What’s with all the remakes?

questionmarkMy question has to do with the recent trend in adapting books and old movies.

Is it that screenwriters have run out of good scripts, or that producers are too scared to produce anything that hasn’t already been in the public eye?

What is left for the writers who have original stories to tell?

– Ryan Scott Fitzgerald
via imdb

Books have been adapted into movies pretty much since the beginning of cinema. So it’s a mistake to conflate literary adaptations with remakes, or at least to label it a recent trend.

But you’re right to notice that a diminishing percentage of the movies coming out of Hollywood originated with the screenwriter. I don’t think the trend represents any failure on the part of America’s screenwriters. They’re still writing great original scripts. You’re just not seeing them, because these scripts aren’t getting made into movies.

I have two theories why.

The first is fear. We tend to think of studios as faceless corporations, but in reality, the decision to make a given movie rests with a very small number of people. At some studios, a single studio chief has the power to greenlight a movie. At others, it’s a committee of maybe four or five. Either way, it’s their call.

Let’s pretend you, Ryan, are a studio chief.

If you pick the right movie, and it’s a giant hit, you’re a hero. You get millions of dollars in bonuses. You move up a few notches on the “Power 100″ list.

If you pick the wrong movie, and it’s a bomb, you get fired. Maybe you can get by with a few bombs. But eventually, you will get canned.

Which movies will you choose to make? Probably the ones you know you can market. The ones which, even if they’re not blockbusters, probably won’t be disasters either.

Basically, you make Spider-Man, King Kong or The Dukes of Hazzard.

Because as much as you love movies, you’re afraid of making a bomb. You’re afraid of getting fired. And if one of your sure-fire hits ends up tanking (c.f. Bewitched), you can at least defend why you tried to make it. Had you spent the same amount of money on a riskier project, you’d be in a worse situation career-wise.

My second theory for why fewer movies are coming from original scripts: control. Producers and studios want to drive the process. They don’t want to be beholden to a screenwriter’s vision. They’d rather buy the rights to a book, then hire a screenwriter to adapt it. (Or better, look through the vault for a film they can remake.)

For the producer or studio executive, there’s something comfortingly abstract about the rights to, say, Knight Rider. Properties like Knight Rider are very much like pieces of real estate. The studio owns them, and wants to build something incredible on them. Never mind that it would make a lot more sense — and be a lot less expensive — to build somewhere else. I often compare screenwriting to architecture, and this is another example. People hire Frank Gehry to build them a house on swampland.

An Academy Award-winning writer could pitch the most kick-ass movie imaginable, and the studio would still say, “How about Knight Rider? We just got the rights! We’re thinking Kevin Spacey for K.I.T.T.”


But while Hollywood isn’t making as many original movies as it used to, one really has to consider independent film, which didn’t exist to nearly the same degree a decade or two ago. Taken as a whole, the film industry still has plenty of room for original voices. But you won’t get paid as much, unless you incorporate a talking robotic car.

Turn to page 17 for a sex joke

questionmarkI’ve heard a rumor that in the “industry” it’s an inside joke to have some sort of nudity or sex on page 17. Specifically 17. First, is that actually funny? And second, is it a shoe-in in terms of a scriptreader reading further?

– Zeb
via imdb

I’ve never heard this, but I love it.

True, it’s not “actually” funny. Something so meta is almost never actually funny, because it relies on knowing something outside the world of the story. At best, it’s funny in the way a Charlie Kaufman movie is funny: it makes you feel clever for a moment, but you’re not going to wet your shorts with laughter.

I just checked, and the script I’m currently writing does not have a sex joke or nudity on page 17. Which is surprising, because the first act is seriously stuffed with sex jokes. And implied nudity, if that counts.

Matt gets millions to make a movie

questionmarkI’ve received a couple million dollars to write and direct my own picture. I am in doubt as to whether or not I have the talent to pull it off.

I hear writers always talking about horrible writers and great writers. Does that actually exist? If so, what is it that makes great writers great and bad writers bad?

Also do you feel that in order to write an amazing screenplay your knowledge of grammar and your size of vocabulary are important factors? I feel that vocabulary and grammar are my weaknesses. However, I continue to think what Ron Howard once said that, “Your screenplay should make sense to an eight year old.”

