Thursday, May 28, 2009

Word of Encouragement to a Beleaguered Industry

Is the industry hibernating like a bear or dying slowly with its appendages slowly rotting off? George Clooney said in his Oscar acceptance speech that movies and TV have always been ahead of the curve, addressing subjects like civil rights and gay rights before either cause had a single picket sign written for it. And Hollywood was ahead again in recent years, with the box office suffering before anyone really noticed a lag in the rest of the economy.

Now, whether you’re a line producer or a PA or an executive or an executive assistant, odds are you can’t look at a Starbucks barista without wondering if that’s your future. Today is the five-month anniversary of my losing my assistant gig and the dry-up of the industry and other disasters have got me thinking whether or not I should head back to Chicago and join my dad in the insurance biz, bag groceries and/or tear movie tickets like I did in high school, take on a roommate in my apartment, or all of the above. And I don’t even have a wife or kids to support. God help those that do. All over the state, layoffs and the dry-up of production has got people packing up and taking jobs out of state, hoping against hope that the damage wrought by the recession, writer’s strike, and SAG drama will one day magically heal. Most compelling evidence by far of the bleak times is that Catherine Zeta-Jones is back to doing those lame T-Mobile commercials. Things are not good.

The government has already bailed out the banking and automotive industries, but it’s probably a safe bet they won’t be doing the same for Hollywood. An economist once said that in a recession, people should be paid to dig ditches and fill them back up. The corollary to our situation is to suggest that the studios and production companies pays us to shoot movies and TV shows and then pay us and others to watch them, so the answer is not to be found in conventional economic theory, either.

But something needs to be done. Half the industry has been laid off or facing layoffs and everyone is content to wait until people have money and the courage to spend it on movie tickets, DVD rentals, and premium movie channels again. And like many bloggers, I am urging that some action be taken without having any idea what that action should be.

To those like me, who are considering packing it in and following that secondary ambition to be a CPA, don’t lose hope. Whatever got you into this business in the first place—whether it was the guilty pleasure of watching Tom Hanks’ early pre-superstar movies or the simple ambition to work eighteen hours a day rigging lights—hang onto it and the force that compels people to escape reality for an hour or two will one day save us all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Observations on the Reboot Era

The term is “reboot,” though whether it was coined by studio execs or fanboys is fuzzy. The practice is basically to take an established movie franchise that has fallen on hard times and restart it by shooting a movie that uses half to tell the origin and the other half to pit the hero against a time-honored villain.

It might be said that Joel Schumacher was the best thing that ever happened to the Batman franchise. Stay with me, here. Had Schumacher not created his wretched, LSD inspired installments of the beloved Caped Crusader, Warner Brothers would likely not have handed the reigns to the great Christopher Nolan. And there are few who would dispute that Nolan’s interpretation is the purest and most loyal rendition of the superhero, lacking such elements as the art house aesthetic that hampered the Tim Burton offerings.

When MGM decided that their beloved 007 cash cow needed a makeover for post-9/11 audiences, they dusted off Ian Fleming’s first novel about the British spy, cast the fair-haired, steely-eyed Daniel Craig, and pitted our hero against a corporate mercenary syndicate without the pithy puns or mirthful swagger of his JFK-era roots. Most agree the stylistic changes were vital to the series’ relevance and survival.

And now this past weekend saw the redux of STAR TREK, Paramount’s warhorse moneymaker, with a hip young cast of Starfleet cadets that will one day gain weight, wear dorky hairstyles, and utter flat, stilted dialogue supplemented by cheesy special effects. Box office numbers indicate J.J. Abrams’ retooling has found an audience in both 40-year-olds still living with their parents and 20-year-old coeds debating whether they would rather make-out with Kirk or Spock. And a sequel is already in the works.

A new generation of writers and directors is infusing rundown franchises of yester-decade with a tongue-in-cheek Kevin-Smithian hipness that audiences are willing to pay for in an era when economic hardship has made the box office its first victim. People want cleverness along with explosions, gunplay, and spandex-clad heroines. Who knew?

The question is: What next? Is it too early to redo DAREDEVIL after Ben Affleck immolated it in what critics and even Affleck agrees was his extended Dark Period? After the much-reviled KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, maybe Indiana Jones could use a prequel harkening back to his younger days when he was just learning how to crack the whip, read hieroglyphics, and talk pretty young scholars into bed. Sure they tried this with a TV miniseries, but let’s see what J.J. Abrams or Spike Jonze could do with a $100 million budget under Spielberg’s careful executive producer supervision.

