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 Episode 95 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
How are you, Craig?
Craig: Doing pretty good. I’ve got my son with me today. He’s not going to be a guest speaker. He’s 11, so he has nothing to say about any of this. He’s in the other room; I told him to read. So my guess is he’s in the other room not reading.
John: Is he on the iPad?
John: Yeah. The iPad is just such crack for anybody… — Really, it’s crack for everybody, but like for kids especially, that sense of like, well, they want the iPad and it becomes the one thing I can threaten to take away from my daughter or actually just take away from daughter to actually have a consequence.
John: And so it goes up on top of the refrigerator when there are problems.
Craig: You’re absolutely right. It is crack for kids. If you ever go to a kids’ science museum or something like that, those museums exist simply to allow children to press buttons.
Craig: They love to press buttons and see lights come on. They learn nothing from the buttons and the lights.
Craig: If you have 12, you could have a science museum where they’ve actually Jurassic Parked real dinosaurs to life, and kids would not be looking at the dinosaurs; they would be touching a button that makes a light go on.
John: Yeah. And god help you if a button — if the light bulb in the button has gone out, because they don’t see the cause and effect. They really just want the light to come on for that thing.
Craig: Yeah. They will whack the button over and over. My son crossing the street today hit the street crossing button four thousand times.
John: Yeah. Just because. And a lot of times the street crossing buttons, they have no physical button anymore. They’re just sensing that something has happened. And that can be frustrating. Or, also, the elevators now that do the sense your finger, like you tap it, but there’s nothing to actually press in, and so that doesn’t light up. That’s a frustration for all of us. Like, you know, did it really happen? It’s a tree falling in the forest, but if a button was pressed and it doesn’t give you visible results…
Craig: Right. That’s horrifying.
John: Yeah. You never know. It’s horrifying.
John: Well, today we’re going to be talking about visible results and things that are unknown. We’re going to be talking about the film industry and the reports of its imminent demise.
Craig: It’s over. It’s all over!
John: So, over the past couple weeks we’ve had four prominent filmmakers talk about how they perceive the film industry going on a path that is unsustainable and it raises the question are things fundamentally broken. Is this just a change we’re going through? So, we can talk about that and we’ll really dig into that for this hour.
But first we have news and things to talk through.
First off, thank you to everyone who bought t-shirts. A lot more people bought t-shirts than we were expecting, but we will be able to send those out starting July 1.
John: Statistically blue outsold orange about two to one.
Craig: Good. So, Umbrage-Blue outsold Rational-Orange.
John: Yeah, so of course I billed it as Umbrage-Orange and Rational-Blue, which would naturally make sense, orange being the color of outrage and frustration. But, I could understand why people went for the blue even though it’s not really the Scriptnotes color, because it’s just easy to wear a blue shirt.
Craig: It’s much easier to wear a blue shirt. Orange is orange, after all. Plus, we did make a huge deal about Stuart saying it was the softest shirt ever.
John: Yes. We really did make a big deal out of that. So, we’ll see. And, I mean, Stuart — I hope he’s right.
John: Now, the shirts were actually by different manufacturers, so they genuinely are different shirts. The orange ones were American Apparel. The blue ones were by another manufacturer, and that’s why they were physically different. And Stuart wanted to describe to me why they were different. And so that’s how he came upon the language of them being the softest shirt he ever touched.
Craig: Well, I’m going to personally — I’m grabbing a blue one.
John: All right. Now, we also added women’s sizes at the very last minute, like actually the store was already up and I said, well, could we add women’s sizes. And they were like, yeah, we could do that. So, we did that and I’m glad we did because we sold quite a few women’s shirts. Weirdly, of all the categories of all the shirts, the only shirt we did not sell — we did not sell one single women’s extra-small in orange.
Craig: An extra-small t-shirt makes no sense for anyone. I don’t care if you’re a dwarf. It makes no sense. Because we all know that t-shirts shrink. Everybody buys a t-shirt a little… — First of all, it’s a t-shirt; it’s not Lycra. We don’t want to wear a sausage casing. So, we want it a little loose. And we know it’s going to shrink, so we always buy up a little bit. Like, do you wear a large?
John: I wear a large in American Apparel. A medium in other things.
Craig: Yeah. So, I’ll typically wear a large t-shirt. I will never wear a medium t-shirt. I just don’t want a t-shirt touching me that close. Large. That feels right.
But, yeah, women’s extra-small? Who could possibly wear that? A fetus?
John: There are women who are quite small. There are women who are quite petite. And Stuart was describing one of his roommates who actually has to buy child sizes because she’s such a small person. So, that’s a real thing.
Craig: So, really she should buy the child’s extra-large.
John: Now, if you want a Scriptnotes t-shirt for your son, does your son wear adult sizes or does your son still wear kid sizes?
Craig: Oh my god, are you kidding me? My 11-year-old…
John: Your son is a giant, right?
Craig: My 11-year-old son with size 10 feet? Yeah, he wears adult clothing now.
John: We are printing one extra t-shirt for my daughter which will be in a child size. And they’ll just throw it on the press and it will be cute.
Craig: My son can absolutely wear, I mean, I think an adult medium is probably what he does.
John: Yeah. So, shirts are going to be going out July 1. Also on July 1 we will be starting to sell tickets hopefully for the 100th Episode of Scriptnotes, the live taping that we’re doing in Hollywood.
John: So, on that day there will be a link for where you can come and buy them and come see us and talk with us. But, this Saturday, June 29, we will be part of the Writers Guild Foundation Craft Day and we’re going to be recording Episode 96 there. So, I f you want to come see us live, that would be a fantastic chance because Craft Day, actually I think this is going to turn out to be really cool. So, I was looking at the description which was more elaborately filled out than last time I talked about it. The other guests at Craft Day are pretty cool.
So, it’s a whole day event. There’s a panel on Why I Wrote It, with Travis Beacham, Evan Daugherty, Karl Gajdusek, Marti Noxon, and Edward Ricourt.
John: Those screenwriters talking about why they wrote certain things. Why We Chose It, which is people from the Austin Film Festival, The Black List, the Nicholl Fellowship people to talk about sort of why they picked and singled out certain scripts and sort of how that whole process works.
