The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m 86% John.
John: Oh, good. I’m 86% as well.
Craig: No, no. You told me right before we started that you were 85%.
John: All right. I increased one percent in just…
Craig: I’m sorry, did I say 86? I meant 87. I’m 87%.
John: So I feel like most of my viral sinusitis is gone and passed. My voice is much, much better. There’s something maybe moving into my lungs. I do worry that I’m going to get that sort of thing that gets in your lungs for a long time and you finally have to take a Z-Pak to kill it. But then you take an antibiotic, and you don’t really want to take antibiotics because they’re really not good for you, but we’ll see what happens.
Because I have that slight cough. It’s like if I were a character in a movie and this was a first act and you heard that cough you might say like, “Oh, he’s not going to make it to the third act.”
Craig: Right. This is the beginning of Camille.
John: Yeah. But, it may be nothing. So, I may just be imagining this. It could be a tough of allergies.
Craig: No, no. It’s probably terminal.
John: Yeah. It might be terminal.
Craig: No, I’m pretty sure it’s terminal.
John: If this is our last podcast, Craig, let’s make it our best.
Craig: Oh, no, no, no, this won’t be the last one. We have a year of podcasts of your slowly withering. [laughs] The last one will be at your hospital bed.
John: So who are you going to get to replace me on the podcast after I die?
Craig: Ah, we’re currently, the guys who make your apps are currently going to — we’re replacing you, John, with an app.
John: I like it.
John: So it will be all my little ticks, and all my little hums and haws.
Craig: Turns out you’re very programmable.
John: I like it. And if need to do a live one, there’s actually a lot of people who look quite a bit like me. So you’ll just stick somebody up there and they’ll buy it.
Craig: Oh for sure.
John: They’ll buy anything.
Craig: No, we’re not going to lie. We’re not going to say that you’re… — We’re just going to say that this is basically John 2.0. It’s an improved John August. It’s all the things you liked about John but none of the many, many things you hated. [laughs] They’re all gone. Like the face that he was organic. Gone.
Craig: Yeah, done.
John: We have one very small bit of follow up this week. Several listeners wrote in, British listeners wrote in, to say that when I had discussed the th-fronting which is that habit we hear in British accents, that I had said is relatively new. And they said, “You’re completely absurd. It’s been going on for 300 years. You’re an idiot, basically.”
So I wanted to clarify that. It is a thing that has happened for a long time. What linguists and people who research language have noticed is that it’s spreading in a way that is through different classes that is new and there are people who didn’t used to have that accent now seem to have that accent. And that’s what’s new about it.
So it’s like, it’s almost like how the Valley Girls speak spread suddenly. This has been spreading in ways that are not necessarily unexpected but are new.
Craig: Well you see it here, too. There’s kind of a running joke on the internet about the fact that in many movies where Will Smith has to save the earth, and there have been a number of them…
Craig: …he often refers to the earth as “the earf.” And, yeah, so any time that pops up they’ll talk about how Will Smith has to save the earf.
The one that gets me, the new one, among — it seems like it is metastasizing among young women in the United States…
John: I know what it’s going to be.
Craig: Tell me.
John: Vocal fry.
Craig: Vocal fry. Have we talked about this before?
John: We haven’t. But I’m fascinated by it, too.
Craig: You know, my prior assistant who is lovely had one of the most amazing vocal fries. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know that there was even a name for it until I read about it. And then I brought her on, I’m like, “Listen, I know what to call that thing that you do. I now have a word for it.”
John: I can’t actually do it. Can you?
Craig: Yeah. Here it is. So this is the vocal fry: Ummmm, you knowwww, it’s when you talk like thissss. And that weird breaking up kind of, you know, it’s like the lady that holds the, what is it, the thermal detonator? It’s thermal detonator voice, you know? [vocal fry] Someone who loves you.
John: So it’s very deep back in your throat and it’s making your vocal cords just sort of like sizzle there a little bit, I guess, just…
Craig: Yeah, you’re basically modulating the air as it goes through.
John: [vocal fry] Uhhhhh.
Craig: And I guess it’s more common… — Yeah, you kind of did it there.
John: [vocal fry] Oh, yeahhhh, it’s, uhhhhh.
Craig: That’s it. That’s it. That’s it.
John: But it’s often done at the end of sentences to sort of like, to keep the momentum alive in a sentence.
John: Instead of an “um,” you do an “uhhhh.”
Craig: Yes. For instance, if I were to respond to you in the style of a 15-year-old I would say, “Riiigggghhhhttttttt.” Well what is that? Stop it. I mean, that’s even worse than up-talking as far as I’m concerned, which probably was prior to vocal fry the worst thing ever.
John: One of the articles that was talking about the vocal fry tried to pin it on Britney Spears, because Britney Spears has a fairly limited singing range. And so her lower notes are really just vocal fries. And that becomes sort of her little trademark and sort of how you can recognize Britney Spears singing. And that may have been one of the things that sort of catalyzed the resurgence. But I’m sure it was just a bunch of girls who started doing it and just spread and then they were on the Disney Channel and then it just….
