The Women of Stranger Things

What makes a strong female character? The details matter, regardless of gender. Characters should be multifaceted. The problem is we often see the stereotypes, the lowest common denominator. Female characters are often the mother, girlfriend or love interest and not much else.

You can use the Bechtel-Wallace Test as a guide. With this test, you ask if a work of fiction presents two female characters who talk to each other about anything other than a man. The test is helpful in finding better represented female characters, but it is flawed and limiting.

A strong character not only reacts to what going on around her but is also proactive and a main character is instrumental in moving a plot forward.

Well written characters are fully realized humans, not just cookie cutter impressions.

Although Stranger Things focuses a lot on the four main preteen boys, there’s also a great number of fantastic female characters. Let’s look at what makes them so special.

eleven

Eleven: The Wild Card

The one we all secretly wish to be.

Eleven is our obvious hero type, but she also displays a sweet childlike innocence due to her lack of knowledge of the real world.

Eleven is strong  not just because of her powers, but her depth. Each episode reveals more about her.

She has a complicated parental relationship with Papa and Hopper. Her search for family brings her to the boys, Hopper, Mama and Roman’s gang.

She is also a little bit scary. Her power, and willingness to kill, make her a very potential bad guy if she had only stayed with the Hawkins Lab. Since she escaped, she has learned a great deal about the world and what to appreciate.

Joyce

Joyce: The Detective

Joyce is wonderful because we finally get a TV mom worth watching. Her detective skills in two seasons show she is willing and capable to do anything to save her son.

Although she skirts insanity, talking to Christmas lights and chopping into a wall like Jack from The Shining, Joyce is instrumental in saving Will.

Nancy.jpg

Nancy: The Warrior

She easily could have been the damsel in distress. Instead, we learn Nancy will do whatever it takes to get answers and justice for Barb. We also see Nancy as one of the only characters capable of taking up arms against the Demogorgons.

When Hopper asks one of the boys if he can handle a shotgun, Nancy confidently takes it from him instead. She may be freaked out by what has gone on in the town, but she’s not hiding from the fight.

mad max.jpg

Max: The New Girl/Zoomer

Season Two introduced Max as the new girl in town, there to rival the boys at the arcade and in their friendship.

She’s a bit of a cool girl stereotype, but she has her development. Her troubled household has caused her some bitterness. She has an inner battle to fight.

We didn’t get quite enough of Max’s character but there is a lot of potential for her in Season Three.

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Terry Ives

We only see Terry in a flashback and catatonic in the present day, she was a formidable force in her time. She shows a conviction in pursuing her child years after her abduction. There may be more that Terry could teach us.

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Roman: The Rebel

The introduction of Roman answers the question we had since the beginning: Are there others like Eleven?

She is the child who fully rebelled against Hawkins Lab. She is brutal in her retribution, but also has a soft spot for family matters, just like Eleven.

Although her moral compass could use a tuneup, Roman provides the emotional stimuli Eleven needs to beat an ultimate foe.

Takeaway

“What’s the trick to writing a great female character? Make her human.” — Nicole Holofcener, director and screenwriter of Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money.

Just because you’re writing a female character doesn’t mean the character development stops at that extra X chromosome. Our entertainment is so much more engaging and meaningful when the characters are better written.

Sources

Bechdel Test

Writing Better Female Characters

35 Powerful Quotes by Women in Hollywood

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Binge Culture and How it Changed TV

TV just isn’t the same as it used to be.

The days of only catching a new episode as it aired are mostly gone, replaced by technology like DVRs, networks uploading new episodes online and streaming services.

It was Netflix that really brought the idea of binge-culture to the forefront with its original programming, dropping entire seasons all at once instead of spacing episodes out. This has lead to original content that defies traditional television in ease of choice, structure and content while also changing the speed at which we watch a series.

house of cards

Original Content Becomes Popular

When Netflix made the switch from mail order to mostly streaming, things really changed. Entire seasons of shows were now available to watch. Better yet, anyone who wanted to try something new didn’t have to spend the money on a DVD boxset.

In 2013, Netflix started offering original content. That was the year that House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove premiered.

After the blockbuster success of shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix poured more energy into original content. Although Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, it’s estimated that 6.5% of Netflix subscribers have seen at least one episode of House of Cards’ third season. That puts the viewership around 5 million.

