Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Book Report: What's In A Head?

The people behind the World Fantasy Awards have lost their head.

Well, technically it's not THEIR head, but they have lost the head of long dead author H.P. Lovecraft, whose bust, designed by cartoonist Gahan Wilson, was used as their trophy for many years.
The reason for dropping the head of Lovecraft was that he was a racist person from a racist time and that sparked the usual online screaming match with terms like "racist," and "social justice warrior," being tossed around like grenades full of manure.

Some are campaigning to replace Lovecraft's head with the head of author Octavia Butler, who was a multi-award winning and groundbreaking fantasy and science-fiction author in her own right.

I disagree.

Now before you type out "you're a racist" in the comments, just let me make my case.

I don't think the award should be a bust of any one particular author.

Being a fantasy award, the temptation is to make it a bust of J.R.R. Tolkien who has been one of the most influential authors, but I disagree with even that.


Because if you use a human head, the award will end up being about that person, and if the award is about that person it will be about something about that person that offends one group or another.

Let's use Lovecraft as an example.

Yes, he was racist, maybe even more racist than the normal standards of the early 20th century. But even if he spent his short life campaigning for racial equality and love between all people, I still would oppose the use of his visage for the award.

He represented a very narrow sub-genre of fantasy, namely a specific brand of phantasmagoric cosmic-horror that we now know as "Lovecraftian." He doesn't truly represent the breadth and depth of the genre. No one author does.

Not even Octavia Butler, who despite the quality  or variety of her work, only represents a tiny corner of a very big tent, because she is only one author, with one author's interests and abilities. Plus, there will always be a nagging doubt hanging over her metallic head that she was chosen as some sort of token gesture of white-liberal-guilt atonement by those who allowed Lovecraft to linger for so long.

Plus, we don't know what some future biographer is going to discover about her. She might have secretly hunted the homeless for sport, for all we know.

Which brings me to what the trophy should be.

It should not be a person, it should be a symbol.

The fantasy genre is born from tales of adventure from mythology. So I suggest a classic fantasy symbol: the sword in the stone from Arthurian legend.

Now before you yell "you're not being inclusive" or that I'm being "Eurocentric" at your monitor, let me finish explaining my design idea.

Every culture has a sword.

That means that there can be a range of designs for the trophy, which can alternate. A classic European medieval sword one year, a katana the next, a scimitar after that, then maybe a jian sword, or an Ethiopian shotel, or an Indian Tulwar. You can pretty easily make a line of different trophies and rotate them among the various awards categories each year.

And to include the horror genre, maybe have the stone be carved in the shape of a sinister looking skull, marked with nonsensical arcane symbols.

Then you have a trophy that symbolizes the roots of the genre without really leaving anything out, and free from the baggage of any one person from the genre's history.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1257: Diversity…of Family?

Okay, this story begins with a complaint.

People are complaining that there is not enough diversity in Hollywood. One key complaint is that the numbers of directors getting regular work that are not caucasian males do not reflect the demographic realities.

But don't worry. 

Sony Pictures has swept in to save the day with a special "Diversity In TV" program. The mission of this program is to get more women and more "people of colour" into the world of directing television.

Sounds like a noble cause but when you see that the program's first reported recruit is Kate Barker-Froyland, the DAUGHTER OF A SENIOR SONY EXECUTIVE.

I call this Meta-Sexism, being sexist to mock sexism.

Now she is a woman, and she is a director, having made a film called Song One starring Anne Hathaway, which gives me an  excuse to post a click-bait picture of Anne Hathaway.

However, there is a problem with her familial connections. We live in an age where people are demanding that others "check their privilege" in the name of diversity. 

In the diversity fight Hollywood comes across as the pinnacle of hypocrisy. The citizens of their community that I call the Axis of Ego, are always the first to demand diversity in others, but are the worst when it comes to having diversity in their own house.

You will never find a people more ethnically, and ideologically homogenous outside of Hollywood. And it's not just the use of white stars all the time, even in so-called "ethnic" roles. The executive suites bear more resemblance to a trustafarian frat-house at an Ivy League university than the population in general.

This leads to the hiring of even more people that fit that vaguely general mould, and more and more people, feel left out, and not just women and ethnic minorities, but other white males who just don't fit in the club are blocked too. I'm a white male Gen-Xer, according to the activists I should have Hollywood dragging me from my home to write &/or direct big budget projects regardless of my résumé, when in reality Hollywood wouldn't touch me with a ten foot pole because I just wouldn't fit in with them, and never will.

