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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Sociopathic Spec Syndrome

 When I first started this blog seven years ago, there was still a thriving market for spec screenplays. Lots of successful movies were made every year based on scripts bought on the open market. Now those days are long gone. These days, there are very few movies released in any given year based on spec scripts.

For the most part, of course, this is the due to ever-growing stranglehold of pre-established franchises on the business, but let’s face it, there’s another reason for the decline of the spec-based movie: Most of the spec-based movies that do get made happen to suck.

In the last holiday season, there were two movies based on big-time spec sales: Passengers and Collateral Beauty. I didn’t see either one, but my oh my the reviews weren’t good, and the box office was disappointing for each. In some ways the reviews for the two movies were similar, and I think it speaks to why the spec market died: the way the market is set up, it favors callous movies, and the studios seem to be oblivious to how callous they are.

In Passengers, Chris Pratt wakes up early on an intergalactic journey, and realizes that now he’ll die alone of old age while everyone else sleeps. To make his death sentence more pleasant, he decides to also wake up a hot girl, consigning her to the same fate, then claim that he had nothing to do with it and let nature take its course. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to like the guy.
In Collateral Beauty, some ad execs are tired of their partners grieving process, so they hire actors to gaslight the poor guy, going so far as to shoot video and then edit the actors out, so as to convince their colleague that he’s in contact with walking talking abstract concepts. This whole process was supposed to be kinda funny.

Audiences and critics saw these movies and instantly felt skeezed out. What supremely creepy concepts! Nobody wanted to go on these journeys with these characters.

The natural instinct is to look at these movies and assume that the screening process is insufficient, letting in too many bad movies. In fact, of course, the opposite is true: the ascension of these movies was the result of a tremendously strict process, winnowing down hundreds of thousands of entries to just a few lucky winners, after each one was reviews by dozens of gatekeepers. So what went wrong?

Let’s look at another big spec sale or recent years. This rare spec-sale was noteworthy enough that AVClub.com reported on it: A Fred Rogers biopic entitled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The chuckleheads at AVClub, of course, just retype press releases and add a few jokes, so the writer of this news item decided to joke that the screenplay would “tell the story of the Presbyterian Church minister who found fame and inspired generations with his children’s show, only to spiral into a hellish cycle of drug abuse and sexual depravity”, before saying “Just kidding: Absolutely none of that happened, and by all accounts Mister Rogers was as soft-spoken and earnest in his personal life as he was his professional. Which means this particular biopic will lack the seemingly obligatory ‘fall from grace’ arc”. But here’s the thing: I read that script, and the writer was right the first time. In the spec script, which is purely fictional, Rogers does indeed fall into disgrace involving both drugs and sex.

It’s hard to admit that you care about something heartfelt and genuine that someone else has written. It’s much easier to say, “Look at how cynical I am! I love this cynical script and you should too.” All those layers of gatekeepers only serve to filter out the scripts that anyone would actually care about, leaving the most sociopathic scripts to squeeze through the process. Then the studios are shocked to discover that the public is not willing to stomach these characters.

Then all the movies based on spec scripts fail, reinforcing the studios’ belief that the public has no craving for original material. It’s a vicious cycle.

12 comments:

Hans said...

All of which is exactly why I'm glad Moonlight won Best Pic.

Hans said...

(Though I wish it had been Lion.)

Jesse Baruffi said...

Hi Matt,

It seems to me like a lot of movies and sitcoms have relied on the Big Lie premise to get their ball rolling, which gives the hero some sort of redemption arc. Of course, this can work well in a comedy, where absurdities are more easily forgiven, but in more realistic dramas or the like, it does indeed make the protagonist look monstrous.

But this also brings to mind a theory I read where someone posited that all of our modern fictional heroes are either sociopaths or in some way autistic. I'm curious if you think this is true, and if so, why it might be.

Matt Bird said...