OITNB

Structure

Besides the fact that Netflix found some great content to put out, we also see different stories and structure than normal traditional television.

Your typical 1 hour show is actually around 42 minutes without commercials. It has clear act breaks and wraps up a storyline within that 42 minutes. In anything other than comedies, you will typically find a season arc, with a big end goal in sight for the finale.

The content geared for internet viewership tells a different story.

Now you’ve got anywhere from 29 to 60 minute shows, no commercials and a season that is meant to be watched in a frenzied rush. Episodes of dramas are not stand-alone. The content is meant to be enjoyed in sequential order.

Although there are typically less episodes in a season, streamable content is able to serialize a larger story, while taking opportunities to take an occasional detour to add more to the mix. When not constrained to the typical TV formula, problems no longer have to be tidily wrapped up in each episode. The form of the show is now more fluid, open to interpretation and full of irresistible cliffhangers to keep you watching.

strangerthings.0

Culture

Beside the form of our television, we also see a major shift culturally.

Social media has made it nearly impossible to avoid spoilers of our favorite shows.  Statuses, memes, Tweets, internet comments…no where is safe from spoilers.

Even worse than that is the pressure you feel if you haven’t tapped into the latest Internet show. “What do you mean you haven’t seen Stranger Things!?” If you have Netflix, there’s no excuse. You need to be in on the craze.

Plus you have to binge these series because you know someone else will.

About 70% of Netflix users will binge watch at least one show a month.

Besides the original content, users tend to binge established older shows like Family Guy, The Office and Futurama… the ease of just hitting play and having the season play out is too good to resist.

The Takeaway

When millions of people are binging the same shows, analyzing them, recommending them — the networks pay attention. They will give you more of what you want.

I’ve just binged Stranger Things Season 2 in two days, and now I’m deep into the after show Beyond Stranger Things. Maybe I’ll have to tap into some more Netflix shows during a potential year of waiting for more. Netflix and its shareholders would certainly like that.

Netflix may have made us binger-watchers, but it’s our binging that determines what content is produced. The only question remaining: can traditional TV keep up?

Sources:

How Network TV Figured Out Binge-Watching

Here’s How “House of Cards” Viewership Stacks Up Against the Offline Competition (Maybe)

An Analysis of Netflix Power Binge Watchers

 

Cautionary Tales: Disaster movies and social change

Disaster movies are an easy cash cow at the box office. Character development is secondary, and everyone’s going to see the Statue of Liberty or The White House blow up. Again.

With some exceptions and exaggerations, disaster movies hit home because of an element of realism. Tornadoes, earthquakes, even volcanoes. We can imagine any possibility thanks to CGI and wind machines and questionable acting.

Although I can’t call it a recent film anymore (though it still feels like anything since 2000 should be recent right?) the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow has been on my mind a lot lately.

There is some typical Hollywood science at work in this film. Just look at this critical article from 2012 that had several issues with the movie.

But the bottom line was a concern about global warming causing catastrophic weather patterns. Hollywood overexaggeration? Sure. But political/ecological commentary? Definitely.

Note the tagline in the poster:

where will you be

“Where will you be?” Where indeed? The tagline and global warming-concious premise hook the viewer in on a personal level. The movie got a ton of press before and after it premiered. An Inconvenient Truth wouldn’t even come out for another two years. This was our shock-to-the-system wake-up-call about climate change.

Something became clear — althought fictional, The Day After Tomorrow had an impact in the real world.

Commercial movies, in particular can provide a platform for engaging in systematic dialogue regarding issues relating to social, scientific and environmental risks. The kind of information and messages transmitted through movies and television can be critical since “film and television have the greatest potential for activating environmental change (Gellhorn 1991, 12).

source

Numerous articles online pointed out scientific and political facets of the film, while others were encouraged a step further. It inspired petitions and political discussions, but it didn’t quite make it all the way to improving how we treat our world, which drew even more criticism.

They didn’t quite change the world like they hoped, but it got people talking, and that was a start.

Man-made disasters make for good movie material, and feel especially topical when humans have so much effect on the world around them. We will continue to make disaster movies for the foreseeable future, just switching around stories about floods and shipwrecks to zombies and germ warfare.

