend that you can sneak shitty work past me or any of my colleagues.

Every moment I waste on your writing is time I could be spending on a more deserving writer.  It's time that I could be spending discovering scripts worthy of attention instead of acting like some sort of sewage filter.  After all my years of doing this, I don't have the time or the luxury of being polite to the worst of the worst, and frankly my bosses don't either.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Free-for-All - The most ridiculous scene in One Tree Hill history

I meant to include this scene in yesterday's post, but fortunately I forgot because it's the perfect clip to cap off the week.  I don't know if any introduction can do this justice, so I'll just say that this was NOT a dream sequence, it wasn't a hoax or a prank.  This actually happened within the show's universe.

Take note how the dog's owner doesn't even seem to notice what's going on.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A full pardon for One Tree Hill and showrunner Mark Schwahn

I've you've been reading my blog for a while, you've probably seen my confession of my sad addiction to the CW's One Tree Hill.  In my naivete, I composed what could have been a eulogy for the show two years ago.  I should have expected the show would escape the Reaper that time.  In nine seasons, the show's one constant has been experiencing more resurrections than Christ if he were trapped in Groundhog Day.

At yet this time it seems that the show's ninth season - which began last night - is at long last the end.  This seems as good a time as any for me to formalize a thought I've had for a while.  Though I've taken a few shots at it, I can honestly say that One Tree Hill is not the worst show on television, nor is it even the worst show on network television.  Heck, it's not even the worst show on its own network.

As to the second charge, I came across this article on showrunner Mark Schwahn:

THR asked Schwahn to look back for just a moment, and think if there’s been any story line that he never got to cover. For a show that’s had everything from kidnappings to school shootings, dogs eating hearts to murders, what could Schwahn have missed? 

“We seriously pitched zombies a couple years ago,” said Schwahn. “We had this great opening where Jamie came into the bedroom and woke up Nathan and said, ‘Uncle Keith’s at the door.’” 

“Outside of the Scott house everything was on fire and everything was desolate,” he added, with a laugh. “And we wanted to do a whole season where our characters were still our characters, and the rest of the world is zombies. If I'd gotten the green light, I'd probably have done that."

Bad?  Perhaps, but it's so bad it cycles around to awesome.  Mark, all is forgiven.  Consider this my first full pardon issued as The Bitter Script Reader.  It takes balls to come up with an idea like that and pitch it without shame.  Sure, bad ideas come from that kind of fearlessness, but genius often springs from it as well.  If nothing else, that probably would have been fun to watch.  I salute you, sir.

 If you want to check out the final season, but are worried about not being at all familiar with the backstory, Vulture has this awesome recap of the previous eight seasons.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens? I'm laughing already! Oh, it's not a comedy.

Rainer Wolfcastle on his new movie, "Help, My son is a Nerd!"

Wolfcastle: "My son returns from a fancy East Coast college and I'm horrified to find he's a nerd."

Kent Brockman: "I'm laughing already!"

Wolfcastle: "It's not a comedy."

This quote was going through my head many times during my recent viewing of Cowboys & Aliens. You might recognize "It's not a comedy" as the talking point that ended up in virtually every promotional interview given by a member of the C&A team, pretty much from the point that the marketing campaign started. It's easy to see why that happened, "Cowboys & Aliens" is a whimsical title that suggests camp, or at least B-movie hijinks, much in the way that "Help, My Son is a Nerd!" primes the viewer to expect comedy.

I'm going to join the chorus on this one and agree that Cowboys & Aliens was a mostly disappointing experience. It's not a terrible movie, but it's not a particularly good one either. Genre mash-ups are hard because the filmmakers have to take two flavors that don't usually go together and make them taste appealing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you let down fans of both genres. Take it from a guy who tried to mash up a Grisham courtroom thriller with a Superhero movie.

Unfortunately, Cowboys & Aliens plays it straight, trying to mesh the tones of True Grit with Predator. It's a fundamental miscalculation of everything appealing that the title promises. I have a hard time thinking of a successful mash-up film that didn't include some measure of comedy, as that sort of self-aware winking usually is what allows viewers to suspend their disbelief.

