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  • Confessons of a Contest Judge: The Differences Between Semifinalists & Winners

    September 9th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).

    I know contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.

    When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were just 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand writers vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.

    Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.

    Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other smaller contests as well over the years).

    However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarterfinalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.

    A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and luck all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win.

    Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of really GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.

    I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.

    My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).

    The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.

    This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…

    By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.

    That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or are enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?

    There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.

    Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.

    Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.

    Brutality is different than “torture porn”, however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.

    Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.

    The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.

    When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.

    Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.

    Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.

    The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.

    For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun.

    This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.

    In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!

    ***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, I encourage you to check out my services page and sign up for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th! Click here for more details – www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

  • 4 Types of Depression

    August 12th, 2014

    I hope you’ll excuse this long, somewhat depressing post that has nothing to do with screenwriting, but in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I felt it important and maybe it will shed some light on things….

    Depression is a claimer of hearts, bodies and souls. I believe there are 4 types of depression. The first is the fleeting, momentary type everyone in the world experiences over tiny little stupid normal life things. The second is the slightly more prolongued type of depression where something specific happens and it makes you want to sleep, stop eating (or eat more), curl up and cry, and be left alone for days but you know eventually you’ll snap out of it and get over what’s happened. Most people will experience this a few times in their life.

    The third type is more clinical. It’s like type #2 but it doesn’t take a sad acute event to bring on – it can just hit. And it hits hard, and it sometimes hits often. There are triggers, but you couldn’t list them. It’s a depression that lingers with you at lower levels even in happy times, and then flares up like a virus to take you down. And sometimes it feels like it has and you’re not sure you’ll ever shake it. You feel lost and sad and hopeless, but you know somewhere deep inside there’s something worth fighting and living for…

    But the 4th type of depression most people will never know, and thank God for that. Because once you’re inside the 4th type of depression, it’s already too late. Relief no longer comes from seeing the faces of your family or friends or playing with your pet or being great at your job. It doesn’t come from fame or fortune. It doesn’t even come from drugs or alcohol or rehab or therapy. It comes from death.  It’s not about the laughs you’ve had or brought to others, or the love you’ve experienced or given, or what might be waiting for you tomorrow. You can no longer focus on how other people will feel once you’re gone – only how YOU will feel once you’re gone. Relief….

    For reasons we may never fully know or understand, a great shining talent like Robin Williams found himself at Type 4 Depression. He’s not alone. If you feel you are slipping into Type 4, call a hotline, call a doctor, seek out help before it’s too late. That is all.

  • Don’t Heigl Yourself

    March 27th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    I’ll admit it. I love Grey’s Anatomy. Have from the first episode. I even stuck in there for those couple of crappy seasons (much like I did with ER).  And sometimes, since I have a home office, I watch the repeats of Grey’s on Lifetime at 1pm. Yup, I said it. Don’t judge.

    And you know what thought constantly reverberates while watching the older episodes?

    Poor Katherine Heigl.

    Katherine Heigl was Jennifer Lawrence before there was a Jennifer Lawrence. She was womanly, curvy, bubbly and beautiful, doe-eyed, quirky and smart, a strong actress who put craft before looks, and she was imminently likable. She was poised to be the next big thing. America’s Sweetheart with a slight edge – just how we like ‘em.

    The next big TV breakout star that would cross over into film much like predecessors Jennifer Anniston, George Clooney, Will Smith, Michelle Williams, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, etc.

    And at first, she played her cards perfectly. Her agents knew how to make her a star. She stayed quiet for a couple years, focusing on her TV work and building her sweet but sexy public persona. She won the Emmy in 2007 for Best Supporting Actress. And then while still on Grey’s, she filmed her breakout film role in Knocked Up, an R-rated comedy that connected with her target demographic but also made her seem cooler than her Grey’s character. And it was a huge hit.

    She followed that up with 27 Dresses, a more down the middle but funny and relatable romcom hit which grossed over $100M. She proved she could open a movie and was now the next big thing. She was on top of the world…right?

    Funny thing happens when you’re on top of the world. There’s only one way left to go.

    It all started with some public rants criticizing her co-stars and the writing staff of the show that won her an Emmy and made her a star. She angered her bosses and the people who put words in her mouth every week and so they turned on her, made her character an unlikable psychotic shrew with brain cancer who broke up marriages and then they wrote her off the show. She started being labeled as “difficult,” which is the only label in Hollywood you can’t shake.

    You can be a drug addict, a whore, a mental case or a talentless hack…but the one thing you can’t be is DIFFICULT. Diva behavior only works until your first failure. And then you’re just a bitch no one wants to work with. And guess what happened?

    Killers, Life as We Know It, One for the Money, and The Big Wedding. Each film a bigger flop than the last. And suddenly, not only was sweet Katie Heigl difficult, but she was box office Kryptonite.

    She tried playing it tough, she tried playing it sweet, she tried making up with Shonda Rhimes in the press. She even adopted an Asian baby.  But none of it worked.  Now, she’s starring in a TV movie and a commercial for a sleep aid.

    And you know who is responsible for this? Her mother. Or should I say, “Momager.”

    Notoriously known throughout Hollywood as being not only a horrible person (and business person) to deal with, but also an awful arbiter of taste, Katherine’s mother Nancy Heigl is the worst kind of parent. The kind who wants all the credit and thinks she knows best in every situation. And instead of listening to her agents or the rest of her team, Katherine fired them all, stuck by her mom, and made her a producing partner. In short, she Heigl’d herself.

    And it’s unfortunate because if you go back to the first 4 seasons of Grey’s, you will see a woman who deserved to be a big star and by all accounts should still be one.

