Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.

A Lion, Hobbits and Bond – oh my!

July 22nd, 2011 No comments

As summer heat scorches most of the U.S., (except, interestingly enough, Hollywood), perhaps it’s time to chill out and get caught up with stories we’ve blogged about in past months. Interestingly, in one way or another, all of today’s stories link to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Sort of.

 

The Cat Came Back…

Proving a corporate survival rate second to none, MGM emerged from bankruptcy in late 2010 and was placed under the leadership of former Spyglass Entertainment honchos Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber. Having successfully fended off corporate raider Carl Icahn’s attempt to take over the beleaguered studio via his one-third share in Lionsgate, as well as a semi-serious offer by Time Warner (and even some foreign tire-kicking),  MGM received debtholder approval and the bankruptcy court’s blessing to restructure its obligations, and has re-entered the movie business. Well – sort of.

As a matter of fact, MGM has a movie in the theaters right now – sort of. “Zookeeper” is a MGM film, but it is distributed by Sony under that studio’s Columbia label. MGM bought the script in a 2008 bidding war for $2 million against $3 million, and promptly set Adam Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison (HQ’d at Sony), onto the project, effectively reuniting most of their “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” production team to get “Zookeeper” made. Unfortunately, in the interim, MGM was hit with big money woes, and the film was included in a deal which gave Sony distribution rights to the next two James Bond films as well. The deal with Sony may just get the struggling studio back into regular production, but MGM’s possible future slate looks more like a ‘blast from the past,’ relying heavily on remakes of MGM properties like “Red Dawn,” “RoboCop,” “Mr. Mom” and “Poltergeist.” 

And that’s just the Halfling of it…

Another long-stalled, high-profile MGM project, “The Hobbit,” has finally begun production. Well – sort of. It’s a ‘good news, bad news’ kind of thing for MGM: MGM’s “The Hobbit,” long planned to be a pair of films directed (and co-written) by Guillermo del Toro and produced by ‘Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson, ended up morphing into a giant pair of  Warner Brothers (corporate successor to New Line) 3-D movies, directed by Jackson after MGM’s money woes caused del Toro to move on (after 2 years of work) and MGM to unload its rights, retaining only broadcast TV rights. Peter Jackson has largely reunited his ‘Lord of the Rings’ principals; they support British actor Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins. In early press, Jackson points out that these things rarely get easier: the shooting schedule for both ‘Hobbit’ movies is only 12 days less than all 3 of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, and the $500 million budget is 40% more than the three earlier films. The first of the two 3-D ‘Hobbit’ films, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” is due in theaters in December, 2012. The second film, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” is set for a year later in December, 2013.

Never say ‘Never Again’…

The other jewel in MGM’s crown (after the hard-won ‘Hobbit’ rights, which involved years of legal wrangling with Saul Zaentz) is James Bond. ‘James Bond 23,’ the as-yet-untitled next chapter in the spy series, was held up due to – what else? – MGM’s financial troubles. With the resolution of MGM’s debt situation, they are free to make the next James Bond movie. Well – sort of.

Due to a deal set up with MGM in 2004, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment distributed all of MGM’s theatrical feature films and  home video, accordingly, including the rebooted Bond franchise’s highly-successful “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” However, MGM exercised an option in 2006 which allowed it to transfer distribution of its product to Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. This left the distribution of the next Bond movie up in the air when MGM ran out of money; now Sony has stepped in and agreed to distribute both ‘Bond 23’ and ‘Bond 24,’ in addition to co-financing both films. This solves several problems: Sony stays in the Bond business, and MGM has a partner well-versed in dealing with EON Productions, the ‘power behind the throne’ of the Bond franchise. Oscar winner Sam Mendes is set to direct, and Daniel Craig will return as James Bond. ‘James Bond 23’ has a release date of November 9, 2012.

It’s Too Darn Hot!

It is hot out there. Why not go into a nice air-conditioned movie theater? This weekend, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is the latest 3-D superhero to grace movie screens, and it should be interesting to see if he battles boy wizards as well as he does Nazis. It takes guts to go up against such tough foes… And if good versus evil isn’t your thing, check out “Friends With Benefits,” which should benefit producer Screen Gems via its clever (2-D, superhero-free) counter-programming… Sort of.

