#ThinkpieceThursday – The Hunger Games & Twilight

Young Adult fiction and the subsequent movie adaptations have been a saving grace for Hollywood over the last few years.  Box office blockbusters based on the Twilight series and The Hunger Games series have smashed opening weekend records.
I thought it would be interesting to compare the characters in the two books and analyze how each story works. The material on The Hunger Games is excerpted from my upcoming book on thrillers, mysteries and suspense story. These are all Power of Truth stories
The Hunger Games is a classic Power of Truth Story Type and protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a picture perfect Power of Truth Character Type.
Power of Truth stories deal with secrets, lie or conspiracies, what is hidden or concealed, and the larger issues or covert agendas that are secretly manipulating the story world and the characters in it.
In the Hunger Games the Capitol government runs a huge annual televised reality show featuring young contestants who fight to the death.  The fighters are recruited in an involuntary “reaping” from each district. The games are a way to keep the districts separate and in adversarial competition with each other.
The set of the Hunger Games reality show is electronically generated– it is a manufactured 3-D world that doesn’t really exist. The conditions, terrain, rules, and contestants are secretly manipulated to generate the most interesting show and to covertly target contestants the Capitol favors or dislikes.
The games are a metaphor for how the Capitol manipulates and punishes or rewards the various districts as a whole. Nothing is quite real. Nothing is what it seems. Boundaries are artificial and arbitrary. There are hidden traps and pitfalls everywhere. The Capitol sees everything but reveals only what is useful to control the population.
Power of Truth stories also chronicle the most profound and personal betrayals. The story twists and reversals eventually change everything the character believes is true.
Hunger Games contestants form temporary alliances, knowing there can only be one victor. Every one is suspect.  No one can be trusted. Each contestant tries to use others to their own advantage. It is a cut-throat world where loyal is a ploy and betrayal is the norm.
These kind of stories explore the very nature of truth and whether it is ever possible to know or understand the complex mysteries of the human heart.
Katniss Everdeen volunteers in her much younger sister’s place at the annual reaping. Like most Power of Truth Protagonists, Katniss is cautious, wary, and deeply suspicious of everyone and everything. She can be combative and impulsive, shooting an arrow through an apple at the skills demonstration. The apple is in a roasted pig’s mouth in the middle of a feast for the sponsors. Katniss is impatient with the group’s lack of attention.  She can also be silent and withdrawn, keeping her own counsel and playing her cards close to the vest.
Peeta Mellark, the other contestant from her district, is chosen involuntarily. He is scared but seemingly unnaturally happy to be accompanying her. Early on he declares he has been in love with her from afar since they were children.
Katniss can’t be sure Peeta’s declaration isn’t some kind of ploy to gain an advantage or trick her.  Early on in the games he seems to be working against her. Then he saves her and later is willing to die with her and for her. Still she isn’t clear about her feelings for Peeta.  Chronic self-doubting and second guessing are trouble traits for a Power of Truth character. These character don’t trust anyone and don’t even trust themselves.
Complicating matters is Gale Hawthorne, the hunting partner who has helped Katniss prevent her family from dying of starvation in the district.  Katniss has strong feelings for Gale and feels a profound loyalty to him. This makes her doubt her feelings for Peeta.
Gale is a Power of Conscience character and becomes key in the revolution against the Capitol in later books.  Power of Conscience characters are moral crusaders.  They fall to the Dark Side when they became willing to use any means necessary to promote their cause.  Gale does this when he plans an attack on innocents to spread the revolution. He is willing to betray anything and anyone for the good of the cause.
The Hunger Games are a rich, complex Power of Truth world.  The characters have amazing external conflicts and obstacles (in the world of the games), they have intense relationship conflicts (filled with powerful issues of  when loyalty looks like betrayal and betrayal looks like loyalty) and they have deep internal conflict as they struggle between what they want and what they need (and the complex mysteries of the human heart.)
Twilight is a much simpler Power of Love story and less complex characters

katniss-cpYoung Adult fiction and subsequent movie adaptations have been a saving grace for Hollywood over the last few years.  Box office blockbusters based on the Twilight series and The Hunger Games series have smashed opening weekend records as the books topped the best seller charts.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the characters in the two series and analyze how each story works. The material on The Hunger Games is excerpted from my upcoming book on thrillers, mysteries and suspense stories. These are all Power of Truth stories.

The Hunger Games is a classic Power of Truth Story and protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), is a picture perfect Power of Truth Character Type.

Power of Truth stories deal with secrets, lies, conspiracies, what is hidden or concealed, and the larger issues or covert agendas that are secretly manipulating the story world and the characters in it.

In The Hunger Games, the Capitol government runs an annual televised reality show featuring young contestants who fight to the death.  The fighters are recruited in an involuntary “reaping” from each district. The games are a way to keep the districts separate and in adversarial competition with each other.

The reality show set is electronically generated– it is a manufactured 3-D world that doesn’t really exist. The conditions, terrain, rules, and contestants are secretly manipulated to generate the most interesting show and to covertly target contestants the Capitol favors or dislikes.

The games are a living metaphor for how the Capitol manipulates and punishes or rewards the various districts on a larger scale. Nothing is what it seems. Boundaries in the Panem district states are artificial and arbitrary. There are hidden traps and pitfalls everywhere. The Capitol sees everything but reveals only what is useful to control the population.