However, this clubbiness when it comes to women and ethnic minorities challenges the liberal bona-fides of the Axis of Ego. That makes them look bad, and 

This leads to hackneyed token gestures, like tossing women and minorities the scraps from the franchise table, and the creation of programs meant to improve diversity, but only make things worse.

Now Sony may have hired her on her non-familial merits, her film Song One might be the most brilliant thing since Citizen Kane, I don't know, it hasn't really been seen by anyone, so I can't judge her as a filmmaker.

What I can talk about are the optics.

The optics are terrible.

"Diversity" is supposed to mean hiring from a pool of diverse genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and beliefs. You don't say a program is about "diversity" and then hire from a pool even narrower than the usual monolithic upper class white Ivy League pool; the literal gene pool.

It doesn't matter if your hire is more brilliant than Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick combined, if they have the same last name of a senior executive, the first thing people are going to think when they hear the news is not "diversity" it is "nepotism."

It reminds people of the early days of Universal Pictures when the joke around the lot was that owner "Carl Laemmle had a big faemmle." However, most studios weren't as egregious in their nepotism. Sure, many viewed them as family businesses, but folks weren't hired solely on their DNA, that may have landed them a chance, but if they didn't deliver in the hard work department, they were often ushered out of the company and sometimes even out of the family.

Ironically, the Silent Era had a lot more diversity behind the camera than today, especially when it came to gender. There were almost as many female screenwriters, directors, editors, and technicians, as there were male, even in the executive suite at some studios. Ethnic diversity was a exponentially weaker because even the suspicion of there being some colour in a black and white film ran the risk of getting a studio's output banned in some states. (Up until the 1960s America was rife with politically powerful movements seeking to censor films for reasons that would seem comically ridiculous to modern eyes.)

This was because the old school moguls believed in one thing: Making movies that the audience wanted to see. They didn't care about making quotas, they were concerned with putting bums in theatre seats so they could make more money and more movies.

The rise of unions and the introduction of sound led to many women being shut out of the industry's technical fields on the bullshit grounds that they were now "too technical" for their feminine minds.

Then came the corporate era when the studios went from being stand-alone entities run by powerful "moguls" to subsidiaries of larger conglomerates and run by committees of Ivy League number-crunchers.

Which is what brings us to our current situation. They see the general population as a list of targets in a marketing report. That some people in these targets have an interest in making film and television instead of consuming it strikes them as inconceivable, because the making of film and television is their world, which is populated by people more or less like them.

Hollywood does need diversity, however, it will not be achieved easily, and most likely won't be achieved in any way we think it's going to happen.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1256: The Flops of Fall

Right now Hollywood has been kicked in the head by the audience. The last two weeks of October have contained more bombs than Curtis LeMay's Christmas wish list. Even fairly reliable box-office stalwarts like Sandra Bullock have seen their pictures crash and burn.
Now all of these films have flopped for different reasons, and I will lay out some of those reasons for some of those failed films in a wonderful little listicle!
Let's get started:

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS: The main thing this film had going for it was the star power of Sandra Bullock. Sounds like it should have worked, so why did it fail?
Not any specific politics, just the simple fact that the audience has about as much trust in Hollywood handling political subjects as they would trust a hungry dog with a t-bone. Tell the audience that Hollywood is going to tell them a political story and they're going to assume that it will be a joyless lecture about how wrong they are in all facets of life by people who think they are right about everything because they're rich, famous, and read the Huffington Post when one of their friends is in it, and will finally finish that Howard Zinn book someday.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER: Here's what people saw from the trailers and advertisements for this movie: Lots of weightless CGI and lots of Vin Diesel telling every other character how he's better at everything than they are.
What did they NOT see in the trailers and advertisements for this movie?
The campy, goofy, sense of fun, and quirky family values of the Fast & Furious movies. Which is the chief reason of seeing a Vin Diesel movie.
STEVE JOBS: The first thing is that everyone had already heard so damn much about Steve Jobs in the months leading up to, and after his death. The second thing is that it lacked the sort of star power that can sell tickets to anything, which is rare. And the third thing is that the ad campaign seemed to strive to make Jobs look not only unlikable, but uninteresting as well. Audiences will pay to see an unlikable person, but that person has to be way more interesting than a guy who occasionally drinks Dos Equis.
BURNT: The whole of a guy trying to overcome his own stupidity and arrogance to sell overpriced food to rich snobs just doesn't really appeal to audiences no matter how popular celebrity chefs are on television.
SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE: The whole thing looked like it had been written for and by thirteen year old boys. Folks like zombie stories, but they appear to want QUALITY zombie stories. If it doesn't look like you've got more than gross out and genital jokes, they'll just stay home and probably catch it on Netflix, if they're high enough.
PAN: This movie reeked of desperation from the first frame of the first trailer. It looked like it had been composed by marketing gurus for maximum pandering. Audiences saw the ads, and thought: "Hmmm... the original animated Peter Pan still looks better."
CRIMSON PEAK: The buzz over this film among critics and those who actually took the effort to see it, tell me that this film could have a long life on video and television. I don't think the general movie going audience could get past the Victorian frippery and emphasis on boo-scares and special effects in the ad campaign.
JEM & THE HOLOGRAMS: This project could only be a flop. It's a franchise based on a property that's barely remembered by  Gen-Xers, and only for being really cheesy, sold to tweens who don't remember it at all, and using music and dialogue that makes Hannah Montana look like a collaboration between Kurt Cobain and David Mamet. There's no way it could succeed outside of some marketing gurus nonsensical imagination.
TRUTH: It was sold as the untold story of a story that was actually told very loudly and in great detail.
In case you can't remember recent history, Dan Rather and his producer Mary Mapes ran a story that they hoped would cost George W. Bush the 2004 election. In it they claimed to have letters from Bush's time in the National Guard that they claimed proved all sorts of derelictions and near-desertions.
However, there was a problem.
The letters weren't written on an early 70s military issue typewriter, they were written much more recently on a computer using Microsoft Word. Also, deeper investigations into the documents by bloggers found more and more evidence of fakery, and no evidence to back up the documents or what they claimed to prove.
As the "facts" of the story fell apart, Rather and Mapes defended it by saying the documents were "fake, but accurate."
Naturally, Rather and Mapes were eased out of their jobs, shockingly gently for how badly they embarrassed the once August CBS News organization, and they stand by their story to this day, no matter what evidence is given to them.
The movie Truth, failed because it was political, and as I said before, the audience doesn't trust Hollywood with political topics anymore, but that wasn't the only reason. The main reason was that the film, starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, was sold on the premise that the fake documents were somehow real, and that Rather and Mapes weren't raging egoists who were so eager to take down a Republican president they deliberately refused to do the proper due diligence on their so-called "evidence." 
It came across as vain, self-serving, tripe with the insulting audacity to call itself Truth. That's the marketing equivalent as pissing in the audience's ear, and telling them it's raining.

Audiences don't mind dumb movies as long as their entertaining, but they won't go see a movie that acts like they're the dumb ones.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1255: Can Amazing Stories Be Amazing Again?

Cult TV showrunner Bryan Fuller has been given the green light by NBC to bring back the 1980s anthology series Amazing Stories.

If you're one of those millennials with no knowledge of your pop culture heritage Amazing Stories was an anthology TV series inspired by Amazing Stories Magazine, the first science-fiction and fantasy magazine founded by Hugo Gernsback. The show was brought to television by Stephen Spielberg at a time when he could literally do no wrong on the big screen and NBC was hoping to bring some of that to the small screen.

Like most Spielberg related TV projects it had a huge beginning with lots of big names appearing in front of and behind the camera, but like so many other Spielberg TV projects it fizzled out in the second season, and was cancelled. 

This is because Spielberg has two things against him when it comes to producing a TV show. He is too busy making movies to be much more than a name in the credits after the pilot's been shot, and Spielberg has a notorious aversion to conflict, which means that unless he has a strong partner and showrunner, the network will walk over the show and grind it into the dirt. That's why the only Spielberg-branded show to have any real success after its first season was ER, because he had Michael Crichton's name on it, and they had showrunners with balls and clout.

Now, hot on the heels of cancelling Fuller's critically claim and hyper-stylish horror series Hannibal, they want him to bring it back.

Now Fuller can do Amazing Stories in one of three ways:

STORY OF THE WEEK: This is the traditional approach made famous by The Twilight Zone. The problem with this traditional approach is that tradition can very quickly become a rut. The tendency is to not exactly do what The Twilight Zone did, but a vague memory of what they thought The Twilight Zone did. They slip into a comfortable trap of stories of things that seem normal at first, then they go weird, and pow, there's a twist in the end.

That can get really boring, really quick. There is a way to avoid this, and this is to go literary. 

There is literally a couple of centuries of short fiction in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. That means that they don't have to be reliant on TV writers and their vague memories of another TV show for stories. Of course that would take effort to find the stories, and money to buy the ones not in public domain, which means that plan probably won't be done.

STORY OF THE SEASON: This format is pretty popular through shows like True Detective and American Horror Story. Basically, you do each season like a novel for television where a story goes for X number of episodes of a season, it ends when the season ends, and new story runs for the next season.

This is popular, but it too has its pitfalls. If you have an incredible first season story, the odds are really good that if the second season story isn't light years better, it will be declared a total failure.