Craig: Yeah. And Matt and Greg are sort of — they’re running the competitions, the actual script competitions. So, that would definitely be good for you guys.
John: And we’ve said this on this podcast many, many times, the only things you should really be thinking about for competitions probably are Austin Film Festival and Nicholl Fellowships. And those people will be there.
Craig: Those are the two guys, yeah.
John: And the third panel is Why We Bought It, a panel of producers and execs talking about what’s selling and why they buy the things that they buy. So, those seem like good panels and useful things for aspiring screenwriters.
Now, on our Scriptnotes thing, which is the first thing of the day, we are going to be doing a Three Page Challenge, or a couple Three Page Challenges live there on stage. So, people have been emailing in with their normal Three Page Challenge entries but saying, “I will be there at the live Craft Day.” And so we will be going through that list and pulling out people who are actually going to be there physically so we can talk with them about what they did, what worked great, what could have worked better.
John: So, join us for that.
Craig: And that is the idea that before we show up… — I talk as if — I play both the part of the guy that doesn’t know what’s going on, but also when I’m not playing the part of the guy that doesn’t know what’s going on, I actually am the guy that does not know what’s going on. [laughs]
So, is the idea that we’re going to put those Three Page Challenge scripts on your website prior to this event so that people can read them and kind of have them, or are we handing them out there?
John: We are literally handing them out there. And in these handouts will also be some stuff which will never go on the website because I don’t want them to be on the website. So, I will be actually giving some Three Pages from my unproduced scripts and you may choose to do that or not choose to do that.
Craig: Oh, sure, I might do that.
John: And so literally I want to do this on paper with watermarks and saying “Please do not distribute these, because this is just for the people in the room so we can talk about it in the room, but I just don’t want these things going out over the internet.”
John: So, come to us and see us. Tickets for the Writers Guild Foundation Event are at wgfoundation.org. And there are still some tickets left. So, if you’re interested and you’re listening to this on the Tuesday that we are putting this podcast up, you should be able to get a ticket to it.
Craig: And just so people know, the Writers Guild Foundation is not part of the Writers Guild Union. It’s vaguely associated with it, but it’s a non-profit. It’s a 501(c)(3). It’s a non-profit that raises money to support the screenwriting community. For instance, the Writers Guild Foundation supports the Writers Guild Foundation Library, which is at the Writers Guild Building, where people can go in and read classic scripts or not-so-classic scripts.
They do a lot of wonderful things for screenwriters and for screenwriting education. So, it’s charity, people.
John: Yeah, like they do the Veterans Outreach Program.
Craig: Right, they do.
John: Which is partnering working screenwriters with retuning soldiers and veterans to get their stories to the screen.
Craig: Yeah. They’re great people. And I’m a supporter, as I know you are. And I’m glad to be doing this for them.
John: Hooray. So, let’s get to our main topic today which is the death of Hollywood, which would seem to be something to discuss considering many people listening to our podcast would hope to work in Hollywood. And based on the reports of four very prominent filmmakers — well, three very prominent filmmakers and a producer you haven’t heard of even though you’ve seen all her movies — Hollywood is pretty much doomed.
Craig: Right. It’s doomed.
John: So, you should maybe steer yourself in a different direction.
So, I guess this all started — this last round I would say was started with the Spielberg and Lucas conversation, because that got the most press attention most recently.
So, this was at the June 12 dedication of the Interactive Media Building at USC Cinema. USC’s film school is amazing now. They’ve built all these great buildings and programs, but the new one they opened up was the Interactive Media Building.
And at this Spielberg and Lucas spoke and they were on a little panel. And so here are some things they said. Spielberg said, “There’s going to be a meltdown or an implosion where three or four or even a half dozen of these mega budget movies are going to come crashing to the ground and its going to change the paradigm again.” So, he was a predicting a…
Craig: Multiple John Carters of Mars.
John: Exactly. And what Lucas said was, “What you’re going to end up with is fewer theaters, bigger theaters, with a lot of nice things in them. Going to movies is going to cost you $50, maybe $100, maybe $150.”
John: Spielberg says, “Like a Broadway play.” Lucas says, “Like Broadway, or going to a football game.”
John: Lucas continues, “I think eventually the Lincolns will go away and they’re going to be on television.” And Spielberg says, “That almost happened to the actual Lincoln. It almost went to HBO.”
So, let’s talk about the Lucas and Spielberg perspective on this first because there’s really two threads I see here. First off is Hollywood’s push towards the mega-blockbuster as the main thing they’re making. And with that, they’re not making the Lincolns. They’re not making the prestige pictures to the same degree.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Okay.
John: And second topic would be Lucas’ idea that there will be variable pricing or super event pricing for the big movies, which would differentiate them from smaller movies. Like an indie might still be like a $10 ticket, but a giant blockbuster will be a $50 ticket.
John: Let’s start with the Spielberg idea, because this idea that we’ve become an industry of making these mega-blockbusters that cost $200 million and therefore have to make $400 million worldwide to become considered even a modest success. True?
Craig: If it’s at all true, it’s true because of the two people that are complaining about it, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I mean, this is what blows my mind. First of all, I don’t think it is true. But, let’s just take a step back.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are specifically the two people that turned modern moviemaking into blockbuster moviemaking. You can’t put it at anyone else’s feet. Those two guys did it. And it is bizarre to me that they have suddenly decided that it’s a bad thing. And I have a theory about why they’re complaining about it, and it kind of connects them to Soderbergh who we’re going to hear from in a minute or two, as well as Lynda Obst.
But, the fact is that people have loved big blockbuster movies. They’ve loved them since Lucas and Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t make smaller movies, or medium-sized movies, not does it mean that those small or medium-sized movies don’t find audiences. They do.