I'd be interested in reading that theory. Certainly, movies rely on characters that lack our self-protecting mechanisms: We defuse conflicts before they get too big, but movie characters don't. In movies, love means never having to say you're sorry, but in real life love means always having to say you're sorry. When they get framed, they go on the run to fix it themselves, etc.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

A movie about a father grieving is the kind of thing a big-name actor would really want to do, but such a movie would be wholly execution dependent. It would have to be actually good for it to sell tickets. Yikes. The script for Collateral Beauty offers a "father grieving" story with a bizarre high concept that can be explained in an elevator. Even if it stinks, the basic idea will get asses in seats! Booyah!

Better still, it had roles for multiple big name actors to indulge in scenes that actors love. (ACTING!) And, let's be honest, it has a backhanded message of "movies heal people." (The partners' stunt to save their friend is basically "put the guy in a movie.")

Imagine you're a studio exec with this script in front of you. You could get a big star plus other name actors without a mammoth budget, because it's not effects-driven; it's about Big Time Emotions with lots of Big Acting Scenes so there's a chance of Oscars if it comes out well; and it's about the power and magic of drama, so the studio people can feel good about themselves and their jobs. Unfortunately, it's also bugnuts insane, insulting, and suggests that no one involved in the entire process had ever met a human being much less been one, but from a particular angle, I can see how it might get made.

Passengers is what happens when you don't have enough women in your executive suites. Holy crap. Now imagine if that story were told from her perspective and you let it play out more honestly. That could be an interesting horror-drama.

The Mr. Rogers script, ye gods. The internet has a wonderful term for the kind of person who would write or buy such a script: "edgelord." The question is: did the studio buy it holding their nose and counting on the "edgelord" community of teenage dorks buying tickets for it, or did they buy it because they enjoyed its "sharp satirical take" and "edginess?"

God, what a lazy idea. "What if Mister Rogers...were a self-destructive monster?" Yeah, congratulations, you've performed the most basic possible concept inversion in human history. Ugh.

Matt Bird said...

Telling "Passengers" from her POV is genius.

Anonymous said...

Telling “Passengers” from her POV is obvious. Was the first thing that came to my mind when reading about it and I’m not a woman nor a feminist.
Of course that raises the question why it wasn’t done that way.

Paul Worthington said...

I haven't seen Passengers for the reasons noted.
I do wonder why they didn't do a more obvious easy fix: The malfunction that awoke Pratt threatened to wake everyone, which would mean they'd all die as the ship couldn't support that load.
And rather than waking one attractive woman for company, he researched the settlers and found the one who could fix the malfunction -- and woke her as the only way possible to save everyone else.

(Holy Moly that captcha went on for days)

Glen said...

I haven't actually seen the movie 'Passengers', and unless I can find my shotgun and hold up the local drugstore this weekend I have no intentions of doing so either. I would have to assume though, that the writers were not trying to portray the main character as a selfless person, who basically gives his newly awakened friend an automatic death sentence.

They most likely wanted it as an act of desperation and loneliness but it didn't really pan out that way.

The problem here I think with this is the relationship of the dramatic question to the premise. The whole thing really centers on what is going to happen to them and whether they will do the business, but the story, setup and environment more or less answers this from the start.

Telling the story from the girl's perspective would make it potentially more interesting, but regardless of the genre and setting it's still a boy meets girl relationship movie which means you have to something new to say about the subject besides plodding through some nice Sci-Fi sets.

Is Hollywood short on ideas? I wonder how many scripts are in the pipeline about a PWC accountant who, drunk on fame, deliberately sabotages the Oscars so he can be catapulted into the spotlight. It's a sort or Quiz show meets the Player re-boot, but not really. Hang on just a minute… just like the cable breaking down at the sorority house, this one is writing itself.

MCP said...

I personally enjoyed Passengers and thought they handled a dark choice by the main character fairly well. On a grand scale the main action still isn't morally excusable, but they did show him about to kill himself beforehand. Then agonize over the choice for a while.

In retrospect too the whole ship would have died if he hadn't woken her up, and she did beat him up pretty severely in revenge. All in all I think it was an interesting movie, which had that intriguing morally dubious choice up front (because in that same situation how many people could do the right thing and live decades by themselves to no purpose).

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