In stating that, what is the most important thing for me to work on? My lack of grammar knowledge? Or my lack of vocabulary? Or do these two factors have any relevance at all to a screenplay? To sum up, what should I be focusing on?

– Matt
via imdb

You should focus on being very careful as you cross the street, because I suspect there are several hundred aspiring writer-directors reading this right now who might “accidentally” run you over. That’s why I’m not printing your last name.

Seriously, Matt. “I’ve received a couple million dollars to write and direct my own picture.” Did you win the lottery? Rob a bank? Blackmail some rich old guy?

I ask because you clearly didn’t get it by any ordinary means. See, most people don’t get to write and direct a multi-million dollar film out of the gate. Rather, they write a few scripts. Direct a charming short film. They do something that proves to the People With Millions to Spend that this young writer-director is worth the investment.

No offense, but that doesn’t sound like you, Matt.

The only reasonable scenario I could envision is if you’re actually tremendously talented in one of the other filmmaking crafts, and are now getting to direct for the first time. Maybe you’re a terrific production designer like Bo Welch, or an acclaimed cinematographer like Jack Green. Could be.

Or maybe you’re just really effing lucky.

Regardless, if someone is giving you several million to direct your own picture, make sure you don’t let them see this self-doubt. More than anything, the money people want confidence.

As to your actual question: Does grammar or vocabulary have any relevance to a screenplay? Um, yeah. A fair amount. It’s easy to get a smart person to help with your grammar. Vocabulary is tougher. I’d advise against a thesaurus, however. In my experience, they’re helpful in finding exactly the wrong word for the situation.

If you’re really in doubt, the best idea might be to spend some fraction of those several million dollars on a screenwriter with a strong grasp of grammar and vocabulary. (Along with character, dialogue, structure, pacing, atmosphere, tone and theme. Those help, too.)

For what it’s worth, good luck. I really don’t begrudge anyone getting to make their movie.

Race and the screenwriter

Craig Mazin and Alex Epstein both recently tackled a topic that was on my to-blog list. Yes, I keep a list of things I intend to blog. And yes, I tend to just write whatever strikes me at the moment anyway. But since Alex and Craig got to it first, I might as well say what I was going to say.

At issue is whether it’s a good idea for the screenwriter to specify ethnicities for various characters. Alex believes in doing the “diversity pass” to keep his script from being lily-white. Craig feels this is absurd and racist.

Craig is wrong.

But not for the reasons you’d expect. While Craig and I tend to be on different wavelengths politically, he tends to come down on the side of common sense. And I think there’s a very practical matter that’s being overlooked.

Unless it’s important for understanding a story point, I rarely specify a race for a character. But that’s not to say I won’t give some strong hints. I will often make the lieutenant GONZALEZ rather than GOODMAN. The internist is more likely to end up DR. CHO than DR. CHASE. The schoolteacher will be PATEL rather than PETERS.

Is it liberal guilt? No. It’s readability.

Screenplays are read quickly. Unlike a novel, you don’t linger for a few paragraphs getting to know minor characters, setting up their memorable quirks. Rather, you meet them on page 20, then see them again on page 64. As a screenwriter, you want the reader to instantly recall that they’ve encountered a certain character before.

A reader is much more likely to remember an international banker named Abebayehu Tegene than Abe Thompson.

You can debate why this is. Maybe it’s just that the name is more interesting. But in most cases, I think it’s because we’re hard-wired to match race to surnames. We see Abebayehu Tegene and we think, “This character is black. Not only that, he’s probably African.” We form a mental picture of “African banker,” then move on.

With Abe Thompson, the reader has nothing to latch onto. Abe Thompson is just a name.

Note that giving a character an African surname doesn’t remove the burden of actually making this character interesting. If he says more than a few lines, there better be something notable about him independent of race. Both Tegene and Thompson might be condescending snobs who openly mock our hero.

But come page 64, you’ll still remember Tegene over Thompson.

In the real world, what are the implications of implying ethnicities for these characters? As I’ve noted earlier, when casting, the assumption tends to be “white unless otherwise specified.” But if you write “Judge Fujimoro” rather than “Judge Foster,” there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with a Japanese judge.

You might find that stereotypical, or an example of blatant tokenism, such as the “black lieutenant syndrome” which hit cop shows in the ’90’s. After all, shouldn’t the part go to the best actor, regardless of race?

