The State of the Art

On the one hand, it’s nice to know that I’m not crazy. On the other hand, man, I hate being stats

There was a panel discussion at the WGA Theater, where a couple of screenwriters, a couple of producers and a couple of studio executives gathered to talk about development. Ace screenwriter John August reports.  Over the years, I’d figured out on my own a lot of the things that were talked about, but it was both bracing and a little scary to hear my own doom-and-gloom suspicions reflected back at me.

The headlines:

Fewer movies are being developed, which means there are more writers competing for each job, which means that the very few people in Hollywood who actually pay money to writers for writing screenplays pretty much get to ask for whatever they want to: free development, multiple free treatments, free screenplay drafts. The screenwriter who objects to working for weeks, or months, or years for free (my record is two years on one project) is labeled "difficult" and is out of the running. The great screenwriter who isn’t "good in the room" is passed over for the mediocre screenwriter who makes everyone laugh at the pitch meeting.

The studios are in the control of the marketing folk. That means that any movie idea that can’t be summed up in five words is suspect and anything that takes more than a sentence is rejected outright. Italso means that screenwriter’s "ideas" are less valuable than ever, since they haven’t been "pre-sold." (My favorite story from the discussion is from Jonathan Hensleigh, who had an idea for a movie he couldn’t sell, so he bought the rights to a comic book that had a similar idea, because "the fucking idiots need a pre-branded thing to look at."

One would think that the success of Slumdog Millionaire would mean that every studio is out looking for the next Slumdog Millionaire, right? Wrong. Slumdog Millionaire has, if I’m not mistaken, four different studios and production companies’ names at the front of it — it’s obviously a movie that had a very hard time finding its financing. That was true when it was made and it would still be true tomorrow. Because, as successful as it is, there was no way to predict that. If the producer walked into a studio executive’s office, x years ago, with the script for Slumdog Millionaire in his hand and a report from the future that it would make over $100 million and win the Best Picture Oscar, complete with Variety reports and video footage, the executive would still turn it down: it has no stars (which is bad for international sales), is mostly a grim story about the difficult lives of Mumbai orphans, is a hard sell, and can’t be summed up in five words. "Mumbai Orphan Wins Game Show Through Miracle" is the shortest I could compact the story, and that’s two words too many, sorry, what about a movie based on Shamwow?


42 Responses to “The State of the Art”
  1. laminator_x says:

    What does the Shamwow want?

    The rule of the marketting people ruins everything it touches, no matter what the feild.

  2. autodidactic says:

    You sound depressed. It does sound like a depressing situation.

    I don’t know if such things keep you warm at night, but remember: you’re in a career that a bunch of us wouldn’t and couldn’t make it in no matter what. You obviously know what you’re talking about and you’ve had a bit of success.

    It won’t pay the bills, but you’ll go down in the history books.

    The best some of us can hope for is posthumous fame or infamy.

    • Todd says:

      Me? I’m not depressed. Thankfully, I’m gainfully employed and in relative demand. It’s just that I’ve noticed this shift in the business in the past five years where it’s just become murder out there, and it was startling to hear all my own theories borne out by a panel of industry peers. We writers tend to be solitary sorts who don’t spend that much time hobnobbing — we have to each figure out the industry for ourselves.

  3. musicpsych says:

    It’s almost as if writers will need to start hiring marketing research folk in order to get anywhere. Either that, or use marketing research data already available, and tailor your writing to that.

    • Todd says:

      It’s not enough that a writer has a great idea for a movie now, they have to have a great idea for a marketing campaign as well. When I joined the ranks of screenwriters 15 or so years ago, the challenge was learning how to think like a producer or a studio executive. Now the writer, the producer and the studio executive all have to learn to think like a marketer in order to stand a chance of getting a movie made.

  4. nom_de_grr says:

    On the other hand, it might also be a good time for independent filmmakers. One of the last serious recessions, the one following the oil crash of 1973, also coincided with a wave of American auteur directors.