    This doesn’t JUST go for actors, but here are some tips on how to make sure you never Heigl yourself:

    • You are your own brand.  First impressions matter big time. But you’re only as good (and as liked) as your last impression.
    • Never bite the hand that feeds you even if you see a bigger hand waiting with food.
    • Never burn a bridge you don’t know for sure you can rebuild – or that can be rebuilt without you.
    • Your mother should be your MOTHER. Ask her questions, take her suggestions, and then tell her to Fuck Off and listen to the professionals who do this for a living. The only successful Momager is Kris Jenner…and do you really wanna be a Kardashian?
    • Build buzz for your career in positive ways. Be endearing, quirky, and funny.  It’s okay to stick your foot in your mouth, as long as you do it in an adorable way.
    • Strike when the iron is hot, but don’t go too outside your comfort zone/demographic on your first project. Whatever your first hit movie role is, you’re going to have to play in that genre for a couple of years so get used to it and don’t badmouth it. But each role should expand your demographic slightly.
    • After you’ve had 2 or 3 modest to major successes, it’s time to branch out and do something against type to show just how much range you have. A dark indie, an action franchise, host SNL, etc.
    • Keep your fucking mouth shut in the press about any topics not related to whatever you’re promoting. Unless you’re Sean Penn or George Clooney, no one gives a shit what you think about foreign politics.
    • Your PR person is the most important asset you have. If she disagrees with your mother, fire your mother.
    • Surround yourself with people who have better taste than you do.
    • Be nice. Be cordial. Be self-deprecating without seeming too self-conscious. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn the crew’s names. Respect the writer.
    • Make it seem like you actually enjoy it and are grateful. We can tell if you’re not.
    • Never get bored. Always be learning. Always be improving.

     

  • What Happens in Vegas Ends Up On the Page

    March 17th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    One of the greatest themes explored in film is SIN. One of the tenets of a cinematic story is making it VISUAL and keeping the ACTION going. And one of the greatest things a writer can do to further their career, is continue to LEARN.

    What better place in the world to bring these three things together than Las Vegas?

    That’s why I will be returning to the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference for my third time on April 24-27th.  The conference, given by the Henderson Writers Group, is perfect for book or film writers and allows participants to take seminars, workshops, network, take pitch meetings with literary pros, and of course – enjoy all that Vegas has to offer.

    And if there is a town that can inspire excitement, originality, adventure, and interesting characters…it’s Vegas!

    I’m delighted to have been asked back and will be teaching two all-new courses; Writing Your Natural Story and Creating Compelling, Castable Characters.

    The first course will go through the nature vs. nurture of a script, explore story pitfalls, how to recognize when your story has gone awry, and how to make sure your story goes in the right direction. We’ll go through exercises that will ensure you’re always writing your natural story. And most importantly for book writers, we’ll discuss how the correct way to “write what you know” and the principles of adapting a book or true story to film.

    In the characters course, we’ll go through 10 great specific exercises to creating compelling, castable protagonists and antagonists and we’ll examine the 12 elements of strong, three-dimensional characters. We’ll also discuss how to create interesting antagonists and supporting characters.

    And perhaps my favorite thing about this conference is the first pages panel, where participants submit the first couple pages of their book (or script) and a panel of executives and agents listen as they are read and raise their hand when they would have passed. And then we critique the pages we’ve heard. It is a great way to get a guttural first reaction from professionals to know if your first pages are going to get past the reader. And it’s usually a good amount of fun too.

    I hope to see you all there April 24-27th. For more info and to register, go to http://lasvegaswritersconference.com/.

    And in case you haven’t been convinced yet, the last time I went to this conference, at least one best-selling author wound up in the trunk of a car. What happens in Vegas…

     

  • Were Screenwriters Dissed at This Year’s Oscars?

    March 3rd, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    Since last night’s Oscars ceremony, there has been a lot of chatter by writers (both pro and amateur) on social media that screenwriters were all but forgotten in the telecast and in the winner’s speeches. I even got an email this morning from a client wondering why those responsible for the stories aren’t being appreciated by Hollywood anymore.

    In response to this, I have two answers.

    First – while Robert De Niro’s somewhat insulting and stereotypical introduction to the Best Screenplay Oscar didn’t help, I don’t think writers WERE forgotten from the telecast. They received their Oscars like everyone else in every other category. They weren’t dismissed any more than production designers or editors were. Screenwriters are hardly ever the FOCUS of the Oscars – it’s a night based around the actors, directors and films themselves. If it wasn’t for the WGA, the Screenplay awards would probably be given out at the Creative Arts Ceremony.

    That being said, my second point is that the lack of mention of the writing and writers from the winners last night I think illuminated something painfully obvious in the films nominated…the writing wasn’t THAT great.

    Sometimes it’s the powerful words on the page that elicit fantastic performances from actors. And sometimes, it’s the fantastic and powerful performances from the actors that bring the words on the page to life. And in 2013, I dare say it was the latter that occurred.

    Looking at the projects that won big last night, Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club specifically, these were not movies driven by story or script. These were not films driven by powerful dialogue. These were films driven by powerful performances and technical achievement. In Dallas, let’s be honest – it wasn’t the words McConaughey or Leto said that made that movie special – it was the WAY they said them and their immersion in their roles. And that’s not due to the writer.

    In Gravity’s case, it was a film driven by the DIRECTOR’S vision and technical handling of the material and how that skill created a movie-going experience unlike any other. But no one thought Gravity had a very strong story or script.

    American Hustle went home empty handed (which was fine by me) and its biggest criticism was that while the PERFORMANCES were great, and the world was original, the actual story and plot wasn’t very strong. It had style and voice, but not much substance. It had a few powerful scenes, but it was Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that made those words shine.

    The Wolf of Wall Street was a much loved movie with some great dialogue and memorable scenes and performances. In fact, it probably has the most quotable lines of any nominated film. But with more F-bombs than any other film in history, an often muddy theme, and a story that seemed to end three different times in its 3-hour plus running time, the script was seen as overwritten and could have been tighter.

