Archive for May 2010

Anatomy of a Failed Movie

May 22, 2010

Since this blog is ostensibly about failure, I think it’s time I address a nagging question I hear all the time: Why do so many Hollywood movies suck?

After all, as writers we’re constantly pushed to produce not just “good” scripts, but great ones if we want to break into the business. We’re told mediocre screenplays will not get you an agent or manager, let alone a deal. Then if you’re lucky enough to sell something, be prepared to do more rewrites at the behest of producers, directors and actors.

So how is it that a “great” script swims upstream against all odds to get the greenlight, and winds up being made into a boring flop? Well, don’t blame it all on the writer — not the original guys, anyway. The current ROBIN HOOD movie is a perfect example of what can go wrong.

In a nutshell what happened was two writers came up with a great twist on the legend: make the Sheriff of Nottingham the good guy — a Sherlock Holmes type sleuth who uses forensics to track down the “terrorist”… Robin Hood. Cool, right? Once A-listers got involved though, the director brought in another writer and they began to change the script. Long story short, they went back to making Robin Hood the hero, and got rid of the stuff that made the original script one of the hottest reads in Hollywood.

Down below you’ll find a much better blow-by-blow description of what transpired by Bill Martell, who also posts advice and comments on the Done Deal site, which I highly recommend for aspiring screenwriters. His blog on “Robbing From the Poor (Writer)” was brought to my attention by a screenwriter friend, Robert Chomiak, on another screenwriting message board I visit too often.

Robert co-wrote the script for a clever Canadian zombie movie called FIDO, which is sort of LASSIE meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and satirizes 1950s values. Worth renting on Netflix — it’s actually a PG zombie movie that isn’t too gross or disgusting for the entire family to watch. Which may have been the problem in marketing it. While it was very funny in a droll, understated way, you couldn’t quite sell it as a comedy. Yet it wasn’t scary enough to call it a horror movie either. That’s the danger of mixing genres.

I got a chance to meet Robert and hang out with him while he was vacationing in Hawaii last year. He’s currently writing a comedy with the FIDO director, called MY ASSHOLE NEIGHBOR. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? Having a great title is half the battle in selling a new project, and I think they nailed it.

Anyhow, here’s the link to Bill’s blog post on Robbing From the Poor (Writer).

BTW, as much as I like his writing, I really dislike the white on black reverse print. That’s fine for small chunks of copy, but it’s tough to read long articles or columns with reverse type.

UPDATE: Another good article on what went wrong with ROBIN HOOD from New York Magazine.

“Nothing is random”

May 15, 2010

There are days when you wake up, the sun is shining in a cloudless sky, and with the click of a mouse or flick of a TV remote, a few words or a single image can alter perceptions of time and space. The morning of 9/11 when I turned on CNN while making coffee was such a day. Today, it was reading a blog entry about the suicide of someone I didn’t even know.

I live with my wife on the island of Oahu in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Yet I’m still connected to my past life in New Jersey and New York through the media, internet sites and memories that have dimmed over time. As you get older, tragic news — big or small — piles up to the point you must find ways to reconcile the unfairness or seemingly-random nature of the universe with your personal beliefs.

Since I am an agnostic, who does not rely on faith in a specific God to sooth my soul, and do not believe in Heaven and Hell as afterlife destinations, I am left to find solace in my own concept of a Higher Power. After 9/11, for some reason I remembered a passage from Mark Helprin’s book, Winter’s Tale which was published in 1983 and is set in a magical version of New York City. The words he wrote have stayed with me through the years:

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another.

Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one can be certain.

And yet there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple.

Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once.

The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful.

In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

To me, those words are poetry. I had first read Winter’s Tale before I moved to Hawaii in 1985 and met my future wife, Isabel. When we got married, I asked the minister to read that passage during the wedding ceremony. I’ve told Isabel that I want it read at my services when I pass on, because it sums up how I feel about our brief existence in this world.

Today I’m sharing it with you because a fellow writer, Julie Gray, asked her blog followers to write something this weekend, just as she was writing in an effort to come to terms with the death of her brother, who took his own life. She asked, why? Although none of us can answer that question for him, I think writers and artists — people who are often sensitive to a fault — probably can imagine the kind of personal pain he was going through. Most of all, it’s a feeling of hopelessness. Everything seems meaningless.

Then I reread those words by Mark Helprin, and it all makes sense to me. The internet, media, memories, all like the electrons he describes; flashes of thought and feelings being transcribed into pixels and neurons; connecting distant friends and strangers for fleeting moments that sometimes transcend the morning tragedy that brought us together.

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Here’s a link to Julie’s screenwriting blog. In addition to being a writer, she’s been a professional script reader for production companies and is a highly regarded script consultant. But most of all, she champions good writing and pushes screenwriters to aim higher and to live with passion.

JELLO: THE MOVIE

May 13, 2010

Originally, the title for this post was “Takes Talent to Recognize It.” Then I read a piece by Hollywood producer Lynda Obst that basically says the movie biz is no longer really about finding talented writers or high quality scripts. It’s now largely about building on brand awareness — super-heroes, comic books, old TV shows, popular board games, video games, and YouTube clips that go viral.

She said a colleague jokingly floated JELLO: THE MOVIE as a possible project. Sadly, it’s no worse than some of the other product-inspired movies that are currently in development. I even pitched my STUNT GUYS action spec to a creative exec at Hasbro — yes, the toy makers are now major players in Hollywood. He passed because he didn’t see the merchandising potential in my stuntmen characters. Probably because I didn’t imbue them with super-powers.