Should it be any surprise that there’s another disaster movie on the horizon? Although this one has suddenly gotten too real.

Geostorm‘s topical nature has actually seen its posters pulled. Warner Bros thought it best to pull the current poster which bears the tagline “Brave the Storm” as Hurricane Irma leaves a path of destruction.

Geostorm pulled poster

Fiction has long been concerned with our own human hubris. It examines our wants and desires and the mistakes we make, and shows us the worst possible scenarios. You see this in any wish-fulfillment storyline or even science fiction fantasies set in supposedly utopian futures.

There’s a reason why films examine the themes that they do. Sometimes it’s how technology could usurp our humanity (I Robot (2004), Terminator (1984). Movies like Titanic remind us that just because we think we can build the world’s biggest ship and outrun an iceberg, that’s not a great idea. (Sorry, too soon? It’s been over a century).

So why not the same with disaster movies? Maybe they are cautionary tales, warning us to curb our consumerist and selfish ways that put us in danger. I don’t expect drastic life changes. I doubt anyone moved out of California and away from the fault lines after San Andreas (2015) nor do I expect people to. The odds of something drastic like that happening in our lifetimes is still small.

See, that’s part of the allure of disaster movies. Topical, but usually at a safe distance. We don’t expect a volcano to pop up in our backyards, but if one does we feel we’re more prepared having seen the consequences play out on giant projection screens.

In my light research for this post, I saw I wasn’t the only one drawing parallels between  The Day After Tomorrow and the weather patterns we’re seeing right now. Films have cultural impact, and as things get crazier outside, we must wonder if the movies had been warning us all along and we just didn’t listen.

Sources

The Day After Tomorrow: A Scientific Critique (2012 article)

 Could ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ Happen? (2015 article)

‘Geostorm’ theater posters suggest moviegoers ‘Brave the Storm’ so yeah, they were pulled

Understanding the Impact of Disaster Movies on the Social Construction of Risk Perception

Subverting the female stereotype: Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman with my best friend yesterday, and I cannot let another day pass without talking about how important a movie this is. Not only is this the character’s first solo feature film, it also represents a lot more, and had unfair questions to answer:

  • Can Patty Jenkins prove she’s director enough for this film?
  • Can female superhero movies succeed?
  • Can Wonder Woman fit with our modern interpretations of superheroes?

wwposter5

Wonder Woman’s origin is a mix of Ancient Greek mythology and magic. When Wonder Woman was rumored for the Batman V Superman film, naysayers thought she couldn’t fit in our modern world of superheroes. She’s too mystical, too out-there.

“But,” you say, “We’ve had Dr. Strange. We’ve got Thor. Constantine, even. Those succeeded with mythology and magic backgrounds.”

Yes but they weren’t girls, were they?

An unfortunate underlying element of the Hollywood system is how sexist it is, even in this modern day and age. It’s full of old white men who expect to see the same things all the time. Guys are the action heroes, women are the love interests.

Guys, we’re tired of being just the love interest.

It’s quite sad that it got this way because early Hollywood was so pro female in the beginning. Prolific directors like Alice Guy Blache and Lois Weber were women. Female film editors were thought to have a particular eye for the cut. At some point, these attitudes switched, and it’s why we still have an abysmally low ratio of female crew members, directors and big budget films. But hopefully, we’re seeing more evidence that this will change.

This list of American superhero movies, shows how there are nearly 20-30 male or ensemble films to one female-led film. It’s easy to list the ladies, in fact, because they are so few: Supergirl (1984), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Witchblade (2000), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005) and Wonder Woman (2017).

I largely blame movies like Catwoman and Elektra for making it seem that female-led comic book films can’t pull their own weight.

I’ll say it once: They bombed not because they had a female lead, but because they were bad movies.

People with the supposed “know how” at the top see some female films tanked. “We won’t make that mistake again! Bring on another Spider-man or Hulk or Batman or Superman reboot.”

It has been 12 years since the last female led comic book film (Elektra) and Patty Jenkins is the first female director to head a superhero film with a female protagonist. Wonder Woman has a huge weight on her shoulders.

Even though she’s had unreasonable expectations — literally the future of female superhero movies thrown at her — Wonder Woman succeeded.

