Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wesley Rowe: The Common Touch

It has been argued by various teachers -- convincingly, I think -- that students stand to learn more from the failures in their chosen art field than the successes. The best failures to learn from are your own, and writing teachers -- from actual instructors to the members of a writers group or just interested friends -- can provide you with very useful critique of the mechanics of your work.

But it's a truism in Hollywood that commerce comes before art. If you want to make money as a screenwriter, you must learn not only what interests people very much like yourself, but the vast swath of America (and the world) that is not. As helpful as these "instructors" can be, their very interest in your screenplay makes them highly unlikely to have tastes in line with the "bubba factor" -- masses that must turn out in droves to a Hollywood movie for it to be profitable. In this regard, people like you don’t have much more insight than you, though they may be able to inform you that the general audience wants or needs you to "keep it simple, stupid (KISS)."

While you can't reach 100 million bubbas on the phone, they have a highly evolved method of communicating their loves, wishes, disappointments and appetites. No, not voting on American Idol. Box-office data. Movie tastes are tallied in dollars.

So, which box-office lessons offer the best instruction on Wide America? The answer is different for everyone. The failure with the most to teach you is the one you didn't see coming or, even better, the one whose box-office failure you still can't fathom. Conversely, the success of a movie you loathe can show you a lot about your blind spots as an aspiring writer.

Even though each individual's tastes are different -- and you, Dear Reader, are the absolutely unique snowflake your mom has told you over and over that you are -- I can make a few educated guesses about what movies might teach you a lesson. You are, after all, a film buff. And the very definition of a movie that film buffs love but bubbas don't is the "cult classic."

The classic I'll pick this time is The Big Lebowski. It only made $17.4 million in the U.S., and about half that internationally. And it must not have wholly satisfied those people who saw it, reflected in its 37% drop in box office from the first weekend in release to the second. Yet your interest in screenwriting makes you quite likely, in my experience, to rank it among your top 5 or 10 comedies of all time, and you probably own a copy. This is the kind of disconnect between student and bubba that is instructive. Lebowski is a big blind spot for me (I own a copy), but I'll give you my most objective effort at gleaning lessons (spoilers!):

1. Don't do drugs. People in big, coastal cities tend to overestimate the "drug tolerance" of people everywhere else. Harold & Kumar smoked a lot of pot in New Jersey to the tune of a very Lebowski-like $18 million. Half Baked did the same.
2. Don't
kill the one character in the movie who absolutely doesn't deserve it, and certainly don't do it near the end. It leaves a bad taste.
3. Don't leave a lot of fat in the second act. The thing with the private detective in a VW bug was funny, but probably asked too much of attention spans.
4. Don't go watch the movie again until you get to the end of the list.
5. Don't build a third act from a series of anti-climaxes. The Dude's "big realization" leaves him with no one to pursue. He and Walter brawl with the red herring (the Nihilists), and then the funeral home, and the funeral, and finally the last scene at the bowling alley, but it's not the tournament we've been hearing so much about ...
6. But that's what happens when the movie's main inspiration is The Big Sleep, which is legendar
y for its anarchy and lack of cohesion. Best to avoid that, too.
7. Bubba probably hasn't seen The Big Sleep.
8. Don't expect a broad audience to dig the resonance between the anticlimactic ending and your theme of nihilism. Corollary: use language everyone understands.

Please critique or rage in the comments section. Or drop a suggestion for other movies that bear such discussion, and maybe we'll get to them in a future episode.

Wesley Rowe, a freelance writer and independent producer, draws upon work experience ranging from, more recently, creative executive positions at two studio-based production companies, to, in his youth, designing mechanical parts for an NASA satellite that tested Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. He lives in L.A.

1 comment:

  1. It's obvious that the Cohen Brothers don't care to work within the studio system and don't write for anyone but themselves. So calling "Big Lebowski" a failure is a misnomer and entirely beside the point. They don't try and write studio pictures and studios don't try and buy their scripts expecting them to play in Peoria.


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