The first 30 minutes or so attempt to be indistinguishable from any other western. It wants us to accept this as the world of Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp. I'm not inherently against this verisimilitude. Just to name one example, the Nolan Batman films have worked remarkably well in their attempts to be more reality-bound than their predecessors. The Western aspect could have worked as the "straight man" in this routine. Where it goes wrong is in making the alien elements just as serious. The idea of gunslingers taking on H. R. Giger rip-offs is so inherently ridiculous that it's a crime the film doesn't even attempt to have a little fun with it.

This movie needed to be more in the vein of Tremors, an underrated Kevin Bacon film that tipped it's cap to the B-movies of the 50s and 60s while still being sophisticated enough for the early 90s. C&A seems scared to really cut loose and go over the top for fear of being cheesy, and that unfortunately makes the entire affair feel too earthbound.

And again I return to the message of "Know what your audience wants to see." If you entice an audience with a title, then what you give them had damn well come close to - or better yet, exceed - their expectations. I'd say this is especially true when trying to get someone to read your script. As much as we might mock the profanity and the whimsy often seen on the Black List scripts, those titles are memorable - and they tell the reader exactly what they're about to experience.

To Wit:

Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch
He's Fuckin' Perfect
Dirty Grandpa
Sex Tape

As Scott Myers pointed out in announcing last week's sale of The Incredible True Story of Jessica and Drew Who Accidentally Boned on the Way to the Wedding, American Pie was once called, "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy Which Can Be Made for Under $10 Million Which Studio Readers Will Hate But We Think You Will Love."

How ticked would you be if you picked up ANY of those titles expecting to laugh and instead ended up with something deep and emotional such as "Like Crazy?" The only way to overcome that potential hurdle is to deliver a damn good story - and Cowboys & Aliens definitely isn't up to the task. The film looks pretty, but with Jon Faverau directing and Steven Spielberg producing, how could it not?

I've got a host of other issues with Cowboys & Aliens, but that might be best left for another post.  I'll just say that it would be nice to get some original creature design and not have aliens that look like generic versions of Predator or Independance Day critters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Shameless Plug Corner

Every now and then I get an email or a comment that's little more than self-promotional spam.  You've probably seen these if you've hung around here long enough.  "Hey, I love the blog.  By the way I have 8 specs that are totally available on my website at www.notsubtle.com.  Blogs like yours are great for people like me who are writing romantic comedies with unique premises such as 'A student teacher falls in love with her mentor, only to have a jealous 6th grader blow the lid on their affair after the student teacher rebuffs the student's advances.'  My mom thinks it's the best thing I've ever written."

These are always awkward for me to reply to because I get what it's like to want someone to look at your work, but the stealth hardsells like this are always off-putting.  Also, it's hard not to feel really used when this sort of thing is posted in comments.  In those cases, I know it's less about the commenter interacting with me, and more about them taking advantage of my blog's audience. 

So how about everyone gets it out of their system now?  This is an open thread to completely, utterly and shamelessly plug anything you're working on.  I'm talking about loglines, short films, indie films, novels, blogs, novelty twitter feeds, public access shows, street performances, open mic appearances and political campaigns.

The one catch - if you're gonna post, you have to read every comment that appears before you.  I figure that's only fair.  Since you're trying to get some eyeballs on your work, show the same courtesy to the others.

Have at it, people.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Why Everybody Hates The Ending Of THE DEVIL INSIDE"

The "found-footage" horror film The Devil Inside really cleaned up at the box office this weekend.  Though it cost Paramount only $1 million to acquire, they took home $35 million in their first weekend alone.  This was tempered a bit by the fact that CinemaScore announced that the film earned a very rare F from audience members.

I did not see this film, as any desire to check it out was immediately quashed by the overwhelmingly negative buzz.  Friday I saw no fewer that four major articles that were so angry at this film, the writers were practically spitting blood.  Twitter reinforced that, and once I learned the ending - which I will not reveal in detail - I understood why.   The ending alone is stupid enough, but what compounds that is that immediately after an out-of-the-blue finish, a title card comes up telling people they can "follow the continuing investigation at TheRossiFiles.com."

People at free screenings were apparently booing the film.  That's just remarkable.