    In Blue Jasmine, because of all the negative media attention Woody Allen has been receiving, people wanted to play it safe and just focus on Cate Blanchett’s masterful delivery of the words and emotional turns instead of the writing itself.

    Then there’s 12 Years a Slave. It won for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay but because of the drama behind the scenes, writer John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen didn’t even mention each other in their speeches. There are sometimes a lot of politics in screenwriting. John Ridley has a history of writing scripts that get completely rewritten and then arbitrating for credit, which brings up another major point for why screenwriters perhaps aren’t being as well-respected anymore.

    Every script is rewritten. A lot. Sometimes by many different writers (or producers or executives or directors or actors) to the point where the original script is barely recognizable and the original writer getting credit often isn’t the one who wrote the best lines. And because Hollywood knows this, they have stopped celebrating the writer the way they used to.

    It’s not that ANYONE can just write a great script. But it often takes a village to create one these days. The only projects that get made with only the single original writer working on the script are ones where the writer is also the director, producer or star. So how do you celebrate a screenwriter who only wrote maybe 50% of a script while everyone else gets nothing (but a paycheck) for their efforts?

    In addition to this, the majority of films produced and released these days are based on already existing properties (books, comics, TV shows, etc.) that get adapted by a team of writers. I’m not saying it’s easier to adapt than write an original project – it’s a very different and equally important skill – but when the spine of the story, the characters and even some of the dialogue is already written, which writer do you celebrate?

    Two of the best written scripts of the year (in my opinion) – Her and Philomena – were films that weren’t going to win the big prize and didn’t make as much money as some of the others so they didn’t get the attention they deserved. I’m thrilled that Her won – it deserved to. Of all the scripts, it had perhaps the most insightful dialogue and the most memorable, quotable lines. But for most of the other memorable lines of 2013, you’d have to look outside the 9 nominated films.

    And that’s the litmus test for truly great, memorable writing – how many lines become part of the zeitgeist. How many withstand the test of time. Try to list your 10 favorite lines from films last year. Could you even name 10 quotable lines from the 9 nominated films? I’m willing to bet you can’t. But let’s try…

    “I’m doing this from the feet up.”

    “Falling in love is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

    “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

    “I hate space.”

    “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.”

    “Sell me this pen.”

    “You have my money taped to your tits. Technically, you do work for me.”

    “I’m the Captain now.”

    “I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.”

    “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”

    Whew…10.  

    No offense but do ANY of those lines have the resonance of “You can’t handle the truth!” or “I ate his liver with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti” or “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” or “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” or “They’re called boobs, Ed.” I don’t think so.  The lines from HER are the closest for me to being iconic.

    You want projects with truly deep, powerful writing where the screenwriter is celebrated, then watch the Independent Spirit Awards. Or attend the Nicholls Fellowship Winners Ceremony.

    You want Hollywood to celebrate screenwriters more, then they need to produce more ORIGINAL scripts written by FEWER writers. Until then, we’re all just cogs in the system and cogs don’t get celebrated. They just keep cogging away.

  • Why Her ?

    January 4th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    2013 was an excellent year for movies – perhaps the best in quite a few years. And there are many films that I would be very content with winning the Oscar. But for me, the best movie of the year is Her. And no one is more shocked about that than I am.

    I went in doubting the hype. I’m not a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan and Spike Jonze is the kind of manic eccentric genius that sometimes doesn’t translate to a relatable cohesive story. And considering his writing credits include the Jackass movies and Where the Wild Things Are and his directing credits include Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and dozens of music videos, who could guess that he’d write the next great American love story.

    The best compliment I could give Her is that it makes me never want to write again because I don’t think I could ever write something as good that works on so many levels. It is a touching, amazingly relevant, powerful and complete love story that engrosses you more than most love stories where there are TWO people present on screen. It is beautifully crafted, beautifully acted and thematically impactful. It’s a love story for the ages, and the age that hasn’t come yet.

    And I realized there are some specific reasons why this movie works so well.

    1.    It creates an interesting, expansive world but only explores one tiny piece of it. There are so many lovely nuances to this futuristic Los Angeles setting. The green screen backgrounds shows how much LA has changed in the near future, with its endless glittering lights and cell towers pinging like shooting stars. Every single person is engaged in a schizophrenic-like experience talking to their own ear pieces and personal OS systems as they walk down the street completely oblivious that anyone else exists. The sharp, ultra-functional, ultra-modern, color-infused world of the apartments and offices underline the isolation that seems to exist between its residents. There are friendships and dates and social interaction, but the closest relationship people seem to have in this world is with their tech gadgets.

    Other nuances like how email is read and categorized, how fast technology works and is able to absorb and grow and adapt, how people get around, etc. only further help flesh out the world.  Jonze clearly knew every little aspect of his near-future landscape before he wrote this script and was able to pick and choose which ones would highlight his theme and story and characters in genius ways.  There are probably tons of other aspects of this world that could have been explored, but limiting it to what is directly connected to the love story makes it all the more intriguing. When writers know how to create a truly intriguing world that is special yet relatable, different yet plausible, and that world matches the story that is occurring within it, it’s a winning combination.

    Many of the scripts I’ve read lately have these expansive futuristic/dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, but they aren’t really necessary to the story – the writers are just hoping that their “awesome” worlds will mask what’s lacking in the narrative. Jonze chose a time and world that complimented the story in perfect fashion and made it feel MORE believable and viable instead of just distracting us from it. Jonze created a big world but made it feel small, while creating a small story and making it feel big. That’s one of the keys to successful world building.