Some would call such suggestions sacrilege, but is it wrong to make a time-honored hero or set of heroes more relevant to a new generation? It’s amusing to think what they might do with IRON MAN ten or fifteen years from now. MGM is already redoing ROBOCOP, and with the computer effects nowadays who knows if they’ll even bother cast an actor to step in for Peter Weller, or just have his costars play against empty space to be filled in with a CG character in post?

Hollywood has found a way to save itself by making the old truly new again. Despite the recent trend of studios buying more video games and comic books then they could ever possibly develop, they are sticking with what works. It makes you wonder if anyone will ever bother to come up with new heroes and franchises, or if our grandchildren will one day wait in line to see the new and improved story of a baby sent from the dying planet Krypton to become the Greatest Hero that Earth has ever known.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: Duplicity

I happened to catch DUPLICITY this weekend and my review of it runs pretty much in line with everyone else who saw it. Julia Roberts has finally found a role she can just have fun with as the Machiavellian ex-CIA agent Claire Stenwick. But watching her play sharp and conniving against all those years of sweet and cute is hard to enjoy when you’re scratching your head trying to find out what the heck is going on.

You see, Claire has not left the CIA for a gig helping a multi-billion-dollar cosmetics firm protect its secrets. Or has she? In fact, she and a one-time lover and ex-MI6 agent, Ray Koval (Clive Owen), are forced to work together by a rival firm to steal her company’s biggest secret. Or are they?

From a writer’s perspective, there are too many reversals to keep track of, with not enough edge to muster any urgency. Who’s plotting against whom? What’s really going? Why should we care?

DUPLICITY looks like it was a fun movie to make, with a lot of laughing in between takes. And like the OCEANS’ 11-13 trilogy, you get the sense that the cast is sharing some private joke without sharing it with the audience. As a comedy, it falls flat because it depends too much on the lackluster chemistry of its two leads. And it takes a comedy powerhouse like Paul Giamatti and wastes him as a flat, blustery CEO with no depth. For me, the funniest scene in this movie is the one where Giamatti and his arch-rival, played by Tom Wilkinson, are slugging it out in front of their private jets, and they don’t have another scene together for the whole movie.

The big issue with this movie is that it doesn’t connect to the audience’s empathy. It’s about two mega-corporations trying to screw each other, and two conniving spies trying to screw them both for a zillion bucks so they never have to work again. Director Tony Gilroy was obviously looking to go lighter after the dour MICHAEL CLAYTON, but presents an overly complicated story that is fun enough if the audience tries hard enough.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Hi, folks! My name is Steve Emmerson. Up until last December, I worked as an assistant for an entertainment company for three years. I did lots of things there, like reading scripts of films that need to close their financing with foreign distribution agreements and screening movies that still need distribution. Film school is no substitute for experience. Some people do these blogs anonymously, but I need a new job so I have to get my name and contact info out there as much as I can. My email address is

Movies and scripts are my great loves. What you'll be seeing on here will be mainly things like movie reviews, thoughts on how to make scripts better, discussion of major goings-on within the industry, and probably just random thoughts and gripes.

First up, I recently picked up a script reader gig reading scripts of movies that are going to be made and still need a little financing. The last one I read was a likely direct-to-video sequel of a thriller from the late '90s. I can't get into specifics because I don't want to lose the gig. My main issue with it was the same issue that a lot of sequels have: not as much bite as the original and too similar to the original story. Also, it was an ensemble piece that did not give enough development to critical characters.

The lesson is this this: A sequel is still a separate story from the original movie. Use the same characters, themes, and elements, but you have to tell a different story, one that ratchets up the stakes and urgency. It should feel like the first film set the stage for a sharper, edgier sequel to supplant it. Think of DARK KNIGHT vs. BATMAN BEGINS.

That's all I can think of for now. In closing, since I like pictures let me include a poster from my all-time favorite movie (also a guide on how to write a proper crime screenplay): THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Whatever you thought of THE WAY OF THE GUN and VALKYRIE, you have to give Christopher McQuarrie props for range.