We have absolutely pushed the envelope of size. I’ll agree with them on that. Big movies are now enormously big. Much, much bigger than they ever were before, both in terms of their budget and scale and also in terms of the audience they’re pulling in. But…
John: Let’s talk for a moment about why they’ve gotten bigger, not just sort of the budget wise, but why we’re pushing towards making these giant things. And the foreign seems to be the consensus for why we’re making these huge movies because these huge movies actually do work overseas in ways that smaller moves don’t tend to work overseas. The argument being that a much bigger percentage of a film’s ultimate gross will come from overseas and it is the giant movies that end up working overseas, whereas smaller movies don’t tend to work overseas.
Craig: Kind of. I mean, let’s remember that all things being equal we’ll make more money here than there because we get a bigger percentage of it here than we do there.
John: Bring it back.
Craig: Yeah. So, it’s not quite a one-to-one comparison. I think that the reliance on size probably has something to do with our sense of divided attention, our need to make the movie going experience somehow special or an event for people when they go.
And, also, it’s hard to kind of overlook what James Cameron has done. James Cameron has only made two movies, I mean, two real movies. I mean, he’s made documentaries and things, but he made Titanic and Avatar if you look at the last, whatever it is, about 15 years I guess.
John: Yeah. And they’re the biggest movies of all time.
Craig: They’re the biggest movies of all time. It’s almost like everybody is looking and saying, well, some people are making movies, some people are making huge movies like say The Avengers or Iron Man. And then there’s one guy that seems to be making some other product that is so mind-boggling to people that they just buy it, they buy tickets for it at a rate that is hard to comprehend.
It’s natural that of course people are going to want to try and make some of those bigger movies, and yes, some of them will do amazingly well. Some of them will crash and burn. I will tell you that when they do well they ultimately make more money than the crashes and burns lose. And yet studios simply can’t live on cake alone. They do make other kinds of movies, thank god, because you know what? I don’t write those big huge movies. Neither do you.
John: I really don’t either. So, let’s talk about — Scott Mendelson in Forbes had an article questioning Lucas and Spielberg’s rant a bit. And he made a good point that, you know, Spielberg is saying that we’re going to have some of these big movies tank and then everything is going to change. But really if you look at the last few years we’ve had some of these big movies tank and it hasn’t had that effect at all, really.
So, if you look at Jack the Giant Slayer, John Carter, Battleship, Green Lantern, Rise of the Guardians, all those movies were pretty spectacular disappointments/disasters. But they didn’t end up sinking any of those studios because studios had other movies to do. And I would question the degree to which any one studio would fall based on making two or three big movies that didn’t work. Executives would go away, but I don’t know that the film industry would go away or those individual producers.
Craig: Even the executives aren’t going away. I mean, Battleship happened and nobody got fired. Because the truth is the same people over there are overseeing the Fast and Furious movies.
John: Yeah. And there are also some old fashioned movies that we’re still making that are doing well. 42 is an example of a movie that made almost $100 million which was a very good classic American movie. We’re making originals that succeed. So, The Purge was an original idea that did well for us. Now You See Me was not that expensive, did well. Identity Thief, an original movie that made a lot of movie. Spring Breakers made a lot of money.
John: So, we are still making some original movies. So, they may not be the movies that Spielberg and Lucas are trying to make and there may be a selectivity bias.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Interesting. Yeah. Look, The Blind Side, it was literally a blockbuster that was made for $40 million and was absolutely not some sort of big enormous movie.
Look, let’s talk for a second about this whole question of “I think eventually the Lincolns will go away.” No. Here’s the thing: The Lincolns won’t go away. Well, maybe that kind of movie will go away. See, the thing is, you can’t make a movie like Lincoln with the kind of budget that Lincoln requires unless you’re Steven Spielberg.
See, the thing is nobody wants to take that chance to spend whatever… — I mean, Lincoln had to have cost a lot of money.
John: Yeah, 60 is a number that’s popping into my head but I don’t know that it’s accurate or not.
Craig: My guess is more, but let’s just say, $60 million is a lot of movie to make for a period historical drama. It’s a lot, because you just don’t know if it’s going to attract that many people to the theater. I went. I liked it. But, this is just life. And it’s not charity; if moves were charity than Spielberg should take his considerable fortune and just start making charitable films. But he doesn’t; in fact, he’s a business man who owns a huge part of a theme park based on blockbusters that he’s currently decrying.
You can still make Lincolns; you just can’t make them for $60 million. You can make them for $30 million, the way that Kathryn Bigelow is doing it when she makes political movies. You can do period pieces and historical studies. John Lee Hancock who did Blind Side has a lovely movie that’s going to be out this fall about the writing of Mary Poppins. And it’s essentially a biopic of Pam Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. That’s about as small as it gets, you know. I think it probably costs about $40 million, I’m guessing, maybe $35 million. Absolutely.
John: They’ll make it.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. If you want to be Steven Spielberg and have this huge cast and $70 million of stuff, then maybe no.
John: So, let’s feed this back into the previous rant which is Steven Soderbergh’s rant, which was April 27 of this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival. And so he was giving the big keystone speech of it. I guess it was — I don’t know if it was opening night or closing night, but he was giving the big speech.
And the speech is, I think some people criticized it as being rambling because it did sort of go all over to different topics. I’ve narrowed it down to a few key points. One of the things I took away was, “The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see and cinema is something that is made.” So, he’s talking about we need to stop thinking about cinema as being just what happens on the big screen but like making movies for HBO, we need to consider that, “Well that can be cinema if the goal of what you’re doing is to create a singular vision. Cinema is specificity of vision. It’s a way of approaching everything that matters.”
It’s about making a movie that is unique to — I’m now paraphrasing — but unique to your vision versus somebody else’s vision.
John: And that, I think, is a meaningful distinction and it may be a reason why just because we stop making Lincoln for the big screen, maybe — or we stop making Spielberg’s Lincoln for the big screen — and we start making it for HBO, that doesn’t mean that culture has failed or that moviemaking has failed or cinema has failed. We just put it to a different screen.
Craig: Yeah. That’s true. I have no problem with — I don’t connect the value of movies or cinema or whatever synonym he wishes to use and attempt to bifurcate. I don’t attach quality to medium, if it’s wonderful and it’s on TV or it’s wonderful and on film, on screen in the theater, great.
My issue with him is that he says, “That cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee. It isn’t made by a company. And it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.”