    2.   Timing. Is there a more relevant love story right now than that between man and technology? It’s the right story at the right time. The themes and societal questions raised and explored of what makes for a genuine relationship, what defines a happy couple, what makes for true love, and what constitutes an acceptable love dynamic in society is done so in beautiful ways. At a time when gay marriage is a hot button issue, Jonze takes the concept two steps further and makes relationships with OS’s (Operating Systems) the next issue to be tackled. It’s talked about and accepted by many in this story – but it’s still not the thing everyone is comfortable with. It’s still somewhat taboo and embarrassing for Phoenix’s character. There’s still that unsure “Ohhh…umm…okay” reaction when people hear about this relationship.

    When a writer can tap into the zeitgeist – and what could be NEXT in the zeitgeist – in a way that examines an issue in a brilliant way without ever mentioning the issue, that shows true talent. The concept of the OS/Human relationship is discussed, but it’s more about the doubt the Human and the OS have in their own feelings than their worries about what the outside world thinks. It’s about being comfortable in your own love and your own mind and letting everything else go. And if that’s not an important and relevant message and theme to explore today, I don’t know what is.

    The beauty of the way Jonze explores this theme, however, is how he has elevated the genre and the discussion. Which brings us to…

    3.    It defines elevated storytelling. And that’s not easy to do with romance or romantic dramas. If you’ve ever seen a Nicholas Sparks novel brought to life on screen, they all have strong emotional hooks. They all have an internal dilemma and external conflict that rips the lovers apart only so they can find a way to come back together. But almost none of them feel realistic or relatable. His books explore life-threatening illnesses and death. They are female fantasies underlining the power of true love. None of them are overly intelligent or complex. They connect on an emotional level but that’s about it. The beauty of Her is that it connects on an emotional level AND a cerebral one. It makes you feel, it makes you cry, and it makes you think at the same time.

    Hollywood always says it wants ELEVATED material. This is a romantic drama on an elevated level. Elevated means there is something smarter and deeper about the story than the normal, down-the-middle boy meets girl story. And Her delivers on that in spades.

    4.    It tells a complete love story. It’s boy meets girl (ish), but in a whole new way. But the beauty of the structure of the story is that we really get to experience their whole relationship. I don’t want to give anything away about how the film ends, but every time you think the story can end, Spike Jonze finds a believable and relatable way to throw another plot twist into the mix that progress the arcs of both characters and raises the stakes. And they all feel like REAL twists that would plague any real-world human relationship which is what makes it feel so genuine.

    It doesn’t take much to believe that a person can fall in love with a voice on a computer. So once you swallow that premise, the rest is a rollercoaster ride of emotion from beginning to end that probably feels like a love story you’ve experienced.  Or maybe that’s just me. It uses all the tropes of romantic drama – loss, death, cheating, conflict, temptation, realization, growth, change, love and sex – but there’s only one physical person involved. It’s a focused story, but a complete story. And that’s what you should be trying to do with your scripts.

    5.     It gives its actors immense room to play, react, feel and emote. Movies don’t get made without stars these days, and to get stars you need characters that stand out and give them something to do.  A new situation or mindset for them to explore emotionally. And too many writers focus on the action of what the characters do in the scene and not enough on the REACTION the actors get to portray in their quiet or reflective moments. And all of the actors in this film have those moments and play them perfectly.

    Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams (who looks more like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich than the glam roles she usually plays), Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and especially Scarlett Johansson are all pitch perfect (and listen for the greatest voice over cameo ever by Kristen Wiig).

    The fact that Scarlett Johansson can’t be nominated for an Academy Award is a damn shame. Personally, I’ve never been a big Joaquin Phoenix fan. I find him intense and creepy to watch but not in a fun way (like Daniel Day Lewis). But the man knows how to genuinely emote on screen like very few others can. He’s so open and able to commit to the words, it’s powerful to watch. And I’m not sure if Scarlett was in the room or speaking to him through the ear piece or if it was all done in post, but you’d never know he was the only person in the room.

    Phoenix’s character has a simple enough backstory – a nasty divorce from the love of his life has left him somewhat of a recluse and emotionally crippled. It’s not a hugely original backstory. But when combined with the world created, it’s all you need. The OS Samantha, played by Johansson, has just as much (if not more) or a character arc than the human characters. It’s her character that grows and changes the most. As I said, it’s a complete love story told from both perspectives, even though we are only SEEING one on screen. Give huge credit to Scarlett for bringing a character to life that isn’t even alive and that we never see. If you can write characters like that, you will get a major actor attached to your script.

    6.    The dialogue will affect you. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I will leave you with two quotes that stand out.  “Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.” This line is brilliant not just because it’s accurate, but because the whole story is about a guy talking to an ear piece, which makes him look even crazier yet in this world it’s socially acceptable. And “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” It’s one of those lines that stay with you, that become part of the way you think. The script is full of these, and that kind of dialogue is what powerful films are made of.

    Hopefully I’ve convinced you to go see Her, but also to read the script and learn how to craft a story that deserves Oscar gold.

     

  • Me and Mr. Gilligan (at Austin Film Fest)

    November 4th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    “I am not in Danger…I am the danger….I am the one who knocks.”

    After hearing the powerful, blistering, graveled, cold-hearted speeches of Walter White, you might think the man behind the words would have a twinge of Heisenberg in him. Be some sort of formidable, overpowering, guarded type who could just as easily talk you into an acid bath as he could talk you into getting a beer.

    But that’s not the type of man Vince Gilligan is. Or at least seems to be.

    This year at the Austin Film Festival, there were many huge name writers, actors, producers and directors, but no name inspired as much discussion and anticipation among amateurs and pros alike, as Vince Gilligan.

    The creator of Breaking Bad was the toast of the town. People (including myself) lined up over an hour ahead of time to listen to him speak, and THREE hours ahead of time to hear the stages reading of his unproduced script, “Two-Face.” More on this in a moment.