The 15-day First Draft

July 18th, 2011 No comments

Speed writing?

At Forbard Story Services, I provide truthful and constructive criticism of my clients’ work – and always observe absolute confidentiality involving every writer’s story, plot and subject matter. But I did have a unique experience working with a writer recently that I will share. Like a screenwriting version of speed-dating, we worked together and fashioned a first draft screenplay based on his orginal (prose) material in 15 days. My client and his resulting script fall under that ‘confidentiality’ thing, but the experience itself was invigorating and rewarding.

Compelled to write

For a number of reasons, including the writer’s age, I was motivated to help him achieve his vision, even if that meant I had to do more than I customarily would in terms of story analysis services. The writer was clearly compelled to write, and I could sense his urgency, so I simply used his stories as a blueprint to develop a complete script with a beginning, middle and end, containing solid characters and story themes which would resonate with an audience. After a false start or two, we hit on a productive working relationship: as the client offered more primary material, I generated script pages, which we would both revise. Soon, we fell into a comfortable rhythm.

No time for distractions

To create a full first draft script in 15 days, it was necessary to hunker down and work. It meant a minimum of 10 solid script pages a day before revisions, and left very little time for much else. I consulted with my client by phone nearly every day, sometimes multiple times, and set myself the task of adapting and adjusting the writer’s stories into something a producer or director would recognize as a thought-out script, in a familiar format, lacking any serious flaws like plot holes, stilted dialogue or a formulaic feel. It helped that I was home alone while my wife was away, since it allowed me to work any time the whim struck me.

Even God rested…

The 15-day first draft involved 15 days of writing, but not 15 consecutive days… Let’s face it: writing is hard (at least good writing is), and even God took a day off while creating the world. So I took a few days off during this process, and the entire affair unfolded over 18 days. But, as any writer knows, a ‘day off’ isn’t always an accurate description, since most writers keep working in their heads when they aren’t tapping the keyboard or scribbling on paper. In any case, both my client and I took a few days off, but they were needed to recharge – and refine.

First Draft at last!

The final day of writing was spent bridging various scenes, revising some of the previous story lines and characters, and generally just getting all the script’s figurative ducks in a row. After an intense period of living and breathing the stories’ characters and creating and re-hashing plot elements and story lines, the first draft was complete. My client was enthusiastic about the end result: although he didn’t realize it when he started, he was trying to write a screenplay, but lacked a general familiarity with the format and mechanics of screenwriting to come up with a finished script on his own. For my part, I was very pleased: although as a story analyst I usually confine my input to constructive criticism, this project was special, particularly because of the client’s obvious desire to tell his story.

Stay in shape!

What I took away from the whole experience is that it’s good to keep those screenwriting muscles in shape – a 15-day first draft is like running a marathon: you start out with highest hopes and great intentions, occasionally sag in the middle, and are elated to see it end – albeit with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. At least that’s what my runner friends tell me. After all, what would I know about running marathons? I’m a writer.

Movies (not) by the numbers…

June 4th, 2011 No comments

 

OK, let’s face it: unless you’re a fan of: A). Gross-out comedies; B). Superhero/Robot/Alien action films; C). Sequels, or D). All of the above, there’s not a lot to see at the movies this summer. Rarely have there been so few ‘original’ films in the marketplace. Despite this, there are films for people who have never cracked a graphic novel in their life, aren’t into anthropomorphic machines or don’t care for numerical film titles. (And, for good measure, we’ve added a trio of ‘guilty pleasures’ that straddle the line between originality and nostalgia.)