Well, that’s just classic director chauvinism and it’s remarkable for a man that doesn’t write any of his own movies. So, here’s a guy who picks up a screenplay somebody else writes and has decided that it’s happening because of the specificity of his vision. Well, that’s a neat trick. [laughs]
Yeah, there is a committee. It absolutely is made by a committee, Steven Soderbergh. It’s made by you. It’s made by your screenwriter. It’s made by your producer. And it’s made by your cast and your editor. Yeah. There is a committee. You may consider yourself the ultimate arbiter. You may be the chair person of that creative committee, but it’s a committee. There are other people involved whose visions are integral to the movies you make. And to suggest otherwise, frankly, is just dumb.
John: Okay, I will push back from his perspective is that regardless of whether you’re talking one filmmaker or this core group of filmmakers, he is arguing that the studios aren’t even trying to make movies that are cinema. They’re not even trying to make movies that have a unique vision. Instead they are trying to, far too often, make the biggest thing they can possibly make that could have been made by anybody rather than it could only have been made by this person, or this group of people.
John: So, an example, as I was trying to think of like, well, what could he be talking about, what are the counter examples to his argument.
Craig: I have one.
John: So, look at Christopher Nolan.
Craig: Yeah, Inception. Like, explain Inception.
John: Well, exactly. And sometimes those exceptions are interesting test cases to look at sort of what studios could be doing much better. So, I think if studios were taking more gambles on filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, filmmakers like Rian Johnson, I think we might have a more interesting batch of movies coming out, a more unique batch of movies coming out, and some really terrifically successful movies coming out.
Craig: Yeah, but they do. I mean, my point is that Sony releases Looper. And the releasing of Looper is where all the money is. It probably costs more to advertise it and release it than to make it. Warner Bros., I mean, you could say, “Well, is it a risk that they’re taking on Nolan?” No, Nolan is a cash cow for them and they’re doing him a favor and it totally paid off because Nolan is a genius.
But, by the same token, I think all studios constantly make these bets. If they’re trying to do something, the studio is trying to do something and it’s a programmer, then it’s a programmer and I understand that. And Soderbergh isn’t in that business. Very well. But, you know, somebody took a gamble on him making Ocean’s Eleven which was a big, huge movie.
Craig: I don’t — so much of this, frankly, just seems like older men grouching because shit ain’t going the way it used to go for them. I’m just going to be really, really frank. Because I do think there are problems in our business right now. I don’t like a lot of the stuff I see. I don’t. I’m not talking about the movies; I’m talking about the way the business is moving. But I also find this weird grouching from guys that used to basically just do whatever they wanted to do and now are having to deal with a little bit of reality, it’s a little bizarre to me. You know, particularly in the case of Spielberg and Lucas, it is like, guys, you know, you could make any movie you want! You could! You just don’t.
Or you complain that nobody saw Red Tails. Well, whose fault is that? I mean, that’s our fault now? That’s Hollywood’s fault that nobody went to go see Red Tails? We’re sorry. We didn’t want to go see it. We’ve all made movies people don’t want to go see. It happens.
Soderbergh said he was retiring years ago and made more movies since his retirement announcement than anybody, some of which I’ve really liked, some of which I haven’t. Who cares? The guy has cemented his place in film history. He’s made a lot of terrific movies. But what is he complaining about here? He just seems angry, frankly, that people aren’t going to see his movies. You know, if people were just going to go see his movies more, my guess is that he would be happier with the way that Hollywood is going.
John: I think you’re cherry picking Soderbergh a little bit here, because he does literally say, “So, here’s a thought. Maybe nothing is wrong. Taken from a 30,000 foot view, nothing is wrong, and my feeling that studios are kind of like Detroit before the bailout is totally unsupportable.” He does allow for the possibility that he is just seeing this wrong. And I think that is a very valid perspective is that when you had the ability to make any movie, and now you don’t have the ability to make any movie, of course you’re going to perceive that something is fundamentally broken.
But, it may just be that something has fundamentally changed, which I think is a good segue to the third or actually the fourth filmmaker who sort of enters into this conversation is Lynda Obst. So, Lynda Obst is a producer who has made many, many movies for Hollywood. Sleepless in Seattle, but also a lot more.
She has a book out called Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, which I have not read. You haven’t read it either, have you?
Craig: No. I don’t think it’s out yet, is it?
John: I think it’s shipping now.
Craig: Oh, okay.
John: If it’s shipping then I’ll put a link to it, but if not…
Craig: Hopefully they fix their strange error. [laughs]
John: Yeah. But Obst has been doing a lot of press for it the last two weeks and so I went through and sort of found some of the things, including an excerpt from her book.
She explains the book or sets up the book as being an exploration through interviews with studio executives, producers, and writers, searching for answers about how the film industry has changed. She says, “I set off to figure out what the hell was going on because I couldn’t figure it out myself. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to get the same kinds of movies made that I was able to get made in the first half of my career.”
She describes a massive upheaval which separates the “old abnormal” from the “new abnormal.” So, trying to pretend, it wasn’t like everything was always perfect back before. It was really, really messed up. It’s just messed up in a different way now. And she talks about the three ways that are sort of trending in Hollywood right now, which are the tent-poles, the big giant super blockbusters, the tadpoles which are the small budget indie films, and television, which I think are useful ways to think about sort of what is actually happening and getting made these days.
Craig: To an extent. Again, I don’t want to come off as somebody that’s cheerleading an industry that is doing just great. It’s not. There is — the real truth here — what they’re all dancing around is the elimination of that middle, you know, just as we talked about the screenwriting business being one of the elimination of the middle. So, now you just have A-list and new guys.
Similarly in movies, we have the mega movies, we have the little movies, and that middle, which is where the business used to churn out lots of interesting — or not interesting fare — but lots of stuff, seemingly has gone away, particularly in the areas of dramas for adults.