Plus, networks are tempted to take a successful story that originally had a set ending, and then say: "Hey, let's have a second season of just that" and then they flog it until it's dead and stinky.

MASTERPIECE THEATRE IT: This is a hybrid of the other two formats. Basically you set the show up as a sort-of brand that covers a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror productions that range from stand-alone one-episode stories, to multi-episode arcs.

This can give the writers the leeway they need to experiment with long form and short form stories, but the hazard is that the audience might find the format jarring, and tune out, or that only certain stories and their sequels catch on, and come to dominate the show's run, thus killing the whole "anthology" idea.

Anyway, that's what I think, let me know what you think in the comments...

Monday, 19 October 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1254: Let Die Hard Die Out.

20th Century Fox has announced that they're developing a 6th Die Hard movie, but this one will be different. Franchise star Bruce Willis will only bookend an "origin story" about a rookie John McLain in 1970s New York and most of the heavy lifting, running, jumping, and shooting will be done by a younger, cheaper actor in the hope that they might get the budget within a range that'll someday make a profit.

There are a two conundrums with this idea.

1. The original Die Hard is the origin story. It's about how an average joe police detective becomes a butt-kicking terrorist killer, not because of mad ninja skills, or superpowers, but solely through ingenuity, toughness, and a refusal to ever give up.

2. There already is a prequel to Die Hard in existence, and it's this:

You see the Die Hard franchise has a complicated history. Back in the 1960s the novelist Roderick Thorp wrote the original novel The Detective and sold the movie rights to 20th Century Fox. They made a movie starring Frank Sinatra and it was a big hit. Naturally, Fox wanted a sequel, and so did Thorp, so he wrote a new novel called Nothing Lasts Forever.

But there was a complication, Frank Sinatra wasn't available to make the sequel movie when the time came. The project languished in development hell until the mid-1980s. 

Producer Joel Silver, who was on a major hot-streak at the time, wanted an action thriller property that he could do with Fox, and found Nothing Lasts Forever in their archives. They offered the part to Sinatra, who said he was too old for all the running and shooting, so they offered it to Robert Mitchum, who declined for the same reasons.

It was then they decided on a rewrite.

Retired NYPD detective Joe Leland was transformed into active-duty NYPD detective John McLain, and instead of a rescuing an estranged daughter and grandchildren, he was rescuing an estranged ex-wife. They also tweaked the novel's ambiguous ending where Joe Leland succumbs to blood loss, collapses, and possibly dies.

They cast Bruce Willis, who was also on a burgeoning hot streak from his hit TV show Moonlighting, and movie history was made spawning thousands of imitators and movie pitch shorthand  with "It's Die Hard on a---".

Sadly, Fox has decided that repeating history is a good business model. They took what was a neat, tight, trilogy that ended on a high with Die Hard With A Vengeance, and enforced the laws of diminishing returns. 

There is only one reason to keep making Die Hard movies, and that's because they can still pull in about $200+ in the foreign box-office even though domestic grosses are decidedly lacklustre.

However, there's a catch.

The post-Vengeance Die Hards cost between $90-$115 million to make, and about that amount again to distribute and market internationally. That's an overhead of about $200+ million per picture.

Domestically, the studio gets roughly 50¢ on the box-office dollar as the "rental" the rest goes to the theatre. Internationally, it depends on the individual country or territory, but averages out to about 25¢ to 30¢ on the box office dollar.

That means that at best the more recent movies broke even at most. I also don't see folks clamouring to get them on home video or on television airings. I got the first trilogy on Blu-Ray and I just try to ignore the others.

But I see where Fox is going with this plan.

They know how beloved the first Die Hard is, and how many watch it every Christmas as a sort of antidote to the more saccharine holiday fare. They also know that announcing a remake with a new star would be received with screams of "blasphemy" and a lot of bad press. That's why I suspect they start a new series with the proposed Die Hard: Year One, and hopefully segue it into a full on Die Hard remake with lots of CGI explosions as a hundred buildings are seized by ten thousand terrorists and only superhuman John McLain can stop them. They hope that audiences will be so used to this new franchise, they'll somehow accept it over the original.

Which brings me to the point of all my rambling.

What made the first Die Hard such a classic was not the quantity of the action, even though it did deliver quantity, it was the quality. Each set-piece was carefully constructed to deliver the maximum emotional impact on the audience without having to resort to size. Die Hard 2 slipped into the "just make it bigger" trap, and was the comparative low point for the original trilogy. Die Hard With A Vengeance found the right mix of size and dramatic impact, which was why that original trilogy ended on a high.

