The Plight of Originality in Sequel-Ridden Hollywood

Twenty-seven. Yes, that is the age at which many musicians die, but that’s why it’s important. Twenty-seven is the number of movie sequels that are being released this year. An unprecedented and disappointing record, it marks the beginning of the end of original storytelling.

Sequels (which in this definition also include prequels and reboots) are getting undeniably worse. This is not to say that all sequels are bad. Many have expanded on their original source material and are considered good or even better. “The Godfather: Part II”, “The Dark Knight”, “The Empire Strikes Back”–all are considered classics. The trend of poor sequels, though, has been an unfortunate Hollywood plague of recent times.

The reason for this overflow of sequels is strictly economical. Around the 1980s, studios realized that they could cash in big on film franchises. Aided by the recent success of blockbusters, studios started producing films to pander to fanbases. This would ensure that a movie would still get an audience of devoted viewers. Odds are more people will see a movie with familiar characters and story arcs. Investing in new, original material is too risky.

However, in the pursuit of top-grossing flicks quality was lost. Sequels started losing the solid writing that held together the originals, and characters became stale. They were placed in slightly different situations to purvey the idea of being new. Special effects became the new movie star, and intellect was disregarded. Ideas were recycled, yet the cash came flowing in. The big studio heads could care less about what the critics think.

The economic climate of recent years hasn’t helped the situation, either. With people tightening their belts, they’ll be more wary to spend money on movies. When they do, they’d rather go see movies they know they’ll probably enjoy. Thus, studios started rehashing old classics as reboots and churning out sequels at astounding rates. They’ve also been turning to another cash cow: other various intellectual properties.

Today in Hollywoood, rarely any scripts aren’t simply adaptations or sequels of already-established properties. Rarely will you find a big studio backing an original story. Why? Because there’s no guaranteed money in it. Adapting a popular series of books or comics will attract the masses. An original crime drama will not. If you’re looking for money, which option would you choose? (Not all adaptations are bad–I’m just pointing out how there are few original scripts.)

Major studios need to market their films to as many viewers as possible. They invest a lot of money in their projects and distribute them across the country. They need to ensure that their films cater to as many people as possible. Singling out large groups of people is bad for business. However, in this studio-controlled bleakness, there is still some hope.

Independent films are finding outlets much better than in the past and locating interested audiences. Without studio heads breathing down their neck with expectations, the filmmakers have more creative control. They are able to experiment with original stories and non-traditional genres and storytelling tropes. And some of these films become quite successful (think “Juno”, “Once”, and “Little Miss Sunshine”). If interest in these types of films increases, originality could still thrive.

However, originality is sadly coming to an end in mainstream Hollywood. The audiences are eating up the sequels with an insatiable appetite. Property after property is being adapted. Original scripts either suffer through the cliches of genre or get tossed away. Film is just as much of an art medium as anything found in a museum. And no one wants to keep looking at the same paintings over and over.

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In Defense of the Archetype

In the last post I argued against archetypal stories and in support of “exciting” ones. I stated that a person who enjoys one of these stories that follows a conventional plot line and includes many common storytelling elements may easily enjoy another of similar construct based on familiarity, and because of this they may be timid to investigate stories that go beyond these boundaries. However, this is not always the case.

For example, some stories that could be classified under our established meaning of “exciting” focus on the plot more than archetypal stories and try to change things up–sometimes quite drastically. The example that I immediately think of is Christopher Nolan’s Memento. The film is about a man with short-term memory loss who doesn’t remember anything after his wife was murdered, and he embarks on a revenge-fueled quest to find her killer and pay him some retribution. Known for its elaborate storytelling, the plot of the film is actually displayed in reverse, as if we are going in reverse through the protagonist’s short little clips of memory. To add to that, the exposition of the film is also shown through short clips that act as flashbacks throughout the entire film. While this film is an incredible feat of storytelling with a gritty noir-like style, it lacks where most stories of the same ilk do in character development. The main character doesn’t go through that much change (or he does, but he then forgets about it), as do the supporting characters who keep reappearing throughout. In stories like these, the plot is the main character and everyone else is just a device used to help keep it in motion. Stories of any kind provide a form of escapism to the reader/viewer, a chance to experience the life of somebody unique yet relatable (chances are a person has experienced a basic plot structure sometime in their life where they face a major problem and change afterwards–for better or worse). And if the characters in the story aren’t well-developed or fail to go through any sort of change one fails to connect with them.