Rare, Crafted Original

How do you like your original movies? Arty? Packed with A-list talent? How about an examination of the origins of the cosmos? Well, in Terrence Malick’s demanding “The Tree of Life,” alternately an epic tale of a Texas family and a tone poem about the creation of the universe, you get all three. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son roles alongside relative newcomer Jessica Chastain; the film opened last week in only 4 theaters and grossed $631,000. Undoubtedly Malick’s reputation as a perfectionist (he reportedly spent 3 years laboriously completing the film) has brought in Malick enthusiasts (he has only directed 5 features in 38 years, with another on the way – if you believe Malick), but the overall box office prospects of “The Tree of Life” aren’t such a sure bet. However, if you like your films evocative and discussion-worthy (not to mention hand-crafted), give Malick’s latest a try – just don’t complain that it made you think too much…

Lasting Impressions

Director Mike Mills doesn’t make movies that are easy to logline. His last feature, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” was a film festival darling, nominated at the Berlin Film Festival, The Independent Spirit Awards and the Sundance Film Festival. At all three, Mike Mills didn’t win – but his lead actor, Lou Taylor Pucci, took home the Silver Bear in Berlin and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Now Mills’ second feature, “Beginners,” starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, opens this weekend and is equally difficult to describe: an aimless son contends with his 75 year old dad’s announcement that he is gay, as the film touches on issues of acceptance, death and responsibility for one’s life. Mills based the film on his own life experiences, and early critical response suggests McGregor and Plummer both turn in award-worthy performances.

Old Fashioned Romance

Coming closest to a ‘tentpole’ picture as any on this alternative list, director Tom Hanks’ second theatrical feature (although he has logged serious directing time on his production company’s several HBO mini-series, including “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”) “Larry Crowne” stars Hanks and Julia Roberts as a downsized worker and local college professor, respectively. In an attempt to reinvent himself, Hanks attends college and reignites the passion Roberts had lost for teaching (and for love, apparently). The script is co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, whose surprise hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was produced by Hanks’ Playtone. Don’t expect much beyond ‘boy meets girl, etc…’ from “Larry Crowne.” But if you liked the easy chemistry between Hanks and Roberts in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” expect much more of that here…

Love in a Day? Crazy Life?

Two very different films open on July 29: “Life in a Day,” from National Geographic Films, edits together footage from thousands of contributors to tell the story of life on earth in 24 hours; and “Crazy, Stupid Love,” starring Steve Carell as a suddenly-single man accepting romantic advice from playboy pal Ryan Gosling. The ‘Life’ project has been seen on YouTube (which co-produced), but makes its big-screen debut domestically. Carell’s film is a big investment by Warner Brothers in Dan Fogelman’s script ($2.5 million), but the studio apparently has great plans for the writer, having recently bought Fogelman’s pitch for a Tom Cruise vehicle for $2 million (with an additional $3 million due at completion). Either 7/29 film should prove a cure to the sequel-mania sweeping cinemas by this time of the summer. And – an added plus – neither film is in 3-D!

Everything Old is New Again! – Guilty Pleasures…

Of course, one does not live by original films alone – commercial films can be enjoyed like a palate cleanser between original movies. But they’re only necessary in small doses – the following films emulate the current trend towards remakes and sequels, but still offer something new.

Reel Suspense

Looking an awful lot like an early Steven Spielberg film (in more ways than one), J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a coming-of-age tale whose plot is still shrouded in secrecy, although the film opens in one week. But Abrams is open about the effect his film’s co-producer has had on him, citing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” as primary influences. Given Abrams’ film’s youthful cast, suspenseful action and government conspiracy overtones, “Super 8” looks to have the potential to be a breakout hit worthy of early Spielberg – depending on what is on that crashed train…

Naughty Cameron?

Just when you were beginning to think you imagined “There’s Something About Mary,” Cameron Diaz returns in the R-rated comedy “Bad Teacher,” in which she plays a foul-mouthed junior high school teacher who, after being dumped by a sugar daddy, proceeds to pit two colleagues against one another in her effort to pay for breast implants. Co-starring Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel and directed by Jake Kasdan, this dark comedy offers a real alternative to robot movies.

Hey, it’s the last one…

On the rare chance you’ve been out of touch for the last 13 years, there’s been a phenomenon called ‘Harry Potter,’ first in the publishing world, and soon after in the movies. Now, after 10 years, and 8 movies from 7 books, the series is coming to a finale with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” in 3-D, on July 15th, 2011. It will be the first ‘Potter’ feature in 3-D ( last year’s ‘Hallows Part 1’ simply didn’t have time for the complicated 3-D re-tooling process and make its preset distribution date); as a result, expect enormous numbers for the final Harry Potter film. That is, unless series creator J.K. Rowling decides to pull another wizard out of a hat, so to speak…

So there is hope for fans of original cinema this summer. Just remember – diamonds are hard to find, too.  And, as with any good movie, they’re always formed under pressure…

Nature vs. Nurture: Creativity or Experience?

