Tuesday, February 23, 2016

WAYNE'S WORLD 3 GoFundMe - How is this news?!

So this has been an interesting week. I'm about to tear into some really stupid behavior, but I feel like I have to own up to my part in it first.

This weekend I got an email from a reader, who linked me to a GoFundMe campaign by a gentleman seeking donations for an advertising campaign to promote his spec script through the use of billboards in L.A. This was a script he has spent 23 years trying to sell - WAYNE'S WORLD 3.

I will not be linking to that GoFundMe. After having read through it, I became convinced the person behind it was either an attention-seeker, a deeply naive individual who deserved neither attention nor public humiliation, or a brilliant piece of performance art. The campaign page included scans of all the rejection letters he'd gotten over 23 years, and revealed that he'd first tried to peddle only a synopsis for the film, having never written a screenplay until his first round of rejections.

Gang, we've talked before about writing specs for properties you don't control. I don't think I have anything new to add on the subject, but it is probably worth reading my old posts if you want a sense of how wrong-headed this is.

So with nothing new to glean from that, I didn't see much value in spotlighting a prankster nor making public ridicule of a guy who was the epitome of the clueless wannabe writer. Having said that, I did privately share the link to the page with several professional writers who have crossed paths with these sorts of dreamers before. One of those writers, Geoff LaTulippe, started discussing the campaign on Twitter. It provided the hive mind with about an hour or so of amusement, spawned a few running gags, but at the time there didn't seem to be much harm done.

By Monday afternoon, multiple sites that cover the industry had written stories about this GoFundMe. These include SlashFilm, Uproxx, Metro, Den of Geek and The Independent. I'm not linking to those sites either, because fuck those guys. This is empty content. We're talking about a crowdfunding campaign for a movie that (as most of those sites acknowledge in their story) will NEVER be made. There is ZERO journalistic value in writing about this.

None of the sites even bothered to draw comparisons between this and a similar recent campaign. Not long ago, a DIE HARD fan took out a full page ad in The Hollywood Reporter to pitch his idea for a new film in the DIE HARD series. There's something funny about the fact that no one ever takes this big a risk to promote their OWN original idea. It's always their effort to pitch on existing IP. Perhaps ironically, it's not unusual to see these guys complain about how they're taking such desperate measures because "Hollywood doesn't want original voices." Yes, and pitching a fifth sequel to a 30 year-old film establishes you as the King of Originality.

(The DIE HARD story has a post-script I hesitate to repeat for fear of encouraging copycats. Per The Guardian, the campaign drew the attention of Avi Lerner of Nu Image, producer of films like The Expendables and Olympus Has Fallen. The writer and his partner eventually had their screenplay optioned by Eclectic Pictures, which has a first-look deal with Lerner's company.)

With regard to WAYNE'S WORLD 3 though, at best, there's the point-and-laugh value of the story, and as I said, it feels a little mean to devote an entire story to that. None of the sites apparently attempted to contact the man behind the campaign to get any kind of real story. Nor do they give much context to the discussion of why people shouldn't spec properties they don't own. Honestly, Geoff's tweets from Sunday night - while mocking the silliest aspects of the campaign - were more educational than any of these write-ups.

I want to ask you, SlashFilm, Uproxx, et al... How is this news? There's an ironic line in the Slashfilm article where the writer says of WAYNE'S WORLD 3, "Honestly, there’s nothing about that which jumps out to me as a story that must be told." I'd apply that same statement to every article written about this.

I wrestled with the notion of even posting my own piece on this, but two facets struck me as valuable takeaways. First, seeing this go from a message in my inbox to coverage on a dozen sites in less than 24 hours was a real eye-opener in how fast something can spread despite being completely devoid of value as content. The second point, related to the first, is the incredibly clear demonstration that the editorial oversight of all of those outlets is either lacking in any understanding of the filmmaking process, or is desperate for anything that will get attention.

There's a lot of empty content on those sites, to the point where I'm not even sure they should be considered news anymore. They're blogs that aggregate any content that seems likely to get attention from their reader base. Part of being a reporter and an editor should be to sift through the noise to get to the signal. The only one of these sites I even used to read regularly at all was Slashfilm and I eventually had to walk away from that late last year when they were reposting seemingly every baseless "Fan Theory" about THE FORCE AWAKENS and its successor. That material isn't news. It belongs in the discussion in a comment section, or possibly in a writer's regular column.

If you want to be a news site, stop acting like a message board. If you MUST post something about this GoFundMe, maybe try chasing a real story there and interview the guy behind it. As someone working in the industry, it's embarrassing and frustrating to see it covered by people who cover it without any insight or regard at all.