Craig: Yeah. I think history has shown us that adolescent girls are the most rapid conductor of sort of mass hysteria social phenomenon, going back to Salem.
John: [laughs] I was just going to say Salem. Yes.
Craig: They’re just really good at it. They’re just really good at getting together and just deciding en masse, “We’re going to start doing something or believing in something.”
John: [vocal fry] “Really Proctorrrrrrr.”
Craig: Rrrrrrrrrr. You know, yeah. “She went out and kissed the devil under his tailllllll.” Yeah. It’s good stuff.
John: Good stuff.
Craig: Thanks girls.
John: Moving on to actual news that I didn’t know about until you told me about it, and sort of recapped right before the podcast, which I think is fascinating. So, tell our audience this news of Hayden Christensen and his lawsuit.
Craig: Right. So normally when writers sue companies, two things are clear: One, they’re going to lose, and two, they’re not actors. Neither is true in this case. So, very strange kind of story.
Hayden Christensen who played Anakin Skywalker, [vocal fry] Anakinnnn Skywalker. He and his brother came up with an idea for a television show. And they went and they pitched it to USA Television, to an executive of USA Network. And the idea of the show was basically that there was a doctor and he gets expelled from the medical community for treating patients who can’t pay, so he’s sort of a do-good noble guy. He moves to Malibu and becomes a house doctor for the rich and famous.
And the executive heard and said, “Oh, I really like that idea. That’s really cool.” They had a couple of emails back and forth and then apparently that was the end of that. There was no — they never got as far as, “All right, let’s pay you money and let’s figure this out.” It died essentially.
About, I guess it was four years later, USA comes out with a show called Royal Pains, which is a very similar concept. The concept is that there was a guy, I think it was just, the only difference was it was in Florida. But basically it was a doctor who gets booted out of medicine for being a super nice guy and becomes a house-calling doctor for the rich and famous.
Okay. So Hayden Christensen and his brother sue. USA’s defense, as is almost always the case in things like this is, “Hey, ideas aren’t” — and we say this all the time on the podcast — “Ideas are not property. You cannot own an idea. It’s not copyright-able. And because it’s not copyright-able, this whole thing should be tossed out.” And apparently the court, the initial federal court agreed and said, “Yup, summarily dismissed.”
So Hayden and his brother turn around and appeal. They appeal to the circuit court and a judgment was handed down yesterday that was actually quite interesting. Basically they overturned that summary dismissal or the dismissal and said, look, it doesn’t appear like Hayden Christensen and his brother are arguing that USA stole their work, because they didn’t use any of it other than the idea, even if they “used” it at all. What the Christensen’s are arguing is, “Hey, there’s something called an implied contract. If I come in and I pitch you an idea for a show, it is implied that if you use that idea, even though that idea isn’t copyright-able property, it is implied that you will pay me for that idea.”
I don’t go in there and pitch you things with the understanding that you could use that idea without paying me. And you understand that, and I understand that. So what the appellate court basically said is, “Eh, you can’t actually just dismiss this case. You have to fight it out in court.” Now, interesting, the judge didn’t say, “And by the way, having reviewed things I’ve decided that there was an implied contract.” It’s actually kind of, there a series of tests to prove that there was an implied contract. And it gets kind of complicated because part of the question is does New York law or California law apply?
All that aside, John, here’s what’s relevant. I suspect that coming off of this what’s going to happen for those of us who work in the business of selling stuff is that when we go in now to pitch things we’re going to have to sign something.
John: Or sign something that says there is no implied contract and these are all an exchange of — this is a conversation but there’s no implied contract for work being solicited.
Craig: Yeah. I have a feeling that it will go even further than that. I have a feeling that the paper will say what you just said, and also remind all parties involved that ideas are not own-able and so forth. And that a similar idea may come out of that company later, there may exist a similar idea at the company, and that in and of itself is not property and you can’t sue over it. And once more, we are not implying, as you said, we are certainly not implying by listening to your pitch that there might be employment out of it, or even out of that idea.
Will this have a real impact on the way we do business? I doubt it. I do think though it’s, well, a little bit. It’s actually kind of bad.
John: Yeah. I think it could set strange precedence for just being able to go in and talk to an executive about a property. Potential upsides I guess: You know one of the frustrating things that’s really developed in the last five, six, seven years is this idea of we have a general idea for something, or we have a piece of property, and we want like 12 writers to come in and pitch on it. That’s awful, and it happens way too much in that sort of sweepstakes pitching.
…Eh, that doesn’t actually change it at all.
Craig: I don’t think.
John: I’ve talked myself out of my idea.