Power of Truth stories also chronicle the most profound and personal betrayals. The story twists and reversals eventually change everything the character believes is true.

During the reality show, contestants in The Hunger Games form temporary alliances, knowing there can only be one victor. Every one is suspect.  No one can be trusted. Each contestant tries to use others to his or her own advantage. It is a cut-throat world where loyalty is a ploy and betrayal is the norm.

josh-hutcherson-peeta-mellarkThese kinds of stories explore the very nature of loyalty and betrayal and whether it is ever possible to know or understand the complex mysteries of the human heart. Sometimes loyalty looks like betrayal in the series.  And sometimes betrayal looks like loyalty.

Katniss Everdeen volunteers in her much younger sister’s place at the annual reaping. Like most Power of Truth Protagonists, Katniss is cautious, wary, and deeply suspicious of everyone and everything. She can be combative and impulsive, shooting an arrow through an apple at the skills demonstration. The apple is in a roasted pig’s mouth in the middle of a feast for the sponsors. Katniss is impatient with the group’s lack of attention.  She can also be silent and withdrawn, keeping her own counsel, watching and waiting, and playing her cards close to the vest.

Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the other contestant from her district, is chosen involuntarily at the reaping. He is scared but seemingly unnaturally happy to be accompanying Katniss. Early on he declares he has been in love with her from afar since they were very young children.

Katniss can’t be sure Peeta’s declaration of love isn’t some kind of ploy to gain advantage or trick her.  Early on in the games he seems to be working against her. Then he saves her and later is willing to die with her and for her. Still, she isn’t clear about her feelings for Peeta.  Chronic self-doubting and second guessing are trouble traits for a Power of Truth character. These characters don’t fully trust anyone and don’t even trust themselves.

movies_the_hunger_games_gale_hawthorneComplicating matters is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), the hunting partner who has helped Katniss save her family from starvation in the district.  Katniss has strong feelings for Gale and feels a profound loyalty to him. This makes her doubly question her feelings for Peeta.

Gale is a Power of Conscience character and becomes key in the revolution against the Capitol in later books.  Power of Conscience characters are often moral crusaders.  They fall to the Dark Side when they become willing to use any means necessary to promote their cause.  Gale does this when he plans an attack on innocents to help publicize and spread the revolution. He is willing to betray anything and anyone for the greater good of the cause.

The Hunger Games creates a rich, complex Power of Truth world.  The characters have amazing external conflicts and obstacles (in the treacherous and shifting world of the games), they have intense relationship conflicts (filled with powerful issues of  loyalty and betrayal) and they have deep internal conflict struggling between what they want and what they need (and the complex mysteries of love, loss, and hope). For more on Power of Truth stories and characters CLICK HERE

bella-swan-twilightTwilight is a much simpler Power of Love story featuring far less complex characters.  Power of Love stories are about lovers or partners who appear to be antagonistic, opposites, or entirely inappropriate for each other. The adversarial partners not only manage to bring out the worst in each other but also the best. The lovers grow and change through the conflict and questions in their relationship. How much must I change to accommodate you? How far can I compromise before I lose myself?

In Twilight, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is a high-school girl who falls in love with a 104 year old vampire, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).  He is powerfully attracted to her but fears he or his family will harm her. Bella’s blood is sweetly irresistible.

Bella’s love and her confidence in Edward’s restraint is unshakable.  She  refuses to heed his repeated warnings to stay away from him. She stumbles into harms way several times but Edward always swoops in to save her. As a result, when Edward leaves her, Bella seeks out danger to attract his attention.

Bella is a Power of Love character. Throughout the series she is willing to risk injury, death, and the loss of her immortal soul to be with Edward.  When he hurts her while making love to her as a human, Bella refuses to be deterred and wants him to make love to her again.  When she almost dies carrying his child she refuses to save herself and get an abortion. She is so damaged by the birth that finally there is no choice but to turn her into a vampire or surrender her to death. Bella does almost all of the changing and accommodating.

Power of Love characters see their own value reflected in the eyes of their love object. Their philosophy might be stated: “I am nothing without you.” (“And you are nothing without me.”)

20100730010244!Edward_CullenPower of Love characters believe the way to get love and keep love is to be helpful, useful, loving, kind and, above all, necessary to the other person. They fear that if you don’t put others first you won’t have good relationships. If you don’t have close personal relationships, then life isn’t worth living. Bella always puts Edward first, over her safety and over her life itself. For more on Power of Love characters CLICK HERE

Edward Cullen is a Power of Idealism character. He is a poetic, musical, and sensitive young man who is in love with someone forbidden to him.  This longing for what one cannot have is a hallmark of a Power of Idealism character. In contrast, Bella always believes they will eventually be together.  Edward’s appearance, scent, and voice are enormously seductive to Bella, so much so that he occasionally mesmerizes her by accident. She becomes even more compliant and swooning.  Edward’s intensity and his rebellious, slightly dangerous, nature is also typical of Power of Idealism characters. For more on Power of Idealism characters CLICK HERE

jacob-black-stillJacob Black (Taylor Lautner), a shape-shifting member of a local Indian tribe, also competes for Bella’s love.  He is a Power of Conscience character.  He is a fierce defender of what is right and what is traditional. Yet he overcomes his tribe’s hostility to vampires to come to Bella’s aid even after he is rejected by her.  Power of Conscience characters feel a profound sense of responsibility and duty toward others. They value what is the fair, honest, and decent thing to do. For more on Power of Conscience character CLICK HERE