I started to compose a post about the reason why this ending is so stupid, but then I found that Devin Faraci from BadAssDigest.com had already beaten me to it.

What Paramount and the filmmakers failed to understand was that the title card feels like a cheat. All found footage films end in a sudden climax where everybody dies and the ending is sort of left open, and while The Devil Inside's ending is an immensely lame version of that, it's still a version of that. Without the text audiences would have been more or less okay with the movie. 

As it stands, though, the text reads like Paramount is directing you to a website to see the end of the film. That isn't the case - the website is really just some immensely boring viral marketing crap that you usually see BEFORE a movie, not after. The movie's ending is the ending, and there isn't some secret reel of footage to be discovered. But by the time anyone discovers that it's far too late - they already hate the film. 

This, by the way, is the inherent danger of transmedia, something which tends to really only appeal to obsessives and marketing people. Transmedia is a story that continues over multiple platforms, such as video games, websites or cartoons. The problem with transmedia is that most audience members don't want to be bothered seeking out the rest of the story; they want to consume the story in one sitting in one format. There will be some diehards who seek out The Animatrix or The Blair Witch websites, but most people want to go see a movie and get everything there. There's a contract between audience and studio that we will accept a certain level of open-endedness to facilitate sequels, but nobody wants to pay ten bucks or more just to be told the rest of the story must be purchased elsewhere. The audience sees that as cheating.

I'm with Devin on this one.  I HATE transmedia almost as much as I hate people who LOVE transmedia.  I've got no particular beef with J.J. Abrams, but it annoyed the hell out of me a few years ago when Cloverfield tried to play the transmedia card.  If you see the movie, you walk out with no real understanding of where the monster came from, why it was attacking New York, what it is, etc.  At the time, I was told that if I wanted any of those answers, I should take to the web and head down the rabbit hole that Bad Robot had dug for curious viewers.  I refused to take part in it.  As a work, a movie should stand alone.

An audience shouldn't have to seek out "extended universe" tie-ins in order to get closure on particular elements.  I don't see anything wrong with having such things that enhance the film (the last Star Trek film had a tie-in comic book miniseries that led into the film, but I've spoken to dozens of viewers who enjoyed and understood the film while remaining completely ignorant of the existence of said tie-in) but the audience should never feel like the tail is wagging the dog in those cases.  Rightly or wrongly, that's what The Devil Inside audience felt, and that's the fault of the filmmakers.

Transmedia can't shoulder the entire weight of the blame here, though.  I think the problem is that the ending sequence played as if the filmmakers were grasping for an ending.  Several reviews have called it "abrupt," but another issue might be that it presents a non-supernatural solution to a supernatural problem.  In The Exorcist, it probably would have seemed like a cheat if, say, an earthquake caused Regan's bedroom to collapse on her, killing her in the process.  That's not exactly what The Devil Inside does, but it's in the same neighborhood.

What you should take from this is that your ending matters.  A film should conclude, not merely stop.  A bad ending can erase all good will, and a terrible ending overshadows anything else about the film.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Links: Why "Hollywood Relationship" movies are duds, Gavin Polone on how studios can screw your movie's release, and more

A few links from around the web that you might enjoy:

Why so many Hollywood relationship movies are box-office duds

Studios these days are notoriously averse to risk. So why would Sony make a $30-million film based on the preposterous idea that the Earl of Oxford was the secret author of Shakespeare’s most popular plays? Why would 20th Century Fox spend $40 million bankrolling “The Big Year,” a comedy about bird enthusiasts? Why would Warner Bros. spend $35 million making “J. Edgar,” a biopic about the long-dead head of the FBI?

So why did everyone spend so much money on such commercially questionable subject matter? That’s where relationships come in. No one at Sony had a burning desire to make a thriller about who wrote “Romeo and Juliet.” But the director of “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich, has filled Sony’s coffers to the brim with box-office loot from such hits as “2012,” “Godzilla” and “The Patriot.”

After all, Sony is built on relationships. The studio has made a string of immensely profitably Adam Sandler comedies. It has also made two consecutive films with the iconic David Fincher (“The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”).

