The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Bonjour et bienvenue. Je m’appelle John August.
Craig Mazin: Je m’appelle Craig Mazin.
John: Et cet épisode 98 de Scriptnotes, un podcast pour les scénaristes et les choses qui sont intéressants pour les scénaristes.
Craig, comment ça va?
Craig: Bien. Eh…[laughs]
Craig: My French is really good when I read it. I’m terrible at speaking French.
John: I’m not especially good at speaking French, either. I’m a good French reader, usually, because you get your Latin roots, you can sort of make it all work.
John: But conversation is challenging, which is challenging for me this week because I’m in Paris. And so I’m in Paris here with my family on vacation. And most of the time I get to speak English because my family speaks English. But when we were around my husband’s friends who speak French, I can follow the conversation if I dedicate every brain cell, but then it comes my turn to speak and I just sound like a third grader.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, I lock up. And it’s funny; I have enough where sometimes I can start conversations. So, when my wife and I were in French Polynesia, I could start a conversation with a waiter and my accent is all right. And then I would know, like instead of saying “oui” you oftentimes say “ouais,” which is like yup, or yeah, or ouais.
Craig: And then they think, “Oh, look, he speaks French, and then they really gear it up. And then I’m like, “Non, non, non. Si tu parles plus lentement, peut-être je te comprends.” [laughs]
John: What I have found to be the most fun and challenging scenario is whenever we go traveling overseas we do the little Pimsleur courses first, the little audio-only courses that are really good for like just the very basic like, “Hey, hello, how are you? I need help with this thing,” kind of stuff. And they’re completely audio. And you get a really good accent off of them because you’re not messed up at all by reading or trying to figure out how things are supposed to be written down. You’re just speaking.
So, I’ve done that for Mandarin Chinese. I have done it for Japanese. I’ve done it for a few other languages. And Korean was impossible. Like no one can actually speak Korean. I’m amazed that anyone can speak Korean.
But, I can do it for both Japanese and Mandarin. And I sound really convincing for about three sentences. And so someone will go back to me at full speed. I’m like, no, no, no, I really do not speak your language. I can just fake it.
Craig: Right. I was just lying. [laughs]
John: It’s just all a lie.
Craig: Yeah. I suckered you in and now I’ve got nothing.
John: Nope. But we have a lot today, because we have a lot of things that happened in the news and then we want to answer some questions that came in over the transom. So, let’s get started.
Craig: Great. Let’s do it!
John: The things I want to talk about today. First is two things in the news. Apple lost its first round in this federal lawsuit about price fixing. And I want to talk about not that so much, but what it actually means for Hollywood and sort of the business of what we do.
The Producers Guild reach a new agreement with the studios on credits for feature films and for television.
Craig: Producers, right?
John: Producers, not writers. Producers.
And, finally, there are a couple articles recently about how movies seem to have gotten so long and whether that’s a thing that can be rectified. And sort of where long movies come from. Let’s do that.
Craig: Let’s dive in.
John: First just some housekeeping, though, some Scriptnotes business. If you bought a t-shirt, it’s probably in your hands. If it’s not in your hands then you should email Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org. And Stuart, who is the person who mans that desk, will figure out where your shirt is, because most of the shirts — I think all of the shirts have been shipped out into the world.
Craig: I’m wearing my blue, soft shirt right now.
John: Is it nice?
Craig: It’s so soft.
John: It’s really truly soft.
Craig: It’s great.
John: And so we had promised like the softest shirt known to mankind. And I actually emailed out to everybody who ordered the blue shirt, because we ended up switching from one model to another model, but it’s a really, really soft shirt; it’s just a shirt that I preferred to the one that Stuart had picked.
There were some questions and confusion about the Golden Ticket. So, the Golden Ticket is when we sent out all these shirts we had these postcards in them and on one postcard, this was actually your idea, Craig, so I’m crediting and blaming you for this.
John: We handwrote, you and I handwrote saying, “This is the Golden Ticket. If you have this ticket and this secret magic word, email us and we will give you your special prize.”
Craig: And has anyone claimed the prize?
John: No one has claimed the prize. But a lot of people have written into Stuart saying like, “I think I got the Golden Ticket because I got a special card in my…”
Craig: No, you’re not special, snowflake. Everyone got a card. There’s only person out there, and you know… — You know how businesses will do these rebate things where you buy something and it’s a rebate and all you have to do is mail it in. And they do that on purpose because they know no one will ever mail it in. I feel like the person who gets the Golden Ticket won’t even realize and they’re just going to chuck it.
John: Yeah. It’s entirely possible that that happened. Because we didn’t keep track of it. Truly, we just like stuffed things in envelopes and we never flipped them back over.
John: And now Craig is drinking a beer.
Craig: No, it’s a Diet Dr. Pepper.
John: That’s his drink of choice. I can actually hear you pouring it into a glass. Are you pouring it into a glass?
Craig: No. No, that was a bus. [laughs] Listen, there’s a lot of noise here and you have to learn to discern the subtle difference between city bus and liquid hitting a glass.
John: It’s tough. I’m not good with those kind of skills.
Craig: Oh, god, that’s good Diet Dr. Pepper.
John: And so we’ll make sure we have some of those on hand for you for the live 100th Episode on July 25th in Hollywood.
John: Now, a bunch of people have asked, say like, “I didn’t get a ticket. How do I get a ticket? Can I please get a ticket?” We’re not at this point planning to release another block of tickets. But what we do know is that there will be some standby tickets available. And so like there will be an opportunity to line up and just come join us.