This is a nothing story, but when they report on things like WGA arbitration, reshoots or post-production without any understanding of how the creative process works, it can actively hurt a film. This is how we get posts implying that a credited writer "stole" rightful credit from a beloved director and writer, or insinuations that J.J. Abrams was a terrible director because scenes were removed and shifted around in the post-production process. And don't get me started on the continuing insinuations that reshoots of any kind must mean that the film is terrible. Plenty of great films have benefited from additional photography and changes discovered in the editing room.

But I'm getting off on a different rant here. If you take nothing else from this post let it be to not do what this WAYNE'S WORLD 3 guy is doing, and to take a second look at how much non-news you're actually consuming on those sites.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Just because the making of a film was unique or difficult, it doesn't make it great

I'm trying to imagine a conversation of this kind taking place in 1975:

"Oh man, Spielberg has GOT to get Best Director for Jaws! It's just amazing what he accomplished!"

-"Really? The movie is that good?"

"You have no idea how hard it was to make this movie. Ended up costing them TWICE their original budget. The mechanical shark barely worked. There were days where they only got a few usuable shots, if any. I read it was supposed to be 55 days of shooting. They went like a hundred days over that. At one point, an entire boat sank and everyone almost drowned! Shooting on water, man.... it's a bitch."

-"...but how's the movie?"

Jaws is a fantastic movie. It's one of my favorite movies and it's also one of the most rewatchable films I've ever seen. If I run across it on cable, I will stop and watch the rest of it from that point forward. After 30-some viewings, Robert Shaw's tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is just as spell-binding as the first. Some of the dialogue still makes me laugh no matter how many times I hear it, and the performances and Spielberg's staging of them usually yields new appreciations with each viewing.

This is a movie that would be impressive on its own merits even if it had wrapped on schedule and on budget. (Yes, I'm aware that one bit of serendipity provided by the production troubles was that it forced Spielberg to be more "Hitchcockian" in how he featured the shark. Let's not go on that tangent.) If I was going to tell someone to watch Jaws, the production issues probably would not even factor into my sales pitch.

As of this writing, I have not seen THE REVENANT. From the time I saw the first trailer, it simply didn't look like a film that would appeal to me. From that point forward, anything I heard about the film was focused solely on how difficult the film was to make and how the director ran roughshod over his crew, subjecting them and his actors to extreme conditions.  This Yahoo News article is a good example of that press. It's an interview with star Leonardo DiCaprio and it's focused SOLELY on the behind-the-scenes factors. He's not asked one question about his character or the story. Instead, Leo tells us about the freezing cold and the constant risk of hypothermia.

I've held off on seeing the film because I wanted to wait for a point when watching it didn't feel like homework, when it wasn't an "eat your vegetables" experience. And yet, it remains a story I have no itch to see because all I know about the narrative is what was shown in the trailer. The fact I've heard nothing about narrative or the characters makes me wonder if the film has anything to offer me. (Two examples where such endorsement DID land a film on my radar were Brooklyn and The Stanford Prison Experiment, and to a lesser extant, The Gift.)

With buzz around the films that debuted at the latest Sundance Film Festival, I couldn't help but think back to three years ago when all the chatter out of Park City was about Escape From Tomorrow. The film became a must-see as word spread of its unique production - shot covertly at the Disney Parks, with the actors and film crew posing as tourists. The combination of the sheer balls involved to mount that production and the likely legal apocalypse that awaited the filmmakers made this a daring film that cinephiles felt they had to see.

And then they did.

EOT was no Jaws, I can tell you that. The performances were... inconsistent. I don't think the script ever quite finds its groove and there's an uncomfortable subplot about the family patriarch lusting after some 14 year-old tourists. I can't bring myself to call it a "bad" film, but man is it one you're not likely to feel the urge to revisit. The story it tells cannot prevail over the story of its making.

I recall the disappointment of another then-daring film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was one of the first films shot entirely on blue and green screen soundstages, with the sets and backgrounds added via CGI later. With a structure influenced by the old serials of the 40s, and production design descended from sci-fi of that era (and to my eye, the Fleischer Superman cartoons). It was a first-time director who got a shot at making a film in a revolutionary way.

Try watching it now, over a decade later. Stripped of the novelty it achieved by being the first of its kind, the CGI looks less impressive, the pacing drags and... well, there's no way around it... Jude Law just doesn't have the kind of presence needed for what should be an adventurer. I'll concede that 40 years shows a few seams in the mechanical shark, but the entire film is so well-built that you don't care. Sky Captain, by contrast, simply evaporates from your mind soon after you've seen it.

No matter how much new ground you break technologically, no matter how much an ordeal your production was, there will eventually come a time when your film will stand on nothing more than its story. 3D novelties become common place, visual effects developments go from eye-popping money shots to appearing in every third soda commercial, and all of these trappings eventually mean nothing.

Keep that in mind when you write. No matter how you or the director think you will blow mind by shooting a film entirely in one take, or by doing everything motion capture, in the final analysis, none of that shit matters beyond how it informs the story.