Unlike The Hunger Game, which fully explores Power of Truth territory and deals with many complex levels of conflict, Twilight falls short in creating a well articulated conflict-driven Power of Love story.  Here are the Twilight series shortcoming as I see them:

1. Love interests in a romance should take an instant dislike, have a deep distrust, or be separated by major philosophical, or personal differences. Love interests should have opposite world views and views on what life and love is or should be. They should not agree on anything. Their values should be diametrically opposed. Bella is immediately attracted to Edward and he to her. The forbidden nature of their love story in Twilight has to do only with physical or external differences rather than deep  differences in values, philosophy, or world view.

2. Both love interests must grow or change through their relationship with one another. Something profound should be missing in each love interest’s life, character, and/or personality. This missing piece is an important personal deficiency leading to overall unhappiness. The problem isn’t just that the character is missing someone to love. It should be key to his or her genuine difficulties in life. Nothing, other than love, is missing in either Bella’s or Edward’s personality or character. Neither character needs the other to grow or change.  Bella simply wears Edward down in her insistence to become a vampire. Her transformation is almost entirely physical.  Edward has little real transformation at all.

Bella & Edward3.  In order for a love story to work well the lovers have to overcome obstacles on three levels.

a) The external forces, that keep the lovers apart (i.e. differences in culture, class, status, ethnicity, race, gender, age, religion, or social convention). Twilight gets this right and a human and vampire union is strictly forbidden. It is punishable by death.

b) The conflict with others, that keeps the lovers apart. There is some resistance from Edward’s family but it is fairly easily overcome. There is no real resistance from her own family, because her father is generally unaware of the Cullen family’s heritage.

c) The internal forces, that prevent the lovers from getting together (internal values that make each lover question and reject the initial advances that each receives from the other). This most important obstacle is entirely missing in Twilight. The focus is almost entirely on the physical external difficulties. There is nothing within Bella that makes her struggle with her choice.  Edward struggles more internally but again his dilemma mostly revolves around the vampire-human conundrum.

Romances work best when there is a strong personal impediment posed by a relationship with an appropriate mate. An appropriate mate is a person who, for a variety of external reasons, SHOULD be a perfect match but isn’t.  Jacob also vies for Bella’s love but he’s not a perfect external match (being a shape-shifter) and he is a much weaker contender than Edward. Early on in the first book Jacob is not fully realized as a character. He becomes more important in later books but never stands a credible chance of winning Bella.

In Moonstruck, a near perfect romance, the above three elements work wonderfully. Cher (Power of Love) is no-nonsense, practical, caring, and responsible about all her obligations. This is demonstrated in the opening scenes where she visits her bookkeeping clients. She is so practical she is about to settle for a man she doesn’t love but who is a solid member of the community. During a very unromantic proposal he tells her: “You take care of me.” What she needs is passion, inspiration, and the fiery spark of life.

Nickolas Cage (Power of Idealism) has passion and fire to the extreme. He needs someone to provide more of a stable base and an even keel. He needs to let go of his nearly operatic anger and bitterness and move on in his life. The two lovers challenge and learn from each other. Their exchange of gifts makes each a better, more well-rounded, and complete person.

In a classic love story two imperfect halves come together to form a more perfect whole. Each character brings something that is vitally necessary to the other’s overall well-being and completeness. That critical exchange of gifts is obtained through clash and conflict with the love interest.

Nevertheless the Twilight characters are well enough drawn to compel readers.  Emotion and character development pretty much always trumps plot and story structure, in my view.  That said– The Hunger Games has completely eclipsed Twilight at the box office and on the best seller list. The Hunger Games series has great characters and a rich, complex, well realized Power of Truth story structure—that is an unbeatable combination.

Having problems with your story? Read How to Evaluate Stories and find your story problems and fix them fast. CLICK HERE

#ThinkpieceThursday – The Role of Impulse in Creating Three Dimensional Characters

41i3GmuVS1L._SL500_AA300_Here is an interesting study from Chris Mooney, Author of The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain.  The quote doesn’t just speak to politics but how three dimensional characters are created.

Here’s the bottom line: An increasing body of science suggests that we disagree about politics not for intellectual or philosophical reasons, but because we have fundamentally different ways of responding to the basic information presented to us by the world. These are often ways of which we are not even aware–automatic, subconscious–but that color all of our perceptions, and that effectively drive us apart politically.
What’s more, what is true for how we come to our opinions about politics is also, assuredly, true for how we approach “facts” that are perceived to have some bearing on the validity of our political opinions–whether those fac

Here’s the bottom line: An increasing body of science suggests that we disagree about politics not for intellectual or philosophical reasons, but because we have fundamentally different ways of responding to the basic information presented to us by the world. These are often ways of which we are not even aware– automatic, subconscious– but that color all of our perceptions, and that effectively drive us apart politically.

What’s more, what is true for how we come to our opinions about politics is also, assuredly, true for how we approach “facts” that are perceived to have some bearing on (or threaten) the validity of our political opinions–whether those facts are scientific, economic, historical, or even theological in nature.