We will be tweeting about that the day before, so follow me or Craig on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. He’s @clmazin. And when we know what the scoop is we will tell you the scoop. There are only a certain number of people that can fit into that space, but we intend to get as many people who want to come see our show into that space as possible.
John: Cool. Let’s talk about some things. So, first off, this is a federal lawsuit that happened. This was Federal US government against Apple. And so originally it was the US government against Apple and a bunch of publishers, but the publishers all settled out. And so Apple was like the last man standing there.
And this was a federal lawsuit and the judge, Denise Cote, ruled that Apple conspired with five major publishers to raise the retail price of eBooks. So, the actual opinion that came out, this was yesterday as we’re recording this, was 160 pages. I’m not going to try to like summarize the summaries I’ve read. But it comes down to the question of by whether offering the publishers a chance to set the prices on the books, Apple effectively raised the prices for the whole eBook industry.
John: And she said, “Yeah, they did.”
Craig: It’s a very strange case to me, honestly.
John: It’s bizarre.
Craig: Yeah, what instigated it was Amazon. Amazon started selling eBooks, essentially is what it comes down to — eBooks. They started selling eBooks at $9.99, even if the price that Amazon was paying to the publishers for the books was greater than $9.99. And the reason they were doing that is classic loss-leader stuff: create a business, become the monopoly in that space, and then go ahead and raise the prices later once you’ve got everybody dialed in to using, I mean, really it’s about driving the Kindle. And it’s just about driving traffic to Amazon.
Amazon, to me, that’s the dangerous area is when you look at Amazon and their monopolistic practices. Apple comes along and says, “Well, we want to sell books, too.” And the book industry, it’s very industry. The book industry had a very interesting reaction to Amazon, because let’s say I sell a book to Amazon and the wholesale price to Amazon is $12. And Amazon turns around and sells it for $9.99. What do I care? I got my $12.
I think their general feeling was that Amazon was just setting them all up for a fall sooner or later, and in general driving down the prices of books isn’t a good thing.
John: Absolutely. And, also, look at the publisher’s perspective. They would rather you maybe buy that $25 hardcover book.
John: They don’t want the mental price point of books to be set at such a low thing that they can’t keep charging $20 for a book.
Craig: Right. So, Apple comes to them and they’re like, “Oh, good, finally. Somebody is going to do this a different way.” And initially I guess Apple was like, “We’ll do what Amazon does.” And the booksellers said, “How about something else? How about we use what’s called the Agency Model? Which is essentially how app sales work, where basically we set the price on our end. You just take a cut. You take a percentage.”
And Apple said, fine, let’s do that. Where they seem to have run into trouble is that they wanted to safeguard against basically being stuck selling a book for $15 when Amazon was selling the same book for $9.99. So, they got some deal where — I don’t even understand how they worked this out — but basically there were price tiers. It gets really confusing.
John: They created both price tiers and a most favored nation status where they had the option to sell for whatever the lowest existing price was for something.
John: And her argument, the judge’s argument, is that you combine these tiers, the most favored nations and the fact that you’re basically simultaneously dealing with all these publishers that de facto by making this deal the publishers were going to go back to Amazon and say, “Okay, now you’re going to take this new business model,” and the prices were going to go up. The prices did, in fact, go up across the board.
Craig: That’s what they did, right. They went back to Amazon and Amazon took that deal. But, I don’t understand how that’s Apple’s fault?
John: Well, Apple, I think, makes the very compelling argument that there was essentially no way they could enter this marketplace without coming into it basically exactly this situation. Any other entrance into what was essentially already a monopolistic situation was going to run into this area. Because if you try to do anything different you’re going to change the pricing because the pricing was bizarre. The pricing was not normal and so it’s not that you’re anti-competitive. You were trying to compete and by competing you were raising prices.
Craig: Yeah. It’s basically, you know, Amazon legally can get away with selling books for $1 if they feel like it. But the second Apple basically says, “Hey publishers, let’s all get together and agree on a structure together,” that is seen as a collusive behavior, I guess. And that’s where she argues they violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.
John: Yeah. So, the publishers clearly had already gotten together in ways and that was really, even before Apple had gotten involved, they had gotten together and had conversations which were suspect. But they settled those out without admitting any fault. So, Apple is the only person left standing here. And they’re the ones who are going to have to defend themselves at this next level. And apparently what I’ve read about this, these cases often go to appeal. This could go to the Supreme Court. So, this is not the final round on this.
And so in the show notes at johnaugust.com for this episode I will put two good articles, I thought, that sort of talked through the bigger issues at play in this specific case. So, Adam C. Engst wrote a really good piece for TidBits. And Philip Elmer-DeWitt wrote a bigger piece at Fortune that explains what the appeal might be.
What I thought would be interesting for us to talk about though is sort of what ways is this analogous to what happens in studio business and in what ways is it not really applicable. Because if I look at the publishers, you look at the five big publishers that control most of the bestsellers. That seems pretty analogous to our big studio system, is that we have these big giant corporations that produce most of our film and television work.
What is different is there is nothing like an Amazon. There is not one place that is so… — There is not one retailer that is so dominant that you have to bend to their whims. At times there has been. I feel like Walmart probably was at a certain point where it didn’t have the majority of control but it had such a huge footprint that you had to sort of bow to them. But, I think it’s interesting to think about because we as a business would love to be able to control price for our DVDs.
