The Craft & Trade: January 2006 Archives
Bloop!I’m not sure if Hollywood’s predilection for paranoia is a good or bad thing. I suppose it’s always better for an industry to constantly worry about upheavals and plan accordingly, but every so often, this town starts to spasm uncontrollably over something absurd.
Bubble decided to opt for a much-publicized release strategy that was supposed to foreshadow the future of film distribution as well as the end of the world as we know it. The “day and date” strategy, as it is oddly known, involves releasing a film both theatrically and on DVD (and possibly via broadcast or cablecast as well) on the same day.
Theater owners panicked. Writers and directors panicked (because DVD residuals are based largely on the concept that DVD’s are a “supplemental” market, and they’re clearly not when you’re doing a day-and-date release).
Studios panicked, because they couldn’t tell if this inevitable, sure-to-be-the-future release pattern was going to decrease theatrical profits and increase video profits, increase them both, shrink them both, turn water into blood…or what.
Well, B-Day happened, and shock of all shocks…
…Hollywood got had.
Let me first say that I haven’t seen the movie, but I do have enormous respect for the talents and past work of Mr. Soderbergh.
That aside, the Bubble strategy was clearly about hype. This is a film that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have gotten a theatrical release at all. The movie grossed about $70,000 on its opening weekend. It was only in 32 theaters, but its average was a rather anemic $2200, well below what you’d hope to see for an arthouse movie.
Similarly, no one watches HD Net.
The logic behind the traditional release pattern still stands.
First, release the movie theatrically. Theater-going is still an incredibly popular pasttime, and despite the advent of DVD and home theaters, nothing beats seeing a crowd-pleaser with an actual crowd.
Second, using the theatrical release as either an investment with modest return or as a promotional loss leader, release the DVD. The relative high return on investment for DVD’s is your best chance at real profit, and hit movies can generate multiple DVD releases.
Third, repeat the first two exercises in as many foreign countries as you can.
This strategy is a good one. Is there a shrinking window between step one and step two? Yes. Is that because of piracy? In part. You’ll find that the window is much smaller for bombs. Poor theatrical runs means you can’t count on much anticipation getting built for the DVD. Getting the DVD out quickly to capitalize on what little bit of cultural currency you have makes sense.
Nonetheless, it’s suicidal to really consider day-and-date for studio films…unless you know ahead of time that your movie’s a bomb. Even then, day-and-date may kill you overseas, where films that have been released in a true theatrical pattern are worth far more for rebroadcast than direct-to-video films.
If Bubble were the sort of film that the financial backers had real faith in, they wouldn’t have done this. At least, I don’t think they would have. An arthouse film with a chance for success needs a theatrical arthouse run, starting on as few as 2 screens. It needs critical acclaim, and then a few nominations for awards. Then you build your theatrical release, and cash in on the ensuing DVD release.
Until people start rejecting theaters (and a 6% downtick doesn’t mean rejection, it just means a 6% downtick), to go day-and-date is to kill your chance for real success. Let the handwringers keep wringing. War, television, VHS…all touted as the death knell for movie theaters. Now it’s the Bubble. I give Soderbergh and Cuban a lot of credit for finding some way to hype their movie, but there’s nothing to fear here.
We’re going to be walking down those sticky aisles for a looooong time.
Jacob Weinstein is such a smartie.
I wrote this post because I’ve sat through a few test screenings recently (which went well, thank God), and it struck me that unless you’re prepared for the audience’s sense of entitlement and total lack of concern for you and your feelings…you just might throw up in your popcorn bucket.
For those of you who said you could never work for such a person, all I can tell you is that one day you will—if you’re lucky enough.
On that day, if you’re anything like me, you will be a nervous wreck. The Boss really does kick you when you’re down. I’ve been in at least one bad screening where, after the film stumbled a bit, you could hear the catcalls and jeering begin, like hyenas circling the wounded gazelle.
Until that day, if any critic or reader or executive treats you in a way that you think is harsh or cruel or capricious, just remember: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Who is he?I want to talk about the worst boss in Hollywood.
Since I work in Hollywood, I have to be a bit discreet about this. I don’t want to get in trouble, but I feel like I should warn you all, since many of you work in the business, and the rest of you want to work in the business.
