Michelle Pfeiffer, Supervolcanoes and the Yellowstone Fallacy

ash falloutI recently watched the Discovery Channel’s Supervolcano, a docu-drama about what would happen if the massive caldera underneath Yellowstone National Park were to erupt.

The program had been sitting on my TiVo for a while, because it’s hard for me to commit to an hour of Alias, much less a three-hour made-for-cable movie. But I knew I’d eventually watch it, because from the moment I first heard about the Yellowstone supervolcano, it was one of those nagging, back-of-my-mind fears. So much so, that I actually included a lengthy monologue about it for a script I was writing. (That scene got cut, so feel free to write your own.)

For those who don’t know, Yellowstone National Park, home of the Old Faithful geyser, is actually the caldera of a massive volcano. And not just a “theoretical” volcano: it’s erupted at least three times before: 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago. Which, if you do the quick math, suggests that it erupts every 800,000 to 660,000 years. Which means it’s due to erupt now.


Which is very, very bad.

When Yellowstone erupts, it will be big-summer-disaster-movie apocalyptic. Think Armageddon x The Day After Tomorrow. Twenty feet of jagged volcanic ash strewn across the Midwest, tapering down to a centimeter on the East Coast. Global temperatures will fall. The monsoon will fail. Drought, famine, starvation lasting for years. As Discovery says on the website:

A modern full-force Yellowstone eruption could kill millions, directly and indirectly, and would make every volcano in recorded human history look minor by comparison.

Suddenly, moving to Australia looks a lot more enticing. Yes, there’s the global famine, but at least you don’t have ash falling on your head.

But here’s the thing: Yellowstone is not actually “due” to erupt. That’s a logical fallacy. And the celebrity spokesperson who proved it to me is Michelle Pfeiffer.

Let me provide context.

michelle pfeifferIn 1994, my friend Elizabeth and I went to see The Madness of King George at a movie theatre on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The movie theatre was pretty full, so we ended up sitting next to a man and woman — who turned out to be Michelle Pfeiffer and her husband David E. Kelly. Being good Los Angelenos, we pretended we didn’t know they were beautiful and famous. We just ate our popcorn, watched the movie, and gossiped after they left.


Glossary: Manuscript and Tentpole

At readers’ request, I’ve added two new terms to the Glossary:

The typed (as opposed to type-set) version of a novel, as originally submitted to the publisher by an author. Much of the editing and revision of a book takes place at the manuscript stage.

A major motion picture, generally released in the summer or Christmas season, which is the primary focus of a studio’s marketing attention. The term comes from this analogy: if the tentpole fails, everything will collapse around it.

Opening titles

questionmarkThe script I’m working on has a highly relevant scene (which might include bits of dialogue) that sets up the main character. I want this action to occur during the opening credits. How do I indicate this in proper format?

– Alan McCoy

Most screenplays don’t mention anything about their opening titles, leaving it to the director to figure out where and when and how the names will run. However, if you have a specific story goal you want to achieve with your opening title sequence, you can include it in the script.

The words you’re looking for are “BEGIN MAIN TITLES.”

(“Credits” generally refers to the scrolling list at the end of the movie which lists all of the people who worked on the movie. “Main Titles” (or “Opening Titles”) are the people and/or production companies who have their names prominently displayed at the start of the movie, along with the title of the film.)

You can start the titles at any point within the first 10 pages or so. The scenes that run under these credits should obviously be simple enough that if the viewer is paying attention to the names — “Hey! Clint Howard is in this!” — they won’t miss any crucial piece of story information.

If you choose to use “BEGIN MAIN TITLES,” be sure to include the corresponding “END MAIN TITLES” so the reader won’t be left filling in phantom executive producers until page 45.

But just to reiterate: most screenplays never mention the opening titles. So don’t include them unless they’re serving a specific story purpose.

Weekend numbers

It’s not quite the Slashdot effect, but Sunday’s article in the NY Times did result in a spike in readership, as the chart shows:

sessions chart

Average traffic for a Sunday is about 2,800 sessions; yesterday, the total was 5,500. (A “session” is a way of measuring individual visitors to a site, while “hits” simply refers to the number of times a page is loaded. Sessions are generally considered a more accurate reflection of readership.)

Note that Saturday numbers were up as well; the “Sunday” issue of the NY Times is actually available on Saturday.

While some of these new readers no doubt typed “johnaugust.com” into their browser, quite a few simply clicked the link in the online version of the story. A check of the referral log shows that 1,139 arrivals came directly from the NY Times website.

So what does this mean? Well, nothing really. The site didn’t crash, and long-term readership will probably stay exactly where it always was. But it’s always nice to have visitors.