John: And we can’t.
Craig: We can’t. Movie tickets are set by the theaters. And they basically, they don’t collude. They essentially look at what people are selling tickets for down the street and they adjust. Movie ticket prices vary all across the country.
When it comes to things like DVDs and stuff like that, the retailers set prices. There’s always a manufactured, a retail price that’s recommended, I would imagine. But the companies don’t fix those.
What came to mind for me was Netflix, because I was talking to a friend of mine who is retired now, but he used to be pretty high up in home video at one of the studios. And he said Netflix essentially is dumping product out there. It’s dumping these rentals out there for two bucks, or something like that. And essentially undermining the value of the libraries.
And I said, [laughs], so very naively, I said, “Well, why don’t the studios just get together and tell them you can’t do that anymore?” And he said, “That’s against the law.”
John: That’s against the law.
Craig: You know, that’s the problem. The studios can’t get together and say to Netflix, “We’re not letting you do that anymore. We’re going to…” You can’t even say, “We’re not going to give you our movies anymore” as a group.
So, then the problem is, well, if one studio does it, then the other ones are like, “Good. Less competition.” [laughs] Do you know what I mean? It’s like this is the problem. The studios can’t collude to protect their shared greedy interests. So, you have this kind of weird game theory problem of the commons, so to speak.
John: Let’s take a little history trip backwards. Because the studios have been involved in antitrust classically and that was back in the days of theaters. And so the studious used to be vertically integrated companies where they not only made movies but they exhibited movies and they used to own theaters. And I’m always going to blank out on the name of the thing that busted that up, but essentially the studios had to divest themselves of movie theaters.
And so movie theaters, the exhibitors who are sort of the equivalent of the retail sellers of movies, cannot be owned by the major studios. And that was a decision that was made.
If you look at broadcast, there classically were distinctions between making television and being able to broadcast television.
John: Yeah, fin-syn. To some degree there still is. There is some degree you can only own a certain number of broadcast outlets in certain markets, but that has changed over the time, too.
Where the money is now, though, is in video. And so it’s in being able to sell somebody a physical product, those discs. That’s why there have been concerns about like Redbox, when Redbox was a big worry, those vending machines that were dispensing DVDs as rentals that was driving down the prices or driving down the ability of studios to sell those things for purchase because people were just renting them for so super cheap.
Where I think it’s probably most applicable to this Apple lawsuit is in the digital purchase and digital — I guess really digital purchase of movies. Because when you’re dealing with a physical product, that physical product can be resold. There’s markets you’re never going to be able to control. And the same thing happened with books, too. Used book stores aren’t publisher’s favorite things, but they can’t really control that.
When you’re dealing with a digital good, so like that digital purchase of a movie, that’s the kind of thing that’s going to be much harder for the studio to set the price. And it’s conceivable that someone like an Amazon could come in and say, “Okay, we’ll buy your movie from the studio for $2 a copy, but we’re going to sell it for $1.” And the studios would not be delighted by that, at all.
Craig: No. I think for awhile the studios were talking about a joint venture where they would have some sort of collective Netflix service that they would own and control. I’m not sure they’re allowed to do that. I’m not sure the five studios can get together and create one company through which they distribute everything digitally. I think that might be antitrust.
I don’t know enough about it. All I know is that they’re in a total panic. And they keep trying, like they take little tiptoes at light the UltraViolet. And I just think they’ve got a real problem. And the law doesn’t help.
John: The law doesn’t help, because the law does not help protect against the race to the bottom which is what I think they’re most worried about.
John: And in the race to the bottom is that the prices will keep falling as low as they can possibly fall. And especially in digital goods, there seems to be like no bottom there. Movies are also, and TV shows, are also confounded by the fact that I don’t think piracy was a big issue in eBooks, because there weren’t really eBooks as piracy kicked in. And then there was Kindle.
I may naively be assuming that piracy isn’t a big issue with eBooks, but it certainly is a very big issue for movies and TV shows. And so ultimately they’re not only competing against Amazon, and Amazon is charging $0.99 for your show, and you wish they would charge $5 for your show; you’re dealing with the people who are selling it for zero dollars.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And so it’s a challenging situation for the studios. Now, what the possible solutions could be? You look at HBO, what they do with HBO GO. They control their channel. They control like literally the thing they make, how you actually get it in your home. That’s very useful.
Sony tried to do the same thing with Crackle. We’ll see if that works at all.
John: There may be some ways in which the studios can control the pipeline better for their product and not have to rely on the Netflix’s and the iTunes.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not sure. When I look at the landscape, I don’t see what the way out is other than literally rewriting the law, which happens. And every now and then you’ll see these big clashes between large companies, one of which is saying we need this to protect our business, and the other industry group is saying this is against the spirit of the internet and it is anti-freedom.
Everybody is lying. Well, I’m sorry, the companies that are saying, “We’re against this because it’s ant-freedom.” They’re lying. They’re against it because it’s going to hurt their bottom line. And when I watch the debate over internet neutrality and SOPA and PIPA and all the rest, and I’m watching Google insisting loudly that they’re the defenders of freedom. I’m like, oh please. Please! You don’t like what this would do to your bottom line. That’s it. Simple, right, so.
There will be — this will end up in congress sooner or later the way that copyright law seems to keep going in the favor of the studios and IP owners. But, I’m not sure we can put the toothpaste in this particular tube.