I'd aim this especially at anyone directing their own script or short film - don't fall in love with all your bells and whistles. Eventually no one's gonna give a shit HOW you did it and they're just going to want to be entertained. Do you want a participation trophy, or do you want to make a film that will touch people 40 years later?

Monday, February 8, 2016

How does a reader keep from being too harsh?

I can't believe I missed it, but the 7th anniversary of this blog was just over a week ago. Time flies, especially when life is so busy.  Very sorry about the scarcity of posts on this site for a while. As I've said, it's a combination of life being busy and of me having tackled a lot of tops over the last seven years.

I got an email recently from Eva that I felt merited some attention:

I've been reading for the French film industry for 7 years now (production and distribution companies, talent agencies, and sometimes worked directly with authors), and I know I can be a tough bitch on the analysis and try to "babyproof" everything (a lot of money is involved in producing a film, but I'm sure you don't need a reminder). It wasn't such a bad issue working with producers. But I lately started to read for the Script Department of a distribution company that wants to get involved in development. And the head of development keeps telling me I'm too harsh even though he thinks I have good ideas (I mean I've only read two scripts for them so far - one I brushed off because of a repetitive and non-evolving structure and the other that I considered could be ok with some rewriting - and two drafts of a treatment).

And the thing is I know I tend to be some sort of purist when it comes to story writing but when I see patterns that don't match or a story that is being forced into an arbitrary frame, it kind of drives me nuts. Even though I always explain, with examples, why I think a script is weak, I still feel that I set the bar too high. Tell me I'm not crazy and that you get that feeling too... Because I sometimes wonder if I have too much hope in people willing to make not even great but at least good movies, or if "carelessness" is just a new trend.

How do you manage this kind of situation? And how do you adjust your reports depending on the company you work for? Because I feel that the guy I just started to work for always needs to be reassured a lot. Do you sometimes question your opinion on a script? Because I often fear I'm being too harsh and I could have missed something. 

Ah, when to be too harsh. I was pretty fortunate in how I came up. The first production company I worked for really only wanted two paragraphs of written coverage. When you're forced to be that sparse, it becomes easy to avoid beating a dead horse too harshly. Even then, every now and then one of the VPs might tell me that a particular word for phrase seemed needlessly harsh, and I'd adjust. (More often than not, the gratuitous harshness was the result of my trying to be clever, or at least an attempt to amuse myself.)

The bottom line is: I had room to learn the difference between being blunt and between being mean. And we're talking about a job where 80% of what I read was an easy pass. Fortunately, as this was just internal coverage, I was free to be as direct as I wanted in calling something awful.

And even then, I still needed a little tempering. When I went to read for one of the "Big 5" agencies, their coverage structure was more strict and called for more diplomacy. After all, you never knew when a script you panned would later end up getting a client attached to it (happened often), or if the writer would end up repped at the agency (also happened.)

The best advice about writing criticism in general is to write it like the person responsible for that work will read it. Imagine them reading it. Better still, imagine them reading it and then ending up sitting across from you at a social gathering. There are movies I've trashed where I'll totally stand behind my harshest words. If the writer created something vile or misogynist, I won't shrink from that assessment when confronted. You'll find your most fair and honest criticism is the easiest to stand behind.

Your cheap shots - not so much. (Though even then, you'll occasionally come across a writer or director so full of themselves that they're practically begging to be deflated.)

I wouldn't worry about setting the bar too high. Finding something worth of production (or distribution) is incredibly rare. You're there to be the yardstick for people sinking their money into films. If you were writing coverage for the writers, trying to help them refine their work into something people want, then I might tell you to ease up and make more effort to be constructive.

I think your boss wants to just make sure that you're an objective enough person that don't fall into the habit of reading scripts to find what's wrong with them. You might try making a point of recognizing the good, or at least calling out the attempts. That would give the review a little more balance, and show that you're smart about understanding why something isn't working.

Do I sometimes question my opinion on a script? Not often. It's more likely to happen when the script is mediocre than if it's really good or aggressively bad. You'll get scripts that don't seem to do anything wrong, but also leave you completely apathetic. That's where you point out the good, but also note that much of it left you uncompelled.

I had this happen with a script at the first company I worked at. It was a cool concept, but the script itself wasn't just dry, it was arid. I could not see the movie there. The tension was non-existent, the visual moments were few and far between and the pacing was slow.

I have never been more wrong about a script. A year later the movie was done and the director had found all those moments that weren't there on the page. He cast the right actors. He shot it the right way. He tightened the pace. In a good script you'll get a sense of these elements, but when they're gone you really feel their absence.

As a reader, you can only make the call based on what's in front of you. It's not a challenge unique to that job. People who actually have to put money into these scripts face the same crucible with a lot higher stakes. The biggest thing you have to temper as a reader is not falling victim to your own cleverness. That's where you make most of your unforced errors.