No, but it’s not doing well.
Of course, it’s not the first time. Like most other genres, it comes and goes in cycles. Horror boomed with the advent of video, then went dormant for a while, only to be awoken with a vengeance by Scream.
Curiously, spoof had also gone dormant for a while, only to be awoken with a vengeance by a spoof of Scream, so honestly, there are a whole lot of people (myself included) who owe Kevin Williamson a great debt.
Let me say first that the point of this article is not to bash spoof. Quite the opposite. I love the genre. I grew up on it, I was privileged enough to learn it from the masters, and I believe it will be back.
But right now…what’s going on? After the box office high points of Scary Movie 1, 3 and 4, things have fallen off. Superhero Movie struggled to 25 million (although a healthy 45 million overseas helped its bottom line for sure), and it looks like Dance Flick is in for a similar fate in the U.S., with about $11 million in its opening weekend (not counting tomorrow’s holiday draw).
I’m going to try and define the genre first, because in many ways, that’s where the problems are…
Spoof movies are not satires. They do not use comedy or mockery to comment on social problems, politics or any other serious issues of the day. South Park (and the excellent South Park films) is a satire that often uses parody (a humorous reimagining of something serious) to make a point.
Spoof movies, however, have no point. They do not have any perspective on anything important at all. They are, in a word, silly. They employ parody to make you laugh. There is no other goal.
The greatest spoof movie ever is, of course, Airplane! Airplane (I’ll skip the exclamation point for clarity from here on out) is not satirical. It’s an entirely silly retelling of an earnest little thriller called Zero Hour. The goal in the making of Airplane was to hold up movie characters, situations and dialogue that we all know we’re supposed to take seriously, and then undermine them with ridiculous jokes. There’s no trenchant insight into anything when Leslie Nielsen says “And don’t call me Shirley.” It’s just silly.
Silly, pointless, satireless, and really really funny.
I think some people don’t get this. Like Roger Ebert, who wrote of Scary Movie 3:
“Scary Movie 3” understands the concept of a spoof but not the concept of a satire. It clicks off several popular movies (“Signs,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Matrix,” “8 Mile,” “The Ring“) and recycles scenes from them through a spoofalator, but it’s feeding off these movies, not skewering them. The average issue of Mad magazine contains significantly smarter movie satire, because Mad goes for the vulnerable elements and “Scary Movie 3” just wants to quote and kid.Well…yeah (except for the part about Mad being funny, which it isn’t anymore)! Continuing, Ebert wrote:
Consider the material about “8 Mile.” Eminem is talented and I liked his movie, but he provides a target that “Scary Movie 3” misses by a mile. His Eminem clone is played by Simon Rex, whose material essentially consists of repeating what Eminem did in the original movie, at a lower level. He throws up in the john (on somebody else, ho, ho), he duels onstage with a black rapper, he preempts criticism by attacking himself as white, he pulls up the hood on his sweatshirt and it’s shaped like a Ku Klux Klan hood, and so on. This is parody, not satire, and no points against Eminem are scored.Ummm, correct. It’s parody, not satire. But honestly, Ebert, was David Zucker the one who didn’t know what spoof was, or were you? Never mind that the sequence he cites never failed to elicit huge laughs from the audience…
But hey, you thought you were here to read about why spoof is dying, and instead, Mazin’s fighting a six year-old grudge match against Ebert! What gives?
Well, I want to defend what we had with Scary Movie 3, because I think the dilution of that is what’s causing the problem.
But let’s wind back the clock.
After the huge success of Airplane (and the lesser result with its non-ZAZ sequel), there was one other excellent spoof: Jim Abraham’s Hot Shots.
What then followed were a bunch of knockoffs (Repossessed, Fatal Instinct, Loaded Weapon, etc.) that garnered diminishing returns, and then those were followed by the originators failing with their own spoofs (High School High, Mafia).
The spoof era died, washed away by the tidal wave of the new comedy genre–the grossout comedy.
And it stayed dead until The Wayans Brothers brought it right back with Scary Movie.
What happened? Why did it die?
The knockoffs weren’t very good, and they disappointed audiences while glutting the market, and
The knockoffs broke the rules, altering audience expectations for what the genre was supposed to be.