John: Yes. What I would say though as writers, we are going to be watching carefully to see how that toothpaste can be restored to some degree, or at least like not all the toothpaste squeezed out, because without home video there is no residuals. And without residuals the career of screenwriting is much more difficult to maintain.
Craig: For sure. There is no residuals, or there are greatly reduced residuals, and then beyond that the studios themselves have to pull back on the amount of films they make and the kind of films they make which reduces employment. It is a vicious cycle. It’s a bad, bad thing.
So, hopefully, I don’t know. Hopefully we can figure it out. Probably not. [laughs] I’m not too sanguine on this one.
John: See, I’m the one in Paris and you’re the one who’s like clearly depressed.
Craig: [French accent] I don’t know what to do. Life is shit.
John: Let’s segue to maybe happier news. I think it’s happier news. This is the Producers Guild announced this week they had reached an agreement with all the major studios.
John: Which I’m glad you’re excited, too, because I think it’s a good idea. This is essentially what’s going to happen. The Producers Guild has negotiated separately, must importantly note separately, with all of the studios in order to reach what’s sort of an official credit for the producers on films.
And what the system will set up is that a film, or a TV show, can be taken to the Producers Guild. The Producers Guild will certify who actually deserves — in the case of a film, the producer credit. Who deserves the executive producer credit. And those individuals will have a p.g.a. after their name, to certify that they are the person who actually did the work.
And what is the work? Well, the code attaches specific weights to specific functions. And from the press release it says, “35% for development. 20% for preproduction. 20% for production. And 25% for post-production and marketing.” And it also includes the job descriptions, the guidelines, the rules intended to help you resolve credit disputes. And so hopefully those “Produced by” credit blocks will mean something.
John: Now, what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t keep a studio from giving somebody a producer credit.
Craig: That’s right.
John: There can be producer credits, and that’s still the studio’s domain, but in order to have that p.g.a. after a producer’s name, it has to have gone through the producer’s arbitration process.
Craig: Yeah. Thank god for this. First of all, the Producers Guild is not actually a union. That’s the first thing we should point out. They’re not a labor union. They’re not recognized by the federal government. They are not a collection of employees who bargain as a unit for employment. That’s not what they do. They’re just using the word “guild” because, you know, the Directors Guild. It’s Hollywood. Everybody likes to just use the same word as everybody else.
And that’s why they had to kind of negotiate this individually because there is no management group, like for instance, we negotiate with the AMPTP.
I love that they’re doing this. It’s so funny to me that they basically stole the Writers Guild credit arbitration system of percentages, which we all loathe, but it is sort of the best of all bad possible versions of how to do these sorts of things. Because the truth is, just like we do with writing credits, it’s kind of an “I know it when I see it.”
On a movie, you all know, you go to the theater and you see these scrolls of names sometimes of producers, executive producers, co-producers, associate producers. What is the producer even doing and who is it? Well, finally, those of us who work in movies, there is a producer. There is one. There is one. That’s the guy or the woman. That’s it.
And it would be sure nice for those people who do all that work, I would think, to be able to say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s me. I’m the one.”
And, do you know why I really like it, John?
John: Tell me.
Craig: I really like it for the opposite. I like knowing who wasn’t the producer. [laughs] Because, man, and this is good for us as writers. There are so many people saying, “Oh, I produced this. I produced that.” Did you? Did you? I see you have a credit. I don’t know what that means.
If you have a writing credit, I know what that means. It means the Writers Guild said, “Yeah, you authored this movie in part in whole.” But I don’t know what your producer credit means. There’s 12 of you on this thing. Only one of you really did it, so it sure would be nice to know who the real producer is. For that reason alone I think it’s spectacular.
John: I think it’s good, too. I would also wonder if over the course of a few years, and as it becomes more commonplace, some people stop asking for that credit because they know they’re not going to get the stamp of approval. And it’s going to be sort of weird to have your name on there and everyone will know that you didn’t really actually produce that movie.
John: I thought it was also interesting how they broke up the allotments of sort of how much you had to do in order to get your credit. So, 35% for development. That’s a lot. That means you’re the person who came onboard early on, either reading the script or hiring the writer, working with the writer, getting the script up to the place where it could be green lit.
20% for preproduction, which is all the stuff leading up to getting cast, getting everything put together so you can actually budget, so you can actually make a movie. Only 20% for production, which is, I think, interesting, but also reasonable. Production is a huge Magilla monster, but it’s not all that is involved in making a movie.
Craig: I think they capped that in particular because they don’t like this notion of there’s been a credit bleed with UPMs and so called line producers who are now grabbing onto producer titles. And they don’t like that. I don’t blame them.
John: And then 25% for post-production and marketing. Post-production I can totally see. Marketing is an incredibility important producer function that the challenge will be of course that the producer credits are going to be determined before all that marketing is done. So, the producer is also involved in sort of like home video decisions and all those other things which are not going to be sort of factored into this part of it. But that’s the best you’re going to do in a perfect situation.
But I think it’s a terrific first step. I think it’s going to be a huge help in sort of knocking down some of the over-proliferation of credits in features and in television as well.
Craig: Yeah. It’s going to be nice to know. And it just makes me grumpy when I see a lot of these names. It makes me grumpy when people overstate what they did on a movie. And I very much hope that what you’re suggesting does come true. That out of sheer embarrassment people just stop taking a credit that frankly is not reflective of what they’ve done.