Craig: Look, there are two areas where I think this is a problem for writers. One is that the kind of casual course of business that sometimes happens may be eliminated. It may be very difficult to sit down, have a drink with a guy at a bar, and then say, “By the way, I have an idea.” And for him to say, “I would love to hear that.” Because he doesn’t have his stupid paperwork with him and he doesn’t want to get involved in a lawsuit later on, you know? So that’s one issue. I just don’t like avenues being shut off.
But here’s the other one that people never talk about. I think a lot of times writers look at a story like this and they go, “Awesome. Two writers took on a company and beat ‘em. Therefore I’m for it because I’m a writer and I’m on their side.” Here’s what is rarely taken into consideration: Somebody wrote Royal Pains.
Craig: Who is also a writer, who I’m going to guess had nothing to do with the Christensen’s, never read their stuff, didn’t know anything about it. Happened to come up with a similar idea as happens. Worked really hard, wrote something, and now suddenly people are implying that it wasn’t original to them. And, you know, we can’t forget those writers, too. There are always two writers on either sides of these problems. So, I don’t like the idea of people be able to emerge years later.
I mean, you know Koppelman and Levien very famously had to deal with that with Rounders. There was a case, Grosso I think it was. Grosso vs. Miramax. Very similar case that got tossed. But, it’s a bummer, you know, it’s a bummer. So, I don’t really like this precedent. I think it’s just going to cause paperwork and limit our avenues of selling. But that’s me.
John: So the next step is that it’s going back to the original court that has to consider the case rather than just doing a summary dismissal.
Craig: It’s going to go back to a court. And it will, well, presuming that there isn’t a settlement. I mean, at this point now USA may opt to settle; then again, they may opt to actually get some sort of case law here, who knows. But it sounds like at least that’s the move — it’s going to go back. And then Hayden Christensen and his brother will have to prove that there was an implied contract as opposed to just sort of a not-contract.
John: Yeah. It’s a different avenue for suing. Because usually it’s a copyright infringement.
John: The only time I’ve been involved with these kind of cases I was a witness. And it was a ridiculous case, but the people ended up settling because it was going to be so expensive to litigate and it wasn’t a lot of money, they just settled it out.
Craig: That’s the dangerous part here is that essentially once you get, once the kind of “quick, make this go away” legal action is removed from your arsenal, you then have to start very seriously considering things like settling because it is, you know, it can be a bumpy ride. And you might lose.
John: I thought today we’d start by talking about endings, and let this be more of a craft episode, because a lot times as we start we start looking at writing screenplays, start writing TV pilots, it’s all about those first ten pages, about getting people hooked and getting people to know your world, getting people to love your characters. That’s not ultimately what they’re going to walk away from your movie with. They’re going to walk away from your movie with an ending.
And so I thought we would spend some time today talking about endings, and the characteristics of good endings, and the things you need to look for as a writer as you’re figuring out what your story is both way in advance and as you’re leading up to those last few pages.
Craig: Yeah. Ending are… — Like I think we had talked in a prior podcast about the bare minimums required to start beyond idea, main character. And for me, one of them is ending. I need to know how the movie ends, because essentially the process of the story is one that takes you from your key crucial first five pages to those key crucial last ten. Everything in between is informed by your beginning and your ending. Everything.
I’ve never understood people who write and have no idea how the movie’s going to end. That’s insane to me.
John: So, I would argue that a screenplay is essentially a contract between a writer and a reader, and same with a book, but we are talking about screenplays. And you are saying to the reader, “If you will give me your time and your attention, I will show you a world, I will tell you story, and it will get to a place that you will find satisfying. And it will surprise you, it will fulfill you. You will have enjoyed spending your time reading this script and seeing the potential in this movie.”
The ending is where you want to be lost. It’s the punch line, it’s the resolution, it’s the triumph. And so often it’s the last thing we actually really focus on.
John: So many writers, I think, spend all of their time working on those first ten pages, their first 30 pages, then sort of powering through the script. And those last five, ten pages are written in a panicked frenzy because they owe the script to somebody, or they just have to finish. And so those last ten pages are just banged out and they’re not executed with nearly the precision and nearly the detail of how the movie started.
Which is a shame because if you think about any movie that you see in the theater, hopefully you’re enjoying how it starts, hopefully you’re enjoying how the ride goes along, but your real impression of the movie was how it ended.
My impression of Silence of the Lambs, great movie all the way through, but I’m thinking about Jodie Foster in the basement and sort of what happens there.
John: As I look at more recent movies like Prometheus, I’m looking at the things I enjoyed along the way, but I’m also asking, “Did I enjoy where that movie took me to at the end?”
Craig: Yeah. I like what you say about contract, that’s exactly right. Because it’s understood that everything that you see is raveling or unraveling depending on your perspective towards this conclusion. The conclusion must be intentional. We always took about intention and specificity. The conclusion must, when you get to it, be satisfying in a way that makes you realize everything had to go like this. Not that it had to go like this, but to be satisfying it had to go like this.
