Tuesday, February 28, 2017
What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Sociopathic Spec Syndrome
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.
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.