John: Yes. Next, let’s talk about movies and long movies. So, this is an article that got sent to me that I thought was interesting, that pointed out that most — have you seen The Lone Ranger?
Craig: Haven’t seen it yet, no.
John: I haven’t seen it, either. I’ve been in France. Most of the reviews, there have been mixed reviews for The Lone Ranger, but almost every single review says that it’s too long. And it’s interesting because even some movies that got good reviews, it seems to be a common refrain, like, “That movie was just too long.” Like the last Batman.
Craig: “It’s too long. It’s too long,” they say. [laughs]
John: That last Batman was too long.
Craig: Was it? I liked it.
John: You liked it? I thought it was too long. I thought by the time we got to the sixth act I was ready for it to be done.
Craig: Hold on. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put my umbrage in a jar and save it. And when you’re done I’m going to kick the jar over. [laughs]
John: That’s great. I can sort of anticipate what your umbrage will be, that like if a movie is working it is never too long.
Craig: Well, how about this? How about the people who are complaining about movies that are too long have to see every freaking movie. That’s their job. Of course they think the movies are too long.
John: No, I think audiences think the movie is too long though, too.
Craig: I don’t know. I’ve got some numbers to run by you about that.
John: All right, great. This article, and this is one by Alex Mayyasi on Priceonomics, was also speculating on the fact of like why are movies so long, because when you really consider that the 75-minute romantic comedy sells for the same ticket price as the 2.5-hour blockbuster.
John: And there is some truth to that. It is sort of weird that we charge the same price no matter what it is. And so there should be economic incentive to make the shortest thing that will satisfy the customer, because they now have to spend anymore than you have to do.
Of course, we actually understand that the way you make movies is the movies you actually sort of first arrive at are vastly longer than the movies you actually release. And so you can say like, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have shot all that stuff that wasn’t going to be in the movie.”
John: Well, yes, but you didn’t know what that stuff was.
Craig: That would be a neat trick!
John: That was the problem. Yeah. It’s the equivalent of like, you know, “Well, you should only develop the products that you’re actually going to release.” Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea.
Craig: Oh, yeah, of course.
John: Or like, you know, “Maybe we should only build the cars that we can sell.”
Craig: “Don’t invest in stocks that are going to go down. That just makes no sense.”
John: It doesn’t make any sense at all. People have been doing it wrong for all this time.
Craig: They’re just doing it wrong.
John: So, what I liked about the article is it was asking sort of the right naïve questions about sort of what is up with our movies and why we tend to make these really long movies. And is there a reason to start looking at the length of movies? Partly because, as writers, we’re often held to contracts that say like, “Your script can be no more than 120 pages.”
Directors are held to these contracts that say like, “Your movie can be no more than two hours long.” So, the directors aren’t really held to that contract. And the more powerful you are as a director, the longer your movie will tend to be.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not sure where this is coming from. I remember a time in the ’90s where people were complaining that movies were too short and that they were becoming junkie. And that the movies of the ’70s were routinely two hours, 2.5 hours. I don’t know what the running time of The Godfather is. It’s over two hours.
John: Yeah. It’s long.
Craig: And way, way back there were really long movies. I don’t, you know, this, the article that you sent me, the essay that you sent me, takes a lot of guesses. None of them seem very compelling to me. The one that seems least compelling is Peter Travers’, who I generally find remarkably uncompelling. He says, “Hollywood studios believe movies are weighed by the pound when it comes to Academy thinking. If it ain’t long, it ain’t winning. Stupid, I know, since The Artist and The King’s Speech weren’t long. But ever since Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, continuing through Titanic, Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord of the Rings, they think Oscar will not take any epic seriously if it’s under two hours.”
That’s just stupid. That’s a stupid comment. First of all, nobody, nobody in Hollywood, ever thinks about Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, ever. Just so we’re clear about that. Ever.
Second of all, when they’re making movies they want people to show up. The reason movies are long aren’t because of Oscars. Check what the grosses are on The Artist and compare it to what the grosses are on, I don’t know, Ted. That’s not what it’s about.
It’s hard for these people to understand this. The reason some movies are long is because the filmmakers made a movie that that was that long. And every single movie you see in a theater has been tested in front of audience. Every single movie has been tested twice, three times, four times. And in all those tests, one of the first questions they ask the audience was, “Did it seem too long? Did it seem too short? Did it move too fast, too slow? Was it just right?”
We talk about pacing and length all the time. Well, if you make a movie and the movie is two hours long, and people say, “Yeah, actually, that was a great length.” Well, then, that’s that. Then we’re fine. And it’s not a problem. It’s just not a problem.
I personally don’t see that there’s this horrible thing happening where movies are too long. I think if we ask ourselves why are movies the length they are, it’s because the people who are making them want them to be that length. And the numbers that I pulled — a couple of numbers I want to run by you.
First of all, The Lone Ranger is an example of a movie where people start going, “Oh good, here’s a movie that we can all talk about why everything has gone wrong. And let’s draw lessons.”
So, one criticism made it into every review. The Lone Ranger is too long. The Lone Ranger had a running time of 149 minutes. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dean Man’s Chest had a running time of 151 minutes. Made like a billion dollars. The first Pirates, if you say, “Well, that was a sequel,” had a running time of 136 minutes. So, do you really think that that 12 minutes was why The Lone Ranger, why people didn’t show up to The Lone Ranger? Do you think anybody said, “I’m not going to go to The Lone Ranger this weekend because it’s 12 minutes longer than the movie that we all went to?”