The latter two sequels, I haven't been able to sit through one to completion, seem to be just after quantity and not quality. There's no tension, no dramatic impact, no reason to give a shit.

My suggestion to Fox is to look at what made the original so beloved. The mechanics of suspense, action, and story are all out there to be carefully studied, and use that as a template to develop new original action properties that could find an audience all their own.

Of course, that would take work, and I doubt they're interested in that when they can just throw money at the problem.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1253: Guys, Gals And Greenbacks! (UPDATED)

Gwyneth Paltrow is a victim of sexism.
The Oscar winning actress is telling the world that the gender pay gap is not only real it's ruining her life because she is paid way less than her Marvel co-star Robert Downey Jr. for what she considers the "same work."
Thanks to Downey's role as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the solo films and The Avengers he's raked in over $110 million. Gwyneth Paltrow meanwhile has earned a paltrow paltry $9 million in the same period, and the highest paid female star Jennifer Lawrence earned around $72 million. Both are making way less than what Downey Jr. made.
Is it sexism?
Short answer: In Gwyneth's case, no. The long answer is much more complicated than that, but complication requires explanation. It's much easier to just blame it on some unidentifiable villain or delusion and leave it at that.
However, I do explanations here, and explanations I will dispense.
First, let's look at Gwyneth Paltrow's case.
I find it ironic that she would use her co-star Downey as her example, since there was a very long time, called the 90s, where she was the reigning queen of young Hollywood and he figuratively couldn't get arrested in Hollywood, because he was almost constantly being literally arrested.
Take look at Gwyneth's box office record and you will start to wonder why she was considered so important, because it is shockingly lacklustre. She hasn't carried a film in well over a decade, and in most of the film's she does appear in the ones that do better feature the least Gwyneth they could get away with and still feature her in the credits. Her last starring role, opposite Johnny Depp in Mortdecai, was more than just a bomb, it set the standard for failure in every regard and category. In fact, without her role as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's love interest she'd be almost entirely off the radar as a major actress. In fact, she could be replaced as Potts, and it's unlikely the audience would notice or care.
Paltrow's many public pronouncements, often via her blog GOOP, haven't helped her appeal at the box office. They make her appear to be a woman who has spent their entire life in a bubble of elite privilege who cannot grasp basic mortal concepts like break-ups and household economics. Every time she opens her mouth, I can't help but feel embarrassed for her and her inability to feel embarrassed for herself.
Gwyneth's mindset might make her fit in real well within Hollywood, but it's not going to win over middle Americans who buy movie tickets. 
Robert Downey Jr. managed probably the biggest transformation in movie history, going from being literally unemployable to one of the biggest box office stars in Hollywood thanks mostly to his work as Tony Stark/Iron Man*. Now he hasn't done much between his big franchise roles of Stark and Sherlock Holmes, doing only a couple of starring roles, and some smaller guest appearances, which means he hasn't tainted his brand with too many turkeys.
He also has his face on a good chunk of the top selling Marvel merchandise which is pure gravy when it comes to the cash flow. When the Pepper Potts lunchbox outsells the Iron Man one, then Gwyneth might have a case for equal pay on that front.
Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence, who is the female equivalent of Robert Downey Jr., but without the multiple drug arrests and jail time. She has two popular franchises under her belt; as the central star of The Hunger Games, and as part of the X-Men ensemble, so why doesn't she make as much as RDJ?
The answer, lies in choices.
Downey chooses to not take the pay cuts necessary to get a starring role in an smaller budget or independent movie. He's not getting any younger, and it looks like he's trying to bank as much as he can so he doesn't have to face the near total financial collapse he endured in his youth. Downey's contract, according to legend, is structured so that if his Marvel movies hit certain box office targets, he gets fat bonuses, and they've always exceeded the targets which make his bonuses bigger.
J-Law and money is a very different story. She's young, her career is literally just starting, but starting like a rocket, going from zero to supersonic with astonishing rapidity. However, Lawrence is following a careful strategy that is designed to prevent her from being a flash in the pan who disappears as fast as she appears.
That strategy involves forging partnerships with filmmakers, specifically indie darling and the John Ford to her John Wayne: David O. Russell, to forge a career outside of the franchises that shows off her skill as an actress and her charisma as a star. 
It's a smart strategy, because The Hunger Games is coming to an end, and playing the shapeshifter and villainous second-banana Mystique under a coat of blue makeup and prosthetics keeps her from completely making the part hers and hers alone. She could leave that franchise and I doubt it would cause any more than a cluster of incoherence on Twitter.
Working with Russell and his ilk means she can shine on her own without special effects, and it's working. Lawrence can make an indie film commercially viable with domestic box office in the $130-150+ million range, and earn critical plaudits, Academy award nominations and at least one win so far. These films give her both respectability and a commercial track record outside of franchise pictures, which will open doors for her in the future.
Now if she was demanding the same salary as Downey Jr. gets for an Avengers or Iron Man movie, then a lot of them wouldn't be getting made. She's sacrificing some up-front money, and is literally investing what she's not being paid into her career's longevity.
However, that doesn't mean that J-Law has nothing to complain about.
She apparently has plenty to complain about. In fact, she wrote an essay about how she was paid less than her male co-stars for their roles in American Hustle. She blames her lower salary on her own unwillingness to fight for a more equitable piece of the action out of fear of being branded "difficult" or be labelled a "spoiled brat" as producer Scott Rudin did in an e-mail about salary negotiations with Angelina Jolie.
I don't want to disagree with J-Law, because I do have a bit of a crush on her, but I have to explain that Hollywood's sexism problem, especially when it comes to salaries is not so much a conspiracy of one gender against another, but individuals, creating an outcome that can be interpreted as sexist, by the choices they make and why they make them.
Salary negotiations are essentially a game of poker. Everyone is placing their bets, not knowing what the other players have, and hoping that they have the winning hand.  The cards in this game are box office record, past salaries, the film's budget, the film's expected box office, how much of that box-office can be attributed to the stars, and the amount of clout the players have within the Hollywood community. Actors and producers are competitors with each other at this stage. The stars want to get the most they can get when it comes to salaries and profit shares, and the producers want to pay out the least.
That means that when an opportunity comes to save a dime, the producers will take it. They're not thinking about the gender politics of it all, they're just seeing numbers and dollar signs going from one column to another.
Now an actor are not supposed to be alone in this fight. They're supposed to have representation; agents, managers, and lawyers. Their job is to basically act the bastard and fight for every penny they can get for their clients. They are supposed to have a good estimate of what cards the other players have, and strategize accordingly.
All of these factors go into who gets paid what, and can complicate things to where it might look like the dudes are getting a cash-for-genitalia-bonus, but it might really be that someone's reps are the one's lacking in testicular fortitude.
Jennifer Lawrence might kick herself for not fighting hard enough, when she should be asking why her "people" weren't picking up the fight for her. 
Does this mean that Hollywood isn't really sexist after all?
Oh hell no.
Hollywood does have a gender problem, but it's deeper and more complicated than anything that can be condensed into a little article like this one.
*In an odd side note when Iron Man first went into development I said on an online film forum that Downey Jr. was the only man who could play Stark, and was promptly corrected that it was an impossibility. Well, guess who turned out to right after all. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Book Report: When Is A Contest Not A Contest?