In the Emotional Toolbox approach to character, a three-dimensional character actually has three dimensions

1) Immediate Response- where the character goes first emotionally

2) Long-Term Orientation- the character’s general philosophy on life and love

3) Strategic Approach- how the character plans and works to achieve a goal

In this post I will consider a character’s Immediate Response.  This is how a character viscerally reacts to an unexpected challenge, opportunity, or threat. (For example aggressive questions at a Press Conference.)

A character’s Immediate Response is where the character goes first emotionally. This response is a character’s automatic reaction when caught off-guard, questioned, or challenged unexpectedly.

110223_rick_santorum_ap_328For example, Power of Conscience characters instantly decide if someone or something is good and true— or bad, unjust, unfair or inhumane. Their first response is to attack any challenge, opportunity, or threat which they believe involves impropriety, immorality or wrong-doing.

These characters are instinctively propelled forward by outrage and moral indignation. Their judgment and action is swift and immutable. They refuse to compromise or back down. They are relentless in confronting what they perceive as evil, corrupt, bad, or ethically unacceptable.

Rick Santorum, a Power of Conscience character, is known for his impulsive comments and passing swift judgement when presented with anything that might violate his standards of decency, ethics, or principles.

mitt_romney_ap110211128027_244x183Alternatively, Power of Truth characters instinctively step back or withdraw to observe, consider, or analyze an unexpected challenge, opportunity, or threat.  When presented with a situation, good or bad, their first response is to step back and consider what the situation really means.

These characters want to be certain that they know what is actually going on as opposed to what appears to be happening. They suspect and try to detect what the real motives are or what is hidden from the superficial assessment. It’s the measured MBA mindset as an Initial Response.

Mitt Romney, a Power of Truth character, is measured, cool, and distant in his response to anything.  He has been roundly criticized for his stiff off-the-cuff remarks and lack of passion when responding to challenges, questions, or difficulty. He is a cautious man who constantly hedges his bets, backtracks, and equivocates.

barack-obama-picture-2On the other hand, Power of Imagination characters instinctively lead from their heart in any unexpected situation. These character feel they can and will connect with something bigger or more extraordinary than themselves. They don’t have to ponder, think or decide. They are compelled to embrace others, bring them along to share their vision, and join their quest.

Barack Obama, a Power of Imagination character, has been criticized for instinctively seeking compromise and collaboration with even those unalterably opposed to him personally, all his policies, and everything he believes in.  Obama, in a crisis, believes in creating “teaching moments” in an attempt to establish common ground and bring people together. His first instinct is to promote a larger vision and inspire others to follow him as a unified whole out any emergency.

These Immediate Reactions are powerful automatic responses to any situation. These responses clearly distinguish characters in the political area and in every other aspects of their lives.

#ThinkpieceThursday – The Adventures of Tintin: Another Spielberg Misstep

tintin-movieIt’s hard to understand how a seasoned storyteller like Steven Spielberg can make such basic mistakes in both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

One of the most common problems with scripts that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.
The want pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the script won’t add up to very much.

Let’s look at the simple issue of who is the protagonist in Tintin. The protagonist in a story is the central character whose actions set off the chain of events that pushes the story forward. So far so good.  Tintin buys a model ship that holds a long-hidden clue and sets off a chase for treasure. The protagonist must have a physical goal in the story that he or she actively pursues.  The goal for young Tintin is clear enough, solve the mystery and find the treasure. This is what TinTin wants.

What the character needs is an inner ache or yearning that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses or ignores. It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible human longing. It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional or spiritual urge or inner call to live up to one’s higher nature. For example: to stand up for one’s beliefs, to become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a better friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.

To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concern. One of the most common problems with scripts that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

This is the case in Tintin.  There is plenty of external conflict in the chase. There is a good amount of relationship conflict in the centuries old feud between the Haddocks and Rackhams.  But there is no inner conflict for Tintin. There is nothing the boy needs to over come in himself in order to succeed.  He falters for a very brief moment late in the film but is immediately cheered up and on his way without missing a beat.

Captain Haddock goes from being an irresponsible drunk with low self esteem to someone who sobers up and rediscovers his own self-worth.  He is no longer intimidated by his illustrious ancestor and realizes he has courage too.  Tintin, like the young  protagonist in War Horse, is as plucky, courageous, determined and resourceful in the beginning of the film as he is at the end of the film.

At the climax of a film the question is, who makes the biggest sacrifice? Who pays the biggest price? Who undergoes the most powerful personal transformation. That person is the protagonist. It doesn’t matter how big a star or how well known a figure is “supposed” to be the protagonist.  It doesn’t matter how much screen time the “supposed” protagonist has.  If some other character makes a bigger personal sacrifice, is more powerfully transformed or pays a bigger emotional price, he or she is the protagonist.  If a secondary character plays this role the film will disconnect emotionally. That is the case with Tintin.

Perhaps the character worked better in a comic strip where Tintin acts more as a narrator/journalist telling someone else’s story.  But this is a movie and the requirements are different.  Mistaking which character is the protagonist is one of the most common reasons why a film doesn’t work emotionally for the audience. Spielberg should know better.

