Thursday, 25 July 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #1049: Two Television Tidbits

Today we've got two stories about television....


Paramount is getting serious about getting back into the TV production business. They've hired a new boss to run the thing, and are saying that they will make TV for any channel, platform, or site, if it can get to an audience.

That's all well and good, in fact, you should start pitching to Netflix... but that's another story...

Let's take a moment and put on our smug know-it-all hats and offer Paramount some advice on how to not screw things up.

Here are some of my suggestions...

1. TREAT CREATORS RIGHT: The main business of television is the selling of stories. Good stories that are well told can not only sell in the present, they can sell well into the foreseeable future. To get those stories you need to attract the best and brightest writers, and figure out a way to keep them working for you.

To do that you can't just treat them as disposable assets. The audience is starting to pay attention to who is making the shows the like, and will pay attention to shows from those creators. So it's good business to foster positive relationships with writers, and that means making sure they get paid what they're owed, and aren't jerked around, or fired for arbitrary, if not whimsical, and petty reasons.

2. DON'T BE AFRAID OF NICHES & RISKS: The audience is factionalized in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. The days of getting the big ratings by playing it safe with what the marketing department thinks is the widest appeal are over. 

Take for example The Walking Dead. When it was first bought by AMC everyone outside the comic's fans thought they went off their nut. A grim show, about people surviving a zombie plague and the end of civilization, that's loaded with gore, and a constant air of downbeat desperation doesn't sound like the recipe for a hit. In fact, the focus group gurus would piss themselves in terror at the prospect.

But look at its ratings. It's getting more viewers than most mainstream network shows. 

Yes, it's going to be a gamble, but playing it safe is basically playing dead. The good way to hedge your bet is to...

3. PRACTISE FISCAL SANITY: It's a common practice in Hollywood these days, when faced with a problem, to just throw money at it, then complain when something goes over budget. Some common sense, tied with a little diplomacy, and imagination, can solve a lot of problems, without costing any extra.

4. DON'T JUST REHASH OLD TITLES: The urge is to take old movie titles and try to revive them as TV shows. If you're going to do that, you have to do some radical re-imagining to the point that what comes out is completely new. Audiences want novelty, not reruns.


If you spent the 1990s in a cave I'll do a little explaining. 12 Monkeys is a remake/expansion of a short film from France called Le Jettee.

In it Bruce Willis plays a convict from the future who is given a chance at parole if he participates in a high risk time travel experiment aimed to discover information on the plague that wiped out most of humanity & rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. The only clue is a reference in the records to a group called the "Army of the 12 Monkeys."

There are twists, turns, and everything wraps up into itself the way a good time travel movie should.

Now I'm not going to go on about the injustices of remakes, and how hard it will be to transfer something that is a perfectly encapsulated story, that literally goes full circle, into an open ended TV series.

Instead, I will use this story to explain what is a fundamental flaw in Hollywood.

The original 12 Monkeys was considered so original, so "out there" that everyone involved had to take a cut in their up front pay to make the $29.5 million budget, which was about half what a studio was normally paying for a science fiction movie at that time. The tight budget was a necessary condition by Universal, because they considered the project as nothing more than "filler" and were literally betting all their money on what they thought was a sure-fire hit called Waterworld.

Soon 12 Monkeys became not only a hit movie, but a certified genre classic that can be enjoyed in repeat viewings, and while Waterworld had a bigger global box office, mostly out of curiosity, it lost a ton of money, and basically became a punchline for jokes about Hollywood bloat and ham-handed "statement" movies.

Now Universal, because of its terror of doing anything original, is picking at the carcass of something they originally didn't want to do at the time, because it was too original for them.

I don't know if that's ironic, or just sad.

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