    My goals in coming to Austin Film Festival this year were clear; be an engaging moderator and bring out the best from my panelists, teach people to pitch and judge my ass off, get drunken blackmail stories from A-List screenwriters and producers… and talk to Vince Gilligan.

    I was a huge fan of the X-Files, and an even bigger fan of Breaking Bad.  The mastery by which that story was told is hard to replicate or even explain. And very few shows build in popularity and plot the way Breaking Bad did. It was somewhat of an anomaly, aided by Netflix and binge-watching, that became a phenomenon among TV whores like me.  And so my whole goal for AFF, was to finally meet (and thank) Vince Gilligan.

    I figured he’d be guarded at all times from the throngs of people waiting to shake his hand, and at best maybe I’d get a picture of him from 20 feet away and then just tell people that I got to meet him and fabricate some story of how we laughed until the wee hours, drinking and reminiscing about the good old days.

    Luckily, none of that came to bear.

    On Thursday evening at the first WGA Opening Party, which featured an open bar, great drinks, and the insanely awesome Grilled Cheese Truck, you could imagine my glee when I turned around and saw Vince Gilligan just standing there chatting with people like he was Joe Schmo at the neighborhood watering hole. Of course once people realized he was there, a line formed which quickly became a meet and greet. But I didn’t care. I came to Austin to meet Vince Gilligan, and dammit, that’s what I was going to do.

    I waited my turn, I got my camera ready, and I walked up and said hello. For some reason, I was less nervous than I usually am around people I truly admire or “celebrities.” It’s not that I get nervous so much as I feel like anything I’m about to say to  them, they’ve already heard a million times. And there’s that constant thought in my head when meeting celebrities that sounds like “Dontsayanythingstupiddontsayanythingstupiddontsayanythingstupid!”

    But I didn’t feel that way with Mr. Gilligan. I had my Producer’s badge on, I was on a few panels, and I was a professional. A professional with a creativity boner, but a professional nonetheless.

    I introduced myself and what I do, told him how much I loved the show, as well as X-Files and how I really think the writing on Breaking Bad was a master class in how to express great emotion and detail without nailing people over the head and going overboard, a la Homeland.  I’m sure I then gushed a little bit like a school girl and thanked him for making a TV whore like me very happy, and then I offered to buy him a drink but he already had one. Quite frankly, my AFF experience could have ended there and I would have been happy.

    Vince (yeah, I call him Vince now) could not have been more gracious and kind. He listened to everyone, said hello to everyone, shook hands, chatted and took pictures with everyone. He even came to the smaller events and BBQ parties and never turned anyone away. And listening to him speak during his sessions, was special for me. Not just because I love his work, but because his story ISN’T spectacular.

    He won a college screenwriting contest in Virginia and me the one guy who believed in him and made things happen for him and his career. And having heard Mr. Gilligan speak on two different panels over the weekend, his humbleness, his humility, his passion, and his gratitude for the place he’s in right now, really came across. And hearing him speak actually sparked and inspired a new feature idea in my own head that I immediately started outlining and texting to myself in the middle of the panel. I’ll be sure to thank him the next time we meet.

    On Sunday, my entire plan (other than a bit of recovery), was to get in line early for the staged reading of Mr. Gilligan’s unproduced script, “Two-Face”. The reading was at the State Theater, which only seats about 300, so I knew I had to get there early. It started at 2pm, and I got to the line about 11:50 – and it was already around the block. I was number 168 out of 300. By 12:15, the line was shut down.

    I had never been to a reading like this. Certainly not one where Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Hayden Church, Billy Burke, Rob Brown and the insanely fantastic Giancarlo Esposito were doing the reading. It was very interesting to watch, and despite a few audio issues, it was very engaging.

    I will say that Billy Burke apparently went to the Kiefer Sutherland school of acting, where there are only two ways to say a line – whisper it inaudibly into your chest or scream like a nuclear bomb is about to go off.  Will Ferrell brought a voice to the project that only he could, and considering it was a dark comedy about race and mental illness and love, it needed his comedic voice to feel relatable and fun. But the standouts for me were easily Linda Cardellini, who hit every line with pitch perfect accuracy, and Giancarlo Esposito, who is a master class unto himself.

    Esposito easily got the largest applause when he walked out – yes, even more than Will Ferrell. This was a Breaking Bad crowd all the way. And the fire with which he delivered his lines, was unmistakable. He’s the ONLY actor that ever got out of his chair and did something physical. You could tell he was totally engaged the whole way through, even in scenes he wasn’t in.

    And in the back stood Vince Gilligan, watching his baby that he wrote 20 years ago (but since updated), finally getting read in public for the first time. I occasionally glanced back at him after a line hit particularly well (or didn’t) to gauge his reaction, and he looked like he was enjoying every second but thinking about exactly how the script could still be improved or tightened.  It was a joy to watch and I think it’s great that the man who I’m sure is being offered every single writing gig in town, is still trying to get his own non-commercial scripts made.

    I saw Vince Gilligan a few times over the course of the weekend at different parties, but didn’t want to seem like a stalker or monopolize his time. So in case I never get to meet him again, I’ll just thank him now for the inspiration, the memory and the creativity boner. You may not be Heisenberg…but you’re Vince Fucking Gilligan.

  • Finding Inspiration, Motivation and Opportunity in Austin

    November 4th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Sometimes all you need to keep going is a little creative rejuvenation. A little brainstorm Botox. A writer’s reset button.

    That’s exactly what I found in Texas last week at the Austin Film Festival. It was an enjoyably exhausting vacation from the mind-fuck of monotony that sometimes plagues this business. It was a much-needed respite from the bad scripts and solitude of writing notes and a reminder of all of the best reasons I went into this business. It was, in the most basic of terms, an inspiration.