And yet, Argo. And yet, year after year we see interesting films come out that challenge that completely. Zero Dark Thirty and so on and so on. So, they happen. They just don’t happen as frequently. And so interestingly the business has shed a lot of people. A lot of people that used to work, frankly, don’t work anymore. Yeah. There’s a grumpy vibe in the air, no question. No question. But…
John: Well, let’s talk for a second, because you can say, yes, we’re making Zero Dark Thirty. And, yes, we’re making Argo. And, yes, we’re making Silver Linings Playbook, which are wonderful. But, because we’re making fewer of those movies it also means we’re developing fewer of those movies, which from a screenwriter’s point of view makes it much harder to be one of those very few projects that is developed to come into one of those projects.
And so I think romantic comedies is a really interesting place to take a look here because Silver Linings Playbook is arguably the last romantic comedy that has done anything like business in the last two years. And we used to make romantic comedies all the time.
Two possibilities of why we don’t make more romantic comedies. First off is that they’re just not working domestically for whatever reason. Second possibility is that they don’t travel overseas at all because they’re too specific to an American audience. And so we’re not able to make that piece of the pie in the overseas that you would be able to make in other kinds of movies.
Craig: I don’t believe that. I don’t. I don’t believe that the reason that romantic comedies have fallen off is because Chinese and Indian audiences are less interested.
First of all, the emphasis on China is absurd. They let so few movies in anyway. India has its own very vibrant film market. I mean, if I’m worrying about overseas markets, I’m worrying more about Russia, and Germany, and Brazil, and France, and England.
But, that aside, I think the reason that romantic comedies have fallen off somewhat is because we got sick of them. We are waiting for the romantic comedy genre to be reinvented and reinvigorated. And, also, romantic comedies traditionally have been so actor dependent, particularly on American falling in love with a woman. And Julia Roberts was kind of our last great romantic comedy star. Reese Witherspoon kind of had a little bit of that. Jennifer Lopez, sort of, a little bit. Everybody just seemed kind of pale imitation of Julia Roberts who was queenly in her reign.
It’s funny, whatever you think about Julia Roberts now, or her films that she’s made recently, Julia Roberts at run is a great Hollywood run. She is a first ballot Hollywood Hall of Famer. A classic movie star. And we haven’t had that kind of actor in awhile to sort of say, “I want to see this person in romantic comedies.”
And that may have something to do also with the fact that women actors are just less interested in playing those parts. That culturally we’ve just — not as interested in romantic comedy. We should ask Aline that question.
John: I would also posit that the rise of the television romantic comedy has taken the need for that out of the market. So, you look at the New Girl, you look at Girls to some degree, you look at the Mindy Kaling show, we do our romantic comedies on television right now which makes it more difficult to find what is special and unique about the two-hour big screen romantic comedy that’s actually going to be worthwhile and make us want to go out and see that versus seeing an ongoing series of it every week on television.
Craig: I don’t know. I mean, what was Cheers if not a romantic comedy? And what was Friends if not a romantic comedy? And romantic comedies, there were more sitcoms and so many of them were “will they/won’t theys” and romances at their heart. I’m not sure that sitcoms really fulfill what people go to see romantic comedy for. It just feels like we’ve outgrown that particular specific romantic comedy formula.
They still happen, you know. I mean, they’re out there, but they seem… — You know, it’s funny, you look at what Bridesmaids did and you think, hmm, maybe that’s just a more interesting kind. Because isn’t that a romantic comedy?
John: Yeah, it is a romantic comedy.
Craig: It is.
John: Underneath all the other layers it’s a romantic comedy.
Craig: Right. It’s just not a romantic fairytale comedy, which is what all of our other fairytale — that’s what you and I grew up on and that’s what Julia Roberts kind of hit her stride with was fairytale comedy.
John: Yeah. At some point he will recognize that she’s pretty and everything will end up happily ever after.
Craig: That’s right. She makes a wish and there’s a downtrodden, misunderstood woman who is ignored and overlooked even though she’s HOT, and because she wears glasses, and her hair is weird. And then there’s a man. And then they fall in love. It’s all Cinderella. It’s all fairytale stuff. And frankly it’s all sort of pre-feminist and maybe that’s why now everybody’s kind of grown past it. Who knows?
But, you know, we’ll try and blame the marketplace on that, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think you can definitely look at the marketplace and say, “Okay, we’re not making All the President’s Men,” those kinds of…
John: We’re making fewer of those.
Craig: Much fewer. Many fewer. Many fewer, I think.
John: Many fewer. Yeah, probably, either way.
Craig: But, you know, some of this stuff it’s like, okay, you know, Lynda Obst seems to be, you know, she talks to — there’s this moment here in the book where she has this long conversation with Peter Chernin who is a very powerful man. He used to run Fox. For awhile he was considered the heir apparent to Rupert Murdoch himself. And now he’s a very powerful producer at Fox.
Curiously she credits him with Identity Thief, [laughs], a movie he had nothing to do with at all.
John: Nothing. She’s confusing it with The Heat which is the next Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy movie.
Craig: Ah, yes. She is confusing it with The Heat. Well, good for her to do her homework there.
John: Fact checking!
Craig: Yeah, fact checking. I mean, she is in the business, right? She knows that…okay. Anyway, she seems sort of stunned by Peter Chernin’s great revelation that the DVD market has gone away, [laughs], when the rest of us have known that for awhile now. Yeah. The DVD market, that’s really what’s going on.
John: So, in the excerpt that we’re both citing, there’s an excerpt in salon.com that I’ll put a link up to. She sits down with Peter Chernin and she adjusts herself on the couch quite a few times and leans in as he talks. But, some of what Chernin said I think is actually a useful synopsis of some of the changes that have happened.
Craig: Chernin is spot on.
John: Chernin is a very smart man.
John: And so they’re describing this as The Great Contraction, and essentially the studios were relying on DVD profits to really bankroll most of what they were doing. And as the DVD market suddenly went off a cliff they were — it was much harder to turn that money around. It was also much harder to predict how much a given movie would make. And so they describe studios kind of getting frozen because they didn’t know whether to green light that movie or not green light that movie because they didn’t know how much they could actually hope to bring in on something.
And I’ve definitely felt that. Over the last few years there have been so many more movies that have seemed like they’re approaching the starting line and then they can never actually cross over that point because they just don’t know what the math of that is.