#ThinkpieceThursday – THE OTHER WOMAN and Video on Demand

otherwoman_MAINThe means of distribution are changing and will continue to change.  I believe we will soon see the rise of films made for “straight to streaming.”  Straight-to-video always had a stigma attached which I don’t think will be the case of movies that go straight to Netflix or Video on Demand.

Most movies don’t require a big screen– small character dramas and films without explosions, elaborate action sequences or lots of effects.  Many, if not most, “home theaters” have surround sound as good or better than older theaters. The view ratio of a large flat screen TV is about the same as the reduced screens in most multi-plexes.  By view ratio, I mean that a person’s field of vision is only as wide as most large flat screen TV’s.  It’s what they can view without having to turn their heads.

True, you miss the social experience of watching a movie in a crowd but for parents of young kids a movie date can cost upwards of $100 after you factor in the babysitter, parking, ticket prices and concession treats.  If the movie isn’t amazing why bother with the hassle of traffic and the cost involved.  Most parents I know would rather watch at home with a glass of wine after the kids are in bed.

In the excerpted article below, Eric Kohn gives an interesting take on VOD and the fates of Natalie Portman’s “triple-assault” releases BLACK SWAN, NO STRINGS ATTACHED and THE OTHER WOMAN:

A few years into the proliferation of video-on-demand distribution, the strengths and weaknesses of the format are apparent. VOD excels at creating instant, heretofore unavailable audiences for odd little features that would otherwise dwindle in obscurity.  For example, Michael Tully’s eccentric brotherly drama “Septien,” which became available in households around the country concurrent with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month (alongside four other movies released by IFC Films). A single passing notice for “Septien” in the New York Times may have led dozens of audiences to switch it on and discover a distinctly weird experience they may never find at a local theater. This process of discovery allows all kinds of unconventional cinema to catapult its way to the attention of larger audiences.

VOD also enables the popularity of lackluster product driven solely by its intrinsic commercial appeal, a phenomenon epitomized by “The Other Woman.” Prior to its theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles, the movie has already become a sizable on-demand blockbuster, landing upwards of $1 million in ticket sales from home rentals, according to a report by Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. Shot nearly two years ago (it premiered at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival under its original title, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits”), “The Other Woman” is mainly useful now because it illuminates an earlier era in the current Oscar nominee’s career, when she was more susceptible to bad choices. Ironically, the VOD numbers inadvertently validate those choices long after she has moved beyond them.

Factor in the curiosity quotient here and it’s clear people will take a chance on an odd little movie or a movie featuring a early performance, which wouldn’t be worth risking a high ticket price and all the other ancillary costs involved.  If you’re an artist who wants his/her content seen by an audience this is an amazing distribution boon.

#ThinkpieceThursday – A Hope-ful survey on the state of indie films

2004+Sundance+Awards+Ceremony+Fs5aFTdZ87vlTed Hope presents an exceptionally glowing outlook on the state of the independent film business.

Yes, the business of indie film is back.  The rapidity, volume, and consistency of deals blossoming ($30M and counting!) at Sundance should give investors more confidence that you no longer have to rely just on foreign; the US acquisition climate seems quite robust again.  Whew.  But the good news does not end there.

Indie Film has been infected by a new breed that — like those that came before them — refuses to ask for permission.  But unlike the earlier wave, their go-get-them attitude doesn’t stop at production, it extends into all the pillars of cinema — from discovery and participation on through production, distro, appreciation, and presentation.  The content, the form, the plans of cinema are not only for re-examination, but the rules have been thrown out.  Time to get out of the way, and let the fresh air disrupt the stale space.

Hope makes a strong case, pointing out that last year, 15 Oscar Nominees have come from Sundance.

As long as corporate filmmaking fails to offer realistic takes on women’s lives, Indie Film will always thrive as a welcome alternative.  Sundance must be acknowledged too as a tremendous generator of quality content; Sundance’s responsibility in delivering 15 Oscar nominees is nothing short of mind-blowing.  If the world was just, the Oscar would be renamed the Bob.

#ThinkpieceThursday – Skins: No Consequences

mtv-skins-tony-480x270Lots of controversy has been brewing around the new teen drama “Skins” on MTV.  I think the problem here is a lack of good storytelling.  The three crucial elements of any good story is 1) want, 2) need and 3) price.  Dramas that don’t work most often don’t attach a price to the choices a character makes.  Unless there is a cost, the action doesn’t feel urgent or compelling.  The higher the cost, the more intense the story and the emotional journey.

What a character wants is a clear and simple ego-driven goal.   It is something he or she can physically have or obtain.  It is clear.  It is simple. It is concrete.  It is specific– The booze, the drugs, the girl, the party invitation.  The want is a finite object of a character’s personal desire.  It is something tangible that would gratify or benefit a character personally and immediately.

What a character needs is an inner ache or yearning that a character is unaware of, denies, suppresses or ignores.  It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible basic human longing.  It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional satisfaction that enriches the character more deeply– to be accepted for who you are, to be intimate with someone in a meaningful way, to find joy or to connect with someone in a true and authentic manner.

To embrace the need, a character must abandon specific selfish or self-centered goals and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concerns. Every great story ever told since the beginning of time is about the war between the things of the world (the satisfaction of the ego by obtaining worldly trophies, prizes or thrills) and the things of the heart, the soul and the spirit (the deeper satisfaction of embracing our essential humanity).

