John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 287 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be discussing the end of the film industry, unique character voices, and some things I learned going through the process of copy editing. Plus, we will answer those listener questions that have been sitting in the inbox for far too long.
Craig: Far too long.
John: Far too long. But we have some follow up. We have exciting follow up. The kind of follow up I love, because I love babies.
Craig: Aw, babies.
John: Aw. So, a few episodes ago we had Kelly Marcel on to help us with a Three Page Challenge. She told us on that show that she was expecting a baby with Mr. Steve Zissis, who is another Scriptnotes guest. That baby was born. So, pretty damn excited that we have a new Scriptnotes listener. The first Scriptnotes guest joint project baby.
Craig: Right. The Scriptnotes Baby essentially.
John: It is the Scriptnotes Baby. I mean, I think they were both guests. They now have a baby. I’ll let people do the math themselves.
Craig: It’s a Scriptnotes Baby.
John: Yeah. An interesting thing about this baby. Do you know this baby’s name?
Craig: I do.
John: Yes. It’s not named Craig. It’s not named Mazin. What is its name?
Craig: First of all, we don’t really know that. We know what we’ve been told, OK?
John: All right. Yeah. The official story, yeah.
Craig: But the baby’s first name is Gus. It’s Gus.
John: And that’s short for what?
Craig: For Gustave.
John: No, the baby’s official name is August. So–
Craig: That’s not – I don’t.
John: You know what? August did not used to be such a common name. I think it’s an increasingly common name. And, again, I don’t want to take credit for that. But I have to say like it wasn’t common, now it is common. My profile has risen. I let people draw their own conclusions.
Craig: This is Boasty John.
John: The worst version of Boasty John.
Craig: The worst version of Boasty John.
John: I mostly just want to thank and congratulate. I don’t want to thank them.
Craig: [laughs] I think we should thank them. No, no, no. Let’s thank them.
John: Thank them for being wonderful guests. And mostly I just want to congratulate Kelly and Steve on their new baby.
Craig: I like the idea that this is follow up. Because it’s not really. If we’re going to be technical, it’s follow up to them having sex as far as I can tell. That’s what babies are.
John: They are.
Craig: And in follow up news, a baby was born as a result of sex. Steve, here’s a great thing. So, I always think about first names and last names together. I mean, we do this all the time when we’re writing. We’re so obsessive about names.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So Gus Zissis has more S-Zissis sounds in there. Gus Zissis sounds like a killer from the future.
John: I like it.
Craig: Gus Zissis.
John: Good choices.
John: This last week we had two episodes. One of the episodes was a little mini episode I did with Nima Yousefi about his experience as an Iranian refugee. A listener wrote in with a great link to a blog series called Their Story is Our Story. So, if you liked Nima’s story, there are a lot more stories that are sort of like Nima’s.
John: And it’s really well put together. So, I would encourage people to check out Their Story is Our Story. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes.
Craig: Fantastic. See, that’s follow up.
John: That’s truly follow up, because it just happened in an episode and now I’m talking about it. This is also follow up. So, a previous episode, like last week, we talked about those little marker words that sort of indicate that you are paying attention. And so in Madrid when I was there, in Spanish you often hear Vale which is basically OK. It’s just sort of an acknowledgment yes word.
A listener pointed my attention to a Spanish short film directed by Alejandro Amenábar called Vale which is actually delightful. And it wasn’t only at the very end of this delightful short film I realized it was actually a beer commercial.
John: But it’s a really well done beer commercial. So I will point you to the video for that. It’s quite well done. It stars Dakota Johnson. My question for you, Craig, Mazin, who is Dakota Johnson?
Craig: Watch what I do now? Watch how I blow your mind. Dakota Johnson is, A, the star of 50 Shades or Darker of Grey. And she is the daughter of Don Johnson and another person, as people are, like Gus Zissis. Sure.
John: Isn’t it Melanie Griffith? I’m actually not sure if that’s true. But, Dakota Johnson has a very special relationship with a previous Scriptnotes guest. That is my challenge for you. Who is that Scriptnotes guest that she has a special relationship with?
Craig: Well, Kelly Marcel is one of the writers of 50 Shades of Grey. Is that it?
John: Well, Kelly Marcel, is the writer of 50 Shades of Grey, but there is another screenwriter guest who she has an incredibly direct relationship with.
Craig: Dakota Johnson used to be married to Derek Haas.
John: That is not correct.
Craig: No. Oh. Sorry. I thought that was true.
John: This is going to be really embarrassing when I tell you this. So, are you ready?
John: So, Dakota Johnson played Kate in Ben & Kate, a show created by Dana Fox. She played essentially Dana Fox’s equivalent character in Ben & Kate. Not only that, she was the star of the movie that Dana produced and wrote, called How To Be Single, that Dana was on the show to talk about.
Craig: Yeah. You think I’m embarrassed by this? First of all, I don’t watch television, so not embarrassed at all. And second of all, I didn’t see her movie. I have no problem telling people I didn’t see – I feel like I’m now shielded completely from any negative feelings about this because people know that basically I just spend all day writing and playing video games and just it’s the saddest thing. It’s so sad.
John: It’s a lovely life.
John: Our last bit of follow up is about the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys.
Craig: Thank god.
John: Thank god. We’re finally through to the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys. So, Craig Good, a listener, pointed this out. Craig Good, he might actually be named for you. That’s a possibility.
John: Craig Good.
Craig: Yeah, like Good Craig.
John: It’s like the good version of you.
Craig: [laughs] All Craigs are the good version – everybody is a good version of me, because I am the worst version of me.
John: Yeah, you’re the best version of the Craig Mazin we love. He wrote in to point out that the puppeteer filmmakers that I mentioned who were co-creators of the show, it’s pronounced Chiodo, no Chiodo, but more importantly they’re also the people behind Killer Clowns from Outer Space, which is a cult classic. Which I’ve never seen, but is a cult classic, and I recognize the title.
Craig: Was Dakota Johnson in that?
John: She could have been in that. Craig would never know.
Craig: By the way, I’m happy to believe it. If you tell me it’s true.
John: Let’s get on to our main topic for this week, because I think it’s a pretty important topic. It’s going to be the end of Scriptnotes, basically, I think, because Hollywood is over.
Craig: Hollywood is done.
John: Which is – it’s done.
Craig: Nothing left to talk about really, right?
John: So, we’re going to center our conversation around an article that appeared in the most recent Vanity Fair titled Why Hollywood as we know it is already over. But hopefully we’re going to bridge out sort of beyond the article to talk about this kind of article. This article is written by Nick Bilton, who I actually know. So this is sort of my preamble to say that I like Nick. I think Nick is a really good writer. I’ve enjoyed a lot of things he’s written. And I talked to him originally about a book he wrote about Twitter, which I thought was really good.
I don’t think this piece is good. And Craig thinks this is also not good. So, we’re going to be sort of picking this piece apart sort of as a premise and as some details. But I want to make sure we’re able to circle around about the question of like well what if he’s right, or what if in a general sense it really is going to collapse. And what signs should we look for when it does collapse.
If you get exhausted with us just ripping apart this article, stick around, because I want to look for how we might find out if the premise of the article could be true.
Craig: All right.
John: How do you want to start, Craig?
Craig: We’ll obviously have a link in the show notes, so you folks can read along with this. Let’s just talk first, if we could, about this kind of article. This article comes out every year. Every year.
John: Multiple times in the year, but especially–
John: Yeah. But I mean, I’ve read a version of this article for the last 20 years.
Craig: Correct. So, very famously Lorne Michaels once said that every season of Saturday Night Live some brilliant television critic issues a review entitled Saturday Night Dead. And it has now been running for 31 years. And no sign of stopping. In fact, it seems more popular than ever.
The death knell of Hollywood has been sounded repeatedly really since television, I think, was created. And it seems like people take different tacks on why it’s no good, and will go away, and it’s all over, and that’s the end of that. In general, I think people do like writing articles like this because they’re very provocative. And ultimately they are low-risk/high-reward.
No one will remember your fake false prediction about something ending when it doesn’t end. But everybody will go rushing headlong back towards you to say, “Oh my god, this guy saw it coming,” when in fact just on average someone just guessing will “see it coming.”
So, you see this a lot. It is ultimately sensational journalism designed to provoke and feed into a general desire to see things fall apart. We do have this in our hearts, this weird rooting for things to collapse.
John: Yeah. I think we’re also at a very unique moment in American history right now where we are seeing some institutions that you thought like, oh, that could never fall apart, seem to be falling apart.
John: I think it’s natural to sort of say, well, Hollywood will fall apart. And, again, it could. But I don’t think it’s going to fall apart for the reasons that Nick Bilton does. So let’s start with the article itself and sort of how he gets us into this, which is that he’s visiting a TV show that’s shooting. He’s in a discussion with the screenwriter on the set. There is a raindrop on an actor’s shoulder. And the screenwriter brushes it off. And the wardrobe supervisor or the person responsible for that actor rushes over saying like, “No, no, don’t do that. That’s my job.”
So, that is sort of the premise that he’s introducing us to the current Hollywood world with.
Craig: Yeah. So, this is a terrible anecdote. Horrendous, really. The anecdote makes the following points. Creating film and television is incredibly inefficient because while he’s talking to a screenwriter about how inefficient things are, there are 200 members of the crew who are milling about – I’m just quoting from the article – “milling about in various capacities, checking on lighting or setting up tents, but mainly futzing with their smartphones, passing time, or nibbling on snacks from the craft service tents.”
Let’s start there, shall we?
John: Yeah. Let’s be… – A person who is not working in film and television visiting a set, I think that’s honestly kind what you would see. And if you don’t sort of know what everyone’s job is, you might see that and say like, “Oh, why aren’t people working?” I would argue that if you were to go into a Silicon Valley startup and see people sitting at their desks, you might have sort of the same question. Like, what are they actually doing? They’re maybe typing something, but are they really working? And sometimes if you look at a film set you might say like those folks aren’t working. They are working.
Craig: Yeah. So film production is not like a typical factory plant where everybody is working. After they clock in, then they get their lunch break, then they go back to work. Nor is it like working in retail. The way films are made, you need a lot of different people who are able to do different things. But, the nature of the crew is that it’s a lot of people, none of whom are always needed, but all of whom are sometimes needed.
It’s just the way film production is. It goes in ways. Like a little bit of a military campaign. When you are engaging in a military effort, not everybody does their job at once. When you are on a football team, half the team is on the bench, the other half is on the field. Are the people on the bench just sitting around, futzing?
So, when you’re turning lights around, the grips and the electricians are working. And when you’re shooting, hair and makeup are working. And when you’re blocking out a scene, you have your ADs and you have the cinematographer, and then you have set-dec, and you have props people coming in and getting approvals. Sometimes they’re on the truck. They’re ordering stuff for the next day.
The truth is, if you don’t understand how film production works, then you might think, “Oh, this seems inefficient.” What’s remarkable to me about articles like this is that the author never stops to ask, “Hmm, do I understand how this works? Is it really just – is the easy observation that it’s all just bizarrely bloated in some kind of crazy way possibly true?” If we were to put a camera in Nick Bilton’s office and just run that 24/7 for a week, I wonder how much work we would see happening, and how much other stuff?
John: Yeah. It would be challenging to see. So, let’s look at – he segues from this scene of a film set, to talking about other industries that were disrupted. So, let’s quickly go through some of the other industries that have been disrupted and sort of what the fair analogies are and the unfair analogies.
Let’s start with the music industry. Obviously there was a massive disruption in the music industry. Recorded music sort of fell apart. And the so the profits that you used to come into the recording industry are not there anymore. It’s a very different industry, obviously, but that was the one that was sort of most directly hit by mp3s, piracy. It all fell apart.
To a lesser degree, you see what happened in the newspaper industry. You saw book publishing. Other industries where disruption sort of upended everything. But the music industry is probably the most direct one, so let’s take a look at that first.
Craig: Well, the music industry was disrupted in this fashion in the ‘90s. We’re talking about 25 years ago now. I think Napster was, and Limewire, and all these sites – I mean, remember Limewire? These were around in the early ‘90s. And I think everybody watching what that did to the music industry naturally said, “How long will it be before the television and film industry falls to the same fate?”
And really the only thing that seemed to be limiting it was just bandwidth capacity and sizes of hard drives, which probably within six years had reached the place where it could happen. And it has not happened. And they keep talking about this like this is the mistake that old people make. Sorry, Nick. I assume – even if he’s my age, he’s old. We think that because we clearly remember this happening that it’s going to happen again right around the corner. That is a quarter of a century ago. And it has not happened.
Why? Huge difference between the way the music industry works and the way our industry works. The music industry was never developing work because music is not massively collaborative. The only collaboration you find in music really is between maybe a producer and an artist, or four or five people in a band. But the truth is, one person with a guitar can make a hit song. The music industry was always about finding those people, the way that indie companies find movies at festivals, and then supporting their work financially like patrons, and then advertising and distributing the work, which is the only apt comparison to the way Hollywood functions for television and film.
It has never been true and it never will be true about movies and shows that one person or two people or four people can do it. In fact, it takes armies of people. The very armies that this guy thinks might not be necessary, but are, to make these shows happen. And so we are simply in a different position. If this industry around us went the way of the music industry, there just wouldn’t be the content. But we know that that’s not true for music. It’s odd to me that the question isn’t why hasn’t this happened to film, rather than the statement clearly this will happen to film.
John: Yeah. I think that’s a great question. It was what I wanted to hit next. And we don’t have time for it today, but let’s try to circle back in a future episode basically why has film and television not fallen apart to piracy the way we always kind of thought it might, because there really is not a fundamental difference in terms of technology of why a television series can still be viable now, even though there is rampant piracy, and we know about Game of Thrones. There’s rampant piracy. And yet it hasn’t happened. So, to predict that it’s going to happen seems naïve.
Moving on through the article, he talks about “Hollywood these days seems remarkably poised for a similar disruption. Its audiences increasingly prefer on-demand content. Its labor is costly. And margins are shrinking.” Craig?
Craig: I don’t agree. First of all, I don’t know what he means by Hollywood exactly. He never quite defines that terms. What is that? When I first showed up in Los Angeles in 1992, in the era of Napster, somewhat optimistically, defying all the predictions of disaster, I remember driving through Hollywood. Actually seeing Hollywood for the first time and going, “Wait, what? This is a slum. There’s nothing here. There’s just a bunch of warehouses and a couple of post-production facilities and graffiti and shambling heroin addicts.”
Hollywood, I don’t know exactly what it means. Yes, audiences prefer on-demand content in one sense. I think they prefer it over the traditional way of delivering television series, which was you get one once a week for 22 weeks. You have to wait. There are commercials inside of the episode that you have to wait. Of course they prefer that. They don’t seem to prefer on-demand content when it comes to movies. At all. That’s just a fact.
But the larger question, I mean, margins are shrinking. We’ll have to take a look at his data on that. But, why is Netflix not Hollywood in his definition? When Netflix employs the same crews, and the same writers, and the same actors, and the same directors, using the same methods that he’s decrying here, to make their shows. How is Scott Frank’s upcoming western miniseries that employed hundreds of people and big Hollywood stars, and he’s a big Hollywood writer-director, for Netflix, how is that – and a big budget – how is that not Hollywood?
John: Yeah. So we talked about disruption, and clearly you can look at Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, they are disrupting the model of standard television. But they’re disrupting it in very kind of conventional ways. They didn’t find a new cheaper way to make television. They just made really expensive television, and made money making really expensive television. So, it’s a weird kind of disruption.
Classically, you wouldn’t think of disruption as like, oh, you’ve changed the distribution model, you’ve changed – we’re able to make things for like a quarter of the cost. That’s not actually happened. And over the years I’ve seen experiments with like we’re going to see if we can do this kind of movie for a million dollars rather than $10 million. And they do one of those and it tanks. There’s kind of a reason why things cost what they cost. I don’t sort of buy the overall “it looks like it should be disrupted, so therefore it will be disrupted” argument.
But let’s do take a look at some numbers, because one of the things he cites in here, and actually I did tweet at him to ask where he got this number, and I haven’t heard back as we’re recording this, so if I do get the answer I will edit this in here. But he writes that, “Movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, with revenues hovering slightly above $10 billion.”
So, again, I don’t know what his source was for tickets sold, but for what I saw, 2016 had 1.3 billion tickets sold domestically. 1998, which is 19 years ago, had 1.4 billion. So, it’s lower, but it’s like a point of a billion. So, it’s not like a huge falloff.
I looked at the MPAA statistics, so for 2015, which was the last year I could find them, admissions or tickets sold were 1.32 billion. And average tickets sold per person increased 4%. That means that two-thirds of North Americans saw at least one movie in the theater, which is a 2% increase over moviegoers from 2014. So, that’s actually a pretty amazing statistic that it says two-thirds, actually 69% of North Americans saw at least one movie in the theater. That’s kind of huge.
Craig: It’s enormous. And when you see movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, that is classic misinformation. If it’s down to a 19-year low, but it’s down by, like you said, some tiny amount, that’s not particularly meaningful. Nor does his 19-year low take into account what was going on inside those 19 years. So, in 1998, 1.44 billion tickets sold. In 2003, 1.52 billion tickets sold. So, I don’t quite see where he’s coming from here. In 1997, total inflation adjusted box office was $11.6 billion. And in 2016, it $11.25 billion. That seems remarkably stable for an industry that he is suggesting is in some kind of freefall.
I generally do not like these kinds of sensational statistics manipulation because it makes me start to question the motivation here, which I don’t think is evil or malicious as much as over-zealous in support of a grabby click-bait headline.
John: Yeah. And obviously writers don’t pick their headlines, and so a lot of what he’s describing here can be sort of charitably taken as this is sort of the experience of sort of what it feels like here. And as a tech person coming in and seeing this stuff, he sees these patterns which are classically setup for Silicon Valley disruption. But what I find so fascinating is the Silicon Valley money from Amazon, from Netflix, they’re spending the same money. They’re changing some things, but they’re actually still spending all the money to make the big, expensive prestige things.
You look at the kinds of series they’re doing. You look at the kinds of money they’re spending. It’s not actually different.
Craig: It’s not. And by the way, this is not for lack of trying to disrupt. That’s the other thing that’s really important to understand. Amazon, we did an episode about this a number of years ago. When Amazon came into this world of content creation, they absolutely wanted to disrupt it. In fact, their entire model was based on the presumption that is being stated in this article. That Hollywood system was inefficient, clumsy, unnecessarily cumbersome. And that by disrupting it and going straight to content creators and then crowd-sourcing the material and crowd-editing it that they would arrive at much better work, essentially kind of Ubering their way around a taxi cab industry. And they failed not big, but disastrously, to the point where they have just forgotten about that whole thing completely. That was just a complete whiff.
And they failed for all the reasons we suggested they would. So, believe me, they would. Oh my god, would they have disrupted us by now if they could.
John: I don’t think they’re going to. And part of it is also you have to understand the economics of things are not sort of what you might anticipate. He talks about a modest episode of a television show could cost $3 million to shoot and produce. By comparison, the typical startup in Silicon Valley will raise that much for a team of engineers and servers for two years. It feels like a very faulty analogy considering that $3 million you’re spending on that television episode is immediately profitable.
John: Because of foreign right sales, that $3 million you’ve spent, you’ve already made it back. Like by the time it airs, you’ve made your money back. So the return on investment on that $3 million is really good. And I think that’s part of my frustration is you see people investing new money in Hollywood all the time, including these tech people, because it’s genuinely profitable.
Craig: Right. That’s the strange paradox at the heart of this. He’s saying that Hollywood is going to be disrupted by Silicon Valley, and yet Silicon Valley keeps giving money to Hollywood. Right? So, you could take that $3 million if you really want to be efficient and just buy bean pickers. You could buy, I don’t know, 10,000 bean pickers in how many bean fields. It’s not the way this works. It’s a dumb comparison.
And here’s the other thing. People routinely make the mistake of applying classic ROI analysis, return on investment analysis, to Hollywood, forgetting one very important thing: that people don’t want to just be in the entertainment business because of the business part. There’s that old saying, you know, it’s not show fun, it’s show business. This is show business. Yes, but the flip side of that is it’s show business, not business-business, not money business. Show business.
You and I could make more money doing something else. If everybody simply went towards what was the most efficient way to make money, then I guess, yes, we would all be hedge fund managers, or I don’t know. But even the business people, the suits, that are in our business want to be in our business because they’re drawn to the show. To the glamour. And the celebrity. And the artistic experience. And the notion of creating culture as opposed to a slightly more feature-laden spreadsheet. And that’s why Silicon Valley is so fascinated by Hollywood. They can say it’s because they need content for all their new delivery systems, but in the end content is fascinating. And a lot of this other stuff like how to maximize server load is not.
John: It’s not. It’s fascinating for certain people, and god bless the people for whom that is fascinating and they get paid well by Google. Let’s bring this a little closer to home and back to screenwriting. Because he talks about if you could give a computer all the best scripts ever written, it would eventually be able to write one that might come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
John: It’s very close to the a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters thing.
John: Like, yes, that could happen. We looked at the first scripts sort of written by an AI program starring Thomas Middleditch. It was not fantastic.
John: Do I believe that that kind of stuff will get better? I do believe that kind of stuff will get better. Do I believe it’s going to replace our expectations of screenwriters writing scripts? I do not believe that.
John: It falls into a line of sort of Amazon’s model in terms of crowd-sourcing things. Or the kind of inevitable A/B testing that’s done on the tech side, which has the equivalence in our focus group being in Hollywood. They are processes. They are processes that don’t necessarily lend themselves to great works of art.
And I think a thing which may be easy to overlook from a distance is that this isn’t like sort of what color should the links be on Google’s home page, which they can test for. It’s like is this movie working? Is this movie going to be the one that’s going to bring a billion dollars in? That’s not the kind of thing you can actually sort of test for. It actually has to be good. And there’s a qualitative versus a quantitative thing that’s very hard to sort of hit to. You have to get filmmakers and a vision behind that for those things to work.
Craig: Well, they keep trying. We will discover every year or so another one of these companies that believes they’ve found an algorithm, and they haven’t. I love sentences like, “If you can give a computer all the best scripts ever written, it would eventually be able to write one that might come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.” Oh, OK. Well, I can’t wait for that day. Here’s what we know about that wonderful day. Aaron Sorkin has to exist first. Aaron Sorkin has to write a screenplay first. This is the kind of thing that people say at a cocktail party and you just go, “You know what, I have to excuse myself to the bathroom,” because I can’t talk to this person anymore. They’re out of their minds.
It’s not that I’m one of these people that thinks stupidly that computers aren’t going to become smarter, and smarter, and smarter. We’re fascinated by this. We talked about this remarkable leap forward that Google took with translation. But they only were able to do that by feeding enormous amounts of data, meaning language, into that computer, and then having the computer parse through all of this stuff.
And you can’t do that with movies. You’ll just end up, I mean, what’s the point? We’ve tested this with everyone on the planet and we’ve come up with the perfect version. Great. They already saw it. It doesn’t matter. What if computers could write Vanity Fair articles? What if computers could make Michelin Star worthy food? What if robots could play baseball? Putting “what if” in front of a prediction adds exactly zero credibility to it. It’s just provocation for provocation sake. And in particular, when you’re talking about movies, what we crave as an audience and as humans is the new. Computers are really good at copying what’s happened before, right?
When we say that Google translation has made a huge leap forward, what we’re saying is they’re catching up to what humans have already done with translation work. They’re not translating hither to untranslated languages. But with movies, we want new. We’re always looking for cultural disruption. Computers will not be able to do that. That’s not what they do. We do that.
John: Yeah. You look at the progress in AI, and it’s always really good at solving games. And so translation you can think of as a game. Like are you getting the right result? And so computers just this last week kicked ass at poker, and they were able to do poker really well, and that was a huge breakthrough. The thing is, there’s not a perfect answer in terms of like what is the right movie. Because you can have the right movie. I’ve seen the right movie. And then I’ve been in like three-hour arguments with producers and studio executives over the right movie that’s already finished and they keep wanting to change things.
There’s not going to be a place where you get to like this is the perfect movie. This is the best movie it can possibly be. There’s always going to be opinions. And there aren’t opinions in poker. It’s clear who won.
John: And you don’t have a clear winner in this. But, let’s do that dangerous “what if” and let’s ask the question of what if he’s right, or what if essentially even if he’s wrong on some of the details, he’s right in saying that Hollywood as we know it is going to end, or it’s going to collapse, it’s going to fall, there’s going to be some reckoning coming. What should we look for if that is going to happen?
Craig: Well, you would start to see major studios with names that have great brand awareness shutting down completely. I think if you saw Warner Bros or Universal or Fox or Columbia, Disney, just say we’re out of the business of making television shows and movies, that would be a huge sign. And I think one of those things would have to happen while also not being replaced by some equivalent. So, it’s not like Circuit City goes out of business because Best Buy is just doing the same job but better. But rather we’ve just lost something, the way that brick and mortar stores are disappearing. We know that Sears is disappearing. Best Buy is gone. Circuit City is gone. That’s a sign.
John: Yeah. I would say if you saw a lack of investment, basically money was not chasing Hollywood anymore, that would be a sign that they’re saying like, “OK, we don’t believe we’re going to be able to get our money out of this investment.” And we are not seeing that now.
So, I’m not saying that the money spigots will always be flowing at sort of maximum volume, but I’m still seeing a lot of money coming into Hollywood. You’re seeing a lot of Silicon Valley money coming into Hollywood. And that is considered pretty smart money. They must have a reason why they’re trying to do this.
Craig: No question.
John: I would also take a look at sort of movie theaters themselves. And we didn’t sort of hit on this part of the article, but it’s always that question of like will the big screen experience persist, because you know television, yes, got disrupted, but when you think of movies they’ve actually been very much the same experience for the past 100 years. You go into a big room with a bunch of other people. The lights go down. And on a big screen in front of you, you see a story being told, about two hours long, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And you’re seeing it with this big group of people and they’re all having sort of the same communal experience. The lights come on, and you leave.
Weirdly, that has not changed that much. The theaters have gotten better. The projectors have gotten better. We no longer show film. But it’s the same basic experience. And will that go away? I guess it could? There could be a situation where VR goggles are so much better than the experience of being in that theater that it goes away to some degree. But I think there still will be a social aspect of going out to the movies that persists.
But if we see that the big exhibitors go away, like if money goes away from the AMC theaters, the Carmikes, and all those, then maybe that’s a sign that the big screen movie business – it’s days are numbered.
Craig: Yeah. I think that there is some concern there. There’s a realistic concern about the exhibition business, which I think he is confounding here with Hollywood. Hollywood is not in the exhibition business. Hollywood is in the content creation business. And the distribution and advertising business. But it is forbidden by law, and he acknowledges this in the article, it’s forbidden by law to also then control the exhibition business, which is movie theaters.
Movie theaters have been in trouble for a long time. And they’ve been in trouble for a long time because in part they’re being squeezed in all sorts of ways. And you can see that because they pass along those squeezings to you in the form of $20 cup-full of popcorn. And yet, with all the complaints that people have about movie theaters, and concessions, they still go. We know that. We just talked about the ticket buying practices.
Hollywood continues to try and figure out ways to get around the one price fits all model. And they are constantly butting heads with the exhibitors over that one. Hollywood would love to be able to charge $25 a ticket for a Star Wars movie, which they know people would pay, and the exhibitors are terrified of that because those people are not going to then also spend $25 on Goobers.
So, there’s struggles there. And the movie theaters are struggling. So far we have not seen any kind of wholesale shuttering of those facilities. I don’t think VR is going to – VR to me is completely irrelevant. Has nothing to do with watching a movie. All of us are quite addicted to watching things projected on flat things. Children, too. Where things have changed is when you look at the iPad and little videos of babies trying to touch and swipe magazine pages because they think they can interact with it.
But, no, VR to me feels like a trap, frankly. It just feels like a gimmick.
John: I’m going to disagree with you on VR. I think VR actually probably will become something amazing, but I think it’s a mistake to sort of assume that it’s going to replace movies. I think it’s going to be its own thing. And I think trying to make it be something it’s not is foolish. It’s going to become its own special and probably amazing art form.
But the same way that videogames are not replacing television. They are different things.
Craig: I actually agree with that. I mean to say that I think it’s a gimmick when it comes to movies.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But I agree with you that the applications are pretty remarkable for other things.
John: Cool. All right, let’s skip ahead to questions, because I worry that we’re not going to get to questions if we just don’t tackle these.
Craig: Yeah, and we’ve been punting these down the line, week after week.
John: So I feel bad for Jessica. Would you read Jessica’s question for us?
Craig: Sure, Jessica from New York – oh – asks, “I am writing a feature loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Red Shoes.” Which, by the way, John, have you ever read The Red Shoes?
John: I’ve read The Red Shoes.
Craig: Oh my god, it’s horrifying. Hans Christian Andersen, boy was he a dark dude. Anyway.
John: Yeah, well we talked about The Little Mermaid and what the original ending of The Little Mermaid was, which was incredibly dark.
Craig: And that’s nothing compared to The Red Shoes, where you dance until you’re dead. OK. So, “I’m writing a feature loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Red Shoes. Since this is in public domain, I know that I’m good to go. However, The Red Shoes was also a novel written in 2013 by John Stewart Wynne. I haven’t read the book, but I have read the summary. The novel is based in New York, like my story, and addresses similar themes. While I know that my take on this folktale will be entirely different as far as plot, I worry there will be some inevitable similarities. Would I ever have a potential legal issue with the author of this novel if my screenplay were optioned or purchased?”
John, what do you think?
John: So, here’s the place where we remind you that we are not lawyers, so we’re only going to give you our opinions that are not legal opinions. I would say that there’s always a chance that someone could come to you and say like, “Hey, that’s my thing, The Red Shoes, which was set here and was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s whatever.” And then it could be a thing. And you just don’t know it’s going to be a thing. But if you’re paralyzed by that worry now, don’t be.
I would say write your great script, write your great movie, and don’t worry about this other thing. I think you are smart not to have read the other thing. I mean, I mean you did write into a podcast where we’re talking about it, so this wouldn’t be great for a future lawsuit.
There’s no project you could conceive of writing that would not have some other thing out there that could theoretically sue you. So, to be paralyzed by it now is foolish.
Craig: I agree. I’ll even go one step further. There is an entire world of precedent for different works based on the same underlying public domain properties. There have been god knows how many versions of bible stories alone. So, right off the bat, you’re talking about a novel that’s based on something else and you’re basing something on that same thing. So, similarities are inevitable, and the similarities in theory would be ones that are related to the underlying material which is accessible to everyone because it’s in public domain.
More importantly, you actually would I have potential legal issue if my screenplay were optioned or purchased? No, because the people purchasing your screenplay, forget option because they haven’t bought anything, but purchase, they are going to do their due diligence and make sure that you haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes, which you’re not doing. You’re not infringing. You’re not plagiarizing. And at that point, part of your contract is that you’re indemnified.
So, if somebody does sue, then the studios just handle them. And they do. They sue and as John and I have pointed out many, many times, seems like every week we hear about somebody suing, and every never we hear about somebody winning.
John: Write your script, Jessica. Just write it.
John: Our next question comes from Tully Archer. Let’s listen to what she had to say.
Tully Archer: We’ve all read bad scripts, some of them just shockingly, horribly bad scripts, but I sort of cheerily assume that there’s almost always something promising in there. Some cool idea, or interesting phrasing that we can point to to say this script could be good. It just needs work. However, have you ever read something or interacted with someone where you came away thinking, wow, this person will not make it? If so, what was it? What was the thing? Is there something that when you see it you recognize it as that thing that spells irrefutable doom for the screenwriter in questions? Thanks again. You guys are awesome.
John: So, Craig, any signals of inevitable doom as you’ve interacted with other writers?
Craig: Yeah. Certainly. You know, we all have had that experience. I think there is weirdly a kind of freedom that is attached to that experience because you don’t particularly have to worry about hurting that person’s feelings. Life is going to patiently explain to them that this is not for them.
Sometimes these people are deeply delusional. What I tend to pick up on immediately is a series of writing mistakes to the exclusion of anything good. Every possible way you could succeed has been foreclosed. And all you have is bad description, bad characters or nonexistent characters. Really that’s more than anything is just they’re not even there. So the characters aren’t characters. The dialogue isn’t dialogue. The action doesn’t seem to be happening. The place where you are doesn’t seem to be real. Everything is just off completely. And at that point, you could try and explain to the tone deaf person why they’re not going to be a professional singer, but really you could just say, unfortunately, sometimes what I’ll do is, “I just stopped reading at page 10. I had a whole bunch issues, I’m happy to tell you why. But I’m probably not the person that this script was meant for. I just am not connecting with your writing.”
And then you move on because it doesn’t matter. They stink.
John: Yeah. So now if Craig tells you that, that he didn’t connect with the writing, he doesn’t think that you have a shot.
Craig: I don’t read anybody else’s stuff anymore. [laughs] I’m out of that.
John: Yeah. I have similar experience about reading through a script and they just fundamentally don’t get it. And especially if like, oh, this is my third script and like I’m reading through and it’s like, no, this person doesn’t understand sort of what a screenplay actually is. There’s a weird thing where it’s like nothing actually clicks. And you flip a page and it’s like you’re in a whole new movie, or you flip a page and it’s like you’re just reading the same scene again and again. There’s just nothing to it. It’s just empty.
So, that’s the experience on the page. Sometimes I’ll be talking with somebody and they’ll be describing the movies they want to make, or how they want to work in Hollywood, and sometimes they’re just brand new, and they’re naïve, and they don’t sort of know what it is. But sometimes they just have a fundamental misunderstanding of what movies are. Or what television is. And I can’t talk them through all of that. And so I can say, oh, we make a podcast about it. Maybe you want to listen.
But there’s people who don’t seem to fundamentally understand not even the business but the creative endeavor of trying to write for film and television. That it’s a lot. And some people just kind of don’t get it. And you can see that they just don’t get it.
Craig: Yeah. You know you’re in bad shape when you read a few pages and you think what this person needs to do is find one of the most formulaic, basic, by the numbers, copycat movies out there, and read the script for that. They’re not even there yet. They don’t know the alphabet. Never fun.
John: It sounds like, oh, there’s a gleeful sort of – oh, this person just doesn’t get it. No, it’s actually upsetting when I encounter that. Especially when they’re really genuinely nice people.
Craig: Of course.
John: Because you’re rooting for them. You want them to succeed. But you also want to somehow be able to tell them I don’t think this is going to work for you for these reasons. And I’ve never been the guy who can sort of say that.
Craig: Very few people are. You know? If you’re on a television show, and that’s your character that’s fine. You could be Simon Cowell. I always admired that. But in life, there’s really not much of an upside to that. One time I did tell somebody this is not for you. And they took it very poorly. It was probably about 15 years ago. They are not currently a professional screenwriter.
John: I have had the experience of like there’s the people who are actually genuine good writers, but they’re not good at the whole thing. Like they’re good at certain parts of writing movies. And I feel like you need to find a writing partner who is good at the rest of this stuff. Because you clearly have some great skills. You’re really good at dialogue, but you can’t sort of do everything else right. And you don’t seem to have a good grasp of how you should act in a meeting and that kind of stuff. Those are the people who kind of frustrate me most, because I can see the right circumstances and the right combination of elements they could write something brilliant. But, it’s not going to be me who is going to be able to get them there.
That’s honestly sort of the heartbreaking situation. I have friends who I definitely sense could do it with just like the right combination of things.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the truth is if you ask what is sadder, a kid who believes he should be, or whose one dream is to be a major league baseball player, but just can’t make his own high school team, or a triple A player who is almost good enough, but not. It’s just triple A player is sadder.
John: it is sadder. It’s a strange thing. To be so close and not get it. To go to the Olympics and not make it to the medals round.
Craig: Right. Really, you’re so much better than so many people, it’s just that you’re not good enough. That’s rough. Yeah. Well, but happily that’s not what this question was about.
John: Yeah, that’s not this question. The obvious people.
Craig: Complete ding-a-lings. Oh, we have another question from New York. This is New York day.
John: You can take it.
Craig: All right. Alyssa in New York asks, “I’m writing a script where a character is interviewing another character who does not speak English, with a translator acting as a go between. Basically she asks the question, the translator translates it, the woman answers, and the translator translates her response. How do I show this in a script? Do I need to write all the lines twice and indicate that one time they’re in a different language? Or can I just write in an action line Woman talks and then have a line with just the translator saying what was said?”
How would you handle that, John?
John: There are multiple ways to do it. When Aline was on the show, she was talking about her French ladies script that had a bit of this where they had to switch back and forth between languages. And she described it basically there would be lines in French when they needed to be in French, but mostly everything was in English. And I think English is genuinely your friend here. So just stick with the translator in English as much as reasonable or possible. There may be cases where if the person who is speaking the foreign language is actually the more important character, I would probably give them the dialogue header. Like put their character name and then in italics or something else put what they’re actually saying, so that we get the vibe of like this is all being translated in real time. But it’s clear that we’re looking at the person and not the translator who is doing the speaking.
Craig: Yes. Years and years ago I was working on a script and I made the mistake of having people say something in their language, and then underneath putting the translation. And Scott Frank almost killed me. He almost slit my throat over it. Because it’s unwieldy. And ultimately you don’t get any credit for saying, look, I know words.