    It was basically non-stop from 8am to 3am for 5 days, with panels, screenings, parties, networking, walking, and lots of drinking. But sometimes that adrenaline, that insanity, that busy-ness, is what can unstick you from your creative rut.

    I went into this business to be heard. To be respected. To have a creative outlet and make a difference with my words. Or at least make a splash. I went into this business to work with the best, talk with the best, learn from the best. And find ways to improve my own talents, and help other improve theirs. And that’s what AFF is all about.

    I had never been to the AFF, despite a few years of campaigning. So when I got the invite this year to come and be a moderator on a few panels, I was really excited. I had heard so much about the creative energy and spirit of Austin Film Festival, as well as the HUGE A-list names that attend and speak every year, that I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. And then as the event neared, they also asked me to be a judge for their pitching competition and teach the Pitch Prep Panel alongside writer Pamela Ribon (Samantha Who), which was a great experience. In all, I was involved in 5 panels. Moderating two, teaching one, and pitch judging for two others.

    I had been to Austin once before, this past June for the Writers League of Texas Conference, which was a wonderful event though it was also 103 degrees in the shade with 140% humidity. I’m pretty sure that’s possible. But even as I sloshed my way through the city, I could feel an air of creativity. From the music to the art to the passion they show for books and films.

    But Austin Film Festival harnesses that creativity and produces a conference and festival unlike any other. It’s not as stodgy as Sundance, not as overhyped as Comic Con, not as expensive as Cannes. And AFF offers something you can’t get at any of those events….direct access.

    This year, the undisputed star and main-draw was Vince Gilligan, writer/creator/God of Breaking Bad. It didn’t matter who else was speaking, Vince Gilligan was the one person even the other celebrities were hoping to meet. I will speak about my experience with Vince in another article.

    In addition to Vince Gilligan, Will Ferrell was there, Susan Sarandon was there, Giancarlo Esposito, Callie Khouri, Barry Josephson, Elaine May, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Demme (who was perhaps the second biggest draw), plus major A-List screenwriters like Zak Penn, Scott Neustadter, Leslie Dixon, Leigh Wannell, Craig Mazin, John August, Phil Rosenthal, Shane Black, Scott Rosenberg, Terry Rossio, John Swetnam, Justin Marks, Kelly Marcel, Lee Aronsohn, Rian Johnson, John Hamburg, Robert Rodriguez, Roberto Orci, David Shore, etc., plus tons of agents, managers, producers, and industry leaders (if you don’t know those names, you’re not reading enough!).

    I don’t list these names to name-drop or make you jealous, I promise. I list them because they were (almost) all accessible and inspirational. If you couldn’t find inspiration in some form from listening to these people speak and meeting them and learning about their journeys, then you just might be dead inside.

    Sure, some were more guarded than others. But for the most part, everyone’s wearing the same badge and waiting on the same line and drinking in the same bar. And just being there, having that direct access, being able to go up to Terry Rossio and go “Hey, can I buy you a drink” is the very thing new writers and young producers dream about. Very few of those huge names turned people away.  Instead, they engaged in real conversation, answering questions and giving nuggets of encouragement.

    I watched Shane Black chat it up with newbies in the bar like they had known each other for years. I watched a socially awkward comic book nerd who (amazingly) didn’t even know who Zak Penn was, out-nerd him on a comic book question (a hilarious story you’ll have to ask me about in person). And I watched myself getting shit-faced with multi-million-dollar screenwriters and forging relationships I hope last a long time.

    I also got to finally meet many of my Twitter followers, which was great! And got to chat with some of the people I follow on Twitter and whose articles I read, like Scott Myers of Go Into The Story and Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List. Was good to put some twitter-warring to bed and forge new relationships.

    Sitting in on a few panels, there were a few that truly motivated me and inspired me but for different reasons.

    First, listening to Vince Gilligan speak and just watching him interact with the hoard of people who were trying to meet him all weekend (including myself), I was amazed at how sometimes, nice guys do win. If there was a more gracious, humble, kind man at this festival, I didn’t meet him. He was a lesson in how to be successful as a screenwriter, and as a human being.

    Best part? While listening to Vince speak about Breaking Bad and Bryan Cranston’s method and if the characters will live on in some way, I came up with a new idea for a script that came so quickly into my head I had to text it to myself right then so I wouldn’t forget any of it. You never know where the kernel of an idea will come from, and this time it came from Vince Gilligan. So I’ll be sure to thank him in MY acceptance speech.

    At the panel for those getting an award this year – Gilligan, Sarandon, Khouri, Demme and Josephson – what struck me most was that NONE of their stories of how they became who they are, were spectacular. They were all interesting and fun to listen to, but they all just seemed to take random opportunities when presented with them, no matter what it was. It’s all about capitalizing on opportunity. Jonathan Demme and Susan Sarandon spoke about their journeys to fame, and they both just kept saying ‘Yes’ to things. Sarandon never had any training, but she had innate talent and did shitty movies, soap operas – whatever she could to get that next job and learn. She didn’t wait around for that ONE big starring role to launch her career, she worked her way up.

    Demme was a film critic and had no wanting to direct, but he got put on a Roger Corman film to do publicity and eventually was just asked to fly to London, write a movie, and it got made. He was asked, ‘Do you think you can write a movie about motorcycles?’ and he said “Sure.” And that was it.

    I see new writers passing up opportunities left and right as they try to break into this business, because it doesn’t pay enough or it’s not a high-profile enough producer, or it’s “only straight to DVD.” Take every opportunity you can to improve your craft and get a foot in the door, because you never know which door will actually open.