420x316-alg_mtv_skinsWhat is the cost of obtaining the want or object of desire?  What is the cost of embracing the need and living up to one’s highest, truest, most authentic values?  Which price is a character willing to pay?  What is a character willing to sacrifice or surrender to obtain the want or embrace the need?  The tougher the choice is, the better the story.  If choices isn’t expensive– if there are no expensive consequences– a character’s actions seem episodic and gratuitous.

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David Carr writing in the Business and Media section of the New York Times put it this way:

Now that MTV is back on its heels, you will hear arguments that “Skins” merely describes the world that we already live in. There’s something to that. MTV didn’t invent “friends with benefits,” oral sex as the new kiss or stripper chic as a teenage fashion aspiration. And MTV didn’t employ the teenage star that posed semi-nude in Vanity Fair; the Disney Channel is the one in business with Miley Cyrus.

But when you hear talk about how innovative and daring “Skins” is — and you will —that argument is no more credible than the one made by the stoned teenager out after curfew. “Skins” is pretty much a frame-by-frame capture of a British hit. “Kids,” the film by director Larry Clark, plowed the same seamy ground back in 1995. (And films, at least, are more regulated: “Kids” initially received an NC-17 rating, which meant that some of the youngsters who were in the film could not legally see it.)

“Skins” is nothing new, only a corporate effort to clone a provocative drama that will make MTV less dependent on reality shows and add to the bottom line. True, MTV is not alone. Abercrombie & Fitch built a brand out of writhing, half-naked teenagers, as Calvin Klein once did.

But since its inception, MTV has pushed this boundary as hard as any major media company ever has and may have finally crossed a line that will be hard to scramble back across. The self-described “Guidos” and “Guidettes” of “Jersey Shore,” MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.

(More questionably, MTV exported the show to some countries with the tagline, “Get Juiced,” a clear reference to the obvious steroid use on the show.)

But while Snooki & Co. may act like children, they can legally drink alcohol and give consent to what might ensue: the age of 21 may seem like an arbitrary distinction but it’s an important one and, besides, it’s the law.

Even in the most scripted reality programming, the waterfall of poor personal choices is interrupted by comeuppance. People get painful hangovers, the heartbreaks are real if overly dramatic and the cast members have to live with their decisions.

Not so on “Skins,” where a girl who overdoses and is rushed to the hospital wakes up to laughter when the stolen S.U.V. taking her there slams to a halt. Teenagers show children how to roll blunts, bottles of vodka are traded on merry go-rounds, and youngsters shrug off being molested and threatened by a drug dealer. And when the driver of the stolen S.U.V. gets distracted and half a dozen adolescents go rolling into a river, the car is lost but everyone bobs to the surface with a smile at the wonder of it all.

Any adults on “Skins” are of the Charlie Brown variety, feckless beings who are mostly heard off-screen making bummer noises. MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.

Read the full article here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/business/media/24carr.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=Skins%20+%20MTV&st=cse

#ThinkpieceThursday – Other Internet Success Stories

When Federico “Fede” Alvarez came to Hollywood two weeks ago, he was a total unknown. But in a matter of days after arriving in Los Angeles, the young Uruguayan filmmaker had the kind of amazing movie deal that would seem far-fetched, even by “Entourage” standards.
After seeing his short film, which depicts an invasion of Montevideo by a battalion of giant robots, Mandate Pictures agreed to bankroll a $30-million upcoming film for Alvarez, with the filmmaker getting a cool $1 million director’s fee. Alvarez also made the rounds of the talent agencies and ended up leaving town with a CAA agent team as well as a deal with Anonymous Content to represent him for commercials. Most important, Alvarez also came away with an A-list Hollywood godfather, “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi, who will serve as a mentor and producer, through his Ghost House Pictures, on Alvarez’s first American film.

This is from Patrick Goldstein’s column The Big Picture in the Los Angeles Times. It’s the story of an unknown director from Uruguay who made a $30 million dollar deal based on his $500 budget YouTube short film.

6a00d8341c630a53ef012875f4ba8d970c-300wiWhen Federico “Fede” Alvarez came to Hollywood two weeks ago, he was a total unknown. But in a matter of days after arriving in Los Angeles, the young Uruguayan filmmaker had the kind of amazing movie deal that would seem far-fetched, even by “Entourage” standards.

After seeing his short film, which depicts an invasion of Montevideo by a battalion of giant robots, Mandate Pictures agreed to bankroll a $30-million upcoming film for Alvarez, with the filmmaker getting a cool $1 million director’s fee. Alvarez also made the rounds of the talent agencies and ended up leaving town with a CAA agent team as well as a deal with Anonymous Content to represent him for commercials. Most important, Alvarez also came away with an A-list Hollywood godfather, “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi, who will serve as a mentor and producer, through his Ghost House Pictures, on Alvarez’s first American film…

…Alvarez’s sudden ascension also speaks volumes about a continuing power shift in the movie business. What’s especially noteworthy about the flurry of interest in the filmmaker is that it unfolded almost entirely outside the studio system. Alvarez didn’t bother to meet with any top studio executives, in large part because today’s creatively cautious studios, who’ve been spending much of their energy reining in talent costs, are increasingly out of the loop when it comes to discovering new talent.

