I Spell Film With an "S"

To all my loyal readers, and I know of at least seven of them as of today, I want to explain why I haven't posted anything for the past several months. After the Oscars, I took a little break from the blog to work on a different writing assignment. I have finished it now, and can turn my attention back to the world of film. I've carefully considered what I wanted to write about and I think I have pared it down succinctly. Movies suck!

All right, let me be a little more specific. American movies suck. Make that mainstream American movies circa the summer of 2013... suck. Of course, there are exceptions. If you want to say that animated movies are doing pretty well right now, I can't really argue. But in America, unlike in other countries, Walt Disney branded animation a children's medium and despite some excellent movies over the years, that has never changed. So maybe Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University don't actually suck, but they don't do very much for me either.

And if you live in a big coastal city and have access to art house theaters, you might catch a movie like The Way, Way Back or Fruitvale Station. They don't suck.

But I'm talking mainstream and it's not a pretty sight. It's true that summer rarely sees the release of deeply felt, meaningful drama or sharp, witty comedy. It's the time of the blockbuster. The roller coaster ride. The crowd pleaser. The crowds have generally not been pleased this summer. Maybe it's a fluke. Will Smith and Johnny Depp have made flops before and maybe the fact that they both managed bombs this summer makes conditions seem worse than they are. Ryan Reynolds has made flops before too and maybe the fact that some producers decided to put this handsome mannequin in two current releases also makes things look worse than they are.

Or, maybe things really are as bad as they look.

Why is this happening, and what can we, as citizens, do about it? The first answer is complex. The second is simple.

Why are things bad? Hollywood is a huge, multi-billion dollar industry and certain economic realities do exist. Many producers are tentative when it comes time to green light a movie that will cost (for a medium sized picture) somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 million. They want assurances that there is a market. They want a track record. As Preston Surges so cleverly portrayed in Christmas in July (made in 1942, when movies didn't suck), decision-makers don't trust their instincts, and that leads to a bunch of derivative, boring movies. Look at this week's box office. Three of the top five are sequels (even going so far as to have "2" in their titles, lest you forget that Grown Ups 2 has pedigree.) Another top tenner is a true sequel (give Monsters University credit for being brave enough to withhold the "2" from its title, while a second, R.I.P.D. is so obviously a rehash of Men in Black that its working title was Guys in Really Dark Gray.

So, cowardly producers may be to blame. But, and this is very hard for me to admit, I, Jonathan Eig, may be even more to blame. I am a film teacher. I teach Screenwriting and Film History. I am training our current and future filmmakers. And I have failed. Close to 20 years ago, a major magazine (I want to say Vanity Fair, but I lost my copy many years ago) did one of their "What's Wrong with Hollywood" issues, and right there on the list was the rise of film programs. Specifically, screenwriting classes. We run the risk of teaching our storytellers that it can be done like a business, or like a science. We teach formulas and structures and may be forgetting to remind our students that none of it matters without creativity and inspiration. You may have seen recent articles about how sabermetircs is invading the world of film, promising that if you can input enough data, your computer can spit out a financially successful film. Maybe it can. I hope the program can make a good film too, not just a money-maker.

But those producers and I aren't alone in taking blame. I also blame Mr. Tarantino, that immensely talented and influential filmmaker who appears to filter every human experience through the prism of movies. You might say that Scorsese and Godard had the same affliction, but they somehow managed to bring real life experience to their stories, whereas Tarantino seems to exist in a hothouse of piercing celluloid; a house in which every young filmmaker today seems to want to reside. Tarantino obviously doesn't have to answer to me, but I can't help regretting that the man who had a couple of extra base knocks his first two at bats (with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) has still never hit a homer.

These are the days of miracle and wonder. Of motion capture and IMAX. Toys and technology take priority over plot and character. So I also blame whoever it was who invented the microchip (one of which, and I have no idea what it is called or how it works, I am using right now.) Good writers are finding better conditions on television, where writers still call the shots over directors and their toys. Television, for the record, doesn't suck.

Now, the other question. What can we, as citizens, do about it? That's simple. Not a damn thing. Sure, we can insist on better stories. Stories that are original and have some semblance of actual human emotion. We can vote with our wallets. But we won't. We're hooked. And they know it. If you doubt that, I've got two words for you (all right, one compound, made-up word): Sharknado. The sequel, which I can have ready for any interested producer in one week, will be called Sharksinkhole (2). A giant sinkhole plunges L.A. starlets into a muddy world inhabited by mutant underground sharks. I guarantee you... this will suck big time!