    Vince Gilligan won a Virginia screenwriting contest over 20 years ago and it just happened to be that one of the judges was producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), who went to the school and was doing them a favor. He liked the script so much, he contacted Vince months later and made the movie (Home Fries), and has been a mentor to Vince ever since, serving as exec producer on Breaking Bad.

    What I learned from these industry giants is that it’s not just about trying hard. It’s about having natural talent – an innate ability – and then having luck, good timing and opportunity. But once those stars align, you have to then be willing to work harder than everyone else and trust your own instincts and never quit.

    Another inspiration came from screenwriter Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, etc). I have always been a fan of his and this year, he was doing the REWRITE class, and as someone who does a lot of rewriting, I was very interested to hear his technique and see what I could learn (even professionals are always constantly learning).

    Unfortunately, while Terry is incredibly likable and engaging on stage, I didn’t find the class to be as informative or on-point as I would’ve liked (and got into numerous arguments about it after). But Terry did do something no one else does – and that is polish a script sight-unseen right there live on stage. It’s an impressive feat that most couldn’t do. And while I didn’t always agree with the changes Terry made, and he admitted they weren’t so much rewrite changes as polishing changes, it inspired a new class for me to teach and a new way to teach it. Now I look forward to teaching my own rewrite/polish class in 2014!

    And finally, on one of my panels, The Spec Script, a writer named John Swetnam was one of my panelists. He had written 18 scripts – 18!!! – before he sold his first one. He admits he didn’t think he had that innate ability and had to learn it and work hard. He decided after those 18 scripts that he was going to put his producer hat on and write something he knew could sell and get made quickly according to the marketplace. And 8 months later, he was in production with Stephen Moyer and Radha Mitchell starring in his first film. Now he’s writing Step Up 5 and has completed a couple huge budget studio films that will be out in 2014 and 2015.

    It doesn’t always take 18 scripts. Another panelist, screenwriter Matt Cook, who has had 2 scripts appear in the top ten of The BlackList, wrote one script, gave it to the ONE guy he knew who happened to be an agent at WME, he got signed, and the rest is history. By the way, Matt still lives in Austin.

    Across the board from all the dozens of panelists and screenwriters and producers and agents at AFF, the one thing that become clear was that there is no ONE way to break in. But let me tell you, attending Austin Film Festival is one hell of a great first step.

    Just hearing all the stories from these pros and getting to really talk with them and hang out with them gave me a kick in the ass like I haven’t felt in a long time. It was exactly what I needed because to be honest, I’ve felt like I’ve just been treading water the last few months. And so if you ever feel that way, do yourself a favor, and book yourself a pass for next year’s Austin Film Festival. I’ll see you there!

  • But I Want to Write About Unicorns!

    October 30th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    There once was a young child no more than 8 years old – let’s call her Susie – who loved to write. She’d write short stories, poems – whatever came to her. And she was obsessed with Unicorns – like, totally obsessed.

    One day her teacher gave the class a homework assignment – to write 1 page about their family. The next day, she presented her paper to the class. Except while everyone else in the class followed the assignment and spoke about their brothers and sisters and parents, and they all got gold stars, little Susie decided to write about unicorns…Because she liked them.

    The teacher scorned her, told her that the assignment wasn’t to write about unicorns and while she is free to write about unicorns in her spare time or for fun, when she’s doing her homework she needs to write what everyone else is writing. She needs to complete the assignments given to her. Or else no one will get to hear her stories.

    Susie cried and screamed about how she would only write about unicorns no matter what anyone said and no matter what anyone told her she should write about. And poor little Susie ended up with 14 books about unicorns that no one ever read, and sadly had to repeat the 4th grade.

    What’s the lesson here?

    Originality is a great thing and the thought of rebelling against the system or Hollwood machine can be intriguing. But if everyone is telling you to stop writing about unicorns because no one wants to hear about them…then maybe you should start paying attention to what everyone else is writing.

  • Why Summer Movies Flopped & Succeeded – And What This Means for Movie Trends

    July 15th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to big summer box office failures…should it be?

    Maybe they should’ve read my newsletter last month and my article on the Tenets of Tentpole Movies http://www.nobullscript.net/?p=870. Ha!

    It’s barely mid-July, but the summer has already claimed a few box office casualties. But alternatively, it’s also created a few unlikely heroes. The questions remain, however – why did they fail? Why couldn’t studios see it coming? Weren’t there obvious warning signs? And what kind of consequence could it have on movie trends in the near future?

    There have been 4 box office flops so far this summer with one still TBD and another (I predict) right around the corner. Those are; The Lone Ranger, White House Down, The Internship and After Earth. Pacific Rim is still TBD and RIPD is set to be released in a couple weeks and I believe it will join the ranks of these fine films. But if you look at each of these movies, I tend to think it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t perform to expectations. And when you compare them to a few of the movies that over-performed, you’ll see why.

    Most of the underperforming movies can be blamed on bad casting, bad timing, or bad concept. Or a combination of all three.

    The Lone Ranger – To be fair, studios saw this coming for a year. NO ONE thought this would make money, Disney was just hoping it would squeak out enough money to not see reminders of John Carter in the headlines. It didn’t. The reasons for Lone Ranger bombing are multiple and obvious. They cast the lead actor in the supporting role and then had to redesign a story so that both the lead and the sidekick were basically equal. Oh, and the lead is a Native American character played by a white guy who speaks with a fake French accent as he wears a dead bird on his head.

    I get that Johnny Depp is bankable after the Pirates movies and Alice in Wonderland, but did anyone think that maybe people went to the theaters because they like pirates and Alice in Wonderland and maybe it wasn’t all because of Depp? Depp would’ve, could’ve made a great Lone Ranger – except he won’t do any movie where he’s not in full make-up and costume.