Of course not. It has nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with it. And the best example I can give of length, because I believe that there are some movies that you want to be short, like god, our spoof movies were like 70 minutes, because how much of that crap can you take, right? [laughs]
But, if you are allowed…
John: Who writes those things anyway?
Craig: Those spoof movies?
John: I mean, whoever writes those kind of movies should just be taken out and shot.
John: They do no good for anybody.
Craig: That’s right. And their families should be shot. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Absolutely.
John: I think we should round them all up.
Craig: They should be shot. But, one thing that I think is going on is that storytelling is becoming a little more complicated. Not in the strict sense of narrative, but rather what the audience appreciates. You can see it on television. The complexity of narrative in television series has just quadrupled, quintupled, whatever you want to call it. Go ahead and watch Breaking Bad, or The Wire, or The Sopranos and see how frankly complicated the narrative gets. Look at Game of Thrones. How many characters? They need the time, right? We become used to an expansion of time.
So, take the case of Pixar. Pixar’s first movie, Toy Story, was 77 minutes long. I’m going to run it in order now from Toy Story through Cars. So, Toy Story: A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, here are the running times: 77, 96, 92, 92, 100, 116, 117.
John: They’ve crept up.
Craig: They’ve crept up because they have more that they want to do. It’s fine. I don’t WALL-E to be 60 minutes. You know?
Craig: I’m exhausted.
John: I do largely agree with you, obviously. I feel like there’s a reason why movies are a certain length. And part of the reason why we make certain movies and make certain movies at a certain length is because we want to differentiate them from what you would see in a one-hour television show.
John: Sometimes movies need to be bigger because they are bigger. They are something that you could not possibly put on a small screen. And that’s a reason why, but also it speaks to the genres of movies that we’re making right now and why I think it’s much harder to make the simple little romantic comedy that we used to be able to make because simple little romantic comedies are now a half-hour single camera comedy and they’re not a feature film.
John: That’s just sort of what we’re doing right now. So, yes. And I also really do sympathize with The Lone Ranger just because it becomes the punching bag for whatever we want to say about movies right now. And so, you could say like, “Oh, it failed because it was this or that,” or because Johnny Depp has fallen off the star map.
Or, because it was a giant western, it probably made more than any other western ever did in its opening weekend. It’s just the expectations on it were so high that it was not possible to reach those expectations.
John: And I would also sympathize on The Lone Ranger because nobody didn’t show up the first weekend because of its length. As you said, it’s like, you don’t know what the movie is until you see the movie. And you certainly don’t know that the movie is as long as it is before you see the movie.
Craig: When movies, big movies, don’t work, there is an explosion of punditry that is nauseating to me. As if we could somehow control this. As if by expressing the right analysis we can prevent this from ever happening again, or perhaps hold the idiots that would wander down that path again up to ridicule. Nonsense.
Go ahead and explain to me why things work. Go ahead and explain to me why things don’t work. And all I can do is look back at you and say, “Shut up. You don’t know. You don’t know.” There is a magic to these things when they work. And there is this weird creepy anti-magic when they don’t. And in the end here’s why it doesn’t work: people just didn’t like it. Not the genre. Not the actor. Not the length. Not the 3D. Not the time of the year. It just didn’t work!
Craig: That’s it. Stop writing articles. Geez, man. Everyone’s got write an article to try and explain this. You can’t. Stop it. Stop it! [laughs]
John: I agree. I loved The Heat. And I’m so happy that it did so well, but if it hadn’t done so well, if say a disaster had happened that weekend, you know, somewhere in the world, and people didn’t go to the movie theaters, people would have tried to write the articles on sort of why female buddy comedies can’t work.
And the fact that it did work, they’re not really writing those articles saying, “Hey, there’s a whole new genre of everything.” No, they’re taking that as just an aberration. Like, oh, there’s that one. So, yes, that’s happening.
Craig: It’s sick.
John: Because they’re always looking for the faults that they can point out rather than this is hooray for this success.
Craig: You know, John, it’s as if the people that write these articles are inherently miserable.
John: [laughs] It is possible.
Craig: It is possible.
John: We have a listener question that I want to get to. “As Scriptnotes has a following, I wonder — ” this is from Sam, by the way. “As Scriptnotes has a following, I wonder how visible you guys are to writers, producers, and executives within the industry. Do you know if they discuss topics you cover on any given week? I ask because the podcast is influencing me, but it can’t change much outside of what I put on the page. My hope would be that players working within the film industry listen to Scriptnotes and say, ‘Ah-ha!’ and change for the better, or at least a little bit.”
Craig, do you think we are making any difference in the film and television industry?
Craig: Oh my god. Probably not. [laughs] I mean, I think that if we are making a difference it’s with writers. I do know a lot of writers, a lot of professional writers listen to our podcast, which is very gratifying to me. And I hope that they are a little more enabled to go about their day and protect their work and improve their work because of something we’ve said. But, I can’t, in all humility, I can’t say that we do or don’t. I don’t know.
John: I don’t think we have a big influence in the industry overall. And I would say that because I don’t think people who are not writers really listen to our show very often.
Like my agent listens to the show most times, but not all the time. I think junior people would be more likely to listen to our show than sort of the senior people, just because they’re people who might listen to podcasts overall.