Other pros of the archetypal story structure is the ability to allow more focus on the style of the piece. The “exciting” stories tend to be plot-driven, resulting in the necessity of many (if not all) things brought up or even vaguely referenced in the story to have some sort of subtle meaning or importance to the plot. Other stories that stick to the basic format can deviate from this necessary importance and add elements that help better support the setting of the piece or add to the genre, allowing one to produce a strong mental image while reading or view a vibrant and rich set of a movie. When focusing on the plot, these can’t be so much enjoyed as they must more or less be scrutinized or tossed to the side. An example I can think of is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Besides the many details she throws in there that are important for the understanding of the plot as the series develops, Rowling is able to eloquently elaborate on the magical world that she created by sticking to a conventional story structure. She describes the characters and the setting in so much detail that one almost feels immersed into her wizarding world.

Finally, the archetypal stories tend to have messages and morals that are more straightforward compared to the “exciting” stories. Usually, one need not dig as deep into standard fare as one would into unconventional fare to understand what the author is trying to convey. A person may enjoy this, as they can clearly understand the author’s moral lessons and don’t have to sift through piles of analysis just to understand a specific action of a character. These stories are effective in leaving the reader/viewer with a strong understanding rather than a confused assumption.

The archetypal story structure isn’t a bad thing at all. It allows aspects that can’t be easily attended to in the “exciting” stories to rise to prominence, while allowing creativity to flourish. And if one wants to read or view a story like this, then who am I to criticize?


Sir, You Forgot Your Side of Familiarity!

In the last post I covered why many people say they enjoy “exciting” stories when in reality they just divulge themselves in rather trite, stockish fare. However, I forgot to touch on why these people like the archetypal stories in the first place.

It’s simple, really: because they’re simple. That may sound a bit weird, so allow me to elaborate. Simple stories with basic plot lines and common literary elements are easily recognizable by the public, and thus more readily embraced. Familiarity is preferred over the unexplored vastness, especially when it comes to something that demands a considerable amount of one’s time and attention. People would rather sit through a movie or read an entire book if they had a pretty good feeling that the protagonist would triumph, and that the sequence of events occurred in a timely manner and remained unchanged (Exposition, lots of rising action, climax, a bit of falling action, and a denouement to top it all off–ooh, and throw in a romance! Everybody loves a romance.). And if they like one story that follows these standard guidelines, odds are they’ll like others that are similar. These people will have a more difficult time enjoying stories that are unconventional and break the rules because they’re afraid to journey into the unknown and try something new, to risk a bit of effort to discover what breaks the standards.

Please don’t misinterpret me–I am not saying this archetypal story structure is the Great Plague of Literature or anything like that. In fact, I enjoy this structure in both book and film form from time to time as a bit of relaxation from the heavier pieces. However those heavier pieces allow me to be more intellectually involved, to dig deeper into them and analyze their messages more thoroughly, and to experience tales that don’t fit into the standard mold. But, sadly, relaxation turns into escapism for most and once getting lost in that they rarely ever venture back out. I guess they could use a better map.


Would You Like Your Story Exciting or Clichéd?

I was posed with a question the other day: a friend of mine asked why people love “exciting” stories, yet the most popular ones are what he called “archetypal”–stories that follow a basic structure in terms of plot, character development, and so on. We’ll assume that in this situation “exciting” means to differentiate from this storytelling norm.

The reason people may say they enjoy these exciting stories when they’d rather indulge in simpler fare can be related back to what Robert Hanson was saying: many people are more boring than they actually think. People may say that they enjoy books or films with unconventional plot devices and non-traditional storylines so that they may appear to others as being unique and different. Perhaps they perceive that this individuality indicates being finely cultured (a.k.a. a way of promoting one’s own ego), and that they won’t look like some uncultured hermit that’s been living under a rock for the past few years.

It’s all about making others believe you know what you’re talking about and making yourself appear more interesting than others. Seriously, if the public was more enthralled by stories that broke away from conventional story blueprints and overused literary devices we wouldn’t see teen (paranormal) love stories dominating the New York Times Bestsellers List or action-thriller movies topping the box office.


Why I Chose Film School

I chose to go to film school because it provides so many more opportunities to aspiring filmmakers than does jumping directly into the industry.

First of all, it allows you to learn the history, technique, and theory in a more organized manner. Sure, anyone can pick up a book about how to portray emotion through symbolism on-screen or learn how Hollywood’s studio structure has changed over the years, but self-taught learning will be periodic and will have to fit within the confines of your weekly schedule. If you take the time to study how to portray a story on the screen in a captivating and effective way and learn why certain techniques must be carried out, the films that you make will resonate with knowledge of what you are doing and won’t simply be moving pictures with audio.