To hear Pascal tell it, to attract gifted stars and filmmakers, you have to back their vision, whether it’s clear or cloudy. “You have to believe in your talent,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to make a film that I don’t like. But when you have a relationship, something special comes out of that trust that you’ve built up over years of working together.”

Producer Gavin Palone on The Three Ways a Studio Can Screw Up Your Movie Release:

In every other case that one of my films underperformed compared to its quality, it was a result of bad studio decision-making when it came to the distribution and/or marketing of the picture. The thinking behind these bad decisions usually stems from a loss of confidence in the movie, choosing the wrong date for the release, or a lame idea on how to sell the movie — or some combination of the three. Of course, all of those involved in these mistakes had the best of intentions, but when you’ve devoted years to getting a project into production and countless hours on the set and in the editing room to make it good, the well meaning fuck-up by someone much less invested in the outcome than yourself can make you want to occupy that person's ass with your foot.

This never happens - a pilot passed on six years ago has just been ordered by the CW.

And finally, Universal Studios Orlando has closed down their Jaws ride.

Riki Lindhome interviews Joss Whedon

I had seen actress Riki Lindhome in smaller film parts and guest-starring roles, but I first really took notice of her a few years ago when Garfunkel & Oats, the comedy musical duo she performs in with Kate Micucci, was one of the acts at a fundraiser I attended.  Somehow I've never managed to plug their work as part of the Friday Free-for-All, but their songs are catchy, witty and often laugh-out-loud funny.

But this isn't a post about Garfunkel & Oats, it's about one of Riki's other side projects, her podcast interview series Making It with Riki Lindhome.  This landed on my radar due to the subject of one of her latest interviews - Joss Whedon.  He's a relatively obscure actor whom you might remember (but probably don't) as Dancer of Joy Numfar from a late second-season episode of Angel.  Oh, and he also created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, co-wrote the anticipated Cabin in the Woods, and directed the forthcoming Much Ado About Nothing, and The Avengers.

I've read several hundred Whedon interviews over the years, and Riki's ranks as one of the best.  Some of the material will be old news to die hard Whedonites, but there are fresh anecdotes in there and newcomers to all things Joss will find plenty of value in the one-hour podcast.

Among the highlights:

- Whedon discusses a period early in his career where he met with his agent because he was being pitched a talking dog movie.  As you might expect, Joss wasn't too keen on the fact that this was the state his career was in.  As a joke, he quipped to his agent that he could write "Die Hard on the George Washington Bridge."  This wasn't a joke to Joss's rep, who brought the conversation to an immediate halt and practically ordered him to "go home and write it."  Guess what?  It sold.

- Joss also discusses the script doctor portion of his career, mentioning he once wrote director Jan De Bont ("Speed") a six-page memo about why the director shouldn't do Cowboys & Aliens, saying it would be impossible to make that work.

- When the conversation turns to The Avengers, Joss says that the process of shooting the film was more like doing his web musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog than anything else he's done.  As he puts it, there was a lot of "run and gun" on the Marvel superhero opus set for release later this year.

- Finally, this quote might be the most valuable thing Joss says in the entire interview:

"I've had people say to me, 'You know, I've thought I might like to write.'  And I'm just like 'Turn around and go away.'  I don't ever want to hear that.  If you're a writer, you need to write.  You have to do it.  And you need to have to do it because it's grueling.  You have to give yourself over to it completely... that is what you are and that kind of passion and tenacity is necessary when people are telling you it's not going to work out."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A look at 2011's Top 20 grossing films and what it means for writers