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Article from Deadline.com

Great Representation

Something you’re struck by during the introductory moments of the film is how Themyscira is completely populated by woman — already something odd to the movie goer’s eyes — but also that the Amazons are diverse with different skin tones and varied muscular bodies. If this movie had been made 10 years ago, you better believe they’d all be cookie cutters with American accents.

Amazons

Article on DailyMail

The male characters were also well represented. Steve Trevor, the obvious love interest, plays an important role. The team Diana works with infiltrating the front is comprised of a cast of colorful, diverse characters.

1918 photo

It doesn’t end there. Secretary Etta Candy gets some great lines. One of the villains is a sinister, complicated woman. The list goes on.

Great Dialogue

Screenwriter Allan Heinberg has credits from Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, so he already knows how to write women.

Although Diana is a stranger in a strange land, she never comes across as stupid when she’s experiencing life in London. She speaks her mind, is very matter-of-fact about how she sees the world and asks important questions about what she sees. She might not understand revolving doors, but she has great insight into bringing peace to a distraught world.

Both True and Something New

Some of the early complaints of long before filming had completed was changes were to the source material. Diana was not wearing the bathing-suit like outfit, it wasn’t as “American” as it could be, it was set during WWI instead of WWII.

But, the filmmakers retained the most important elements of each, and reinvented it into a faithful and new Wonder Woman. Her armor is appropriate for an Amazonian warrior and incorporates American elements: the color scheme, the stars on her tiara and the eagle symbol in her chest-plate.

The timeline was switched to the Great War because, frankly, we have too many films set during WWII and Captain America had claimed that war. It only made sense to shift the patriotic sensibilities of Diana’s fight for mankind to the War to End All Wars.

Diana’s mystical heritage is retained but altered. It’s worthy of note that in the comics, she’s had several different origins. The movie origin played on classic tropes while making it fit for this new story.

Respectful Shot Design

If a man had been the director, you can almost guarantee we’d have gratuitous shots of Diana’s “assets” and something silly thrown in there like showering nude with the other Amazons. How many times must we see a Transformer flipping around a camera angle owned by Megan Fox’s butt? How many times must female clothes be torn in suggestive places?

Instead, we subvert that stereotype. There’s a delightful scene early on when Diana speaks with Steve Trevor while he’s bathing in a mystical pool. He becomes self-conscious, but both Diana and the camera never shame him. In one moment, Diana looks down and asks “What’s that?” Being from a land of only women, we can only assume she’s curious about male biology. It’s actually his wristwatch she’s staring at, something that surprises both Steve and the audience.

This film found the balance between action, suspense and great heart. The entire team pulled all the stops to make this the best summer tentpole you’ll see all year. Skip Pirates 10: Dead Men Yet Again and Baywatch: The Unwanted Reboot. See this movie twice.

 

The (Super) Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. This book introduced the hero’s journey and popularized the theory of comparative mythology — the theory that humans have the impulse to create stories that stem from universal themes.

Campbell’s work focused on religious and historical mythology, but it didn’t take long to see this applied to fiction.

George Lucas is the first to credit Campbell with inspiring the mythological structure of Star Wars. For that reason, many look to Star Wars as a way to teach the hero’s journey, and hopefully use that formula to make more blockbusters.

heros journey graphThe steps of the hero’s journey:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to Inmost Cave
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

The (Super)hero’s Journey

We’ve seen the classic superhero origin story a hundred times. They all have the basic formula to get our average Joe or Jane into hero-mode.

This is actually a parallel of the classic hero’s journey, retold for modern audiences and nerdy sensibilities.

The examples I use are from solo superhero movies. Ensemble films won’t be considered.

Ordinary World

  • Smallville, Kansas.
  • Gotham before Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered.
  • A day in the life of a bullied NYC teenager.

These are the humble beginnings of our heroes. This is what is supposed to make the protagonist relatable and have us invested in what happens to them.

Call to Adventure

  • Tony Stark’s caravan is attacked and and creates his first Iron Man suit.
  • When things seem to be going well for Wade Wilson, he is diagnosed with cancer.
  • Steve Rogers signs up for the service and is picked for the super soldier serum.

Closely related to the inciting incident, this is when it’s clear that our hero’s world is about to change.

Refusal

Some of our heroes, especially those in the Chosen One subcategory, will refuse the job they are meant to do. Superman in Man of Steel spends much of his adult life hiding who he is until events force him to intervene.