I’m even using the phrase “the Boss” so as not to specifically say this person is a producer or a director or an exec or what. All I’ll tell you is that it’s not one of the Weinsteins.
Where to begin?
The Boss is rude. The Boss doesn’t care about niceties, and will literally insult you to your face. I’ve sat in a room with the Boss and been mocked, sneered at, and called a loser. He’s called my writing “stupid” to my face.
Yeah, the Boss goes ad hominem all the time. In fact, he’s never constructive. He almost always bitches aimlessly at you, as if you’re already dead to him. As if there’s no hope that you’ll do better.
Now, maybe that would be worth it if the Boss gave good notes, but most of the times, the Boss has no clue what he actually wants.
He says he want this, but he really wants that. He says he likes something, but then he trashes it to everyone else the very next day. Sometimes he says he hates something, but he secretly likes it.
It drives me crazy.
Maybe all of that would be tolerable if the Boss were hard-working, but he’s the laziest guy I know in this business. He just sits there. It’s amazing to me how little he knows about filmmaking. In fact, he pretty much knows nothing about filmmaking. Zippo. He just sits and shrugs. You have to fight for every reaction. He’s cynical, jaded, and bored with you before you even walk in the room.
Wait. It gets worse.
Maybe…MAYBE…all of this would be fine if only the Boss appreciated how hard I work. He doesn’t. In fact, The Boss really has no clue how much I work, nor does he seem to care. He’s literally said to me, “What you do is so easy.”
I’m quoting the Boss. Granted, that was a really bad day for him, but still, it hurt. I mean, here I was working my heart out for this guy, and all he could say was, “Anyone could have done this better. Literally. Anyone.”
The Boss never gives encouragement. If you’re down, he kicks you.
But folks…here’s the sick part.
I love working for the Boss. Maybe it’s because he’s so brutal. I don’t know. All I know is that earning the Boss’ approval has become more important than earning my own approval. Hell, half the time I’m modelling my own sense of what is good on what I think the Boss will enjoy, even though predicting that jerk is nearly impossible. Somewhere along the line, making the Boss happy has become like crack for me.
So, I ask…what do you think? Am I helpless? A masochist? What would you do in my shoes?
More importantly, could you deal with someone like the Boss?
Naturally, you should feel free to guess who the Boss is. I bet some of you already know.
No, he’s not Satan. But if you meet him…have some courtesy.
Won’t you guess his name?
bitter…A few days ago, I became embroiled in a bit of a contretemps in our Artful Forum over what I felt were classically cliched objections to “Hollywood” and how it treats screenwriting.
If you haven’t heard the tired litany, let me perform it for you. You see, Hollywood sucks. There’s this thing called “good writing,” and Hollywood grabs it with its rapacious claws, mulches it through a horrifying machine that crushes the life out of it, bleeds the soul away, conforms all unique expression to a bland formula, and then grinds the edge off the work until the whole piece is as smooth and inoffensive as a bar of soap, all in the service of pleasing the great, unwashed, stupid crap-loving masses.
A few months ago, Ted wrote a good piece called Art Vs. Commercial: The Non-Battle of the Ages. In it, he talks about the way so many people believe that “commercial” is the privative of “artistic,” when, in fact, the two exist on entirely different qualitative axes.
Consider this the companion piece to Ted’s article. What I’d like to talk about is why I think people engage in this kind of rhetoric.
First, I should probably state as clearly as possible that it’s bunk.
Hollywood turns out a remarkable breadth of entertainment. There’s everything from the stupid and vulgar to the sublime and remarkable. Sometimes, things are stupid and vulgar and sublime and remarkable all at once. In the end, no one is interested in “cutting the balls” off of writing or killing the spirit of the script or smashing the truth in it or any other violent metaphor you can imagine.
All anyone in Hollywood wants to do is entertain an audience. Depending on the audience, they will attempt to reach that goal in any number of ways. Some audiences are narrow. Others are broad. Some are young and male, others are parents with small children. You audience will determine how you craft and shape the writing.
I suppose it’s possible that some of the gripers believe that’s backwards…that writing should exist in and of itself, and audiences ought to find it. Unfortunately, as long as screenwriters need other people’s money to see their stories realized, there must always be some creative calculation involved.
