Thursday, September 17, 2009

Meet the Reader: Today's Special

I was in line at the supermarket the other day and noticed a bunch of DVDs of recent films (and even a few classic ones including, most curiously given the very American, very suburban setting, Francois Truffaut’s wonderful L’Argent de Poche) for sale in the checkout racks alongside the gossip rags, the horoscope scrolls, and the myriad flavors of breath mints. The sight caused me to stop for a moment and marvel at how accessible movies have become. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, the only place to see a movie was in a theater. If you wanted to see it again, you had to hope that it was a big enough hit for the studio to re-release it a few years later. After that, it was gone forever.

When I was a kid, if you wanted to see a film after it had completed its theatrical run, you had to wait for it to show up on television (initially in a big network premiere, and then later on the local late show) or in a revival house. This relative lack of availability led to a bit of obsessive behavior on the part of film buffs as they scrupulously collected revival house schedules and carefully scanned their weekly TV Guides to determine what was playing and then arranged their schedules around the days and times the films they wanted to see were going to be shown.

No such obsessing is required today, when practically any movie you might want to see can be purchased from Amazon or ordered from Netflix or downloaded to your computer, your iPod, or your cell phone and watched whenever and wherever you want. When it comes to availability, for film lovers, this is in many ways the best of times.

But in some ways, it’s also the worst. In the old days, a movie’s scarcity made it something precious. All of that waiting and planning and anticipating made seeing a particular film a delightful treat -- something to be relished and savored and treasured. Movies were something special. Today, however, with so many films so readily available, the medium has lost a bit of its specialness. After all, when something is as instantly obtainable as a pack of gum, it’s hard to regard it as dear. This is apparent in the way that films are often referred to these days. They’re no longer cinema or movies or even flicks -- instead they are products, or franchises, or content. I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty hard to get worked up about something that sounds like it was massed-produced in a factory, whipped up by a graduate of Hamburger U., or listed on the side of a cereal box.

I see this attitude reflected in a lot of scripts that I’ve been reading lately -- many of which, while well-crafted, seem slight, mass-produced, and easily disposable: generic, by-the-numbers constructs that recycle clich├ęd and tired characters, plots, and ideas with lots of polish, but little heart and even less soul. While all of this may be ideal for an industry that more and more is interested only in the ancillary products -- the endless sequels, videogames, action figures, and breakfast cereals -- it can squeeze out of a movie than in whether or not the film itself is any good, none of it is particularly memorable. Sure, I can buy these movies at my local Stop ‘n Shop, but there’s nothing about them that makes me want to.

So, all you writers out there, remember: Even though your work may end up in the checkout aisle, it’s not batteries or lip balm or corn chips -- it’s a proud continuation of the greatest storytelling medium ever invented.

Movies are special. Do your best to keep them that way.


Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at


  1. I'm with you on that. When I was kid, usually Friday evenings, me and my dad would get a take-out and rent a film. I remember the excitement of getting home, tucking into the food and watching a PG rated film. I wasn't allowed to watch anything with a higher rating. I still regard viewing a film as a special event, and it's probably why I don't visit the cinema that often, I want to preserve the magic.

  2. Ray, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I remember when I had to go to New York's Thalia theater or Theater 80 St. Marks to see the old classic MGM movies I love so much ("The Thin Man", etc.)-- and it was a really special experience. In the women's bathroom at Theater 80, someone had scrawled on the wall of a stall, "William Powell forever." They don't even make graffiti like that anymore. Keep up the good work.
    Best wishes,
    Staton Rabin

  3. I find it amazing that so many producers and studios hire script consultants, and the "product" still turns out bad at least 50% of the time, in my humble opinion. I wonder what percentage of script consultants have actually written and sold scripts.

  4. For low-budget, independent films, this is maybe the best of times. But for other films, the worst of times -- They are stripped of all context, just like downloaded songs for iPods. Regarding scripts, I think most writers today are clueless. When Orson Welles was asked what filmmakers influenced him the most, he said John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. I doubt that most scriptwriters today have even heard of Orson Welles, let alone John Ford. This is very sad.

  5. Dunno about the movies losing value. Movies are becoming like books in my house. I buy a select few that I really like and watch them over and over. I notice a lot of details that way and my expectations have risen related to plot, continuity and character.


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