The first reason is easy to understand. It’s precisely what happened to the so-called grossout comedy genre. There’s Something About Mary is a great film, but by the time you got to the twelfth bad comedy with semen jokes, no one wanted to go near any of them any more.
The second reason is the one that sort of took me by surprise as a filmmaker. I’ll get into that one in a moment…but it’s the really damaging one. The one I’m not sure we can recover from.
When the Wayans brought spoof back with Scary Movie, it was a great day for those of us who love the genre. They deserve credit for a number of accomplishments, but the most important was that they did spoof right. They followed the rules.
You know, the rules, along with all the wisdom in the glossary. Furthermore, the Wayans didn’t construct what we call a “spoofmobile” (a spoof made up of as many different movie parodies as possible), but rather spoofed Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer in a very disciplined way.
They did it the Airplane! way, and it worked.
I’d like to think that we achieved that as well with Scary Movie 3 and 4. While one could argue that the success of those films was about being part of a franchise, Scary Movie 3 actually revived the series (Scary Movie 2 didn’t particularly sing at the box office). Not everyone likes them, but I think we did a good job, and I’m proud of those movies.
And so, from Scary Movie to Scary Movie 4, things were going quite well.
The Four Horsemen of the Spoofpocalypse.
Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans and Disaster Movie.
I’m not going to rant about why I don’t like those movies. It’s irrelevant. I’ll just say this: they did not do spoof right.
They broke The Rules, they made spoofmobiles, they attempted to parody comedies, they engaged less in the act of spoofing than they did in what we eventually called “comic film reenactment,” they shoved armfuls of random and lame pop culture references into their films, and most importantly, they routinely disappointed audiences.
If your movie drops off 60% from its first weekend to its second (as did Meet The Spartans), it means something’s gone terribly wrong.
Ugh, and I said I wasn’t gonna rant…
The Friedberg & Seltzer films did three things.
They glutted the marketplace with a movie a year for four years.
They created marketplace confusion, whereby the casual moviegoer had no idea if Blank Movie was from the Wayans, from David and me, or from them.
And most critically, they altered the audience’s expectations for the genre.
So now let’s deal with that.
Over the years, from David and Jerry and Jim’s initial films, all the way through ’til now, it seems one thing has remained constant. When producers and executives talk about spoof, they truly believe that the best way to approach the genre is to go after as many current movies as possible in one film. They believe this despite the fact that the funniest and most successful spoof films haven’t done that at all…and indeed, have done the opposite.
When we made Superhero, David’s and my intention was to return to the good old-fashioned right way of spoofing something. Take one movie, maybe toss in one other for variety’s sake, and spoof it.
Was it importantly to be “fresh” and “current” with the spoof? No! Scary Movie came four years after Scream, and Airplane came a full 23 years after Zero Hour (which no one had seen anyway).
Was it important to go crazy with pop culture jokes and references? No! Aside from a couple of random swipes in Airplane, most of the pop culture jokes were aggressively un-hip, like the cameo from Ethel Merman. Scary Movie? Same deal. A few random references here and there, but few and far between.
So we made the movie we wanted to make. And we were proud of it. Sure the ending wasn’t great (we scrapped our initial planned ending and rewrote a new one a week before shooting in order to make our budget), but we could address that with some reshoots. It woudn’t be the first time…there are always last minute rescues in spoof…
But the first test audience had some other problems with the film. They wanted to know why we were spoofing a movie that hadn’t come out last year, or even the year before. And they wanted to know why we were only spoofing one or two movies. And they wanted to know where all the crazy pop culture stuff was.
In short, they wanted it to be more like the spoof movies that, according to the dollar-votes that box office receipts represent, they did not actually like.
And that’s when I knew I was screwed. I was in the same zone that David and Jim had found themselves in with High School High and Mafia. I was a dinosaur. The knockoffs had changed the game. They hadn’t succeeded while doing it, but they had done it anyway.
The audience, largely kids, had been primed with expectations of a “last year’s movies in review, plus whatever celebrity has been acting like a jackass!” and they didn’t get it.
The studio directed us to try and give it to them. What ensued was a frantic attempt to re-engineer the film to be more like the very spoofs that David and were trying to avoid. We shoved more movie references in, we dumped a boatload of pop culture references, and the studio (and this one really hurt) changed the title from Superhero! to Superhero Movie.
