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.