Craig: Yeah. That’s absolutely true. It’s not… — He… — And maybe she’s misrepresenting; he goes a little too far when he says the studios are frozen, they’re terrified to do anything because they don’t know what the numbers look like. They have models. They mock models up. They have models based on comps.
Those models are, I find, very restrictive when we’re talking about smaller movies. So, for instance, on Identity Thief, you know, I thought, okay, well this is pretty good. We’ve got the director of Horrible Bosses that just made $100 million, and we have Melissa McCarthy who was just in Bridesmaids, and we have Jason Bateman who was also just in Horrible Bosses. This should all add up to something good. And they came back and they were like, “Movie that’s not a sequel, that’ snot based on anything, that’s rated-R, that’s a comedy, that doesn’t have what we consider to be a huge level star with box office draw across the world. You get $32 million. That’s it.” [laughs]
And, you know, it was like, “But we need $34 million to make the movie.”
“Well, you’re getting $32 million.”
John: Now, at any point did you see a spreadsheet or this was just the number they came back to?
Craig: No! Are you kidding? No. I did not. And here’s the thing: There are people who see spreadsheets, so I would talk all the time with Scott Stuber and Scott is the producer. He’s seeing lots of spreadsheets, but he’s probably not seeing the real spreadsheet. There’s like spreadsheets and then there’s spreadsheets, and then somewhere I feel there’s a man in a small room on an island who has the true spreadsheet.
Craig: Just one man.
John: Yeah, people think that numbers are real, and numbers are only real if they’re actually backed up by findings. Otherwise they could just be people putting numbers into a spreadsheet to justify the decision that they’ve already made.
John: And that’s a reality of all industries. But, our industry in particular because you really just don’t know; you have no idea of what’s going to happen and you don’t know — you could have a movie that will do tremendous box office, but the weekend that you released it something else horrible happens in the world and then nobody goes to the theaters.
John: And that’s the reality of our fragile business.
Craig: It’s always been that way. And so I think everybody’s always been scared, but the one thing that Peter really nails — Peter Chernin — is that when the DVD business, and let’s extend it back to the VHS business, because the VHS business was a huge boon for the studios as well. When that happened it transformed 1980. Basically you’re looking at — roughly I’m saying, roughly — 1980 to let’s say 2005. It was a 25 year run where volume would make you money. Where just having titles made you money.
John: That was like the Jeffrey Katzenberg era of Disney where he was like, “Let’s make 35 movies a year.”
Craig: Exactly, because in the end it will make us money. It doesn’t matter if one loses, one wins. And it wasn’t about franchises. It wasn’t about, “Let’s get six or seven of these.” It was about, “Just put stuff out because then it’s on DVD or on VHS and it will sell and it will sell and people will buy them and rent them.” And there was just an enormous business around it and there had not yet been an internet avenue to circumvent all of that. So, there was, you know, there was always FBI piracy warnings on VHS cassettes, but who is sitting around copying VHS cassettes? You know what I mean?
It was just lame. They just didn’t happen that much, because it was annoying to do.
So, he’s right that there was this amazing 25-year run. And not coincidentally when we look at guys like Spielberg and Lucas, their rise coincides perfectly with the rise of VHS. I mean, they started a little bit ahead of it, but when they finally hit their stride with their blockbusters, Star Wars, Empire, Return of the Jedi and with Spielberg, Raiders, and Close Encounters, and I mean, everything basically. ET.
Craig: ET. Poltergeist. All of these huge, huge movies. The tail that trailed behind these comets of movies was enormous. It was just a comet tail made of cash and that’s gone. In a weird way what’s happening is we’re kind of rolling the clock back to the way things were before Lucas and Spielberg, I think.
And studios, you know, used to bet, you talk about big bets now, studios used to bet their entire business on a movie.
John: Yeah. They bet their entire studio on The Godfather, or to some degree Jaws. I mean, if Jaws had failed Universal would have been in real trouble.
Craig: And Heaven’s Gate did fail. And a studio collapsed.
John: That was UA right?
Craig: I believe that’s correct. I believe that’s correct. It was United Artists. And also the studio that made Cleopatra.
John: It was some iteration of MGM maybe?
Craig: Yeah, I don’t know. I should know it. All I know is that had it done worse than it did that studio goes away.
Craig: They used to bet an entire studio on a movie. Are you looking it up?
John: I’m looking it up right now. The 1963 film of Cleopatra was for Joseph Mankiewicz, released by — oh, it was Fox.
Craig: It was Fox? All right. So, Fox. And Heaven’s Gate was United Artists. Yeah. Killed them.
John: So, let’s talk about a few other things that were brought up by these four filmmakers. And part of the reason why I wanted to have this conversation is because a lot of times journalists will say, “Hollywood is dead. Hollywood is dying,” or you’ll have anonymous cranks will say, “This is all ruined for these reasons.”
So, when four prominent filmmakers say it I think it’s worth paying attention to. Authority doesn’t make it right and that’s why I think it’s important to dig into it.
One of the things I didn’t think was right was Lucas’ postulate that ticket prices will split and that we’ll get big prices for the big movies and small prices for smaller movies.
John: I don’t see that ever happening.
Craig: No. I mean, now I start to feel like this dude is out of touch, like he’s just got too much money and doesn’t understand why people go to the movies and what the movie going experience means for them.
Movies exist for families to go somewhere with air conditioning and have a good time. It exists for teenagers to be able to entice girls to kiss them, or boys. It exists for fathers and sons to go watch stuff getting blown up and for nerds to see nerdy stuff on film. [laughs]
It speaks to the childishness in all of us and the childlike awesomeness in all of us, but it is a popular thing. It is for masses of people to go and sit together in a room and appreciate something together. That means that it will always be affordable. Always.
We may complain about ticket prices, but look, ticket prices go up a little bit here and there, a little bit here and there. It’s the stupid popcorn and the soda where they’re killing you every year. The ticket prices haven’t gone, I mean, how much have they gone up since, I don’t know, ten years ago?