May 26th, 2011 No comments

Unformed or Informed…?

In the last For Bards Blog post, I mentioned a friend had asked the question “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?” My glib answer was instantaneous: “It’s called the “Citizen Kane” effect.” I did  put in my defense of experience and wisdom by citing filmmmakers like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, or Alain Renais, all of whom  in the last year or two delivered the most mature works of their careers. But my friend’s answer was equally quick – and equally glib: “Yes, but no one  goes to see those.” So why is it that so many creative artists do their most audacious work at the beginning of their career, and what filmmakers have managed to have avoid this pitfall? (Or is it a gift…?)

Enfant Terrible?  –  Seasoned Vet?

Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane” serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to filmmakers, because it signifies the limitless creativity of genius and the relentless demands of commerce at odds with one another. Arguably Welles’ best film (if not anyone’s), “Citizen Kane” showcased Orson Welles’ ample talent and vision and has thrilled audiences ever since its release; but it was not a commercial success, mainly due to the efforts of William Randolph Hearst, who, probably accurately, perceived Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles’ story of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane as a personal attack. The resulting film is a cinema classic, but its arthouse creative ingenuity cost Welles industry work for years. Despite 9 Academy Award nominations, “Citizen Kane” won only for Best Original Screenplay for Mankiewicz and Welles (a credit that its director and co-writer contested for years). Orson Welles’ next directorial effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was taken over in editing by RKO, which savagely re-cut Welles’ original version. Resorting to hire himself out as an actor or wine spokesperson, Welles as a director failed to recreate the cinematic brio of “Citizen Kane,” although he came closest in his 1958 film noir “Touch of Evil.”

Woody Allen is 75 years old. And he still makes movies – almost one a year. Some would argue that his best films are behind him: his “early funny” movies (to quote a sycophant from Allen’s “Stardust Memories”) are a distant memory, and his storylines have tended toward similarity over time. Yet Woody Allen is currently garnering his best critical reaction in years for his latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival recently. Compared by some to his comic fantasy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Midnight in Paris” stars Owen Wilson as an Allen-esque writer whose present-day Parisian vacation changes when he is transported back to the romanticized Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, allowing him to rub shoulders and exchange bon mots with the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway. In a way, it’s  a melding of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Woody Allen: the protagonist is Allen’s Everyman nebbish stand-in, but the film’s setting and sensibility is the ‘new’ Woody, who left his native New York City to shoot all his films since 2005 in England or Europe. His next film, starring Penelope Cruz, will be shot in Rome. 

 

The Argument Continues…

So why is it that some folks do their most evocative  work when they are clearly ‘making it all up?’ Is that naivete? Or pure creativity? And what about a lifetime of experience? John Huston’s two greatest films were probably the first and last he directed (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Dead” in 1987) – 46 years apart! Alfred Hitchcock was limited by film technology when he started directing, embraced it by mid-career and was bored by it at the end – but he delivered films that fall into both the best-work and worst-work categories during each of these phases (among the bests: “The Lodger,” “Notorious,” “Psycho;” among the worsts: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “I Confess,” “Topaz”). But in all these cases – and those of countless other writers and directors, their first project – or even ‘sophmore effort’ – displays a yearning to ‘dream big’ and make a mark. One of the bon-vivants of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, famously said “There are no second acts in American lives,” alluding to the enormous success he experienced with the publication of “The Great Gatsby” in 1924, when Fitzgerald was only 28. Although he struggled to recreate that phenomenal early success, Fitzgerald was forever held to the impossible standard of ‘Gatsby.’ How ironic, then, that yet another adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is in the works for the big screen starring Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and directed by Baz Luhrmann – the 5th version of Fitzgerald’s classic since 1926. Although alcoholism and a hard life brought about his demise at age 44, Fitzgerald’s masterwork lives on. The moral of the story? Create. Then, create some more. Who knows? – you could be the next John Huston… Or, God forbid, F. Scott Fitzgerald, although I suppose worse things have happened…

 Hopefully I’ll see you at the 2012 opening of “The Great Gatsby.” No second acts, indeed…!

Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

Summer Movies: And… They’re Off! (by 28%)

April 11th, 2011 3 comments

The 2011 movie season has started, albeit tepidly. This weekend’s box office was buoyed by a 3-D holiday animated film, “Hop,” which garnered about $21.5 million, but the remaining films in the top five hovered around the $11 to $12 million mark in terms of box office returns. It’s more evidence that the habits of moviegoers are changing – as a result of technological developments as well as economic instability – and the movie industry itself is undergoing a paradigm shift akin to the changes in the music business in the last decade.

Good News, Bad News…

The numbers are in, and it’s not good: the take at the movie box office is down a whopping 20% since the beginning of 2011. And, to make matters worse, that’s the good  news. The bad news? Attendance is down even more, having slipped 28% so far this year. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be helping: its sequel, prequel, remake and reboot-heavy schedule for 2011’s prime movie turf has already been lacerated by critics and fans alike. The few strongly-anticipated films can be counted on one hand – two, if you’re a superhero fanboy. Discussing the potential for this summer’s tentpole films, movie mavens Peter Guber and Peter Bart singled out the July 4th weekend-opener “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” as one of the summer’s rare sequels with real audience potential, and pointed towards J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg-tinged “Super 8” as another film with positive ‘buzz’ among distributors and moviegoers. Not so definite were the prospects for the fourth film in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which loses franchise stars Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom this go-round, replaced by Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, along with Dame Judi Dench and a new director: “Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall.

Big Film, Little Film

What seems clear is that the entertainment industry is going through a great metamorphosis. And it’s not just movies, but all media ‘platforms’ in general. With few exceptions, today there are no studios making theatrical genre fare like the Universal and Warner Brothers programmers of old, or MGM‘s old-fashioned frothy romances or musicals, apart from a specialty distribution unit like Sony’s Screen Gems, which releases “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” sequels with regularity, while sneaking in a popular musical like “Burlesque’ every once in a while. But these movies are small films, basically, and Screen Gems has a firm understanding of its core audience: they are teen moviegoers who have grown up on a steady supply of vampires, werewolves and action fare, with the occasional musical (“Country Strong”) thrown in for good measure. As a result, the company has had few missteps (“Death at a Funeral” was a rare recent misfire), and has made a lot of money for its parent company. Other studios tried with specialty units, but none has had the staying power – or success – of Screen Gems.

Sony continues to make tentpole movies, of course, but they have acknowledged the need for belt-tightening – their retooling of the “Spider-Man” franchise is a perfect example: when the budget of “Spider-Man 4” passed $250 million, the studio began to think in terms of a newer, less costly take on the story – and cast “The Social Network” star Andrew Garfield as its newer, younger Peter Parker. Even a successful studio like Sony needs to deal with the realities of the present: fewer people are going to see movies in the theater, so it’s helpful for them to know who those theatergoers are and give them the movies they want to see, and it’s also important to find a way to distribute their product in every possible way to multiply potential revenue streams. Because let’s face it: when business is down 28%, it’s time to lower margins, tighten belts, and look for new ideas… The studios can implement the cutbacks – but where are they going to find new ideas?

 

The Writes of Spring?

April 6th, 2011 2 comments

Hey, congratulations! You made it through one of the coldest, snowiest, nastiest winters on record (so far), and spring – such as it is – is here. It’s time for ‘spring cleaning,’ and hopefully that includes any ideas you’ve been holding onto over the harsh winter. Washing the windows and beating the rugs – well, that’s your business. But when it comes to following your creative urge and putting those long-gestating ideas down on paper – what I call the ‘writes of spring,’ you should remember the importance of story basics. After all, spring is a time of renewal and rebirth; if you look at the movies coming to a theater near you this summer, renewed and rebirthed is a pretty accurate description of the sequel-heavy fare… It’s why you need to contribute to the ‘writes of spring.’ After all, your idea is better, isn’t it?