Second, with all of this time put aside to learn and be taught the ways of filmmaking, you will also have time to get some hands-on experience. Like teaching yourself, making movies on your own requires time out of your weekly schedule: you’ll have to schedule around work and other obligatory commitments, where as in school you’ll get class time to work on your projects and complete them in a more timely manner. Along with this hands-one experience, you will be able to dabble with professional equipment that you would otherwise only experience on a professional movie set. Unless you have a job on a movie set that requires no college education, you won’t be able to use professional equipment unless you shell out a sizable chunk of change and you’ll have no experience operating it. Some argue that with the increased use of digital video and availability of editing software on your personal computer that experience with actual film isn’t necessary, but most major Hollywood films are still being shot with film as it is part of the history and tradition of film production, so it will not die out that quickly. It’s good to get familiar with the equipment while you can.

Third, film school allows you to receive one-on-one advice and help by like-minded individuals. You’ll have mentors who are professionals in the field who can give you tips on how to better your projects and offer you inciteful and helpful critique. The same goes for your fellow students: seeing as they’re studying the same thing as you are, their critique and input may be more useful than that of your close friends and family or a random YouTuber who’s simply trolling the comments section of your video.

The fourth, final, and most important reason as to why one should attend film school is the connections. As previously stated, your teachers and mentors are quite experienced and no doubt have had some involvement with the film industry at one point or another. Establishing good relationships with them while in school can be beneficial down the road, as they can put you in contact with other influential (and affluent) filmmakers active in the business. Even the connections you make with your fellow film students are important; maintain good relationships with them and you’ll see how much easier it will be to find a crew and/or cast to help you out with your future endeavors (or for you to find future work on a crew yourself).

If you are interested in making movies, film school is most definitely beneficial and should not be passed up.


Spielberg’s and Jackson’s Take on Tintin

Tintin is a world-famous series of comics developed by the Belgian artist known as Hergé that follows a young reporter and his little white terrier around the globe as he investigates a slew of mysteries. Though previous cinematic adaptations of the comic have been produced through European studios as well as two different animated television shows, it has finally been picked up by Hollywood to be turned into an animated, adventure-packed blockbuster by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.  Spielberg has been in pursuit of making a Tintin movie for close to three decades now, and when he finally regained the rights to it back in 2002 (he first had them in 1983 but they returned to the Hergé Foundation after much inaction on the project) he started developing the project with CGI animation.  Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital was brought on board, and they decided to use motion-capture technology to film instead of traditional computer animation.  (If all goes well with the first film, Jackson plans to direct a second installment and both he and Spielberg plan to co-direct a third.)

I myself have never read the source material, but after seeing this trailer I am very tempted to.  I have, though, seen excerpts from the series before, and I think this style of animation suits it very well.  Some may complain that the mo-cap used here treks across the uncanny valley,  but I think that in this case it is a perfect fit.  The film seems to retain its sense of seriousness and realism of  its source material while at the same time keeping in touch with the more cartoonish aspects of the comic while becoming over-animated and zany like most animated films do.  With this, Spielberg seems to recapture the mystery and adventure that audiences enjoyed with the original Indiana Jones trilogy, which would make for a great and memorable movie-going experience.

Here’s the full-length international trailer that was released a couple weeks back:


Attitude

If I may be frank, I’ll say what most of you are thinking: my blogging skills leave something to be desired.  Not only are my updates very sporadic–both in posting dates and content–and rather dull.  I have written proof of this, in the form of a sincere message from a good friend.  He recently took a glance at my blog, and noted that while it is interesting that I have started writing a blog he is bored by my writing.  Though there are many tips that he offered me in order to perfect my skills within the blogosphere, the main one that he stressed was that I develop an attitude.  “Blogs are better oriented around the personality of the blogger than anything else,” he tells me.

He linked me this brief article by economist Robin Hanson, in which he observes the results of a survey question among a pool of people.  Over half of the correspondents had changed their answers over the time period between two surveys of the same question, leading him to believe that attitudes “may not ‘exist’ in a coherent form” and “you have fewer real opinions than you think”.

At first I was rather baffled by this article, especially in the context of which it was sent: Why should I read an article and then respond to it–with an attitude–if this article says that we as opinionated humans have less attitude than we like to believe?  I got to thinking that perhaps humans feel that it is a necessity to be opinionated because we need to feel like we are making a difference with our speech.  Whether it’s on a blog, on a soapbox, or in response to a survey, we like to feel as if we stand somewhere on some issue–it gives us the feeling that we are knowledgeable about our world and not stuck in the unknown (this lack of knowledge we undoubtedly equate with low intelligence).  So I guess attitudes and opinions make us interesting and keep us from being ignored–even if we have none.

I will try my best to develop an intriguing attitude.  Don’t like it?  Read something else.