Still, I don’t think that’s really what’s going on.
I think what’s happening instead is that a lot of writers are both creative and nerdy, and the intersection of creative and nerdy often leads to a syndrome I call “pop culture absolutism”.
Let me explain.
It stands to reason that screenwriters should be a dorky lot. The craft requires intelligence, literacy and an enormous tolerance for solitude. It specifically does not require looks, physical fitness or social skills. I remember sitting at a large meeting of WGA members and thinking, “Jesus, we’re ugly.”
While there are some screenwriters who got along okay in high school, I suspect quite a few weren’t exactly what you’d call “popular”. This probably applies more to dramatic writers than comedy writers (the comedy writer opined), as comedy writers can make friends and even get laid just by making other people laugh.
The dramatically inclined nerd? Well, they tend to be laughed at. Or called “fag”. Or perhaps they’re just underappreciated. There are very lovely and brilliant but quiet and quirky fifteen year-olds who get no love from their peers, even though those same fifteen year-olds will earn millions of dollars as thirty year-olds.
And so, through abuse or underapprecation, a resentment of popularity itself is born. Popularity is seen as the ultimate hypocrisy, the grating evidence of an upside-down world in which true human quality is rejected and effortless superficiality is king.
Critics of popularity may have a point about that. Nonetheless, a worship of anti-popularity is just as egregious. A long time ago, I made a conscious decision never to censor my own appreciation of entertainment or art. No matter what. Sure, my taste in music tends to run from The Beatles to Green Day, but I also like “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson.
Go ahead. Make fun of me. I don’t care. I like it.
I like it even though it is formulaic, popular, blatantly marketed and somewhat bland. It’s still catchy and fun, and when it’s on the radio, I listen to it. Every time. Frankly, I find that act far less offensive than pretending to like something allegedly cool that I don’t really like. I just don’t like Sigur Ros. At all. In fact, I hate Sigur Ros. I am willing to say that as far as my taste is concerned, Kelly Clarkson is better than Sigur Ros.
Somewhere, a college radio DJ’s head just exploded.
My larger point is that while some people legitimately like Sigur Ros, other people try to like it and run in fear from Kelly Clarkson because they believe that popular is bad. Once they let an intellectual calculation creep into their evaluation of quality, ego begins to override apprecation.
And just like that, Hollywood is crap and The Cremaster Cycle is brilliant.
They have become pop culture absolutists, unwilling to accept that culture has no inherent quality beyond the quality of the experience of the audience.
I write the cinematic equivalent of Kelly Clarkson. My movies are Chicken McNuggets. They’re Budweiser. There are people in the world who literally get angry when they talk about movies like the ones I make, the way that pop culture absolutists will mock gag over Kelly Clarkson, the way that food purists will assail McNuggets as evidence of some gustatory crime, the way that booze snobs will call Budweiser “warm piss” and refuse to drink anything but some beer from Djibouti that “no one knows about.”
The truth, though, is that Hollywood and Kelly Clarkson and McDonald’s and Budweiser aren’t actually commiting crimes against some absolute standard of quality. They’re just popular. That’s all. They’re common. They’re not special. They’re comforting, normative, unchallenging and perhaps a bit shallow, but they’re also enjoyed.
Hollywood doesn’t actually try and “destroy quality.” It just disagrees with many screenwriters about what quality is. Some screenwriters believe quality is inherent in the writing itself and must be special and intriguing, thus being appreciated by a select few with absolutely good taste.
Hollywood is interested in the quality of the audience’s experience of a movie, and it tends to like the biggest audience possible. It is entirely relativistic.
I believe Hollywood has it right.
There may come a day where I want to entertain a smaller audience. That’s fine. I’ll still be relativistic, and I’ll still aim to be popular with that small audience, and I won’t allow ego and self-congratulatory snobbery to ever gain a foothold in the process. After all, aren’t Kelly Clarkson and Sigur Ros doing the same damn thing? Aren’t they both trying to entertain audiences with music?
All that matters is how well they achieve that goal.
This, by the way, is why all movie critics are completely irrelevant and without any influence whatsoever.