The importance of story

More often than not, audiences do not leave a movie theater criticizing the art direction. They find fault with the story – or the way the story is told. The first part means the writer didn’t do their job properly; the latter suggests the director is complicit with the writer. In either case, it’s probably because the story had flaws. Flaws which could have been fixed before the story left audiences wanting something better. That’s where the process of story development comes in: story development analysis reinforces scripts so their seams are not evident.

End with the beginning? Begin with the ending?

No matter what your creative process entails, the important part is getting words down on paper (or bits and bytes on your hard drive) to give your work life. Basics like story structure, pacing, tone, characters, etc. are all important, but without actual substance, all writing is hypothetical. So get those words written – however you want. If you want to begin with your story’s ending (usually the most difficult element of any story or script to get right), go for it! Just remember, while the ending is important, it’s no more so than the beginning or middle. But you’ve got to start somewhere…

Everybody’s a critic

Once you’ve accomplished your goal and put your script down on paper, what next? The subsequent step may actually be the hardest: letting others read and offer criticism of your work. It’s necessary for people to read your efforts – that’s the very definition of being a writer. But you want people to read your work with an eye toward making it better, not simply pointing out misspellings or typos or pronouncing it ‘good.’ Because of their formats, feature film scripts, as well as teleplays and stage plays, can offer a reading challenge to the uninitiated, so it’s a very good idea to have someone familiar with script format read your work for quality and clarity.

Written any good movies lately?

Spring has sprung, the sap is running… So start writing! Or do you WANT another summer of sequels, remakes and reboots? Frankly, it’s your move…

Who ARE you People?!

February 25th, 2011 No comments

For Bards blog has reached a milestone of sorts – it’s turned the page on its first year, and is moving full-speed ahead into its second.

Some Numbers

During the last year, I have written 79 blog posts which have been read by thousands of readers from 65 countries. Not surprisingly, English language-speaking countries account for a substantial share of this traffic, especially since I have relatives (and many close friends) in the United States and the United Kingdom. But that can’t explain why For Bards blog is popular in Australia or New Zealand, where I am delighted to have discovered a loyal readership.

 

It has been fun as well as educational to write For Bards blog during the last year. Many of the posts dealt with the business end of show business, discussing weekend box office numbers or the changing of the guard at one studio or another. Other posts discuss the creative process, or writing in general. But some of my favorite posts have been more personal, like the series of posts I wrote about “My Favorite Week,” when I was lucky enough to hang out with horror movie icon Vincent Price, or relating the ongoing drama of MGM in “Dyin’ Lion?,” which gave me a chance to reminisce about the studio in earlier troubled times. But when the public speaks, its voice must be heard: the #1 most-read post on For Bards blog the last year? It was a relatively innocuous post about big budget releases – but its title must’ve been irresistable to search engines: “Is that a Tentpole in your pocket? (Or are you just shoring up your slate?)” It certainly proves one thing – Madison Ave. is right: (implied) sex sells! From here on in, I’ll try to work something smarmy into every title…

I Hear You

Many readers have been kind enough to leave comments on For Bards blog – and I am always happy to hear from fellow writers and/or film fans. I’ve also learned a great deal about spam: it’s a tool used by some to direct ‘hits’ to their own websites (or sites they advertise on). I’ve learned how to deal with industrial spam while continuing to offer readers a chance to comment. So don’t hesitate to share your opinion (or movie suggestions) – just don’t be surprised if a spam-laden ‘posting’ never appears… I have my ways!

Shameless Plug

My contributions to For Bards blog are linked to my website Forbard Story Services, and both sites have received a good deal of cross-traffic over the past year. As a result, Forbard Story Services has been fortunate enough to help a number of writers with their screenplays, stage plays, teleplays, treatments and other writing projects.  It is always exciting to offer perspective and constructive analysis to writers, and the coming year holds a great deal of promise for more of the same. I encourage writers to keep up the hard work, since Forbard Story Services is ready, willing and able to help.

So, who ARE you people?

Who are For Bards blog readers? They’re writers, they’re movie fans, they’re my voluminous family… They’re also residents of the Maldives, Ivory Coast, Denmark, Slovenia, South Africa, Argentina, Burma, China, Brazil, Russia, and 55 other countries… In other words, they’re lovers of film and writing from around the world. And I look forward to continuing to write about those subjects as For Bards blog moves from its infancy into toddlerdom. In the meantime, thanks to ALL of you for reading For Bards blog!