Writers who are on TV shows, I know quite a few of them listen to the show. That’s terrific. That’s wonderful. So, if in any way we’re sort of providing a voice and commentary to what they’re feeling and experiencing in their daily lives, I think that’s useful. I don’t know that it necessarily changes anything. I think it may change their individual behaviors and I guess collectively changing individual behaviors or attitudes could have a bigger impact, but I don’t think we have any sort of large scale impact in sort of how things overall work.
Craig: I’m okay with that. If maybe all we get out of this is that when you and I are in our sixties, the people running studios will look at us fondly. [laughs] We were part of their childhood.
Craig: And give us a job.
John: Remember way back when. We’ll be like one of those vintage commercials you see on YouTube for like those toys that you sort of half remember. It’s like, oh, that really was a thing.
Craig: That’s right! “You know you were born if the 2000s if you remember this.”
John: Oh. That little tank that you could put in the little code for like what sequence of moves you wanted it to make.
Craig: I remember that.
John: That was great. And Merlin.
Craig: I just see some guys like, “Hey, can I ask you? Why did you hire John August?”
“I was this Scriptnotes fan. I don’t know, man. I was a Scriptnotes fan. Whatever.” [laughs]
John: Yeah. “Worst decision I ever made was hiring him to do that adaptation of Smurfs 4.”
Craig: Smurfs 4!
John: Smurfs 4.
Craig: You’re not going to be able to get that.
John: I blanking out on what the name of The Smurfs is in France, but it’s completely different. It’s a completely different word.
Craig: Right. Because it comes from, is it…
Craig: …Belgium, man. It’s like Schnarfin or something like that.
John: Yeah. It’s something more like the Schnarfin kind of word here.
But as we were riding our Velibs around today. So, we’ve been riding the free bikes, the Velibs, which are just amazing. But we passed a total gas station that had ads for Smurfs 2. But they do the same thing they do in English where it’s like, you know, “What the Smurf?” But, of course, it’s whatever the other crazy French word is for it.
And so it was just so absurd we had to document it.
John: And take care of that.
Craig: Schmurfen? Schlarfen?
John: Schlarfen. Schlarfen sounds about right.
Craig: Is it Schlarfen? I’m going to look it up.
John: Yeah. Whatever it is, it’s fantastic and just as absurd as Smurf is.
Craig: I guess if I Google “French Smurf.”
John: God, it could be porn.
Craig: No, I have it on safe search, because I don’t want. It’s Schtroumpfs.
John: Yeah. Schtroumpfs.
Craig: What the Schtroumpfs?
John: What the Schtroumpfs?
Craig: Why couldn’t we handle Schtroumpfs here in the United States?
John: Ah, Smurf is actually a better word in English.
Craig: Mm. You might be onto something.
John: So, I’m ready for my One Cool Thing, which is what I actually just spoiled the reveal on, which is the Velib. Which, if you come to Paris, you need to check out the Velib which are the rental bikes that you can get here which are, it’s the perfect combination of sort of my environmental geekery and my true nerd data geekery in that you have these bikes which you can rent for up to half an hour for free.
You punch the little code. You disconnect it from this automated rack. And you get to ride around the city. And when you’re done you can pop it into any other rack and it is there for the next person to use.
It’s not perfect. And so sometimes you will find a bike and you will get on it and you will realize that this seat is broken, or that it is just not a functional bike in the way that you would like a functional bike to be. And then you have to swap it back out again.
I first rode these bikes when I was here with a group of screenwriters, Film France had flown over a group of screenwriters including Derek Haas and John Lee Hancock and some other fun writers. And showed us all around. And on that trip five years ago they had just started the Velib program. And so I took my first bike out and had a terrifying ride around, literally across a bridge, down a street, and across another bridge, and back to the rack, because the city was not very well set up for bikes.
The city has gotten much better set up for bikes. And so there are now actually bike lanes. And if you are a tourist visiting the city it is one of the most ideal ways to sort of see what Paris is like. I would highly recommend.
Craig: It sounds great.
John: Very good. And there are actually apps now that will help you figure out where the stations are, how many bikes are available, if there is space at the rack to return you bike, which is one of the big frustrations and challenges is that sometimes you’ll reach a rack and actually there’s no place to check your bike in. And so therefore you’re looking for one.
Craig: Oh, so there’s three of you and there’s only two spots, which must be so annoying.
John: It is quite annoying. That does happen. So, I would encourage you if you’re coming to Paris to check that out. If you are going to London you should check out the equivalent system there which I think Barclays runs it. New York has Citi Bike.
It is a good thing. I don’t know that Los Angeles will ever really be able to do it, because we’re just so spread out. Like the stations would be like 20 miles apart.
Craig: Los Angeles has the deal where you can just get BMWs. They’re in a rack. BMW 3 Series are in racks.
John: Well, I don’t know if you know this, Craig, but they actually have Auto Leap here which is the car equivalent. So, they have these racks of like four little mini cars. They are luxury cars. And so literally you check them out and you can drive them around and check them back in.
Craig: That’s cute. I like that.
John: It’s cute.
Craig: Well, my One Cool Thing is absolutely on theme with yours. I’ve been very good about not talking about Tesla stuff every week, even though I want to. But…
John: The Tesla is Craig’s amazing car, which is the best car in the world.
Craig: It is the best car in the world. That’s a fact. That has now been verified. It’s objective. It’s a fact. Science has indicated it so. [laughs]
So, Tesla has this interesting network called Superchargers, which I’m sure you guys have heard of, maybe. I’m sure maybe. You’re driving around in your Tesla and you want to go on a long trip and they’re putting in these free Supercharging stations where you pull in and you plug in to their charging station. It’s free. And it actually uses direct current to the battery which is like mainlining heroin to a battery.