    The studio system was on the verge of collapse then, collapsing under the weight of its own massive failures. That’s not necessarily true now; last year was great for studios, but that was mostly due to a few giant actioners. Get a couple of Cleopatra-size bombs and combine it with an over-abundance of caution, and the studios could once more be boned. Indies, on the other hand, are more nimble than ever, thanks to cheaper digital technology.

    Who knows? Hard times often produce a rush of great art.

  5. r_sikoryak says:

    Wait wait wait. You buried the lead.

    Tell me more about Shamwow: The Movie.

    • Forget Shamwow- I’ve got a Dyson bio flick ready to roll…
      Dyson the Movie- You’ll have a ball!
      (with the sequel- Dyson- Suction Harder!)

    • quitwriting says:

      Shamwow Prevents Global Warming

      Okay, picture this: the polar ice-caps have flash-melted because, uhm… methane gas has been released from the sea bed. Due to this, torrential storms are kicking up everywhere and the world is threatened by these ridiculously large previously-unrecorded-magnitude hurricanes. These things literally level cities as if they were sand castles. How will we ever survive?! Answer? GIANT SHAMWOW. It ABSORBS half the ocean, saving us all. HOORAY.

  6. steam_doll says:

    The ShamWow guy’s story would actually make a great movie, however, it would never get made if the Church of Scientology has anything to say about it.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Mumbai Orphan Miraculously Wins Game Show.”

    That’s six. Still one too many, but hey, maybe marketing guys can’t count?

    Or maybe just boil it down to “Against odds, boy gets girl”?

    — N.A.

  8. clayfoot says:

    I suppose the studios face their own pressures to produce and to be profitable, but it seems remarkably short sighted to put pressure on the screenwriters, considering over 40% of the top grossing movies for the last 15 years were from original screenplays.

    • They’re looking at the other 60%, basically. Retail corporations aren’t that different in the way they look at merchandise.

      If 60% of your profit is coming from A and 40% is coming from B, they will focus on increasing A.

  9. That truly bites. It is completely unsurprising, but it really, really bites.

    I’m guessing that since I’ve not heard of Shamwow, I’m better off remaining ignorant.

    • I looked it up. Dude, I’ve seen that exact presentation live YEARS ago. Except the same product was called the Magic Cloth. The live demo was impressive enough I did buy some. $30. I just haven’t used it b/c 1. I was keeping it for when I moved and 2. When we moved here, my bf was provided with SO MANY RAGS by his mother, we don’t yet have a need.

      The guy in the video is annoying.

  10. sheherazahde says:

    ShamWow is really hot right now!
    Get that sucker into production. Quick!

  11. mitejen says:

    You sort of already mentioned it with your remark of films being pre-sold, but they ARE looking for the next Slumdog–they’re probably looking for something similar to back even as you post this.

    • I disagree- The Hollywood Machine is terrified of Slumdog and it’s ilk-
      There were no studio versions of Sex, Lies & Video or even Pulp Fiction
      They (studios and especially marketing departments…)have no way of guaranteeing any box office related to a complicated indie flick-
      They’re much happier with big, steaming piles of mediocrity and always have been- it goes great with popcorn…

      • For what it’s worth, I do remember in the 5 years after “Pulp Fiction” there suddenly being a small but significant number of movies with large casts, episodic but interconnected plots, and aspirations of edginess. “Go” is the only one that occurs to me immediately, but there were several others. Also there was a sudden explosion in Elmore Leonard adaptations.

        • Todd says:

          I remember my first reaction to Go was “Hey! It’s Pulp Fiction for kids!” I meant it as a compliment.

          • yes- there were a ton of Tarantino inspired indies and Go was probably the biggest, but in no way was it a major Studio flick…
            as for Slumdog- the only thing I can think it might effect is a reinforcement of The Movie Musical…it’s in the water…

      • clayfoot says:

        The steaming piles (especially with simple dialog and lots of explosions) play well overseas, which is where many films first turn a profit these days. It seems like Hollywood is simply more risk averse than usual these days. Better to break even on several second rate films than go bankrupt on one or two big flops. Perhaps, films like Slumdog Millionaire will help to turn the tide on risk taking.