John: I doubt they’ve actually gone up that much more than inflation. Here’s why I think he’s fundamentally wrong on this, and everything you said in terms of like the reasons why people go to the movies, beyond just to see the film is to actually just be out of the house and be with other people in a way that’s meaningful. Compare it to like a Broadway show. Well, a Broadway show is a thing that’s happening live in front of you that if you do not see it at that moment it doesn’t count.
It’s the same with a sporting event. And there’s a reason why people can choose to watch the game at home on TV, but they choose to go to the stadium to watch it with other people because it’s a different experience and they can see something different. And that’s why they’re willing to pay $60 for a ticket for that where they could watch it for free on television.
Craig: Of course.
John: That’s a different experience. It’s a social experience. A different thing. I don’t think movies are ever going to hit that level.
John: Now, where there is variable pricing is what’s actually right now. You can choose to see it in IMAX in 3D and pay the extra money to do that. And that’s your choice to do that. But we still always give you the option to not do that. And I think we’re going to have to keep giving people the option to not do that because if we try to only say like, “This movie can only be seen in 3D and IMAX and we’re going to charge you $25 for it,” that movie will not succeed.
Craig: I totally agree. And I also want to point out that his analogy to Broadway is additionally bizarre because if I go see a play, and Hugh Jackman is playing Curly, I’m seeing Hugh Jackman, I’m seeing a famous person. You know, you watch people line up for red carpets at movie premieres to see the famous person. I’m not seeing famous people when I go to the movie. I’m seeing a movie of a famous person.
There’s a connection — there’s someone performing for me. It’s intimate. Broadway theaters are very small, actually. I mean, you know this. They’re small. It’s intimate. You’re in a room. There’s nothing like that.
I agree that the issue of variable pricing will be connected to formats, things like IMAX and 3D and all the rest versus regular formatting. But, what it comes down to is this: If you make a movie and you struggle to get people to show up, it is natural for you to say, “There’s something wrong with Hollywood.” And if you’re making a movie and people do show up, I think it’s natural for you to say, “There’s nothing wrong with Hollywood; there is just something right with me.”
Neither of those things are true. [laughs] Hollywood keeps humming along and doing what it’s doing and trying to figure out how to keep its head above water, and it will. You know, they’re still profitable. I think a lot of these guys are crying because they used to make 15% or 20% and now they’re making 5%. You can keep it in at Wells Fargo.
John: So, to wrap up this conversation I want to have one last thought experiment of what if sort of Lucas and Spielberg are right, or sort of all these people are right, and the system is fundamentally broken and fundamentally is unsustainable at this level. What would happen? Would we stop — like let’s say three out of four of the big studios lose the ability to make the giant movies, or lose the ability to make sort of movies in a meaningful way? What happens?
Craig: Oh my god. I wish that happens. Because if that happens, John, then you and I and our richest friends should get together, pool our cash, and make a studio that does nothing but make $20 million movies about interesting things. And we will make a gazillion dollars.
Because the fact is you can talk about the business models and the flow and the ancillary markets, here’s what ultimately doesn’t really change: the audience’s appetite for certain kinds of movies. You may have to change the nature of those movies, like we were talking about, romantic comedies, and make it like this or make it like that, but people don’t just want The Avengers. They want to see The Avengers once a year. That’s enough for them. They don’t need it every week.
What are they going to see in February? [laughs] By the way, that’s what I am. I’m a February screenwriter.
Craig: Oh my god, it fills in February. And I have to say, I don’t mean to sound disrespectful towards George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh. I’m not as good as they are, obviously. They’ve all three of them made classic films. They’re brilliant men. They’re geniuses. I’m just me, right, I’m just Craig Mazin, which is the saddest thing in the world.
I just don’t think that they’re right about this. I think it is natural to begin to lose your optimism about systems that you are no longer the preeminent center of. And those gentlemen were the preeminent center of their environments. Steven Soderbergh basically was the center of the kind of what we’d call mini-major boom. His movie gave birth to Miramax and the mini-major boom. And Lucas and Spielberg…
John: And you look at what Soderbergh did with Section Eight, which is when he moved over to — he and Clooney moved over to Warner Bros. and actually started making really interesting moving for Warner Bros.
Craig: That’s right. And then he made Solaris. And it’s like, “Oh okay. They don’t all work.”
Craig: But Warner Bros. let him make Solaris. Think about it! What is he complaining about, you know? He made The Good German?
At some point they have to say, “Okay, we can’t keep making The Good German and Solaris.”
John: Yeah. Enough black and white Tobey Maguire films.
Craig: Right. “So, you have to give us, like remember the fun funny one, with the adventure and the heist, the Ocean’s Eleven one? Go get Ted Griffin to write a genius script and go make that.”
But, I don’t know. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to them. I just think that they’re being — that they’re confusing their personal frustrations, perhaps, with how the business is going with some sort of cancer of the business. It’s not cancerous. It’s just in a weird place. It’s a phase. Everything is a cycle.
John: I think it’s fair to diagnose it and say it’s changing. And if it’s changing into a form that is away from what you want it to be, then you can say, “Well, it’s falling apart.” But it may actually be falling together into its next form.
John: And that’s a hard thing to recognize when you’re at the middle of a transformation. Is this a transformation that’s going to be productive or a transformation that’s going to be ultimately destructive? And the answer is probably both. There are going to be reasons why you wish things wouldn’t have changed and things that will be new that will be very exciting that will happen because it changed.
And the filmmakers who are coming of age into this business, this is the normal for them. And they will find ways to thrive in that new form of normal.
Craig: God help them.
John: Yeah. Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do!
John: Oh, tell me.
Craig: You’re bummed out, aren’t you? [laughs]
John: No, no, I’m excited. I’m excited when you’re prepared.
Craig: It’s a blast from the past for me. Have you heard about the 17-year cicadas?
John: I am so excited about them.
Craig: Where I grew up on Staten Island we had them, not only did we have them, I mean, we HAD them. So, New Yorkers don’t really get these 17-year cicadas. The deal with these things are they are a particular kind of cicada called Brood II, I think. And they come out, they mate furiously — furiously — for like two weeks. They have babies. The babies sort of drop into the ground and burrow into the ground like little — I don’t know what you call them — little grubs.