When you write, forget about your own attitudes or residual bitterness towards the concepts of popularity and “mass market.” None of that is going to help. First, determine whom your audience is, and then work like a dog to entertain them. The best entertainers are driven by that alone, and suggestions of objective quality are ignored. Personally, I don’t care that some reviewers say I’m funny and others say I’m unfunny.
What the hell does that mean? If you divorce the concept of “funny” from the concept of “audience”, then “funny” is worthless. Who cares if someone has anointed me as absolutely funny or unfunny?
Is the audience laughing?
One of my favorite entertainers, Kurt Cobain, once said of Nirvana:
I’ll be the first to admit that we’re the ’90s version of Cheap Trick or the Knack but the last to admit that it hasn’t been rewarding.
If you ask me, Nirvana was a hell of a lot better than Cheap Trick or the Knack ever was, but that’s just my opinion, and Cobain’s point is that he didn’t see himself as absolutely better than pop groups like Cheap Trick. I’m sure most of his audience did, but that’s a testament to Cobain’s ability to achieve the entertainer’s only true goal.
The same relativism goes for screenwriters and movies. In the end, it’s not being popular or “Hollywood” or critically panned that makes a movie suck.
It’s an audience saying “that movie sucked” that makes a movie suck. Nothing else.
stereotype?Let’s start the new year off with a bang. I’m going to talk about race. Please join me, if you will, in a zig-zaggy race through everyone’s favorite minefield. Be fearless, friends.
A few days ago, Alex Epstein wrote a post entitled The Diversity Pass, in which he argued that writers ought to do an intentional pass through their scripts to make certain characters black, some Asian, some Sikh…but to do so in a way that specifically avoids casting any of those ethnicities in ways that tie into negative stereotypes. He writes:
Because we live in an imperfect world, I think, you can’t cast anybody as anything. My rule is you can’t cast towards a [pernicious] stereotype. That rules out a few juicy roles, unfortunately. On our show, for example, Rick can’t be Black because he’s a shiftless, irresponsible rock star. Eve can’t be black because Eve is dumb as a post. Instead, let the evil, Machiavellian Pierre Reynard be Black. Eve could be Asian; might be funny to have a stupid Asian character, for once, instead of having every Asian be a bright eyed keener. Casting for diversity doesn’t mean ethnic characters have to be nice or good people; then ethnic actors would never get to have any fun. Just don’t reinforce the stereotype.
Now, I happen to like Alex’s blog and his book, and I think he’s a smart guy, but this just sent me reeling, because it violates what I think ought to be an important rule of screenwriting.
Do not use movies to axe-grind messages, unless the point of the movie is its message.
Let’s say you’re writing a show about an office. Alex is concerned that the janitor shouldn’t be black or Latino…that’s too stereotypical…so let’s make the janitor a white guy. While we’re at it, the accountant shouldn’t be Jewish or Asian…too stereotypical…so let’s make her black. The boss can be white if he’s an idiot, but a beloved boss? Hmmm…how about a Palestinian woman, or maybe Sikh? Don’t see that too often. Just write the characters as you normally would…and then change their race afterwards in a “diversity pass”.
Oh…not just absurd.
Allow me to explain.
For a long time now, we’ve all been subject to certain politically correct archetypes that came to exist primarily because the filmmakers felt some sort of guilt or squeamishness about a reality they viewed (often properly) as unfair. The vast majority of judges in the United States are not black women, but you certain see the Black Female Judge a lot. Too much. In fact, it’s kind of getting silly. The anti-racism is so overt, it’s literally racist in and of itself. The suggestion is that black people need to see a steady parade of black judges, or else they’ll be…what?
Less willing to go to law school?
Just because it’s unfair doesn’t mean we can all pretend it away…in any convincing fashion, that is. The first person to write the Black Female Judge did something interesting. The fiftieth person to do it was a racist hack.
The same goes for muggers in superhero movies. You know…the guys in the wool caps that the hero beats up on when he’s discovering his powers. They tend to be non-immigrant white guys in their 30’s. Some stubble, perhaps, to signify evil. Please forgive me for my political incorrectness, but when was the last time someone in New York City was mugged by a blond guy?
Or, for that matter, a Mormon?