That ultimately the choices that were made by the character and the people around the character led to this moment, this key moment. And I think we should talk about what makes an ending an ending, because it’s not just that it’s the thing that happens before credits roll. You know, I’ve always thought the ending of a movie is defined by your main character performing some act of faith. And there’s a decision and there’s a faith in that decision to do something. And that is connected — it always seems to me — it is connected through, all the way back to the beginning, in a very different way from what is there in the beginning.
That’s the point is there is an expression of faith in something that has changed. But there is a decision. There is a moment where that character does something that transcends and brings them out of what was so that hopefully by the end of the movie they are not the same person they were in the beginning.
John: Either they have literally gotten to the place that you have promised the audience that they’re going to get to. Like if you have set up a location that they’re going to get to. Is Dorothy going to get back to Kansas? Well, you could have ended the movie when she got to Oz, or when she got to the Emerald City because she was trying to get to the Emerald City, but her real goal was to get back to Oz, or to get back to Kansas. I’m confusing all my locations.
Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas. If the movie doesn’t get us back to Kansas, we’re going to be frustrated. If she gets back to Kansas and we’re there for 10 more minutes, we’re going to be frustrated. The movie has promised us that she will get back to Kansas, or I guess she could die trying. That’s a valid choice too.
Craig: I’d like to see that movie.
John: That’s her literal stated goal. That’s her want. And there’s also her need. And her need is to, I guess, come to appreciate the people that’s she’s with, to find some independence…
Craig: Well, but that’s what I’m talking about when I say that the character must have some faith and a choice, and a decision that’s different. In the beginning of the movie she leaves home. She runs away.
John: That’s right.
Craig: And at the end of the movie she has to have faith that by actually loving home, which she finally does now, she can return. And essentially you can look at the entire movie in a very simple way as somebody saying to a runaway on the street, “Trust me kid, if you want to go back home you can get back home. You just got to want to go back home. I know you ran away, you made a stand, you thought you were a grown up. The world is scary. It’s okay. You can go back home. They’ll take you back.”
That’s what the Wizard of Oz is. And the whole thing is a runaway story. And yet the ending… — It’s funny; a lot of people have always said, “Well, you know, the ending, it’s they’re mocking us. She just hands her the shoes. She could have given her the shoes and told her to click the heels in the beginning, we’d be done with this thing.”
But the point is then, okay, fine, maybe that’s a little clumsy, but really more to the point the ending is defined by faith and decision. And I think almost every movie, the wildest arrangement of movies, and look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the end he has faith. “Close your eyes, Marion.” That’s faith he didn’t he didn’t have in the beginning in something. It’s not always religious, you know.
The Ghostbusters decide, “We’re going to cross the streams.” [laughs] “We’re gonna have faith that we’re gonna do the thing we knew we weren’t going to do. Forget fear. Let’s just go for it. It’s the only way we can save the world. We might die in the process but we’re heroes now. We have faith in that.” I see it all the time. And I feel like when you’re crafting your ending and you’re trying to focus it through the lens of character as opposed to circumstance, finding that decision is such a big deal.
John: Yeah. The ending of your movie is very rarely going to be defeating the villain or finding the bomb. It’s going to be the character having achieved something that was difficult throughout the whole course of the movie. So, sometimes that’s expressed as what the character wanted. More often it’s expressed by what the character needed but didn’t realize he or she needed. And by the end of the movie they’re able to do something they were not able to do at the start of the movie, either literally, or because they’ve made emotional progress over the course of the movie that they can do something.
Craig: Right. That’s exactly right. And it’s a great way of thinking about, you know, sometimes we get lost in the plot jungle. And we look around and we think, “Well, this character could go anywhere and do anything.” Well, stop thinking about that and start thinking about what you want to say about life through your movie, because frankly there’s not much more reason to watch movies. [laughs] You know?
John: And we are talking about movies, not TV shows. And a movie is really a two-hour, 100-minute lens on one section of a character’s life, or one section of a cinematic world. And so you’re making very deliberate choices about how you’re starting. One of the first things we see, or how we meet those characters. You have to make just as deliberate choices about where you’re going to end. What’s the last thing that we’re going to take out of this world? And why are we cutting out this slice of everything that could happen to show us in this time?
John: And you will change your ending, just as you change your beginning. But you have to go in with a plan for where you think this is going to go to.
Craig: No question. I think a huge mistake to start writing… — And frankly if you’re writing and you don’t know how the movie ends, you’re writing the wrong beginning. Because to me, the whole point of the beginning is to be somehow poetically opposite the end. That’s the point. If you don’t know what you’re opposing here, I’m not really sure how you know what you’re supposed to be writing at all.
John: In one of our first screenwriting classes they forced us to write the first 30 pages and the last 10 pages, which seemed like a really brutal exercise, but was actually very illuminating because if you’ve written the first 30 and the last 10 you can write your whole movie because you know — you have to know everything that’s going to happen in there to get you to that last moment.