And they stay in the ground eating stuff subterraneanly for 17 years, at which point they emerge, fully grown, and have sex and die. And so every 17 years for two weeks there’s this wave of these cicadas. They are incredibly loud. And they are legion.
So, Manhattanites and Brooklyn and Queens folks, they wouldn’t get these things because there’s no ground; it’s all asphalt and concrete, but Staten Island, oh my god. And they’re out right now. So, 34 years ago when I was 7, 8, sorry 8, they came out and I just remember being agog. I have a very, very clear memory of my backyard on Staten Island, 154 Kelly Boulevard, look it up. That was my house.
In the backyard my dog, Woofy, yup, that’s right, jumping in the air and biting them out of the air. It was like a floating buffet and just eating them out of the air by the mouthful. It was amazing.
John: [laughs] See, I grew up in Colorado and we didn’t have anything like this. So, we had grasshoppers but it’s a completely different thing. We never had the searches, and swarms, and waves like that.
I’m kind of sad to miss it. It sounds actually horrifying. I don’t like insets.
Craig: It’s cool. No, I mean, but they really, there were so many of them that at some point it was just a joke. You would literally walk out your front door with a broom and just start brooming them away like snow. Yeah. And this noise was so loud.
John: I’ve heard several theories about sort of why this 17-year cycle happens. And the fact that it’s not a prime number is actually meaningful because other things that happen in cycles are much less likely to hit it. And so like something to do with bird cycles, and like the reason why they all come out at once is because they can just be in such vast numbers that your dog can eat 100,000 of them and it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever.
Craig: Just ate so many. Did you say it was not a prime number?
John: 17 is a prime number. Sorry.
Craig: It is a prime number. Yes.
John: So, the fact that it is a prime number, therefore it won’t fit into any other cycle.
Craig: That’s right. It will sort of be on its, well, no, I mean, once you double it then it gets…it’s not prime, well, I don’t know.
John: Exactly. But something would have to be on a 34-year cycle to be able access the cicada pace.
Craig: Exactly. And it was, and I remember, they were white on the inside. I remember you would eat them. Ugh, so gross.
Yeah, so anyway, 17-year cicadas. I think they’re going on right now back in my hometown, back in Staten Island. [New York accent] “Oh my god, you see all these cicadas out? Unbelievable.”
John: Right now everybody is Google street viewing your old place. They can see the mansion you grew up because as we’ve established you grew up very wealthy; the wealthy son of two teachers in Long Island.
Craig: Take a look. Tell me that does not look like the house De Niro was in when Ray Liotta shows up to give him the gun parts in the third act of Goodfellas.
John: Good stuff.
Craig: Yeah. [New York accent] “Oh my god, what’s your One Cool Thing? You got one?”
John: I do. It’s Feedbin. So, I’ve been using Google Reader for many, many years to look at RSS feeds. And for people who don’t’ use RSS at all, RSS is this really smart technology that you sort of which had taken off in a bigger, more important way. Although, you’re actually using it at this moment because every podcast you’ve ever listened is actually carried by RSS.
But RSS is a way of going to websites and it pulls all the new articles from websites and aggregates them into one place. And so Google Reader was the preeminent RSS reader. And like most things Google, they came in, they did a much better job than everyone else, and everyone was like, “Oh, we’ll just use Google Reader for everything.” And so all the other services died away.
Google Reader announced earlier this year, “You know what? We’re going to stop with Google Reader.” And everyone goes, “Ah! What are we going to do? What are we going to possibly do?” And so they’re shutting down Google Reader June 30 or July 30, but very, very soon.
So, I’ve been looking for an alternative and a very good alternative has emerged called Feedbin. And Feedbin is a replacement for Google Reader. You throw all your feeds at it, so all the blogs you read, the websites you want to check out. It will pool them all together so the next time you go to Feedbin you will have a list of all the articles from all those blogs and sites that are waiting for you.
It’s very useful. It feeds into the Reader App on the iPhone. But actually the web interface for it is quite good, too, on the iPad, or on the Mac, or any other PC. You can just go to the web interface. And so I would recommend it. It’s $2 a month, which for the service it provides is worth it for me.
Craig: $2 a month. You’ll never miss it.
John: Now, Craig, do you use RSS? Or do you just actually go to individual websites?
Craig: I go to individual websites. Even when RSS was a thing, I never really… — Briefly I had a screensaver that basically collected a bunch of RSS feeds and would give me headlines and things. But, nah, I just go to websites.
John: It’s interesting because as Twitter rose, RSS also fell down a little bit because you could follow the website on Twitter and so then you would see like, oh, they have a new article and it sounds interesting. You could click through the link. What’s useful about this is it actually is pulling in most cases the full text of things. And so there are certain sites where I haven’t actually been to the site in years because I just always looked at the feed form.
Craig: Yeah. What I’ll do is I tend to go towards, sometimes I’ll use Fark, because they’re a pretty decent aggregator. Lately I’ve been going to BBC for news.
Craig: I can’t take American news anymore. I’m out. I’m done. I can’t take any of it. I can’t — you tell me the one good American news outlet. I can’t find it.
John: I don’t know that I have a consistent good answer.
Craig: It’s just horrifying. It’s gross. It’s one of our great American failures. Ugh.
John: But at least we have the movies. And I think we’ve established today that we will probably still have the movies in some form…
Craig: We will.
John: …maybe 17 years from now when the cicadas come out again.
Craig: When the cicadas come back, there will still be movies.
John: All right, Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Take care.
- The Writers Guild Foundation presents The Screenwriter’s Craft: Finding Your Voice featuring Scriptnotes Live
- John’s blog post on this summer’s two live shows
- Why Spielberg And Lucas Are Wrong About The Film Industry ‘Implosion’
- Independent Film in Hollywood and France
- Watch Steven Soderbergh’s ‘State of Cinema’ address from the San Francisco Film Festival
- Lynda Obst: Hollywood’s completely broken
- Cicada Mania is dedicated to cicadas
- Feedbin: A fast, simple RSS feed reader
- RSS on Wikipedia