2009 Top 20 grossing box office analysis
2010 Top 20 grossing box office analysis

As has been a tradition here, it's time to take a look at the box office from last year and see what we as writers can learn from looking at the top 20 grossing films.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ($381 mill domestic/$1.3 billion worldwide)
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352 mill domestic/$1.1 billion worldwide)
3. Breaking Dawn part I ($275 mill domestic/$656 mill worldwide.)
4. The Hangover Part II ($254 mill domestic/$581 mill worldwide.)
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($241 mill domestic/1 billion worldwide.)
6. Fast Five ($209 mill domestic/$626 mill worldwide)
7. Cars 2 ($191 mill domestic/$559 mill worldwide.)
8. Thor ($181 mill domestic/$449 mill worldwide.)
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($177 mill domestic/$481 mill worldwide.)
10. Captain America ($177 mill domestic/$368 mill worldwide.)
11. The Help ($169 mill domestic/$202 mill worldwide.)
12. Bridesmaids ($169 mill domestic/$288 mill worldwide.)
13. Kung Fu Panda 2 ($165 mill domestic/$665 mill worldwide.)
14. X-Men: First Class ($146 mill domestic/$353 mill worldwide.)
15. Puss in Boots ($145 mill domestic/$400 mill worldwide.)
16. Rio ($144 mill domestic/$485 mill worldwide.)
17. The Smurfs ($142 mill domestic/$562 mill worldwide.)
18. Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol ($134 mill domestic/$324 mill worldwide.)
19. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ($132 mill domestic/$181 mill worldwide.)
20. Super 8 ($127 mill domestic/$259 mill worldwide.)

Fully 13 of the Top 20 grossing films were part of a franchise.  (Harry Potter, Transformers, Breaking Dawn, Hangover 2, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fast Five, Cars 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men First Class, Puss in Boots, Mission Impossible 4, Sherlock Holmes).  Last year, that category stood at seven entries!

12 of those films were adaptations. (Harry Potter, Transformers Breaking Dawn, Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor, Captain America, The Help, X-Men First Class, Puss in Boots, The Smurfs, Mission Impossible 4, Sherlock Holmes.) That's up from eight last year.

And 3 of the films were animated.  (Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio.)

I mention those three categories because those are three types of scripts that it's nearly impossible for an aspiring screenwriter to break into the business with.  I often see aspiring writers cite box office figures with some authority, as if the fact that Avatar made over a billion dollars means that there's a market for their sci-fi epic set on another world, full of complicated cultures and aliens.  If there's one thing aspiring sci-fi writers love, it's world-building.  (It's a love closely followed by the urge to map out an entire trilogy before selling someone on the first film.)

 Anyway, if you eliminate franchises, adaptations and animated films from that Top 20 list, you're left with the only scripts that really could have come out of the spec pile.  Do you know how many that is?  Two.  Bridesmaids and Super 8.

Last year, there were four films that fit that bill.  This trend is likely to reverse next year, as there was a nearly 100% increase in spec sales from 2010 to 2011.  According to Go into The Story, 55 specs were sold in 2010, and 109 were sold in 2011. One presumes that this means that in the coming years, perhaps more original films will find their way into the Top 20 as the percentage of sequels and remakes drops to accommodate them.

Even more interesting, both Bridesmaids and Super 8 somewhat defied conventional wisdom.  Coming from an amateur, Super 8 probably would have been penalized as a period piece set in the 80s and written as a throwback to an older style of film-making.  Bridesmaids would have had the stigma of being a female-driven comedy.

A promising sign - the highest-placing adult drama was The Help at No. 11.  In 2010, that honor went to The Social Network at slot 29.  On the other hand, after The Help, the next real drama was Moneyball at No. 42 and that was with Brad Pitt in the lead.  There'll always be dramas, but this underlines why one shouldn't expect to make a big splash on the spec market with one.

What else do you take from this list?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Bad actor or bad writing? Shailene Woodley in The Descendants vs. Secret Life

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you've probably seen a rant or two that I wrote about the abomination that is ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager.  It is quite possibly the perfect storm of everything terrible in television, an utter failure on every possible level.  The writing sucks, the directing sucks and the acting couldn't be more wooden if the leads were Pinocchio and Howdy Doody.

I once said that if I was casting a movie or a TV series, no one who had Secret Life on their resume would even get through the door to auditions.  The cast is uniformly THAT BAD on the series, led by an actress named Shailene Woodley.

Funny coincidence, in Alexander Payne's The Descendants, the actress who gives an amazing performance as George Clooney's daughter is also named Shailene Woodley.  Even funnier coincidence, the two girls look exactly alike.  I thought SAG had rules about two different actors using the same name, for surely this had to be some kind of twin-trick ala Full House crediting the Olsen Twins as "Mary Kate Ashley Olsen."