Now, to be clear, I’m not blaming the audience or the studio for Superhero’s less-than-stellar box office. The studio had to try something, because the movie wasn’t clicking as it was, and the audience, well…the day you start blaming the audience is the day you need to throw out your laptop and go into another line of work.
But by the time the film came out, if you couldn’t tell whether or not it was from us or Friedberg & Seltzer or some institutional spoof-making robot, well…that could hardly be considered your fault.
It’s a bittersweet thing for me. The stuff in Superhero (I still call it that, I don’t care) that I loved even before we ever shot a frame, I still love having shot it. The stuff that I didn’t, I don’t. Valiant efforts were made, but I think the venture was doomed from the start, because the genre had clearly outgrown its welcome.
How can the audience miss you if you don’t go away?
Dance Flick seems to have succumbed to the same disease. I haven’t seen the film, and maybe it succeeded in shunning the pop-culture overload and spoofmobile-ism that we failed to avoid, but the waters have been poisoned. No spoof of the Blank Movie style can survive. There is a stink of shame on the genre.
Its death has been, in many ways, a boon for me. I’ve been able to return to the kind of writing I was heading toward before the spoof stuff happened, and that’s been very satisfying. Still, spoof was berry berry good to me, and as a moviegoer, I look forward to the day it returns.
And it will return.
A few years from now, when it’s been forgotten, when a whole generation of high school kids haven’t seen a spoof in a theater, someone will come back and do it again.
I hope they do it the right way.
I’m saddened to hear of the death of John Furia, Jr., one of the WGA’s giants, and a fine screen and television writer.
I served with John briefly on the negotiating committee in 2004, but more extensively on the Executive Search Committee in 2005. Like everyone else who spent time with John, I was impressed with his intelligence, diplomacy and gentility of spirit.
John was a long-time Guild politician who understood that governance didn’t have to be a combat sport. It didn’t matter if I agreed with him or disagreed with him on any particular point; John had a way of making everyone in the room feel like a welcome and integral part of the process. His was an enormously influential voice in our union, and he continued to share his considerable skills and wisdom with our union long after his official term as President had ended.
In that sense, John defined what it meant to be an eminence grise in our union and our business, and I have no doubt that he will be mourned equally by writers, directors and even the studios with whom he so frequently negotiated on our collective behalf.
Here is Patric Verrone’s lovely note to the WGAw membership. I think Patric does a great job of conveying why this is a real loss not only to Mr. Furia’s immediate family, but to his extended family of 7,500 writer members of the WGAw.
To My Fellow Members,
It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of our Guild’s beloved former president, John Furia, Jr. His death was peaceful but unexpected and his loss is made all the more tragic by our inability to say good bye.
No single person served our union in as many capacities as John. He was a board member and president from 1973 to 1975, served on innumerable committees including several negotiating committees (chairing in 2004), and he was chair of the East/West National Council from 2005 to 2007. He was also a past president of the WGAW Foundation and still served as its Vice President for Programs.
The WGAW recognized John’s dedication with all three of our honorary awards including the Morgan Cox Award (for service to the Guild) in 1978, the Valentine Davies Award (for public service) in 1990, and the rarely bestowed Edmund H. North Award (for Guild leadership and professional achievement) in 1994.
John’s service to writers was not limited to his Guild work. He was a former governor of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a founding trustee of the Humanitas Prize, and a consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was the founding chair of the Division of Writing at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television where he was a full professor of screen and television writing.
John’s professional career spanned nearly three decades as a writer-producer. His television credits include episodes of The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, The Waltons, and Hawaii 5-0; showrunning Kung-Fu, The Dirty Dozen, and the long running public service series Insight; and mini-series The Blue Knight, Sidney Sheldon’s Rage of Angels, and The Sun Also Rises. His screen credits included The Singing Nun and A Change of Habit.
Such a remarkable list of achievements and recognition does not do justice to the stature of a man whose character and dignity touched and influenced generations of writers from the founders of the Guild to its newest student-associates. John had the rare capacity to bridge political divides in our union as no one else did and he was truly loved and respected by everyone who knew him. For those of us who relied on John’s knowledge and his counsel, he was more than an éminence grise; he was pure eminence. In A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt wrote, “Death comes for us all. Even for kings he comes.” Today he came for a king.