This refusal is then reversed, sometimes by a traumatic event or some conflict that only our hero can resolve. It’s every villain origin and early death scene.

Meeting with the Mentor

  • Alfred Pennyworth for Batman.
  • Pa Kent and Jor-El for Superman.
  • Dr. Strange being trained by The Ancient One.
  • Uncle Ben, whose famous words are so pivotal they could only be uttered in one trilogy.

These are the people who shape our protagonists into the heroes they will become. It is their words that are repeated in our hero’s darkest hour. Remember, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Crossing the Threshold

Our hero can willingly start their adventure, or they can be pushed with tragedy or conflict. Oftentimes in superhero stories, the parents or a loved one is killed off or taken, pushing them to seek justice.

Uncle Ben dies to push Peter into becoming a hero and not just some punk goofing off in a costume. This can sometimes be the direct result of The Refusal — good guilt-causing material for an angsty teen hero.

Learning from — and losing — the mentor is a key part on this journey. It is when they lose that person (Pa Kent and Uncle Ben like to die all the time for a reason) that the hero comes of age.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

  • Spider-man taking down a number of unnamed and easy foes.
  • Iron Man bombing the enemy as a one-man army.
  • Montages, montages, montages.

I’ve also heard this called the “fun and games” section of the story. This is when our hero is testing their limits, saving people and enjoying their power. Can be done in montage mode. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt…

Approach to Inmost Cave

  • Scott Lang sneaking in and being caught on his last heist.
  • Clark Kent meeting with a priest before going to face Zod, who could destroy him.
  • Bruce Wayne, thrown into a pit and climbing the worst rock wall ever.
  • Logan, taking a shot of serum, knowing it’s his last fight.

Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back

The finale. Big explosions, toppling buildings, mayhem and property damage.

The hero after the big battle, scarred but triumphant (maybe). Cheering crowds optional.

The opposite of the Call to Adventure.

Resurrection

  • Bruce healing after his back is broken.
  • Hancock shot.
  • Superman poisoned by kryptonite.

A couple of my examples are a little too on-the-nose, but hospital and near death scenes are part and parcel with our superheroes.

This is the lowest point, the near-death moment from which the hero must rise.

Return with Elixir

 

This is the moment of triumph when our hero has prevailed and we look forward to fighting another day.

At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, we see Batman hanging up the cape and cowl for a more ordinary life. In Deadpool, our hero is reunited with his love and they jam to Careless Whisper. As one should.

Flying off into the sunset

In the Richard Donner Superman films, Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew around the world and smiled at the camera. That motif was even carried into Superman Returns, which was a loose sequel. The end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films we see Spidey swinging into action.

We like the idea that our hero keeps going, adventure never ends and everything will be alright.

It’s also a good way to end if you want a bushel of sequels.

Sources:

The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

For more insight into the Hero’s Journey, check out:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

 

Where did it go wrong? Suicide Squad

Where do I even start?

I’m going to discuss several points that led to a flawed script and a mess of a story.

Music

This film, or at least the editing of it, leaned too heavily on music to tell a story and make it seem cool.

You can get a sense of this haphazard use of music to make the story seem engaging back in the days of the trailer releases:

The first teaser trailer:  “I Started a Joke” by ConfidentialMX ft. Becky Hanson. Slow music, slow editing and building tension. The first trailer was subdued, more DC-movie style.

Official Trailer #1: Conveniently around the time that Batman V Superman was being made fun of for being too dark and gritty, the tone in the Suicide Squad trailers shifted to be more fun and upbeat. Like…a Marvel movie.

The hijinks of the Squad are portrayed against the very popular “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Pratfalls and silliness punctuate through the music to sell the point, like the ridiculousness of Boomerang jumping out of a duffel bag and punching everyone around him.

“Let’s do something fun,” Enchantress says in this trailer. I don’t recall her actually saying that in the movie, but the message is clear: We’re not like other DC movies. We’re the fun ones!

Official Trailer #2: “You Don’t Own Me” by Grace ft. G-Eazy and “Ballroom Blitz” by Sweet. The message here: We’re STILL the fun ones! “You Don’t Own Me” transitions into the more upbeat “Ballroom Blitz” — an indicator of the over reliance of music to show emotion.