It's not?  The girl playing Clooney's daughter is the same actress who seemingly couldn't act her way out of a paper bag on Secret Life?  A wet paper bag at that?

My world makes no sense.

If you saw Secret Life, you'd not find potential in any of the young performers who robotically read their lines.  The acting is routinely on the level of a school play performance where a case of stomach flu has forced the casting of understudies a mere two hours before curtain.  And surely the material is responsible for much of the blame, but it's amazing that an actress who's so GOOD in one production is almost embarassing to watch in another.

It's a good lesson for us to take as writers - if an actor sucks, sometimes it's our fault.

I'm curious if any of you can recall an instance where an actor whom you'd written off managed to absolutely knock a subsequent performance out of the park.  Discuss below.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Years Resolutions: No Laxative Scenes

It's the first week of the last year of human civilization, so why not make plans to wrap up humanity in style this year?  This week, I'm spotlighting plot tropes, gags, premises and the like that I never want to see in a script again.

How is that different from virtually every other post on this blog?  Ummm.... look, just go with it.  It fits the New Years Resolution theme.

Laxatives.  They're a laugh riot, aren't they?  After all, I think it was the Greek playwright Aristophanes who once wrote that there was nothing more humorous than the chemically-induced evacuation of one's bowels.  (And I think we can all be grateful that it wasn't a discovery made by Archimedes under the same circumstances that led him to coin the phrase "Eureka!")

It's not that I can't appreciate gross-out humor when it's well-done.  Hell, a laxative gag in Dumb & Dumber had me laughing so hard upon first viewing I feared I'd cause myself physical harm.  (Important fact: I was also about 13 at the time.)

Still, there are three reasons why this gag worked:

Shock Value: I'm sure there were laxative gags in older films, but they hadn't yet become the hack writer national pastime that they were around the time of American Pie.  More importantly, I can't recall a laxative scene that prolongs the... punchline as much as this one does.  The scene of Harry on the toilet is unbearably long to the point of testing the audience's tolerance.  The fact it pushes it so much, and then doubles-down is likely to make one laugh out of either discomfort or admiration.

The reaction to the laxative isn't the lone payoff:  I'm going to be blunt here - a guy shitting his pants isn't funny.  It's sort of like what Krusty the Clown once said, "A pie gag doesn't work unless the sap has dignity!"  The number one mistake made by most scripts I read is that the writer thinks that someone crapping themselves is the punchline.  It's not!  The funniest part of the gag is when he's told the toilet isn't working, just after having deposited a foul mess into it.  The awkwarkness of having clogged up a toilet in the home of a date would be bad enough.  Here, there's no way to even flush or unclog the mess.  It's a "how does he get out of this?" gag.

Sound effects:  Look, it's juvenile, but the sound design is so exaggerated and over the top that you can't help but laugh.

These elements are too often neglected in the many specs I read, and even in the iterations of this gag in other films.  Though it's not precisely a laxative gag, the similarly-themed scene in Bridesmaids was, in my opinion, the nadir of that film.  It's the worst scene of the film, and possibly one of the worst scenes I saw on screen this year.

I'd venture that 99% of the laxative gags I read in specs are little more than rehashes of the same tired American Pie formula:

- Main character's rival wants to embarass him, rival spikes food with laxative.
- Main character gets intestinal distress at an inopportune time.
- Main character struggles with discomfort.
- Messy, public defecation ensues.

Those are the same basic points in Dumb & Dumber, but the difference is that there we empathize with Harry.  In American Pie, I don't care about Finch.  I have no identification with that character, so his humiliation doesn't mean anything to me.  Also, with D&D almost 20 years in the past, that sort of gag no longer has any shock value.  Some scripts try to overcome this by amping up the gross factor, but that carries a risk of backfiring.

Laxatives have just become an easy go-to for hack writers wanting a quick gross-out gag in their script.  If you've written a laxative scene into any recent spec, I feel confidant saying you're capable of better and that that particular spec is probably worth no one's time to read.  If THIS is what you find funny, I can't imagine how the rest of your work reads.

So make this resolution and pledge with me: "I will not write a laxative gag into any future specs."