Full article is here http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/the_big_picture/

This next success story is a 15 year old Nebraska boy pulling down a six figure salary and a movie deal based on a character he created on YouTube over the last three years.  That’s right, he started the series when he was 13 years old!  He shoots and edits the video episodes himself at home.  The amazing thing is that at the time his channel hit a million subscribers he was barely a teenager with little understanding of marketing or promotion and very unsophisticated production values.  He just created a compelling character that  a million viewers wanted to watch.

Lucas-CruikshankWebTVWire reports that Fred is the six-year-old alter-ego of a 15-year-old kid from Nebraska… Lucas Cruikshank is already reported to be making a six-figure salary from playing Fred. And he’s now set to star in a movie based on the character he lovingly crafted and has nurtured for the last three years…

Cruikshank will be starring as the titular Fred, with other recurring characters such as Judy, Bertha, and Kevin currently being cast…

Filming on Fred: The Movie (working title) is set to begin on November 20, with Fred chasing his would-be girlfriend Judy across the States in what sounds like a road movie of sorts.  The full story is here:  http://www.webtvwire.com/filmmaker-federico-alvarez-secures-30-million-deal-for-panic-attack-youtube-short/

Fred Figglehorn’s Wikipedia Page says this about the character:  Cruikshank introduced the Fred Figglehorn character in videos on the JKL Productions channel he started on YouTube with his cousins, Jon and Katie. He set up the Fred channel in October 2005. By April 2009, the channel had over 1,000,000 subscribers, making it the first YouTube channel to hit one million subscribers and the most subscribed channel at that time.

The character lives with his recovering drug-addicted and alcoholic mother, whose voice is heard often in episodes. (Fred usually communicates with all characters off-screen unless it is an animal). But Fred’s Mum has been seen in one episode, called “Fred on Halloween”. It is implied that Fred has been the victim of child abuse (like being locked in a dog cage for three days), but he frequently speaks of his love for his mother, particularly after she was at rehab. He also has a crush on a girl in his Kindergarten class, named Judy. Fred has described Judy as, “so mean… yet so attractive.”  Full write-up is here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Figglehorn

#ThinkpieceThursday – More Thoughts on Rewriting

Woman-typing-on-laptop-etbscreenwritingIn further discussion of yesterday’s post– How do you tackle a daunting rewrite? My best suggestion is to outline your current script draft. Write what actually happens in each scene. What are characters doing? Briefly summarize what people say. Don’t get lost in tweaking dialogue on a major rewrite. Instead, look at the big-picture. In order to do that– An outline is critical.

Once you’ve outlined your current draft, go over the outline scene-by-scene. Ask yourself a few key questions– Is your story urgent and active enough? Does your story have enough adrenalin moments?

Ed Hooks, in his terrific book, Acting for Animators, defines adrenalin moments as story events your character will remember on his or her deathbed. They are the highest highs and the lowest lows. Make a list of your character’s adrenaline moments in your story. You should have at least eight. They are:

* The event that starts the story off

* The event that propels your character forward into the story (The die is cast. The penny drops. Your character makes a run for it. A door closes and your character can’t go back

* The event that shows how your character has changed significantly through conflict

* The event that shows your character seizing the initiative in the story or taking things into his or her own hands

* The event that shows your character’s biggest struggle between his/her want (ego-driven goal) and the need (deeper human longing)

* The event that demonstrates your character’s choice between the want and the need

* The event at the climax of the story (or the final showdown)

* The event that finally resolves the story

Where are the adrenaline moments in your story? Are all these events vivid and visceral? Do they have a big enough impact? Do they make your protagonist feel really vulnerable? Make these events unforgettable by making your main character feel increasingly exposed and personally at risk during each story event.

Remember to use cause and effect. What does your character do to bring these events about? How do your character’s actions make these highs and lows happen? How does each action cause a chain reaction?

The audience cannot see what a character thinks or feels. They can only see what a character does. How can you make your character’s interior thoughts and feelings observable through action? The audience also can’t see what a character decides. Deciding isn’t an action. Acting on a decision is an action.

Don’t tell us what your character thinks, feels or decides through dialogue. Instead, show us what your character does as a result of thoughts, feelings and decisions. Is your main character an active force throughout the story? Or does he/she just react to others? How does he/she push the story forward? How do we actually see your character growing or changing or pushing, prodding and transforming others?

Ask yourself, could an audience understand your story by only watching your main character’s actions? Could the audience understand the major story beats without any sound (using visuals only)?

Now write a new outline that solves those problems. In your new outline, incorporate more active moments, cut all extraneous material or repetitive dialogue and make any other necessary changes and adjustments.

Rewriting in outline form helps keep the bigger picture in perspective and keeps your focus on the larger issues: filling plot holes, creating action that fulfills the character’s intent (rather than the writer’s intent) and fixing emotional disconnects. It avoids the easy trap of continually fine-tuning dialogue and glossing over the larger problems in the script.

#ThinkpieceThursday – Einstein and Writing

AlbertEinstein ETB ScreenwritingThe German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, is best known for his theory of relativity and his Nobel Prize in Physics.  His keen observations apply to writing as well as science.  His concise quotes are invaluable and timeless.

Here are five of my favorites.  I’ve commented on them as they apply to the creative process and writing compelling stories.