ARE MOVIES GETTING smaller?

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In our last For Bards blog post, we posed the question “Are movies getting bigger?,” citing the number of sequels, prequels and reboots coming down the pike for the next couple of movie seasons. Everything looked to be bigger! better! (And more of the same!!)

But there’s change afoot in the cinema. By the looks of this year’s Academy Award nominees, movies may be getting smaller. A quick look at the ten nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture reveals that at least 6 of them are smaller-budgeted, character-driven ‘arthouse’ films: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours” and “Winter’s Bone.” And another Best Picture nominee, “Inception,” is a contradiction in terms: a  huge-budgeted, arthouse film made by a studio (which returned the favor by delivering blockbuster global box office).

But a strange thing happened on the way to making these ‘small’ pictures… For starters, they actually got made – truly a testimony to the creative talents behind the projects. Their budgets were squeezed for every dollar – and the filmmakers often suffered for their art; the entire “Winter’s Bone” budget was $2 million, yet that picture has earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Leading Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). The highest-budgeted (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s anomalous “Inception”) of these so-called arthouse films is $25 million for “The Fighter,” but Lisa Chodolenko managed to make her “The Kids Are All Right” for a little over $4 million, and that garnered Academy nods for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Annette Bening) Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” cost $15 million to make, but this past weekend it walked away with 7 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (in addition to receiving 12 Oscar nominations).

But something even stranger happened – something few folks predicted: these films made money. “The King’s Speech” is rapidly closing in on $100 million in the US, and has made $86 million overseas. “Black Swan” has earned nearly $100 million in the U.S.,  “The Fighter” has earned $82 million in the US, and another $11 million abroad, even Chodolenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” made about $20 million domestically. The micro-budgeted (by Hollywood standards) “Winter’s Bone” made a significant profit, returning $10 million in B.O. receipts. Ironically, the one ‘small’ Best Picture nominee that has underperformed is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” which was budgeted at $18 million and has brought in only $15 million domestically, and another $13 million at the box office overseas. Poor word-of-mouth is probably to blame: while audiences thrilled at Boyle’s bravura filmmaking and James Franco’s charismatic (and Leading Actor Oscar-nominated) performance, word of the picture’s emotional climax, in which Franco’s character cuts off his own arm, hurt potential sales. It didn’t help that the media picked up stories of people fainting at screenings, although Boyle’s films have always tested audience’s fortitude – think ‘plumbing-diving’ sequences in “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (and don’t forget: for the latter, Boyle – and his film – won Academy Awards).

It’s not uneard-of for a ‘small’ film to make money – studios are always looking for the next money-making phenom like “Paranormal Activity,” “Napoleon Dynamite,”or “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it takes a certain sensibility to find and nurture these off-the-radar projects. It’s rare that a studio gets behind such a project – it used to be the province of the studios’ ‘specialty film’ units, but most of those have closed since every studio began throwing money at ‘small’ films, effectively turning them into conventional studio product. In the case of this year’s ‘small’ nominees, every film represents the vision of a strong-minded director and a solidly-written script, and, despite this, many of these projects struggled for years to find funding and support to get made.

The lone exception is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which resembles an ‘arthouse’ film in its mind-bending originality, but is betrayed by its $160 million budget. It speaks volumes that Warner Brothers executives greenlit Nolan’s film, a convoluted puzzle-within-a-puzzle, but it is very representative of the filmmaker’s work: turning genre works on their head is Nolan’s specialty – just watch “Memento,” “The Prestige” or even “The Dark Knight” to see how this cinephile subverts conventional storytelling to elevate the antagonist and invert audience expectations. He may be too ‘smart’ or original for conventional Hollywood fare, but Nolan’s auteur sense suggests a keen understanding of art and commerce; after all, despite critical brickbats, “Inception” has gone on to make $824 million at the world box office. Not bad for a giant ‘arthouse’ picture!

So – are movies getting smaller? The simple answer is no. But as long as ‘small’ films make money, look for studios to hedge their big tentpole bets with lesser-budgeted projects in hopes of landing ‘the next big thing.’