On behalf of the members of the Writers Guild of America West, I extend deep and heartfelt condolences to John’s wife Mary and his seven children. May he rest in peace.
Patric M. Verrone President, WGAW
You do something long enough, you start to notice patterns.
Here’s one of my writing patterns…tell me if this sounds familiar.
I’m giving some kind of challenge. ”Come up with an ending for X” or “Is there a way to move A to B?” or “Do you have any idea how to make a movie about Y?”
And lots of times, even if my first answer is yes, the second through hundredth answer is NO.
No, no, no. I can’t.
Because really, honestly and truly, I can’t. And why? Is it because I’m dumb, lazy, defensive? Nope.
It’s because I can’t figure out how in God’s name to do it well, and since I can’t forcibly do it poorly1, I just put my foot down and say no, no, no.
And for those of you who might think that because I’m a practical sort of person I must therefore also be compliant, well…nuh uh. When faced with a demand for Wrongness, I am quite adamant. If I can’t do it, I can’t do it.
But here’s the thing.
Sometimes, I can.
Before I discuss my odd little pattern, let me tell you about a story another screenwriter told me over lunch. This guy works a lot. A rising star in the biz to be sure. And he was hired to write A Very Very Big Movie. Through a strange turn of events, he was replaced on The Very Very Big Movie. These things happen. No fault of his own, I suspect. In fact, the studio was happy enough with him that they suggested he write the Very Very Big Sequel to the Very Very Big Movie. And you know, he really didn’t want to. At all. Why? Because he couldn’t. He understood what they wanted from the VVBS to the VVBM, but it didn’t seem right to him, and he said no, and they said please, and he said no, and they said really? and he said yeah, and so that was that.
A couple of days later, he stops whatever it is that he’s doing, because he suddenly realizes that he can do it. Not only can he do it, but he likes his idea so much, he wants to do it.
He calls them and pitches it to them, and they like it as much as he does.
The story reminded me of how many times something similar has happened to me. I can descend into a full-blown “No, never! Not in a million years!” rant. And then a day or two later, I suddenly say “Oh.” Because I can. And now that I know how, I really want to.
What’s going on here?
Cuz we’re not the only ones, right?
First, when we’re seeking some sense of narrative quality, we are hoping to “see” it in our heads. ”It” doesn’t necessarily have to be the whole movie, but you want to see the potential for theme, character, conflict, plot and resolution all working harmoniously. You want to understand the soul of the movie. Why this story? Why these people? Why this circumstance? When you see these things, you are comfortable saying yes.
When you don’t?
I think I sometimes confuse “I don’t have a good answer now” with “there’s no good answer.” That’s why I say “I can’t” so emphatically, and that’s why I’m surprised by myself when I realize that I can.
Here’s my other theory. The commissioner/artist relationship begins as a conversation. “Can you do this?” “I can do something like that.” “What about this way?” “No, I think it should be this way.” “Okay, but we need this.” “Well, I can give you that, but I want to make sure you don’t want this…” and so on.
As long as the conversation is continuing, there’s a chance the negotiated result will be a request you can already say “I can” to. That’s ideal, in many respects. But once the conversation ends (“Can you do X? Because we need X.” “No, I can’t.” “Oh well, bye then.”), the field of options is limited to one.
Can you, or can’t you?
Sometimes, the elimination of the “I wish it were” choices allows you to focus on the “It is” choices.
Now, does this mean we can do everything? No. If you’re a studio executive or producer reading this, I must assure you that sometimes your suggestions Should Not Be Done. And, in fact, there’s something essential, I think, to going through the “You can”/”I can’t” process.
Writers are story experts. We know stuff, yeah? So if we’re saying we can’t, maybe it’s for a good reason. On the other hand, if we’re just struggling with our inability to see the answer when we need to see it, don’t think you can skip steps and just jump to “You can, you will and that’s that.”
Doesn’t work that way.
If I were a producer or executive, here’s how I’d do it. I’d ask for what I wanted/needed. If I were told “no,” I’d ask why, and I’d explore the writer’s objections and alternatives. Many times…hell, probably most times…something better will emerge. If I’m dead set on it though, I have to be willing to let the writer say “I can’t.”
But after they gave me their final “I can’t,” I’d wait a week before going to someone else.
Because sometimes we can.