Mysterious Press is a long running publishing imprint which is part of the Grove Atlantic Group. It specializes, naturally, in mystery and crime fiction, and is very selective about who it even considers publishing. To be looked at your novel must be submitted by an accredited literary agent, and I'm pretty sure that agent being someone they know and do business with regularly, and author having a publishing track record, probably doesn't hurt either.

That's why it surprised me to see them announce that they were having a contest. Writers could submit their novels to them and the winner gets published and a cash prize of about $25,000.

Sounds like a great contest, doesn't it?

Maybe, but it doesn't look like much of a contest to me. I'll get to that in a second, but first I need to give a bit of an explanation:

You see, to get published a writer needs to win the lottery, multiple times.

First you have to get someone at an agency or a publisher to read your work and like it enough to pass it along up the industry's food chain.

Second, you have to have someone higher up the publishing food chain like it and give it the green-light to be published, and not get what happened to me.  One time a novel of mine went right up to the publisher's desk, but he died suddenly, the replacement management lost it for 2+ years. Then an assistant editor found it and asked me to give them a second chance, I agreed, and I didn't hear from them again until 6 years and 11 months after I had originally submitted my novel. Then a bottom rung volunteer slush pile reader sent me a terse rejection letter that pretty much said that all my previous dealings with the company meant nothing, and those that had been promised to look at it, had never looked at it during all those years. And this was by a company that bragged about how respectfully it treated writers in their allegedly open submission policy.

Then your book has to be deemed good enough for them to market aggressively in the hope that it will find an audience. And let's hope that management or ownership doesn't change during this period, because the new regime might just dump your book for reasons that have nothing to do with quality or sales potential.

Then the book has to find that audience and sell well enough to open the door wide enough for the author to get another book published.

At each step a writer is basically buying a lottery ticket with their blood, sweat, and tears, and each ticket has about 1,000,000 to 1 odds against it.

Which is why when a publisher announces a contest looking for new novels the hearts of writers who haven't won any of these lotteries brightens a little bit.

