The summer 2013 movie season has been complained about ad nauseum. I thought I’d add a little something constructive in the hopes that maybe, just maybe it helps to bring back the good times. Here are my volleys in the name of saving entertainment.
I posit that the blockbusters and other popcorn movies increasingly fail to meet our expectations because:
Our expectations are set by people whose sole purpose in life is to make you want something with an mindless, driving lust that, frankly, can never be fulfilled;
Contemporary society, in general, has a severely diminished ability to empathize;
The”heart” has been forcefully and inadvertently engineered out of most of the stories that make it to screen.
I blame the producers. And the distributors. And everybody else who, in their best attempts to give us exactly what we say we want, remove all vestiges of emotional connective tissue from the very projects they’re trying to save. It’s a lot like calling the tough-love camp to cart off your “troubled teen” — your kid ends up hating you more because sending them away proves that you don’t care (despite your vehement and deeply sincere proclamations to the contrary). In short, those on the business end of entertainment are often their own worst enemies.
Producers are people too. They are. Some of my best friends are producers and I love them anyway. In that difficult line of work, reward comes when sales figures are met. Consider that sales figures need to continue to grow (a topic for another day). Consider that high risk is to be avoided at all costs and low, previously proven risks pave the golden road to tomorrow. Didn’t meet your projections? Then find another private school for little Jimmy and Janey because your worth has just dramatically declined. Yes, it’s as personal for them as it is for you in your job, dear reader. So what better way to lower risk and de-fog the crystal ball than to produce projects that have been produced before and then spend heavily to create desire for the already familiar? Advertising is a well-researched, time-tested means of persuasion. It works at you nearly every waking moment, making promises, speaking your language sweetly in your ear. Whether you like what you’ve been made to desire is usually of little concern. So that’s point one in the smallest nutshell possible.
Point two: We’re all loveable mongrels. Harsh perhaps but really, have you looked at yourself lately? When was the last time you ate a conversational meal with your family? Did you notice the eye colour of the person asking for change on the corner you pass every single day? How about the last thing you did in the name of self-preservation or protecting your family; who was on the other end of that action and what consequences did they suffer as a result of what you did? The real nitty gritty telltale signs aren’t these bigger questions but in our every day interactions. Face it, if I pointed out our every day harshness, you’d read it and think me petty. That’s how ingrained in our culture our collective lack of empathy has become. We can’t recognize ourselves in the mirror. If we aren’t practiced in putting ourselves in the place of another, of feeling the joy and pain of lives we ourselves have not lived, how is it we expect to be moved by our entertainment? Thus movies have evolved with us to rely on the more external emotions such as surprise, thrill, and excitement. If you’ve spent five minutes with a kid, you know how lasting and satisfying those emotions can be.
Which leaves us at point number three. The grand excision of all things meaningful from contemporary movies happens not because screenwriters aren’t talented, not because directors are incompetent, and not because the studio’s metrics failed. It happens because, in general, a very small percentage of people have the kind of access that allows for identification, assessment, and application of the emotions that make going to the movies worthwhile. Put another way, most of us don’t know why we feel.
If we wonder why it is we feel a particular way, our first instinct is to connect the feeling to the most apparent circumstance. Yet circumstance is only a small part of the whole. Any particular emotional state can be traced to earlier experience and the best part is that many of those experiences are shared as part of being alive in this era or any. The commonality of human experience is what entertainment has always been about and when we lose that, we lose interest. It’s not enough to string together events, slap on some generic stakes, and call it a day.
When it comes to making projects fit budgets, timelines, insurance company requirements, key talent demands, investor requests, and everything else that wreaks havoc on a screenplay before a single scene is shot, that delicate, deeply interwoven emotional tissue often is severed. Ask many screenwriters, novelists, actors, or even psychologists and they’ll likely find it somewhat easy to point to where the connection to the audience failed in a given project. Most everyone else will point to plot events, character flaws, or execution. They’ll miss the true reason because it is the least apparent of all possibilities. As in life, that crucial reason also happens to be most important. Meaningful connection is the Holy Grail.
When producers ask the same question about where a project failed, it’s up to them whether to believe the information or not. This is where it gets difficult so brace yourself. You see, when faced with information, we make decisions by listening for how well the new information resonates with “what we know” (a.k.a. what is familiar). We measure up and determine our degree of agreement. Little familiarity usually means little agreement. Often the powers of persuasion are a key factor here in that skillfully persuasive deliverers of new information can read their audience and shape the information to be more familiar and therefore more acceptable. So the same information delivered differently is received differently and good information may not be acted upon. It’s the proverbial horse and water.
It’s not anyone’s fault and it’s everyone’s fault. My friends, we are killing the movies. We shape and are shaped by our culture. We act in ways that we believe to be best and we have many sound justifications for our actions. It all ties up in a neat bow. Except for the fact that the gorgeously decorated cake with the bow has no flavour.
Where does this leave us you ask? My dearest hope is that one persuasive individual has the guts and foresight to ask one of the finely tuned creatures we call artists to weigh in on their projects, ask probing questions, and then listens to their response with new openness. We all have emotions but only a few are skilled in their use for good, not evil when it comes to storytelling. If you’re in a position to shape a project, it will take some doing to find your person, the one who can not only critique a project but also support their criticism with sound reasoning borne of experience.
Opinions are everywhere but one must search for–and trust–wisdom.
Self-explanatory title, no? Here are some choice bits. Check out johnaugust.com for the full meal deal.
I had a president of production ask for a free rewrite before he gave it to his chairman. Not a polish. He had notes. True multi-week notes. That doesn’t strike me as a producer’s polish. That strikes me as flat-out abusive.
…that seems to be what people want. If I can’t magically say, “Yes, here is my crystal ball, it outperforms THE HUNGER GAMES, don’t worry about it,” they just shut me down.
I know a lot of young writers in my general boat, and to be honest I think all of us are trying to get out of features and into TV.
We’re sure, being the literary wunderkinds that you are, you already knew that April is National Poetry Month, the month when “publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.” That’s from the official website of National Poetry Month, www.poets.org, presented by the Academy of American Poets.
While poetry’s “vital place” may sometimes be questionable in these times but you wordsmiths and lovers of lyrical artistry know the value poetry has for your own work…don’t you? (Hint: if not, it’s time you found out.)