Lynda Obst’s column (link at end of post) is getting traction because she’s been associated with big Hollywood hits such as FLASHDANCE, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, THE FISHER KING, and CONTACT. More recently, she produced THE INVENTION OF LYING, a movie I liked and riffed on in a prior post about writers being professional liars. She’s also had her share of flops. But when a producer with her track record says good writing is now secondary to product awareness, it has to make any aspiring screenwriter wonder if they’ve just been wasting time trying to become glorified advertising copywriters.

That said, I still believe in learning craft and structure. I’ve been fortunate to receive feedback from produced screenwriters, who liked my stuff enough to option my scripts. I’ve also been repped or hip-pocketed by managers whose clients have written hugely successful movies, and gotten notes from them on my work. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure my rewrites were really better than my original drafts, which were closest to my own vision.

(BTW, my former manager — Cathryn Jaymes — said when she first sent out Quentin Tarantino’s scripts to her contacts, she would get nasty phone calls asking how she could rep such awful, foul-mouthed “garbage”… then after his movies became hits with critics and audiences, those same people were begging her to send whatever else he had written.)

The one thing I took comfort in was the notion that these were professionals who recognized talent. I don’t know who first said it takes genius to recognize it, but I always felt there was something to that. Okay, so I’m not a genius… I’m more of a plodder, who works hard at the craft. Still, I thought my movie ideas were different and original. And these Hollywood veterans I was working with seemed to think so too. At the end of the day though, my scripts didn’t get produced and I’m looking for a new rep to shop my works of genius.

I’m not alone. I know there are many other writers who have had similar experiences, and feel like they’ve been both blessed and cursed to be told they have “talent” or a unique “voice”… and yet can’t get an agent or publisher to sign them. There are days when I think it would be so much easier if early on I was told my stuff was crap and I should give up. Then I realize that, well, if one person honestly did think my writing was worth their time, I should keep at it a little longer. It only takes one person — at the right place and time — to prove everyone else wrong.

However, no amount of rewriting, revisions, getting feedback from peers or notes from professional script consultants, is going to make much difference if your concept or story doesn’t have that something special — you know it when you see it. At least, that’s the way it used to be. But these days, it seems like the so-called “talent agents” and creative execs are more adept at reading financial reports than literary works.

So write for yourself if you must. Then write JELLO: THE MOVIE if you really want to be a working screenwriter for hire.

Here’s the link to The Atlantic piece by Lynda Obst.

As I mentioned, she produced THE INVENTION OF LYING. This is my take on that film as it relates to writers.

The Giveaway/Hand-Out Culture

May 5, 2010

It started with Oprah. Then Ellen. And Rachel. Talk show hosts who courted fan loyalty by giving away gifts. It’s gotten so out of hand that TV viewers now write to them, literally asking for hand-outs. I realize times are tough all over, but do these people have no shame, anymore?

Since I’m a freelance writer (i.e., not actually employed), I watch a fair amount of daytime TV while procrastinating between screenplays and blog posts. Perhaps I’ve become jaded, or maybe I’m just jealous of all those audience members who are getting really great swag in exchange for promotional consideration. But lately my TV-induced ire has been directed at Ellen DeGeneres for responding to direct pleas by viewers for money.

The letters she reads on air don’t come right out and beg for cash. Usually, the wife will write that her husband lost his job, they’re struggling to pay bills, and so forth… but every day on TV, Ellen brings joy and laughter to their bleak lives! The subtext is plain to see: please help us out like those other wives who get to keep all the cash they frantically grab, while inside a transparent money blower machine as the crowd cheers them on. What’s next in Ellen’s evolving give-away games? Dance marathons like in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?

The thing is I love Ellen. Everybody does. She has probably done more for the acceptance of gays and lesbians than any single person, simply by being honest about herself. Ellen is genuinely nice. She wants to help less fortunate folks. But at a certain point, to quote her American Idol pal Simon, it starts to “feel a bit desperate” like a singer trying too hard to win over the judges.

Worse, it actually encourages more “magical thinking” in her television audience, the kind Oprah espoused in her endorsement of The Secret book (here’s my blog post on that topic). Viewers in TV Land are thinking: Hey, if I write a heart-breaking letter and send a really cute photo of my kids and out-of-work spouse, there’s a chance Ellen will save us! It’s like winning the lottery without even having to buy a ticket.

What gets my goat though is when Ellen dispatches her perky assistant to fork over the cash, gifts or toys, it often turns out the family doesn’t really look very destitute. They have a nicer house than I do! Better furniture too. Huge widescreen TVs. And a new car in the driveway. You know, it’s possible these people were spending too damn much before, and didn’t save any money when they should have.

Before you call me a cranky selfish jerk, let me tell you something: I’m a softie at heart. When I lived in New York City, I even went to the post office in Manhattan where they let people sort through letters to Santa, and I chose one from a poor mother in the Bronx. I got a friend to help me buy toys for her kids and go with me because it was a rough neighborhood. It felt good to play Santa. I’ll never forget the woman’s face. She didn’t look grateful — she looked suspicious and uncertain, as if she didn’t expect someone to actually answer her letter. There was no joyous screaming while jumping up and down like on Ellen, because real poverty isn’t fixed with a few toys or a check.

The people you see on Oprah, Ellen and Rachel have it pretty good in comparison. For them to be shamelessly accepting hand-outs on national TV is unseemly to me. I guess times have changed. We now expect to get something for nothing in our giveaway culture. Never have so many asked for so much, for so little actual work or effort.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if people in those talk show audiences started donating the swag they receive to charities instead of keeping it?