Yes, in theory. In reality, for a small supporting role, it’s a binary decision. Either the actor is Good Enough or Not Good Enough. If you’re casting a judge in Los Angeles, there’s no question you’ll find plenty of Good Enoughs. It might take an extra 20 minutes to find Japanese Good Enough. To me, it’s time well spent.

Obviously, there’s a lot more that can be written about race and screenwriting. As I noted in an earlier post, the role of Ronna in Go was written as African-American. We ended up casting Sarah Polley, perhaps the whitest Canadian you could find. So was I right to write “Black” in the script? Was I wrong to take it out?

Just as it’s naive to think that making a minor-but-likable character Iraqi will better the world, it’s foolish to assume that leaving a character “race-less” lets the screenwriter off the hook. Readers, including directors, studio executives, and casting directors, will assume that European names belong with white people, and that surgeons are white men in the early 50’s, unless you tell them otherwise.

So I say, make the geophysicist Abdul Kalam. Don’t do it for diversity. Do it for your script.

Interview with me at DVguru

Ajit Anthony over at DVGuru.com has a two-part interview with me up on the site, in which I sound remarkably coherent. That’s probably because the interview was done over IM; my fingers are generally more eloquent than my mouth.

The downsides of an IM interview are considerable, however. You end up typing a lot. You can’t blame misquoting, so the mistakes you see are probably my own. And I recall entering a sort of fugue state by the end, so God knows what I wrote in the as-yet-unpublished Part Two.

Anyway, you can see for yourself here.

Fixing broken windows

Reading David Pogues’s interview with Todd Wagner, whose company is releasing movies on DVD the same day they are released in theaters, I was struck by a bit of humility that’s rare among system-buckers:

You know, I could sit here and say, “Oh, this is how it’ll play out. We’ll do this and this and this.” But if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that we don’t know yet. And I wouldn’t wanna lock ourselves in to say, “This is the model.” That, to me, would be as shameful as saying the old model’s right.

For most big movies released in North America, I think going out day-and-date with both the theatrical feature and the DVD would be a mistake. Maybe not a disaster; you could conceivably sell more DVDs because you’re piggybacking on the main advertising campaign. But it would hurt movie theaters. It would confuse DVD buyers. Cows and sheep would start mating.

It would not be good.

But note the condition I put on my prediction: “for most big movies released in North America…”

Here’s the thing: Everywhere else in the world, movies do come out on DVD the same day they go to theaters. The difference is, the DVDs are all pirated.

In St. Petersburg, Beijing and Shanghai, I’ve seen the movies I’ve written for sale on sidewalks. They’re always bootlegs. Sometimes, the packaging is impressibly authentic-looking. Most of the time, it’s a crude Xerox. Either way, it’s how most of the world is going to see these movies.

So I can’t blame Sony or Warner Bros. for releasing films with a shorter and shorter time window between the theatrical release and the DVD. If I were running a studio, I’d make the cheapest DVD I could for China, and flood the market with it the first day it’s released anywhere in the world. Better to make fifty cents per DVD than nothing.

Also, the logic of theatrical versus DVD windows breaks down when it comes to very small movies, which never end up playing in much of the country. A film like Me and You and Everyone We Know will never make it to Wichita, despite good reviews and a fair chunk of publicity. So there’s a fair argument for putting out the DVD right away, or offering it on pay-per-view.

Would this hurt the tiny arthouse theaters? Probably. But maybe not as much as the free screener tapes almost everyone in Hollywood gets around awards season. (To date, I’ve gotten three, but more are coming.) In the interview, Wagner explains a profit-sharing idea that would help the little theaters, which are under increasing pressure from the 30-plexes anyway.

Of course, for movie-goers the issue isn’t financial, but emotional. There’s something intangibly awesome about seeing a great movie on opening day with a packed house. The worry is that if DVDs come out too soon after release, movie theaters will go away. I doubt that. We still have packed stadiums for football games, even though they’re all televised. As long as people want to be part of a shared experience, as long as THX sound makes the seats rumble, as long as teenagers want to get away from their parents, there will be movie theaters.

To reiterate, I think releasing a film like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on DVD the same day it goes in theaters would be a Bad Thing, both financially and creatively. But knee-jerk panic over shrinking video windows is unwarranted. The goal of a release should be getting the film in front of the greatest number of viewers (paid viewers, ideally). If we need to tinker with the model to do that, so be it.