We see this in the movie itself. There are so many music cues in this film that they run together. Each character is introduced with their own theme, and since they all come up in Amanda Waller’s description of her Task Force X idea, all their introductions meld together, thereby taking the punch out of their individual stories.

Harley’s intro contains Rick James’ “Superfreak.”

There are two major music cues that carry this one “Suit Up” scene. This happened throughout the movie, which –frankly — is overkill.

Music does a lot to help get at the emotion of a scene, but when you rely soley on music to be fun, instead of fully developing your characters and having a worthwhile script, no amount of catchy tunes will save your film.

 

Characters

It’s very difficult to pull off an ensemble film. Suicide Squad had Harley, Deadshot, Diablo, Capt. Boomerang, King Croc, Katana, Enchantress, Rick Flagg and Amanda Waller as main characters. When you have so many people to focus on, it’s difficult to give them the recognition they deserve.  Katana and Captain Boomerang could have gone home since they were so underrepresented. King Croc wasn’t all that interesting — he’s just a big scary looking guy who eats a lot. Deadshot had a nice backstory, Harley’s felt too rushed, and Diablo got one look-back scene that was interesting and that’s it.

But Avengers did it twice, you might argue. Yes, they did. But most of those characters had their own solo movie or at least appeared in other movies like Black Widow and Falcon did. I’d argue that the Avengers could have been stronger with fewer characters, but we knew them already. The combo movie didn’t have to carry the weight of each person’s introduction.

Did I want a solo movie for all the Suicide Squad members? Hell no. It doesn’t warrant it. But with better focus on a couple characters, or a single strong viewpoint character (I’d argue mostly for Harley, but Deadshot could have made a good angle), this movie would have been that much closer to succeeding.

Harley Quinn is getting her own solo movie, possibly with the Birds of Prey involved (please oh please), and that I’m hopelessly optimistic for.

CG/Special Effects

I am usually not one to nitpick on the quality of computer generated images in a film. Mostly because they’re so ubiquitous but also because that’s the most shallow form of critique. It’s like back in the day when a new video game came out and kids would talk about how great the graphics were.

However, the CG in this movie was all over the place. Sometimes it was very well done. The destructive powers of Enchantress were beautifully rendered. But then you’ve got incredibly fake muzzle blasts from Deadshot’s automatic weapon in his proving scene, and super fake fire for all of Diablo’s backstory.

Title Design/Pop Art

I think that in a rush to get this film edited down and make it more fun and quirky, these fun title sequences were added in at the last minute. Sure, they look cool, but the problem is that this style COMPLETELY DISAPPEARS from the rest of the movie until the fancy (and over-complicated) end credits. Cool idea bro, but needs some follow-through.

Final thoughts

Critics gave Suicide Squad a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes (the audience was more lenient, with a 62%).

A combination of factors led to this film’s downfall, and that all boiled down to a non-cohesive package, filled with randomly strung together characters and scenes that were glorified music videos. You can improve a film with great music, CG, humor and more, but you can’t rely on certain elements saving a film that was probably doomed in the script stages.

A Moral Dilemma and A Dog’s Purpose

A recent TMZ video had the Internet in an uproar, and it’s over a pretty innocuous feel-good romp about dog reincarnation.

If you are one of five people who haven’t seen the video already, it boils down to this: an unnamed person on set one day apparently caught footage of animal abuse. The video shows the German Shepherd named Hercules about to jump into a pool of water meant to look like a rushing river. The dog is visibly nervous about going into fast-moving water, and the trainer tries coaxing him in several times. When that does work he pushes the dog in. The dog furiously swims to the end of the pool where he goes under, as divers go after him. That’s when the video stops.

There were a lot of complaints, outraged shares by concerned pet owners, and PETA did their thing. I saw the video. It was shocking and upsetting, and it also made me wonder.

When it comes to the media we consume, and I’m talking entertainment such as books, movies and more, at what point do we decide to enjoy it as is…at what point do we consider bad deeds in its creation?

Not long ago, Orson Scott Card came under fire for being an unapologetic bigot. And I’m not the only one distressed by that fact.

This was surprisingly to me because if I had known him only through his books, especially the Ender’s Game series, I would assume he was an enlightened man. Ender’s Game (the first in a long line of books) especially made a moral point about not judging others…about having compassion for someone once thought your enemy. Yet Card is viciously homophobic. I loved Ender’s Game, read several sequels, and later found out about Card. And then I was conflicted.