Craig: I love it.
John: And it makes you think very deliberately about what those last things are. And so I still try to write those last 10 pages pretty early on in the process while I still have enthusiasm about my movie, while I still love it, while I’m still excited about it. And so I’m not writing those last pages in a panic, with sort of coffee momentum. I’m writing them with craft, and with detail, and with precision.
And then I can write some of the middle stuff with some of that panic and looseness if I don’t have… — If I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm, I can muscle through some of the middle parts, but I don’t want to muscle through my ending. I want the ending to be something that’s precise and exactly what this movie wants to be.
Craig: You know, I have the kind of OCD need to write chronologically. I can’t skip around at all. But I won’t start writing until I know the ending. And what I mean by ending, I mean, I know what the character, what he thought in the beginning of the movie, what he thinks differently in the end. Why that difference is interesting. What decision he’s going to make, and then what action is he going to take that epitomizes his new state of mind.
When we start thinking about what should the ending be, I think sometimes writers think about how big should the explosion be, or which city should the aliens attack. And if you start thinking about what would be the best, most excruciating, difficult test of faith for my hero and his new outlook on life, or at least his new theoretical outlook on life.
And, you know, Pixar does this better than anybody, and they do so much better than everybody. And it’s funny, because I really start thinking about endings this way because of Pixar films. And I went, I remember I was watching Up. And they got to that point where he had — Carl had finally decided that kid was worth going back to save. You know, he brought the house right to where he said he would bring it, and no, he’s going to leave that and go back. And I like that but I thought, that’s not quite that difficult of a test. And then, of course, see Pixar knows that it wasn’t enough, that the real test to say “I have moved on” is to let that house go.
And they design their climax, they design the action of the climax in such a way to force Carl, the circumstances force Carl to let the house go to save the kid.
Craig: And that’s the perfect example to me of how to think about writing a satisfying ending. That’s why that ending is satisfying. It’s not about the details. The details are as absurd as “man on airship with boy scout, flying, talking dogs, and a house tied to him.” No problem; you can make it work.
John: And example I can speak to very specifically is the movie Big Fish, which really follows two story lines, and the implied contract with the audience is you know the father is going to die. It would be a betrayal of the movie if the father suddenly pulled out of it and the father wasn’t going to die. We know from the start of the movie that the father is going to die.
The question of the movie is, “Will the father and son come to terms, will they reconcile before his death, and will this rift be amended?” And so quite early on I had to figure out like, well what is it that the son — the son is really the protagonist in the present day — what is it that the son can do at the end of the story that he couldn’t do at the start of the story? Well, the son has to tell the story of the father’s death. And so knowing, like, that’s going to be incredibly difficult, an emotionally trying thing to do, but I could see all that, I could feel that.
Knowing that that was the moment I was leading up to, well what is it that lets the son get to that point? And you’re really working backwards to what are the steps that are going to get me to that point. And so it’s hearing someone else tell one of the father’s stories, it’s Jenny Hill, that fills in this missing chapter and sort of why that chapter is missing. That backtracks into, “Well, how big is the fight that set up this disagreement?” “What are the conversations along the way?” Knowing I needed to lead up to that moment, knowing what that ending was was what let me track the present day storyline back to the beginning.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. There was to be a connection between the beginning and the end. I am excited for the day that Identify Thief comes out, because I can sort of talk specifically about how that — that ending, the whole reason I wrote that movie, aside from liking it, was I thought I had a very interesting dilemma for the character at the end, and it was an interesting climax of decision. And the decision meant something. And it was interesting. And I like that. That to me — it’s all about the ending like that. So, looking forward to that one coming out. Hopefully people will like it.
John: This talk of endings reminds me of… — I met John Williams. He was at USC; the scoring stage is named the John Williams Scoring Stage. And when they were rededicating it John Williams was there, along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and they were talking about the movies they worked on together.
And John Williams made this really great point, was that the music of a movie is the thing you take home with you, it’s like the goodie bag. It’s the one thing you as an audience member get to sort of recycle and play in your head is that last theme. So as I’m thinking about endings, that’s the same idea. What is that little melody? What is that moment that people are going to walk out of the theater with? And that’s — that’s your ending.
And we’ve both made movies where we’ve gone through testing, and you’ll see that the smallest change in the ending makes this huge difference in how people react to your movie.
Craig: Oh, for sure.
John: It’s that last little thing that they take with them.
Craig: Yeah. In fact, when people are testing movies that have sort of absurdly happy endings, you know, what you’d call an uplifting film, you almost to kind of discount the numbers. You’ll get a 98 and you’ll think, “Well, it’s not really a 98. At this point it doesn’t matter, it’s just that the ending was such a big thumbs up.”
But, you know, if you ask these people tomorrow or the next day would they pay to go see it, you might get a different answer. And similarly when you end on a bummer, or on a flat note, just like the air goes out of the theater, and people will struggle to explain why they did not like the movie when in fact they just didn’t like the ending.