        • Todd says:

          Hint: it won’t.

          Because, as you say, the studios are more risk-averse than ever. Show them a project that costs $15 million and might be a huge hit, a popular favorite that will earn ten times its cost, and they will turn you down flat. Show them a redundant, star-driven spectacle that will cost them $200 million but that is guaranteed to make its money back, and they will tentatively say yes.

      • mitejen says:

        Maybe the big name studios aren’t actually making the films themselves, but they’re likely to bankroll stuff that creates buzz in the festival circuits. What I’m saying is that now, because of the success of Slumdog, films that might have been foundering in the festival circuits (or languishing in development hell) that have anything to do with India or the themes of the film will be picked up and distributed by the bigger studios.

        Filmmakers still do the heavy lifting by self-financing the production, but the big studios sometimes step in with distribution costs with something they perceive as being vaguely profitable.

  12. quitwriting says:

    Do they accept pitches in the X meets Y vein?

    Like if I wanted to pitch a story about an ace pilot who is recruited by a top-secret government agency to fight an impending alien invasion that’s being launched through the internet. It’s The Matrix meets Independence Day.

    (Seriously, that’s a terrible idea. I’ll need a treatment and the first twenty pages by lunch tomorrow.)

    • Todd says:

      If you present it as “Will Smith is an ace pilot who is recruited by a top-secret government agency to fight an impending alien invasion that’s being launched through the internet” you would have their attention.

    • stormwyvern says:

      I heard an NPR piece years ago about the related art of pitching for TV. They revealed that what the head honchos of the television world want to hear is that this new show is totally original, and that it’s a cross between two known, successful, existing shows. These statements should preferably be made in the first two sentences. Bonus points if they’re in the same sentence.

      • Todd says:

        That’s pretty much been the standard in Hollywood for about 20 years now — “It’s _____ meets _____.” For a really sophisticated pitch, you can say “It’s _____ meets _____ in _____.”

        Examples: “It’s Star Wars meets The Silence of the Lambs in space,” or “It’s Armageddon meets Unforgiven at a spelling bee,” or “It’s Reservoir Dogs meets The Dirty Dozen in the Alps.”

        (Oh wait, they already made that one: it’s called Where Eagles Dare.)

    • Todd says:

      And, by the way, it’s Top Gun meets War of the Worlds in the world of The Matrix.

  13. Anonymous says:

    And I just quit my job as a lawyer to write screenplays!

  14. robolizard says:

    Int. Hotel Room – Night

    A SENATOR, 54 stand horrified over the corpse of a HOOKER, 19. The blood flows from her. The Senator reaches for a towel and wipes up the blood. It is to no avail. The senator weeps in frustration.

    Then he spies something from across the room. It is towel like, yet somehow different. He uses the object to wipe up the blood, and this object easily absorbs it. The senator stares at the object in shock. This is the SHAMWOW.

    My God. This can absorb anything.

    The senator then uses the Shamwow to absorb the hooker.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Selling ideas via comic books

    Based on the Hensleigh story, might it behoove a writer with an involved idea to hire an artist, make a 16-22 page comic that encompasses the idea, have it printed up at a small-run, print-on-demand shop so that it looks like a comic that you could actually buy at a store, and bring that to a studio? That’s just really a leave-behind with a bit of misdirection, but do you think a studio would really check if the comic is actually for sale or has any kind of following?
    I know Doug TenNapel created some of his graphic novels to serve as leave-behinds for movie pitches. The GNs were actually published, but he might have been able to skip the publishing part as long as he had a professional-looking finished product to show. (Of course, at that point, why NOT try to get it published… but for a shorter, pamphlet-style comic, might not be important.)

    • Todd says:

      Re: Selling ideas via comic books

      I know of a couple of animators who wanted to get movies done but didn’t have the clout, so worked their concepts up into comics and self-published them. It didn’t work, because they didn’t know story (and the ideas were blatant imitations of more famous work).

      That, of course, does not mean that it’s a bad idea. However, if your stuff is good enough to fool an executive, I find it hard to believe it’s not also good enough to be published.