    Lone Ranger had what studios call pre-recognition. People recognize the ‘Lone Ranger’ title. Yeah…if you’re over 50! No one under 35 has ever seen the Lone Ranger, no one under 25 has ever heard of it, and no one overseas cares about it. And no one over 50 goes to see big blockbuster Bruckheimer movies like this one. So, it never had the audience it thought it did. But even with all that, the movie COULD have made money – if it was made for $125M instead of $250M.  And by the way – remember when big summer blockbusters cost $125M and we all thought that was an insane amount of money? Independence Day was made for less than $100M! Remember that. The studio didn’t want to lose Depp, so it just kept shelling out money. Meanwhile, if you had cast 2 different actors, and kept the budget down to $125M, it could have saved Disney a $150M write-down.

    With White House Down, it sounded like a perfect movie. A no-brainer. Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx together in an action movie about defending the White House. What could be a better movie? Oh right…Olympus Has Fallen. This film suffered because those crazy kooks at Millennium Films (a company I have worked with before) decided to buy a script that was just like the White House Down script – and get it made first, and cheaper. And it did really well. If it had bombed, WHD would’ve had a shot. But it didn’t – so people had no incentive to go see the same movie twice.  When Olympus Has Fallen passed $100M, they should’ve shelved WHD for 6 months instead of releasing it now.

    Channing Tatum is a big star and people love him. Shit, I love him. But Jamie Foxx as the wise-crackin’ black president who loves his Air Jordan sneakers? Give me a break. There are plenty of Black actors I could totally see as the President – but Jamie Foxx isn’t one of them. When you’ve got a big concept, you have to cast it in a way that brings some believability to it.

    After Earth was just Will Smith masturbating over himself and his children again, but this time he asked one of the most derisive and hated directors in town to help him with M Night Shyamalan (whose name isn’t even on the poster). And this masturbation session cost $130M plus P&A and marketing costs. Now, it’s made $200M, but $140 of that was overseas, and it has put a true damper on Will Smith’s star power. But, are Will Smith and the execs at Sony the ONLY people who don’t know that society doesn’t approve of the talent-factory Will Smith has tried to turn his family into? Add to that a twinge of scientology and you’ve got yourself the makings of a flop. Let’s be honest- Jaden Smith isn’t likable. He doesn’t have his father’s charisma or personality or acting chops (yet). If they had done a talent search and looked for some new kid to play Will Smith’s son, the movie could’ve done much better.

    The Internship failed for 1 very specific reason. It isn’t 2006 anymore and no one wanted to see Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as idiots who don’t know what GOOGLE is. I get the product placement value, but if the movie wasn’t about Google and instead was about some little startup internet company that did something amazing and these two guys had to work there, it might have made the story more believable and interesting. And if those two guys weren’t Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who at 40 should know how to work a computer, but were instead…say… Bill Murray and Billy Crystal or someone older and funnier, the concept might have made more sense. The project seemed to lack heart and Owen Wilson, after his incident a couple years ago, isn’t as believable as the light-hearted loveable funny man. In 2006, this movie would have made $150M easy. But today, it hasn’t even made its production budget back.

    Pacific Rim was on target to bomb. But good reviews and a last minute swing of the Hollywood pendulum has turned what could have been a disaster into a possible sleeper success. It remains to be seen, but it got good word of mouth this weekend and while it only made $40M and has a $200M budget, it should do very well in Asian markets and overseas. And while it’s not my cup of tea, people should root for the project as it’s the largest budgeted ORIGINAL project of the summer. Of course, I say “original” loosely as it’s basically a mash-up of Godzilla meets Transformers. Everyone has been asking for MORE ORIGINAL CONTENT – but studios apparently took that to mean more original content that looks EXACTLY like all the unoriginal content we already have.

    Speaking of which, RIPD opens soon and if you’ve seen the trailer, it couldn’t look more like Men In Black if it tried. One cranky older white guy? Check! One good looking younger sexy guy? Check. Big guns chasing down weird-looking bad guys with big visual effects? Check. An underground section of law enforcement that no one knows about? Check. They swapped Aliens for the Undead, but come on – it’s the SAME movie! Mark my words, it’s going to bomb bad.

    Original projects can work, though! And hopefully these failures won’t discourage studios from pursuing them. The thing is, they only work at a certain budget level. Horror film producers figured this out years ago – so why hasn’t everyone else? The upcoming film The Conjuring is tracking HUGE and will probably be the next InsidiousThe Purge did similar great business. Both were made for under $10M. Now You See Me was a big surprise hit for Summit, and made for about $75M – which is about the acceptable ceiling for original material unless it’s being directed by a Nolan, Fincher or Spielberg. The Great Gatsby, which had a $100M budget, was a surprise hit early in the summer but had huge international stars, a proven visionary director and pre-recognition. And The Heat took the most likable actress on the planet and added in the hottest female comedy actress of the year and with a $45M budget, created a major hit. It was a sure-fire winner.

    Man of Steel could’ve have gone so wrong. The third re-launch of a franchise? Really? But sometimes good filmmaking, a new vision and a great cast can overcome what could’ve been a train wreck.  Despicable Me 2 had perhaps the most expansive and infectious publicity and marketing campaign of the year. And in the summer, that can pay off big and it’s now one of the most successful animated movies of all time and it’s only in week 3.

    So what do these summer failures and success mean for future film trends? Hopefully it means more original content and smarter, slimmer budgets. Hopefully it means that “pre-recognition” will stop dictating green lights. Hopefully it means the same 10 stars won’t star in every movie. Hopefully different studios won’t race to make similar competing projects and will just go find other material. Hopefully there will be more movies starring women. Hopefully it means that writing and producing great genre movies is still the best way to break in and create a hit. Hopefully, it means certain bloated studio producers can spend a month languishing with the rest of us.

    But what it really means is…no one knows anything.

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