Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What’s the Matter with Hollywood (Or Is It Me)?

In response to my last post, some of you suggested that I write more about recent movies. And, indeed, this is the time of year that I usually talk about my favorite Hollywood movies of the year and how they reflect various pieces of advice that I’ve given. In preparation for just such a piece, I got caught up on a lot of movies from this year…and I was kind of horrified.

Picture above is Entertainment Weekly’s averaged-out grades (albeit using a bizarre selection of critics) for most of the movies that came out this year. I’ve added the running time for each one, and my own grade for the ones I saw. (“F” means that no scene impressed me, “A” means every scene impressed me.)

Looking at the results, you’ll notice a few things:
  • In most cases, my grade is much lower than the critical average, often extremely so. 
  • The running times of almost every one is obscenely bloated. Not one of these movies needed to be longer than two hours. Even my favorite, The Master, could have shed those extra 24 minutes and not missed them.
  • But the real problem, of course, is that almost all of these movies were either sequels, remakes, adaptations, or written/commissioned by the director. Almost none, in other words, were “original specs” purchased on the screenwriting market.
(Two movies that I thought were surprisingly not-bad, Safe House and The Campaign, are missing from EW’s list. I would have given both a solid “B”, and both, I’m glad to say, were based on original specs. Dredd is also missing, which, despite fairly good reviews, I would have given another “F”.)

Based on this evidence, I see causes for concern:
  • Clearly, my tastes are drifting further from the critical consensus, which makes me feel increasingly unfit to speak to what sort of movies people should be writing.
  • I primarily aim my advice to writers of original spec screenplays, but the market for such screenplays has almost entirely disappeared. 
  • The increase in running time is an indicator, above all, of clout: The studios are so skittish that they say “no” every chance they get. As a result the only movies that actually get made are projects that no one at the studio is allowed to second-guess or say no to, either because of the director’s clout, the franchise’s profitability, or both. These aren’t movies, they’re juggernauts, and they simply steamroll over producers, critics and audiences, pummeling all three into submission.
So what is an amateur screenwriter to do? The answer, quixotically, is to continue writing original specs anyway. Even if they sell, there is almost no chance that they will get made, but you have to sell one or two first in order to be considered for the remake/sequel/adaptation assignments that make up almost all of the available work, for now and for the foreseeable future. But it becomes increasingly hard to know if you’re doing a good job, because there are almost no successful examples to compare yourself to, (and those that do sneak through hardly inspire would-be writers to greatness.)

In the meantime, do I write a best-of? Part of the problem is that even the movies I liked best were profoundly weird. I thought The Master, Lincoln, and Django were all pretty great, but would I really advise any writers to emulate them? These, too, were “clout” movies, totally insulated from the pressures of the market. Each does a lot of things that original specs simply aren’t allowed to do, so what’s the point?

This all helps explain my lack of recent posts, but rest assured that I have been developing some in-depth new material, including a brand new Ultimate Checklist that will debut soon, so stay tuned. (And the book is coming along nicely, too!) Meanwhile, I should probably take the advice of some of you and start looking again to older movies for inspiration and analysis, hoping to protect the wisdom of the past until the barbarian hordes have passed and a new movie renaissance can begin.


paul haine said...

"Clearly, my tastes are drifting further from the critical consensus, which makes me feel increasingly unfit to speak to what sort of movies people should be writing."

I think this makes you more fit to speak on the subject, not less.

j.s. said...

You've already written a bit about LINCOLN. But I'd be curious to see a Cockeyed Caravan defense of THE MASTER as good storytelling (just what is Freddie's problem anyhow?). And the same goes for DJANGO, especially the final 20-30 minutes or so. Of all the American movies I saw last year that could have used The Meddler, it's these two that stuck out most.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is too long by about half an hour but the last half hour is the raid, which turns out to be the most riveting part.

Matt Bird said...

Well, I wrote so much in response that I decided to save it for an actual post. Maybe I will do some year-end reviews after all...

christinembird said...

Margaret Heidenry's article in March's Vanity Fair totally confirms everything Matt has long said about the collapse in the market for spec scripts.

It's called "When the Spec Script Was King," describing the glory days before the bubble burst in 2008.

I recommend it to Matt's readers.

j.s. said...

I"ll second Christine's recommendation of that article. Though it's not quite so terribly as gloomy as all that. The market has rebounded somewhat. It's just that most of the sold scripts aren't being made into films (yet) and the purchase prices aren't out of control like they used to be.

I look forward to reading Matt's extended piece on THE MASTER. While I was watching the film in the theater, I kept waiting for the story to begin, for us to get a clue about who wants/needs something and when they'll get it or not. By the end I was honestly thinking to myself, "Here's a movie that really could have used Matt Bird's help." And I write that as a fan of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, THERE WILL BE BLOOD and other even artier acting-fests in general (especially the better films of Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, where there's still a clear, well-told story). If THE MASTER is anything it's a "character study," but one that feels curiously hollow to me, as the two main characters never seem to know what they want or to change from their encounters.

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

I wouldn't worry about your taste (it's clearly good) or that your advice is aimed towards writers of original specs... people should aim to write good and worthy screenplays. Writing unique and original specs that draw from the entire history of film and drama is the only way to really have a shot regardless of how you slice it.

I'd argue that an amateur screenwriter should learn not only how to write great stories but also how to get them made outside of the studio system. The spec market is ridiculously competitive... if you want to make money doing that, good luck, the deck is stacked against you. If you want to write movies that matter and contribute your art to society you need to figure out more methods of realizing their actual creation. A cinema renaissance is likely not coming from Hollywood in the near future.

Unknown said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with Hollywood. It is an accurate reflection of the cultural trends (what the majority of the people want to watch) and it is operating as any business should. It is doing what it always has done with respect to making movies with the intention of making a profit.

Mike W said...

I'm surprised to see that Flight isn't on that list.

Yes, it has Denzel Washington and Zemeckis attached, but it started out as a spec.