John: But I want to make sure for people who are listening, we are not arguing for happy endings.
John: We’re not arguing that every movie needs to have a happy ending. It needs to have a satisfying ending that matches the movie that you’ve given them up to that point.
John: Is it one that tracks with the characters along the way? So it doesn’t mean the character has to win. The character can die at the end, that’s absolutely fine, as long as the death is meaningful in the context of the movie that you’ve shown us.
Craig: Yeah. And maybe just a little bit of hope.
Craig: You know, I mean, I always thought it was such a great choice by Clint Eastwood, the ending shot of Unforgiven, which really ends on a downer. I mean, this man struggled his whole life, most of his adult life, to be a good person when inside in fact he was awful. And in a moment of explosion at the end truly reveals the devil inside, kills everybody. We kind of sickly root for it. And then he goes back home. And it basically says he never, you know, he just died alone.
And yet there’s something nice about the image because while that’s rolling, and we just dealt with all of that, the final images of him alone on his farm, putting some flowers down — I think by the grave of his dead wife, who we understand from the scroll is somebody that he always, he truly loved and was good to, so that there is a bit of hope there. You know?
John: Let’s get to our question today because we had a writer write in. His name is Malcolm. “I’ve heard two separate execs say that Abraham Lincoln, along with everything else, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, along with everything else is proof that the box office is dying.
“Yes, we know it is gradually shrinking as there are other forms of entertainment, but execs seem incapable of believing that they are making moves that people want to see. When Safe House doubles the expectations for opening weekend no one thinks, ‘Hmm, people must really want to see s[tuff] like that.’ They identify Avengers and Hunger Games’ success as being mostly about the brand as opposed to about being the films that people wanted to see. So, I worry that the reaction is that the movie business reacts…”
Wow, this is not the best sentence, Malcolm. “I worry that the reaction is that the movie business reacts by saying a version of, ‘We can only do Avengers films,’ and contracts faster than it needs to.'”
Craig: Well, that’s a good worry. I mean, I guess the first thing is are those people right, and I don’t think they are. I mean, there’s a standard human response to failure which is to point fingers. And there’s a standard human response to success which is to claim credit.
So, it’s interesting. I work in comedy. There really aren’t brands in comedy; they have to be invented essentially. I mean, there are brands but they start as something original, typically. Well, you know, there weren’t any books or properties that led to The Hangover, or Bridesmaids, or Horrible Bosses, or the 40-Year Old Virgin, or any other movie that’s done well in the last five or six years as a comedy. And there are a lot of movies that aren’t Marvel super hero movies that people are interested in seeing.
You know, I mean, Inception. How much money did that make? Gazillions. And incredibly, aggressively intellectual. I don’t know, I mean, look, it’s not the most intellectual movie in the world, but it’s a challenging piece. It’s about as intellectual as big Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking gets. So, there, I’m sort of damning it, but my point is I actually love the movie. I love Inception. I think there’s a lot of good work coming out. A lot.
And I just think that when this happens people are like, “Oh yeah, the movie business is dying.” Meanwhile people keep buying tickets. It seems like every year the ticket sales are up 3%, down 4%, up 5%, down 2%. You know.
John: And I get frustrated by the discounting of like, “Oh, ticket sales are really down but it’s 3D that’s propping things up.” It’s like, well, but money is still money. Money is coming in to pay for things.
Craig: I don’t even understand what that means.
John: A lot of this is just Monday Morning Syndrome. And so they’re looking at whatever happens last weekend as being indicative of a great trend where it’s just like, no, it’s one movie that did extraordinarily well or didn’t do extraordinarily well. There are some bad movies. And there have always been some bad movies that aren’t going to work.
But I look at, “Oh movie stars are dead and over because Rock of Ages didn’t work with Tom Cruise.” It’s like, well, yeah, but just like last year you were saying that Tom Cruise is still proof of a big movie star because Mission Impossible did great with Tom Cruise.
John: So, people want to have — people want to take every movie as an example of their trend that they see which I don’t think is…
Craig: I mean, I’ll tell you a real trend though, this is real. The studios routinely make decisions based on cynical calculations as opposed to the merits of any particular given movie. This is why when Avatar comes out and becomes the biggest movie in history everybody says, “We need our Avatar.” They don’t say, “We need a story that might interest people. We don’t need a filmmaker that people really have this amazing connection with. We just want our big, huge, freaking Avatar.”
So, what happens is then the cycle kicks around. And by the way, they say the same thing about Transformers. Transformers comes out, huge movie. Whether you like it or not, Michael Bay has a way with his audience. Okay? That comes down to a filmmaker. And people kick Michael Bay around all they want. Let me tell you something: It doesn’t matter. As a filmmaker he rewards Michael Bay fans, of which there are many. So he has a deal with Michael Bay fans. “I’m going to be Michael Bay, and you’re going to love Michael Bay,” and that works for them.
