Friday, December 10, 2010

The Story Project #5: They Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent

This is hard to believe, but ten years ago, comics fans were still convinced that the movies would never take them seriously. Then Sam Raimi hit the first two Spider-Man movies out of the park, and the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes. They suddenly realized that, in the hands of skillful adapters (which proved to be the tricky part), comics could prove to be a theretofore little-touched treasure trove of high concept story material. Wa-hoo! It was land rush time! Now, of course, even an old school superhero fan like myself is sick to death of all the adaptations. They pumped out the well until it was dry and now they’re already insta-rebeooting franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men (along with Pirates and Bourne and many others). Gee, maybe they can get Tobey Maguire to come back and play the new Spider-Man’s dad! (or slightly-older brother.)

Why won’t they let the party end? Here’s one theory: Development people had always feared that the studio bosses were secretly illiterates who only pretended to read those dry stacks of scripts on their desk. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when they saw how much happier their bosses were about taking home stacks of graphic novels, which came pre-visualized and pre-set to maximum badass-itude. Once the comics well ran dry, they couldn’t force anyone to go back to reading dry prose, especially screenplays which are even duller than books, since they’re only blueprints. 

Things got so bad in Hollywood that many screenwriters, myself included, were advised to convert our screenplays into fake graphic novels that we could then adapt back into screenplays. The most infamous case of this was a “property” called “Cowboys and Aliens”, which pre-sold for big bucks, then put out one issue from a comic book company that existed just to generate material for adaptation. The project has been cited as an example of what’s wrong with the system so many times that I was a little shocked to see a trailer recently and realize (1) the movie finally got made, and (2) the trailer isn’t even half bad.

But comics were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The biggest problem is simply that failure begets failure. Too many bad spec scripts were sold, which happened to coincide with a time in which a lot or adaptations were unexpectedly successful. These and many other forces combined to create the vague impression that original material was now a hard sell, and once that set in, the great unspoken embarrassment about making up a story from scratch reached out and seized everybody’s heart.

If you try pitching an original movie to a development person today, even if they love it, they know that they’ll be in for a hard slog if they try to pass it on up the ladder. They have to explain that they liked a story that nobody else has ever bought before. It’s so much easier to say “x number of fans can’t be wrong!” (Even in the case of Cowboys and Aliens, where x equaled zero) They’re not in the storytelling business anymore, they’re in the franchising business. They’re not creating commodities, that’s for chumps. They’re trading commodities, that’s less embarrassing.

Our president liked to tell a story on the campaign trail about an idealist showing up to help out with a local Chicago campaign only to have the boss ask him which political machine had sent him over. When he answered “nobody,” they responded “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.” They, too, didn’t want to create value, they just wanted to trade it back and forth. That’s become the American way. But there’s just one problem: Americans crave new stories. If we keep trying to tell original stories, the producers will eventually have to listen to us, even if they don’t want to, as long as we refuse to be embarrassed about what we’re doing.


christinembird said...

Everything you say is also true of Broadway, which prefers recycling tried-and-true movies to producing original work.

Anonymous said...

Man, truer words were never spoken. Except some indie companies like Focus, Summit or *sigh* The Weinstein Company, NOBODY in this town want to hear about original scripts. The saddest case is Disney: they announced from now only want franchises, (you can see it in the way they're milking Tron: videogames, comics, books, attractions, and it isn't released yet!) If things go this way the 2011 Black List will be filled in a mail stamp... :(

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel