When you make a movie, like I did, and you pitch it to distributors, the first question they all ask is: "Who's in it?" The answer to that question is more important to distributors than genre. It's even more important than the story. In fact, distribution deals can be made before a single frame is shot, largely based on who is in the movie.
It's an interesting phenomenon. People tend to go to movies who have actors in them that they recognize. The level of recognition is more important than the ability to act. It's very odd to me. People don't buy books because there's a recognizable character on the cover. They don't buy video games because the main character is recognizable. But when it comes to movies, we better know the name of the main actors involved.
Whenever I watch a movie, it takes me awhile to fall into the characters—but it takes longer if I recognize the main actors. It's more difficult to dissolve into the story. If I see Leo Dicaprio on the screen, it takes my brain time to transition from: "Hey, that's Leo," to "That's an interesting character." Now, Leo is a terrific actor, so it doesn't take my brain long to get through that process. If it's a marginal actor, oftentimes I never buy them as the character.
As the marketing budgets of films have grown (oftentimes larger than the production budgets), having a marketable actor has become even more important. This is not necessarily a good thing in my book. There are thousands upon thousands of terrific actors out there that never get their big break because being recognizable is more important than having acting talent.
There is one genre of film, however, that isn't built upon who is starring in the film: horror. The crux of any horror marketing campaign is story concept and shots that are truly frightening. The film itself is actually judged and marketed on what it set out to do: scare the audience. If it can't do that, regardless of who is starring in it, it will be difficult to sell. If it can, the film will essentially sell itself. That's one of the reasons why the next film I'm looking to develop is a horror flick. They can be shot relatively cheaply, and you don't have to attach an expensive name to it. Not going the horror route was probably my biggest mistake with my first film.
I watched a movie yesterday (to remain nameless) that had a stellar A-list cast, was based off a terrific concept, and yet still fell flat as hell. It was a box office bomb. The problem was that the script was either under or overworked, and that the direction was less than stellar.
This brings me to my point. The powers that be at studios focus heavily on what they feel comfortable with, which is everything post-story creation. Looking at the general quality of movies released, it's obvious that the main decision makers aren't great storytellers and can't tell what narratives are going to resonate with audiences and which ones won't. What they can do (if they don't spend too much time hacking apart the script) is hire a hot actor.
Business + Art is always tricky. With the model that exists, it's amazing that any great movies get made at all. Not surprisingly, many of the best films released today are either based off of successful novels or are made by directors who have complete artistic control. They still take recognizability into consideration, but they're savvy enough to understand story at a deeper level than most studio or distribution execs. Typical, directors who have complete control, like Christopher Nolan, even take the time to hire actors who can act.
In the beginning, narratives were told by spoken word. Then man created books, film, and eventually television. Each storytelling approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, Casablanca wouldn't work as well as a novel, and Lolita didn't work as well as a film (either time).
Recently, a new way of telling stories has developed, and has given rise to some fantastic narratives. I'm talking about video games.
I grew up on video games. I had an Atari, a Commodore 64, numerous PC's (starting with an 8088), and all three Xbox's. At first, video games focused on strategy and skill. By the '90s many had developed wonderful characters. And in the 2000's, several had very engaging full-fledged narratives.
There's a major choice involved in the design of the games that I believe has a substantial impact on narrative-heavy games: that of perspective. First-person games are much more immersive than third-person games.
I've played third-person games that have had terrific stories that I've loved. Read Dead Redemption comes to mind. But I have to wonder how much better the story would have felt if it had been first-person in nature.
In the last couple of weeks I've starting playing two games that are third-person: The Witcher 3 & Lifeless Planet. The first has had terrific reviews. The second has reviews that are okay. I'm enjoying both. Lifeless Planet is mostly a puzzle game, but with a clever story to it. I'm not minding that one being third-person. But The Witcher 3 is a vast game that is character and story heavy, and although I'm having fun with it, I'm sure I'd love it more with a more intimate point-of-view.
There have been many terrific first-person games that have had engaging narratives. Most notably the Elder Scrolls series. But my favorite of all time were the Bioshock games. When Bioshock first came out, it blew me away. I had never had an experience that was so movie-like in nature. The writing was excellent. The characters were fantastic. I thought it to be the pinnacle of game making, until the third game in the trilogy came out: Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite is the story of a man who is sent to a city in the sky to rescue a girl. It moved me as much as any movie I had ever seen. Its characters weren't just well-developed, they were world-class. I played the entire game through twice, and the last fifteen minutes through at least half a dozen times. It was that great.
For some reason, video games don't bring you in as well as they could in third-person. Movies and tv series are almost always shot in third-person though, and that tends to work great, I think in part due to composition and editing.
This brings me to two points:
(1) I wish that well-written narrative-style games at least gave the player the option of switching between perspectives.
(2) I think first-person perspective in film and television has been underutilized. In the right narrative, the results could be amazing.
This last week I took a mini-vacation up to Big Bear which is a little resort community nestled in the mountains a couple hours outside of Los Angeles. My plan was to get out of the city and do some writing. I rented a cozy cabin for three nights and worked away in front of a roaring fire while it snowed outside (yes, there are places in SoCal that get snow this late in the year).
I went through my proofreader's suggested changes (she's great by the way, I highly suggest hiring her: @ChristieStratos) and then started the process of getting my novel from MS Word into Scrivener. I did enough research to realize that there's a steep learning curve with Scrivener, but since so many novelists are switching to the program I thought I'd give it a shot. It took me a bit, but I did get the novel into the program and was able to send it to my Kindle, which I'll use for one final test read.
Two things of note:
1. Getting out of town, just for a few days, helped me focus on the work at hand. Next time, hopefully, I'll be doing more writing and less figuring out of how to use a non-user-friendly program. But the benefit of getting away from the city was clear. I'm hoping to do many more of these mini-writing vacations in the near future because I believe the productivity boost will last far beyond the time off.
2. I really dig Scrivener so far. I'll try writing my next novel in to see if the pretty extensive organization features help out. It appears that the Mac version has many more features than the PC version. I'm not a Mac guy by any stretch of the imagination. The last time I owned one was when I edited my movie years ago. They just seem too expensive and limiting for my tastes. But it's something that I'd at least consider, even knowing that I'd probably never use it beyond novel writing.
Working to get this whole first novel out has been a big learning experience. I'm hoping with the next one I'll have to spend less time with the technical aspects. Can't wait to get going on that one.
"The Wicked Trees," at least in Kindle format, should be out in a matter of a couple weeks or so. The paperback will be released shortly thereafter.
There's a specific type of movie ending that I particularly love. I'm going to give a couple examples, and fair warning: there's going to be spoilers everywhere, so if you haven't seen these films, I'd consider not continuing.
I have always loved the airport scene in Casablanca. Please don't watch this if you haven't seen the film:
I could teach a semester-long class on why this scene works. It's not just the writing, the timeless one-liners, the passionate world-class acting, the chaotic camera movement (in the midst of chaotic times), or the resolution of the story. What makes this scene so special is that it is the resolution of Rick's character arc.
Rick Blaine, a hardened, selfish, lost soul whose only loyalty is to himself, discovers why the love of his life left him, and realizes that now that they've reunited, he must be the one to leave her, for the greater good of the world. Rick realizes that he must give up the only vessel that could possibly lead him to happiness because the suffering that he'd endure by doing so is trivial compared to the aggregate suffering the world will endure if he doesn't. This is not the choice he would have made at the beginning of the film.
Rick's loss personifies the immense brutality and loss of a continent on fire. The fact that he'd grown to the point where he'd sacrifice everything of meaning to him in order to help freedom's cause is what pushes this scene from greatness to iconic greatness.
Another scene that I've always loved is the finale to Breakfast at Tiffany's:
Audrey Hepburn masterfully portrays Holly Golightly, a small town girl living in the Upper East Side, continually chasing a life bigger than she was ever meant to have. It wasn't until this final act, when Fred (George Peppard) tells Holly what her problem is, that she realizes that the string of broken relationships that have filled her life have been caused by the armor she's put up to protect herself from the potential hurt of falling in love. It isn't until this moment, the conclusion of her arc, that she realizes she has to drop that shield to find the life that she truly wants, one that has nothing to do with fancy cocktail parties or uppity Manhattanites, but has everything to do with accepting love, even with its inherent risks.
We watch a whole film in which Holly suffers, bouncing around without direction, not knowing why she's doing it. Our hope for her finding enduring love is all but lost. And then this final scene smacks us and changes Holly to the point where she can find and feel that one true love.
It's the emotional impact of the conclusion of well developed character arcs of fascinating and enduring characters that make the best endings so fantastic.
The NY Times had an interesting article yesterday entitled 'Los Angeles and Its Booming Creative Class Lures New Yorkers.' The gist of the story is that as Brooklyn grows prohibitively expensive, some NYC artists are making the move to Los Angeles, a city which "..is enjoying a renaissance with a burgeoning art, fashion and food scene that has become irresistible to the culturally attuned." The article goes on to say that "In some quarters, the scorn that New Yorkers once piled on Los Angeles is now sounding like envy."
I've lived in the Los Angeles area for about sixteen years. The changes that have happened during this time have been pretty unbelievable. Besides how much worse traffic has gotten, the biggest change has been the rapid gentrification of areas such as Downtown, Silver Lake, & North Hollywood.
I think the NY Times article is on to something. Los Angeles has historically been the place to be for aspiring screenwriters, actors, directors, and such. It's also been a long-time hub for musical artists. I think in recent years, its appeal has broadened to other types of artists as well.
As we all know from reading A Moveable Feast, Paris was once the center of world's literature community. In recent years, as Brooklyn gentrified, it became the hub for American novelists. I feel like Los Angeles is attracting aspiring novelists now, and hopefully one day will have a creative writing community (beyond that for film) that will rival Brooklyn's.
North Hollywood used to be a pretty rough area. It still is in parts. Several years ago, the city rebranded itself as 'No Ho,' a subway line went in, and as rental prices soared in nearby places (like Burbank and Hollywood), No Ho went through a metamorphosis, and became a young, hip artist's community. New apartment complexes went up, and coffee shops came in. It's now one of many little LA clusters that artists of all types come to live in. No Ho is just one of many such stories.
The film and television industry is still dominant here, especially in towns like Burbank, where I live. But it's not uncommon to see someone with an easel and some paint brushes. This is a comfortable place for artistic people to be and the broadening of the artistic community will only attract a more diverse artistic crowd.
There are a couple of things that Los Angeles has going against it. It's gotten darn expensive so it's become harder for broke, young artists to hang on for extended periods of time to work on their craft. Also, for filmmakers, it's incredibly expensive to make a film here, so I feel a chunk of the independent crowd is starting to move to cheaper alternatives like Austin.
So I hope that Los Angeles doesn't become an artistic hub for the wealthy only. It's nice to get NYC transplants here. We're one of the most diverse cities in the world, and I'm sure most Los Angelenos wouldn't want it any other way. It would be nice if that diversity continues to include different socioeconomic classes of artists.
As much of the television and film production continues to leave the state, we still hold a good chunk of the above-the-line talent (including screenwriters). I'm glad we're broadening out to other forms of art. The worst thing in the world for an artist, is to be living in a place where there are few other artists. I'm hoping Los Angeles continues to evolve as the premiere hub for creativity in the Western Hemisphere. We have a lot of things going on in this city that make it an attractive place for creators to be. And we have several unique artist-friendly locations, from Santa Monica to West Hollywood to Los Feliz, each with its own unique culture.
I don't know if I'll be here another 16 years, but I can guarantee this: the city will look much different then than it does now. And from where I'm standing, I think most of the changes that are happening are for the betterment of artistic people.