1.  “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.” What specifically are you trying to achieve in telling your story? What do you want your audience to feel?  Who exactly is your audience?  How well do you know them?  Is your character’s emotional struggle well defined?  How well does it reflect your audience’s struggle?  Perfection of everything else (setting, acting, production values, etc.) is meaningless if you don’t know where your characters are headed.

2.   “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” This is an ideology of humility and authenticity.  You are here to serve the audience.  Your story must add some kind of value to their day.  What value are you adding to your audience?  What is it that the audience needs and how are you filling that need.  Too often we believe we are creating television shows or feature films for our own artistic fulfillment and satisfaction.  In reality, we create to fulfill and satisfy our audiences.  It is only when we are of real value to others that we find true success as artists.

3.   “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” The buzz word these days is “edgy.”  Often what is termed “edgy” is simply vulgar, inappropriate, crude, gross, aggressive or destructive. None of these things is truly edgy.  It is quite common to encounter the gross, the vulgar or the destructive.  In fact, what is riskiest, the most dangerous and what really pushes the envelope is– to simply tell the truth.  Tell the truth about who you are and tell the truth about who your characters are.  Nothing takes more courage.  Nothing is as a daunting.  Nothing is as surprising or as shocking.  Nothing is more rare.

4.  “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Plots should be very simple.  They should be clear and uncomplicated.  You should be able to communicate the plot of your story in a few quick sentences. Fable, parables or fairytales stand the test of time because their plots are simple and easy to remember.  The most memorable stories are very simple ones– but ones filled with deep, rich, complex emotions.

5.  “Most people say that it is intellect which makes a great scientist.
They are wrong: it is character.”  The same applies to writers and storytellers of all kinds.  You cannot write authentic characters if you are not authentic yourself.  You cannot write vulnerable characters unless you make yourself vulnerable first.  You cannot write from the heart unless you are generous and open up your own heart.  The character of the writer to a large extent determines the quality of the writing.

#ThinkpieceThursday – McCain and Obama: Character Consistency in Storytelling

Obama Mccain ETB ScreenwritingThe U.S. election drama has me riveted.  It is an amazing opportunity to see two Character Types play out their roles on the world stage.  Here are two articles that demonstrate how consistently Character Types are viewed.  The same basic qualities are highlighted in nearly every analysis and review of the candidate’s campaign performance.

Here is what the co-author of McCain’s memoirs said about the stories McCain loves and how they connect with his own story:

The John McCain (as he describes himself in) “Faith of My Fathers,” for example, bears more than a little resemblance to the fictional Robert Jordan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Mr. McCain later celebrated (this Hemmingway hero) in another book (about himself) with Mr. Salter, “Worth the Fighting For,” which was named for a line of Jordan’s dying thoughts. (Jordan) was “a man who would risk his life but never his honor,” Mr. McCain wrote with Mr. Salter, a model of “how a great man should style himself.”

Each book is heavy with premonitions of mortality. Robert Jordan and John McCain each confront great tests (the temptation to escape a doomed mission for one, the offer of early prison release for the other) in the service of a lost cause (the socialists in the Spanish Civil War, the Americans in Vietnam). And in accepting his fate, each makes peace with his father and grandfather.

Mr. McCain’s admirers, like Mr. Timberg, have often puzzled over what drew him to Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” It is a convoluted psychodrama about a young man with a club foot; he seethes with resentment over his disability and nearly ruins his life in the thrall of a waitress-turned-prostitute who rejects him. But the character’s final realization could fit almost as well near the conclusion of Mr. McCain’s memoir: “It might be that to surrender happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”

“That explains it,” Mr. Salter said when he heard the line. “Perfect McCainism.”

The full New York Times article can be found at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/us/politics/13mccain.html?hp

Power of Idealism characters have a sense of doomed destiny.  They reject the offer of ordinary escape (and a happy life) in favor of the valiant, but doomed attempt.  They embrace glorious defeat (or death on the battle field) in order to live out their own scenario of courage and personal honor.

Here’s what a recent article by a conservative New York Times columnist said about Obama:

“(O)ver the past two years, Obama has… shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day. There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious (or I might add the collective unconscious). Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity…

They say we are products of our environments, but Obama, the sojourner (on his quest), seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them. Over the past two years, he has been the subject of nearly unparalleled public worship, but far from getting drunk on it, he has become less grandiloquent as the campaign has gone along.

…It could be that Obama (as a president) will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama greatness will give way to the Obama anti-climax.

We can each guess how the story ends. But over the past two years, Obama has clearly worn well with voters. Far from a celebrity fad, he is self-contained, self-controlled and maybe even a little dull”

The full New York Times article can be found at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/opinion/17brooks.html?hp

Power of Imagination characters are humble and self-effacing quite naturally.  They seek greatness from others and draw their inspiration and power from the bottom up (rather than display it from the top down like John McCain does).

Obama’s grass roots campaign and masses of small individual donations also displays this Character Type’s bottom up view of things.  The danger is they are always collecting allies and consensus and avoid stepping out decisively or with passion on their own, ahead of the crowd, to really lead.  They can be a bit dull and do seem quite ordinary.  Their leap of faith is to move away from the unity of the crowd and make hard decisions that could be divisive.