Then they looked at the rules and wondered why they were calling it a contest at all.

You see writers, both new or established, cannot enter their novels into Mysterious Press' contest. The novels must be entered, both electronically, and in print, by the writer's accredited literary agent.

Basically, the contest is them operating as usual, looking only at the people they would normally be looking at who already won at least one of publishing's lotteries, and would probably give more attention to someone who won two or more. And the prize, when you look at from that way, looks like a pretty standard publishing advance.

Why call it a contest if the company isn't changing any of its procedures and only pre-existing winners need apply?

Contests for writers are supposed to be about beating the odds, and selling the myth that quality is all a book needs to be discovered, not pre-existing connections to the publishing world. This "contest" totally flops in that respect.
It reminds me of an institution in Canada that was started in the late 1980s by some up and coming Canadian film and television companies. It's mission statement was to foster NEW Canadian writers to write NEW Canadian films.

I called them and asked them what it took to qualify for the programs. Their answer was that to qualify as a NEW Canadian writer you had to have had 2 feature films produced in Canada by a company they recognized, and at least on screenplay under option with a Canadian company they recognized.

At the time there were about 2 writers in Canada under forty who might have qualified as "NEW" but even that chance was slim.

I asked an employee what they expected to accomplish with these guidelines and they just shrugged and said they didn't know. It did make the companies sponsoring this foundation look like they were doing something about the image that Canada's film industry was a closed shop run by a bunch of middle aged bureaucrats and near-bureaucrats who didn't give a toss about new people or even audiences.

This looks like that mindset has spread to American publishing.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1252: An Open Letter To Quentin Tarantino

Dear Quentin Tarantino.

I respect, and even understand, your love of the look and feel of classic film stock. The hyper-vivid spectrum seen when watching early technicolor epics in high definition is a look and style I really love.

But I don't get this whole "I hate Netflix and still tape everything on VHS" thing you're going on about. VHS was a mixed bag with many pros and cons.

One big pro for VHS was that it made renting and owning a movie that a movie lover can watch whenever they want a possibility. I have a reminder of the golden age of VHS because right next to my desk is a set of shelves where I still keep my old VHS tapes. (Among them Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction)

However, there are many cons to VHS.

#1. The initial picture quality ain't that great. It's like watching a washed out print, and most movies released on VHS were "pan & scanned" and badly at that, damaging even further the viewing experience when compared to a theatre, or even a decent television broadcast.

#2. VHS tape decays over time. I'll bet a diddle-eyed-joe to a damned-if-I-know* that most of my old VHS collection, the youngest being 20 years old, are just plastic bricks with overwrought cover-art.

#3. Recording something onto VHS from a modern hi-def cable-box is just a real pain in the ass when most have the option of a DVR included.

I'm not saying that online streaming services are perfect. They have their pros and cons, and being someone who loves collecting movies, I like being able to physically own a copy that I can keep on a shelf to watch whenever I want and not be dependent on the whims and algorithms of a streaming service. That's why, when I can, I get the DVDs and Blu-Rays of the movies I really love.

Now most are writing this off as "Oh there goes eccentric Quentin again" but I'm not.

I suspect that this is not out of a deep seeded eccentricity, but a very shallow affectation.

Look deep and ask yourself: "Am I doing this because I really feel that I need to, or am I doing this because I think this is the sort of thing I'm expected to do?"

That is the difference between a real eccentricity, and an affectation.

If you're honest with yourself, you might be surprised by the answer.

-Furious D.

*Reservoir Dogs Reference Alert.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1251: The Stonewall Mystery

Director Roland Emmerich, best known for his tendencies to spend massive amounts of money to pretend blowing up landmarks on screen, and for a dubious taste in home decor has a new film out called Stonewall, about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and guess what: everybody hates it.

Critics are calling it a disaster, the gay community, whose story the film claims to tell, is calling it an abomination, and most likely audiences are going to call it a miss.

Now this presents a mystery that I would like to solve, but before I get to that, I think you might need a little background.

Our story begins in the late 1960s. At that time there was no gay rights movement. In fact, most of what is now called the LGBT community were more interested in not getting assaulted, locked up, either in prison or a mental hospital, or blackmailed. Places for them to socialize were rare, and the few that did exist were usually owned by gangsters, and regularly harassed by the police, either through constant raids or demands for payoffs.

One such place was The Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. It was often described as a dive. The place was ugly, seedy, usually crowded, with more than a few shady customers, the staff wasn't big on checking ID, or doing their jobs all that well, and the less said about the state of the bathrooms, the better.