And you can charge your Tesla from zero to 250 miles in something like a half an hour. So, you plug in, you go eat lunch, you come back, you’ve got another 250 miles. And they are rolling them out, I mean, their plan by 2014 is that they’re everywhere, but for now there is one in Barstow, so I can go back and forth to Vegas if I want. And there’s a string of them between LA and San Francisco, so you can go up and down as you wish.
But, there’s a little bit of a tradeoff there. It’s free, but you have to wait a little bit. You have to wait a half an hour. Okay, fine. What if you don’t have a half an hour? What if you’re on your way, you hit the Supercharging station, you’re down and you got to get a move?
So, they’re installing these battery swapping stations. Have you seen this video?
John: Oh my god, no. I have to see this. Send a link.
Craig: It’s the coolest! I will send a link. So, now your option is free half an hour or pay something like $60 and in two minutes you’re on your way. It’s sick. So, it’s like filling up with gas at that point, economically.
John: So, I don’t understand. Is the battery in the Tesla really that self-contained that they can just take the whole thing out and put it back in?
Craig: Yes! So, when they constructed this thing they built it specifically with this in mind. They just didn’t have the swapping technology dialed in yet. But now they’re starting to install them. You roll up on this thing that’s like an oil change. You roll up, but underneath is like an opening. And you say on your little touch screen, yeah, I want to swap my battery and it’s going to cost sixty bucks.
These things come up and unrivet your battery, pull it down, move it aside, save it for you. That’s your battery. Okay? You’re going to be able to get it back later. And then they put up a fresh battery, screw it into place, and you’re off. And they showed in this video they were able to battery swap two Tesla Model S’s in the time it took one Audi to fill up a gas tank completely. It’s that fast. It’s nuts.
Craig: And the idea is that then on your way back you pull in and you get your battery back. It’s crazy. And infrastructurally, whether or not this becomes a thing, all I can say is you have to give Tesla credit for consistently pushing us all forward. It’s like there’s just this push from them that is undeniable. The way that Apple used to push computing forward. Even when it was a little clunky. Even when System 7 would freeze a lot. They’re pushing it. They’re always pushing. And I love it.
So, it’s a very Cool Thing. We’ll put a link to the video on the website. And just marvel at it. I marvel.
John: I really wish the Tesla Supercharging stations had a giant Tesla coil that was arcing and sort of sparking the whole time.
Craig: That would be cool.
John: Because that would make me want to go to it.
Craig: I know.
John: It would also be kind of great if like when you drive up, like everything just goes into black and white. Maybe they can tint your windows in a certain way so you feel like you’re in some sort of like big giant mad scientist movie. That would be awesome.
Craig: I also would like it if the Supercharging stations were hooked into the grid in such a way that as you charge your car the city around you just went dark.
John: Ha! That would be lovely.
I also just think, like, god, all those batteries just feels, in one location, feels really dangerous.
Craig: Oh, I’m glad you brought that up. It would be, accept Tesla has put an enormous amount of technology into the way they constructed their batteries. There’s this problem with batteries essentially called runaway discharge, I think, or something like that, which is both a gynecological problem and also an issue with batteries. [laughs]
I’m sorry. So, in the case of a battery, because the Tesla battery is really an array of like, I don’t know, something like 500 little tiny batteries. And if one of them starts to discharge it can like trigger this chain reaction, and then there’s a fire, and it’s this whole thing.
Well, the way they designed it, all the batteries are essentially isolated from each other and then the whole thing appears to be coated in some sort of spectacular foam absorbing, whatever. The point is there hasn’t been one incident since the Model S has been on the road. Not one. The batteries appear to be remarkably safe.
John: Hooray! Great. So, a link to Craig’s video, and to articles about the Velib, and everything else we talked about on the show today will be at johnaugust.com/podcast, which is where you can always find the links to our show notes.
If you are listening to us through something that is not iTunes, it would be great if you went to iTunes and subscribed to us so we know how many people are subscribing to us. And if you’re there subscribing to us, you might as well leave a comment, because we love to read those.
Craig, last episode I pitched that if someone wanted to write us a new outro we would be doing an exhibition of people’s submissions for an outro for our show, which is the music that plays us out. So, the intro is [hums], and so I said, go crazy, go nuts. Do something exciting that can show your talents as a composer of music.
And so we have our first one today. And, Craig, it’s kind of amazing.
Craig: It’s awesome.
John: Yes. So, this is by Matthew Chilelli, who apparently lives in Los Angeles. He sent us this thing. He said it’s a “John Williams take on the Scriptnotes theme.”
Craig: It’s so cool. It’s really good.
John: And I think it’s just great.
Craig: Good work, Matthew. I love it.
John: So, Matthew, thank you very much for sending this through. If you want to send in your own outro theme, you can send it to email@example.com. Ideally send us like a link to a SoundCloud or something, because otherwise we’re going to get choked with mp3s. But, we’d love to hear your take on it.
John: Craig, have a great week.
Craig: You too.
- TidBITS on the Apple eBooks price fixing suit, and Fortune‘s article on the same
- The New York Times on the PGA’s new mark, and the PGA on what it is and how you get it
- Why are Hollywood movies so long?
- Velib bike sharing in Paris
- Tesla battery swap is worth watching
- Send us a link to your downloadable Scriptnotes outro