So, in a situation like this, especially when you’re talking about repeated, and as a conversation, not just one or two lines, I would probably describe the situation. So, Alyssa is asking questions and Jean-Pierre is answering and Jean-Pierre’s translator is serving as the go between. And then when it’s Jean-Pierre’s time to talk I might say Jean-Pierre/Translator and then put his dialogue in italics.
Craig: That’s probably what I would do.
John: That’s a smart way to do it. And, again, if Jean-Pierre is the more important character, then Jean-Pierre, just give him the lines and just say woman talks in scene description. But that’s probably not going to be the case in the story you’re describing. But I would say just basically never do your own translation work in the script. You’re just burning page and you’re burning the reader’s attention. Because the reader doesn’t want to read those two lines in different languages.
Craig: And god forbid Scott Frank ever picks it up.
John: Oh my god. It’s just the worst.
Craig: And when he wants to cut your throat, he uses script paper. He uses three-hole punch. So it’s like he’s paper cutting your throat open.
John: Well, he’s an expert. He really knows how to do all this stuff. He’s done all those violent movies. And he’s learned some ways.
Craig: A thousand ways to kill you.
John: It’s really good. So, Craig, we’re at the point of the show where we have two more topics that we didn’t get to, so rather than try to cram those topics in, we’ll save them for next week’s show. So, next week we will talk about, oh, there’s good stuff with Kellyanne Conway here. There’s good stuff I learned from my copy editing experience. But they’re kind of evergreen, so we will get back to those next week. It was important that we answered these questions this time.
And so important that we get to our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is incredibly self-centered. I was reading through the comment thread on IMDb about my movie Go.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: I would generally not do this, but someone had pointed me towards it saying like have you seen this thread. And I’m like, OK. And so this thread was started by a user asking this question. “Did anyone else notice that even though the film was shot in 1999, and focused on young people, that no mobile phones appeared in the phone? Unless I missed something, it seems like this was a deliberate decision by the makers of the film. I like the choice.” And there’s an edit here saying that the strip club sort of seems to have a car phone, but it doesn’t explain why no other characters in the movie use a mobile when they clearly had the opportunity.
So, Craig, what is your answer? Why do characters not use mobile phones in Go?
Craig: I’m going to guess it’s because that would have ended the movie in about 40 seconds?
John: No. Weirdly it isn’t. Because most cases in screenwriters and cell phones, I did a whole presentation on screenwriters and cell phones and how cell phones are the death of screenwriting. But it actually wasn’t that. People assume that like, oh, mobile phones were common in 1999, but they actually need to wind the clock back.
So, the movie came out in ’99. The movie was shot in ’98 and it was written in ’97. At the point in 1997 when I wrote the script, these characters would not have had mobile phones. And it’s so hard to remember back in that time, or if you weren’t born at that time, to know that people didn’t always have mobile phones. And these characters would not have had mobile phones and that’s why they’re using pagers.
What I found so great about this thread, though, it goes on for 13 pages. So, hundreds of people wrote in with their theories about why there were not cell phones in Go. So, I found it delightful. I love when people obsess about things that I actually know the answer to. So, it was fun.
Craig: It’s great.
John: It was nice.
Craig: It’s that moment in Annie Hall where you get to be, “Don’t you wish life were always like this?”
John: Yeah. It’s like that. Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is the much needed resurgence of journalism. Talking about disruption and industries falling apart, much like the music industry, the newspaper industry was absolutely blown apart by the emergence of online media and suddenly overnight their profit base, which was essentially subscriptions to their print versions, disappeared. And they struggled greatly.
And yet now we find ourselves in desperate need of them. Which must be very nice for them to know. It turns out that we need these people to say the truth. And to question people if they feel that those people aren’t speaking the truth. So, what I would like all of you to consider, regardless of your politics, is to actually subscribe to a reputable periodical. There are disreputable periodicals to the left and the right of the political spectrum. But I’m going to list five here that sort of run the gamut from middle left to middle right: The New York Times, The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times.
These are excellent periodicals that do investigative journalism. They have slightly different points of views. But more importantly, they are experiencing a moment now where everyone says we need you because we’re drowning in nonsense. We live in a time when a presidential spokesperson goes on TV and decries a massacre that literally never happened. And within minutes people will start tweeting about this. And televised news is terrific in its own way. But only publications can really dig down into the, wait, why did she say that? What is that about? What did she mistake it for? What does this mean? You don’t get that from television.
From television you just get people yammering at each other. So, considering subscribing to one or more of these publications.
John: I subscribe to three of these publications. And going back to this notion of disruption, I think podcasts have clearly disrupted some of the traditional media landscape, but what I’ve been so happy to see is The New York Times really stepping up its podcast game. So this past week they started The Daily which is a 15-minute podcast. Incredibly well produced daily podcast that’s looking at one or two stories in depth. So, it’s great to see these venerable institutions like The New York Times really embracing how they can tell their stories now. So, I really do urge people to subscribe to one of these or another great publication of your choice.
John: And that’s our show for this week. So as always, it was produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Malcolm Nygard. Thank you, Malcolm. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions, I’m on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We are on Facebook. Some people left some really nice comments about Nima’s episode, so thank you for that. If you want to find us on Facebook, just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can also search for Scriptnotes Podcast to find our app, which is right now the only way to get to all of our back episodes, as you’re walking around. It’s $1.99 a month for all those back episodes. You can sign up at Scriptnotes.net.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts, about four days after the episode airs. And that’s it. So thanks so much, Craig.
Craig: See you next time John.
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