Bad Movies and Good Decisions

Once again, like clockwork, the Academy Awards will be broadcast tonight across the entire planet. In countries far and wide, people will be sitting on the edges of their seats, benches, rocks, cliffs and pillows to find out just which actors and producers will take home the all-powerful golden statue of Oscar.

And tomorrow morning, a bunch of unlucky studio executives will find their offices already packed up for them, their final check sitting on the Executive leather (ergonomically correct) chair. Why? Because the project they staked their career on, didn’t win one damn thing.

Hollywood is an interesting animal. Especially in how movies make it from script to screen. People are always complaining, “Why does all this crap come out when there are so many better scripts lying around? Why can’t studios make more films like ‘Lost in Translation’ or ‘House of Sand and Fog’? For every ‘Lord of the Rings’ there twenty movies like ‘Dude, Where’s My Car’. What’s up?”

What’s up is this: No one who has a brain, has any power.

There’s a great story that I’ve heard a few times that will let you in on a little bit of the politics of making movies. There was a big studio who needed a writer for a huge concept comedy film. They called the agents, told everyone around town they were looking for writers and got samples and samples. They poured over them, finally resting on two different writers for the project. It was high-profile, so they had to pick wisely. If they chose a writer who couldn’t deliver, the project would die.

One writer’s screenplay sample was spectacular. It was original, well-written and had fully developed and complicated characters. It was some of the best writing that “the powers that be” had ever read. It was just damn amazing. But the writer had never had sold a screenplay for some reason.

The other writer had written one movie that was made. It was a mediocre comedy that ended up never getting released in theaters. After a trial run in one city where the audience hated it, the studio decided to release it straight to video. But still, he had written a movie that had been filmed.

And when it came down to it, the studio went with the second writer. The one who had written the mediocre comedy that went straight to video.

Why? To hedge their bets and save their jobs.

And that’s the problem with Hollywood. Nobody in development positions are ever in their positions for more than a year or two. (It takes a year or two for projects to make it from script to screen, and the results usually cause people to succeed and take a better job, or get fired when the project fails.) They are always afraid of losing their jobs. And so, whenever there is a decision to be made, said executives make the decisions they can back up with concrete “details”. Decisions that if and when things go awry, they have an excuse that makes sense.

In the case of the two writers — when the second writer turned in his new draft to the studio, it sucked the big one. But you know what? Nobody lost their job because they hired someone who had a movie made before. That was the smarter choice. Had they hired the other writer, with no credits — and had their script sucked…they would have lost their job. I mean, why would they have made such a risky decision?

And that, my friends – is why the percentage of risk-taking, original films are few and far between. The scripts that get green-lit are the ones with talent attached (actors, writers or producers) who have done things before. “From the writer of…” “From the director of…” You know? That’s what studios can sell.

Selling amazing original work from unknown artists? Very very risky. And when it’s all about money (which it is), no one wants to take that chance.

And on that note… Enjoy the Oscars!

2 comments on “Bad Movies and Good Decisions

  1. Trish - February 29, 2004 at 10:47 am -

    Just like any industry! It’s job security for the dummy who gets lucky enough to trip over a production deal. It’s a crap shoot for all others. ::sigh:: But hey, you’ve got a book deal under your belt! “From the writer of…”

  2. nika - February 29, 2004 at 5:51 pm -

    eggs and butter = hollandaise sauce
    😉

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