Or a old Chinese woman? Hell, wouldn’t that be interesting and barrier-smashing and responsible?
No. It would be weird and stupid.
The reason people write what I call “obviously diverse characters” is because they are afraid of being made fun of for writing “obviously stereotyped characters.” See, you can’t show a black mugger anymore, because the fact is that prior to the racial sensitivity revolution, black actors were cast in absurdly racist ways. I defy anyone to listen to the criminal in that Dirty Harry movie say, “I gots ta know…” and defend it as not racist.
On the other hand, it appears that many white writers have fallen into the Kipling trap, assuming the white man’s burden of solving racism by pandering to ethnicities by doing things like “the diversity pass”, thus creating new stereotypes based not on hatred or derision, but pity or noblesse oblige.
Do you know why a character should be black? Do you know why a character should be white?
Here’s a hint.
It’s because they must be that way. That’s what’s best for the character. And if their ethnicity is remarkable…as in the case of the Scandinavian mugger or the Hmong police officer or the white valet guy…then that ethnicity should be necessary to the character.
Why should such a central aspect of a character’s being be determined for any other reason?
If you start changing ethnicities for their own sake, you become obvious. Even worse, you emit an aura of effort when your story should seem effortless. If you are dedicated to exploring issues of race and culture, do so honestly and purposefully as part of your story. Paul Haggis knows how to do this. So does David Milch (who gets credit for making his mobsters Italian-American, and then dealing with the very issues this creates for Italian-Americans).
When I wrote my adaptation of Harvey, I included a character who operated an elevator in a high-end apartment building in New York. He was black, because every elevator operator I’ve seen in New York is black. His race was part of whom he was, and it informed, albeit it in a subtle way, how he felt about the main character.
Other parts of his character were more important.
The doorman was Dominican, even though there are doormen of every race, because I needed him to be Dominican. The man who operated the gate leading to the asylum where Elwood Dowd will be committed is an Indian (of India), because he had a very specific story to tell about what he was in his country…and what he is now in this country.
The fact that all of the gate-keepers in the screenplay were non-white was also purposeful.
Race is not to be treated like a cookie or a trick or a bit of formatting to balance out your creative margins. It is an incredibly important part of whom we are (yes, even for you WASPs…don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise). When we play with it casually, we are making a mockery of that reality as well as an obvious mess of our scripts. I think Alex gives away something when he writes in his post that (my emphasis added):
I find my first pass on a script tends to be a bit too Whitey McWhite. The main characters, whether in a TV pitch or a spec feature, usually have some ethnicity because there I’m thinking about balance, and I’m trying to give jumping-off points for stories to the core characters, and ethnicity is part of that. But the secondary characters often wind up lily-white the first time out. I’m thinking of the characters in terms of their contribution to the story. Unless their ethnicity is a story point, they don’t get an ethnicity.
White is an absence of ethnicity?
If you haven’t determined an ethnicity for your character, then you haven’t thought enough about your character. “White” is not the absence of something. I’ve written Polish characters, Italian characters, English characters and German characters.
I’ve written WASP’s, Jews and everything in between.
With a purpose.
In the comment section below Alex’s post, he asked me some direct questions.
Craig, lemme turn it around. Is it okay by you to (a) leave your script non-racial, which most people will read as white, or (b) have your one black character also be your one really dumb character? Or are you doing what I’m talking about, just without noticing it? Do you really think writers have no responsibility?
Every character must have a race and ethnicity, just as they must have a gender, height, weight, marital status, sexual orientation and state of physical attractiveness. Their race and ethnicity will inform them, to varying extents, just as their gender, height, weight, marital status, sexual orientation and state of physical attractiveness does.
Yes, your one black character can absolutely be your one really dumb character, but I want to know what purpose his stupidity serves, and I want to know why he is black.
If it seems like I’m beating up on Alex, I apologize. I’m venting a bit of frustration that he’s tapped into. I mean him no harm (I really do like his blog, I swear!).
Still, it’s a frustration nonetheless, and its source can be found in my answer to his final question.
Writers have an enormous responsibility, and that is to tell a good story. Let that be our guide. If our movie isn’t about social justice, put the story first and all utopian visions of what the world ought to be like second.
Anything less is bad writing.