But Stonewall was relatively large, it allowed the customers to dance, another rarity, and its mobbed up owners usually made sure the NYPD's Public Morals Squad were paid off, making it a bit safer than many of the other places in the city. One night in 1969 something went wrong. No one is sure if a payment was missed, or if the cops were just feeling ambitious, but the place got raided right at the peak time for trouble. The place was packed, the weather was hot, and the crowd's mood was fired up by a combo of intoxication and anger at years of regular harassment.

The raid didn't go to plan, the cops lost control of the situation quickly, and a full scale riot broke out.

That riot sparked what is now called the Gay Pride movement, and is seen as a pivotal moment in the history of America's gay community.

It's a story that's more dramatic and complex than my little summary could possibly tell, full of colourful characters, and is the sort of underdog story that might take it from beyond a niche audience to somewhat wider appeal.

Which brings me to the mystery of the Stonewall movie: Why did they give the green-light to Roland Emmerich?

The Stonewall story requires a filmmaker who can express and explain the complexities inherent in it. Someone who can bring the stories of the real people to life, and use it to possibly bridge the gaps between the LGBT community and the wider "straight community."

Emmerich is not that filmmaker, and in no possible way can he be mistaken for that kind of filmmaker.

Emmerich's the crass vulgarian spawn of blind commercialism and a particularly childish kind of post-modernism where as long as he looks down on what he's doing, he doesn't have to try to be good at it. His specialty is destroying famous landmarks with CGI while cardboard cut-out Hollywood-marketing-executive-friendly stereotypes recite hackneyed dialogue written with a shovel from a compost heap of cliches.

He's also known for tossing scientific and historical accuracy out the window. And not for taking liberties in the name of narrative cohesion, character development, or even to compress events for time. Emmerich does it for stuff he thinks looks good in the trailer.

The investors and producers who financed this film should have known that.

They also should have known that we live in the Golden Age of Offence. People get horribly outraged over little things, so the people behind the film should have known that something as inherently politicized as the story behind Stonewall would be nitpicked for so-called micro-aggressions and macro-douchebaggery.

Getting the film would require diplomacy, and class, two things Emmerich doesn't have.

When asked about why he downgraded all the real people, who were predominantly black and hispanic, to focus on a fictional caucasian lead/saviour, Emmerich replied by saying he knows what sells and they don't.

That's only going to make it worse, especially in this hypersensitive day and age. It only serves to alienate the core audience the film needs to take that step towards a more mainstream audience.

You see it is possible to take a story like the Stonewall Riot, and make a film that's both compelling and possibly successful. You just have to follow these simple steps:

1. Be as accurate as you can be. Everyone knows that liberties and changes have to be made when bringing a true story to the screen, but there's a limit to how far you can go. It may be necessary to create a fictional "gateway" character that would allow the audience to get the know the milieu they're being brought into, but that character should not overshadow, or outrightly replace the real people at the heart of the story. A good gateway character would be a tabloid journalist, assigned to write a lurid exposé about an underground subculture witnessing history and learning about the shared humanity I'll be getting to shortly. That way you have a someone who has an excuse to witness events without taking anything away from the actual participants.

2. Don't offend the core audience. If the front line of people most interested in the Stonewall story are going to feel short-changed or even insulted by your film, then your film will fail on every level. The only way you can defuse criticism is by embracing as much of the truth of the source material as you can. If they say "I don't like that part" the only viable defence is to say: "I'm sorry, but that's what actually happened, and I'm trying to tell the truth." If you're just making shit up, and that angers the core audience, you have no defence.

3. Emphasize what's shared. For any film about the Stonewall Riots to succeed it would need to cross over to at least part of the mainstream audience. Now Emmerich fails because he thinks along the lines of marketing, by casting someone who goes too far when it comes to identifying with the mainstream audience. According to some reports they just barely stop short of giving him a girlfriend, which sort of defeats the purpose.

You don't sell a film about a minority to the majority by trying to hide the differences. Instead you acknowledge those differences quite clearly, but emphasize what they share on a deeper human level.

Going just be surface appearances the average American doesn't look like they have much in common with the average citizen of India. So how did Gandhi become a success in an era less "diverse" and "politically correct" than today?

Because when they sold the film they emphasized that the characters, despite their ethnic/religious background, were human beings facing the all too human problems of being outcast and harried as the underdogs.

Emmerich doesn't seem remotely interested in shared humanity. He seems interested in padding his resume with what he thinks will be Oscar bait simply because of its subject matter without the work and sensitivity to make something that does justice to the subject matter and the audience.

Anyway, if the people who financed this picture still have some money lying around, and still want to make movies, call me. For a reasonable fee, I can do research about subjects and people to help save you the hassles you're facing now.