So the point is, that guy is that guy. It’s not about the bigness, it’s about a person. It’s about James Cameron. It’s about the people who write those movies.
Now, so the studios see Transformers and the studios see Avatar and they go, “Oh, well we just have to make our own.” It doesn’t work like that, okay? It does not work like that. That is not how good movies are made or interesting movies are made or even popular movies are made. That’s how essentially copies are made. And while sometimes copies work, a lot of times they don’t. And, you know, I think the biggest problem with John Carter wasn’t the merits of the movie John Carter, it was that it seemed like an Avatar copy.
And I didn’t see Battleship, but I think that was the biggest problem they had. Seemed like a Transformers copy. And once it “seems” inauthentic, you’re already in trouble. And since there are such massive bets — massive bets — you can sort of wind the clock back and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t make decisions based on things other than the merits of any given story or filmmaker.” And instead you say, “Maybe the world is ending.” Because that’s a little more comforting than, “Oh my god, I screwed up, and I lit $400 million on fire.”
John: Yeah. So people are, you know, everything is horrible, and terrible, and bad, but like the Avengers made a gazillion dollars. And so they will kind of forget the Avengers made a gazillion dollars. And the Avengers wasn’t a bigger movie than some of the other things that haven’t worked. It was kind of a risky director to pick for that movie. The director hadn’t made anything of that size and that scale, but they’re not going to learn that lesson; they’re just going to learn that it was big, and therefore it’s good.
Craig: They won’t.
John: And Marvel is smart. And Marvel is smart, but that’s not the only lesson to take from that.
Craig: No. The lesson to take from that is hire a director and writer — and in this case it was the same person — with a specific point of view and a proven track record with an audience. And have him deliver the goods as best he can. That’s a risk worth taking. It doesn’t always pay off, but to me that’s so much more interesting of a risk and so much more potentially rewarding than the other way of thinking about it, which I guarantee you is going on right now, where people are sitting around going, “Okay, please list for me at my studio here all of the various heroes we have, create a team for them to be on, and do our version of The Avengers.”
And it’s just going, I guarantee you that’s going on.
Craig: And all those movies are going to be annoying. And people are going to smell it. And then the box office will be blamed. But I don’t think that’s a good idea.
John: So this last week I’ve been out with a pitch, and a book that we’re trying to set up, and it’s been really fascinating to be doing that again because I haven’t done that for awhile. And it’s a smaller book, and I think a book that has huge potential, but as we go into those meetings everything is always cautioned on, like, “Well you know this is a huge risk for us to take.”
And it’s like, well, it’s actually not a huge risk. This is going to be a much less expensive movie for you to try to do. And every year several of these moves do extraordinarily well. And so you’ll always say, “Oh, I wish we could have made The Help. I wish we could have made The Blind Side. I wish we could have made that movie.”
Well, I kind of think this is that movie, and it’s not costing you that much, it’s not that much of a gamble that it could be that movie. And yet it’s hard to get people over that hump to see what that potential is. And so like any pitch you’re talking about the characters, you’re talking about the world, you’re talking about how it functions as a movie, how the story functions.
But the second half of these meetings has always been, “This is how we market it. And this is how, I think you go after families. I think you go after women. I think you go after this…”And it’s been very odd to have to plan the marketing campaign before the movie.
Craig: Yeah. It’s the way of the world now. And it is, you know, it’s funny: I remember talking to John Lee Hancock about The Blind Side which ended up at Alcon which is a — it’s a company that’s part of Warner Bros., or they have an output deal through Warner Bros. But prior to that it was at a different studio. And that studio had John Lee, and that script, and Sandra Bullock. They had all the elements and they just passed.
And, you know, he just didn’t understand. I remember we were having a discussion, he goes, “I don’t get it.” I mean, you run the numbers, I mean, we’re talking about a budget of, I don’t what it was, it was $40 million. You’ve got Sandra Bullock. It seems like, what’s the big risk?
And in my mind I don’t think that other studio looked at it and saw a big risk. I don’t think they saw a chance that they would lose $40 million, or even $20 million or $10 million. I think the bigger risk to them was simply that they would only make $5 million.
Craig: That they’re in the business of making either a lot of money or not trying.
Craig: And so nobody’s looking for doubles or singles.
John: You have to swing for the fences on every movie.
Craig: They swing for the fences.
John: Yes, that’s risk.
Craig: Well, you know, you’re never going to leg out a triple if you don’t hit a few doubles. And, frankly, what’s wrong with a mildly profitable film? And a film… Which by the way, you know Bob Weinstein who made me crazy many, many, for many, many years did say one thing to me, I’ll never forget it, it was very interesting. He said, “Do you want to know how to make money in the movie business?” And I thought, “Yeah, [laughs] yes, I do, Bob.”
John: “Sure, tell me, Bob Weinstein.”
Craig: I would like to know how you think you make money in the movies. He said, “Very simple. Own a library of movies and don’t make movies.” Because when you make a movie the money goes out immediately but comes back in very slowly. But in library films, they have no overhead to speak of at all, but they generate money forever. And particularly those evergreens, they just every year generate money, and they cost nothing, right?
So I just think, what’s wrong with making some of these singles and doubles because then they go in your library and they make you money forever?
John: Yeah. What you will hear when you try to bring up that logic in the room is like, “Well, even if it doesn’t cost that money to make, it costs a ton of money to market.” And, so, okay, yeah, maybe you’re spending twice as much to market this movie as you did to make it. Watch your costs. Figure that out. I don’t want to say it’s not my problem, but it’s sort of not my problem.
Craig: Well, yeah, I mean look, they have to run some sort of model that makes sense for them. I understand that. Nobody’s under an obligation to make a film. But if I’m coming to you with a movie, I mean to say that there’s an audience for it. I don’t bring people, if the budget… — Basically my argument is I don’t bring you a movie that costs X if I don’t think there’s a clear case to be made that an audience will come and replace that.
So, if the movie is going to cost $35 million, I’m arguing you’re guaranteed to make $35 million for sure, probably more, but for sure. And then they’ll say, “Well then there’s the marketing cost.” And I’ll say, okay, well then there’s the DVD, and then there’s the cable, and then there’s the television, and then there’s the foreign. You’ll be okay. What I’m really saying is you’re breaking even…
John: And, by the way, a lot of them are phantom costs. They’re costs they’re charging themselves for things…
Craig: Of course. Yeah, I mean look, there’s real cost to it and then there are other phantom costs. The phantom costs certainly make it so that no one will ever see profit on a film. But, I don’t walk in and sort of say, “Listen, here’s a movie that’s going to cost $50 million. I’m not sure if more than $10 million of business will ever come on this thing, but I really think you should make it.” No. Of course not.
Craig: And really what it comes down to is they don’t like backing movies that just break even. They don’t like it. And I understand it. I get it. Who would? It’s a lot of work and a lot of time for a push. But, you know, you and I, I don’t get the sense that neither you or I go and pitch for $200 million budget films. You know?
Craig: Where we are, where the studios have to kind of get back to is making a middle ground movie. And I know they are just freaked out; they don’t want to do it.
John: They don’t.
Craig: They don’t want to do it. But, what can I say? Then they’ll get more Vampire Diary situations where they spend… — Vampire Diaries, by the way, probably should have just been made for less money. There was a time when they used to make those movies…
John: You mean Vampire Hunter? Vampire Diaries is a successful television show.
Craig: Oh, that would have been awesome. I think that would have been really great — The Abraham Lincoln Vampire Diaries. Completely better.
John: Yeah. He’s just falling in love with Mary Todd Lincoln and it’s sweet and romantic.
Craig: Oh my god. Let me unbutton my pants. This is the greatest story I ever heard.
John: [laughs] “He takes off his hat very slowly.”
Craig: [laughs] But, you know, remember there was a time when people made horror films or genre films for a price, and it wasn’t just like massive effect-o-rama, you know.
John: And they still do that to some degree. Horror is one of the few genres that is done inexpensively and can pay out sometimes.
John: It’s just, there’s still the…it used to be called Dibbuk Box, it’s the Lionsgate. Like, well, Lionsgate and Summit.
Craig: Oh, yeah right. The Possession. Yeah.
John: They make those kind of movies.
Craig: Yeah, that’s right. You know, I feel bad for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter/Vampire Diaries because truthfully it’s such a genre idea, it’s such a genre movie. It seems unfair to saddle it with the kind of budget that then makes everybody go, “Gosh darn, that movie didn’t do well.” Well, it’s the president chopping heads off, you know.
John: It’s an ambitious idea.
Craig: Right, it’s an ambitious idea. Maybe, just crazy here, stick with me on this: Maybe aim to make $55 million with that guy. Spend $30 million, you know, and then maybe, who knows? Like remember when you made Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it didn’t cost that much, and didn’t make that much, but then it turned into a television series that lasted forever and made a zillion dollars?
Craig: Just throwing that out there.
John: It’s always possible.
Craig: Always possible.
John: Well, Craig, let’s wrap this up. This was a fun conversation about endings and beginnings and the death of the film industry.
John: But not in a negative way.
John: I was worried it was going to tip to a negative place. I don’t think it did. I think we were arguing for the continued health of the film industry.
Craig: Yes, that’s right. One of our rare optimistic moments.
John: I like it. Now, Craig, you had promised us in the last episode that there would be some singing this week. Is that going to happen?
Craig: I forgot my guitar. [laughs] I forgot my guitar.
John: All right, well, we’ll save it for another time.
Craig: Next time.
John: And we’ll save our next One Cool Things for next time, too.
Craig: Yes, I’ll sing next time.
John: Craig, thank you for a fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, too, John.
John: Take care.