Can you enjoy something if you know the creator did something wrong? Should you separate real life just so you can enjoy a piece of fiction? What if someone told you your favorite movie was directed by a person who tortured their actors, a la Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock?

What if you’re an animal lover and you just watched one of the animal actors be treated badly?

If you hear about these transgressions before the fact, you can avoid watching the movie as a form of boycott, hoping a lack of sales will send a message. The real conundrum is how to feel when you find out after the fact.

Later, the producer of A Dog’s Purpose, Gavin Polone, wrote an article that I feel cleared the air. It’s worth a read if you’re even curious about what really went on. A combination of PETA overreaction, selective editing and shameless profit led to this video becoming the problem it did.

However, if Hercules had been hurt on that set due to negligence… I do hope I would have made the conscious decision not to see it. After all, Hollywood seems to gauge “what works” based on that opening weekend. Withholding your $10 could be all you need to do to make a statement.

 

Incurable Sequel-itis: X-Men case study

“To safeguard against the vagaries of popular taste, studios have banked increasingly on sequels and spinoffs, with diminishing returns. “ (Variety)

I came across this article on Box Office decline on Variety and thought I’d take a stab at a response.

If you look at the Now Playing section at any movie theater, you’ll see a number of sequels, adaptations and reboots …and maybe one original film, if you’re lucky. We’ve all complained about the lack of originality in Hollywood, but why does the trend continue?

Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? I’ll use the X-Men franchise as a model.*

  • 2000: X-Men. Box office gross: $157,299,717. Rotten Tomatoes score: 81%
  • 2003: X2: X-Men United. Box office gross: $214,949,694. Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
  • 2006: X-Men: The Last Stand. Box office gross: $234,362,462. Rotten Tomatoes score: 58%
  • 2009: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Box office gross: $179,883,157. Rotten Tomatoes score: 38%
  • 2011: X-Men: First Class. Box office gross: $146,408,305. Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
  • 2013: The Wolverine. Box office gross: $132,556,852. Rotten Tomatoes score: 69%
  • 2014: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Box office gross: $233,921,5304. Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%
  • 2016: X-Men: Apocalypse. Box office gross: $155,442,489. Rotten Tomatoes score: 48%

*data courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com and RottenTomatoes.com

That’s 16 years worth of X-Men films.

If we look at the numbers, we see a few of the sequels really ramped up the box office earnings. Enough so that it seemed that as long as you kept making X-Men movies, people would go see them. Everyone likes Wolverine, right? Let’s give him a solo film!

Oh, but that didn’t work. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an abortive attempt to create a prequel series of films. Fans complained about the irresponsible treatment of Wolverine’s true origin from the comics, and the dreadful version of Deadpool used as a villain in the final act. Origins performed so bad that it nearly could have killed the franchise. In fact, it did kill any other Origins prequels. Magneto’s was slated next.

So, Wolverine got another solo film. That one didn’t do spectacularly, but still was miles ahead of Origins. Now there’s yet another Wolverine movie slated for 2017. (Oh just give his claws a rest, will you?)

The Wolverine cost $120 million to produce. It made $132,556,852 according to the handy-dandy BoxOfficeMojo.comBut, if you look at IMDB and really dig through the numbers, you’ll see that the film actually made $413,562,477 (Worldwide) as of November 2013. The studio made money. And that’s why sequels keep getting made.

Another great quote from the Variety article:

“It may be a fantasy of mine as a creative producer, but I hope this will remind the studios that you could make five really good movies for the cost of one sequel to a movie that didn’t merit a sequel,” said Matt Baer, producer of “Unbroken.” (Variety)

See, this is the dilemma posed to my Producing class by our professor. He pointed out that many studios look at things in one of two models: You can make a number of cheaper, smaller films and hope to make some money on all of them, or bank your success on one or two big blockbusters that are expensive but hopefully have huge returns.

But remember, even as you and I are condemning Hollywood’s practices of going the easy route and re-­hashing old ideas – we are part of the problem.

The reason the bigwigs in Hollywood keep doing sequels, reboots and adaptations is that there is a built ­in audience.

There’s the bad ones too. The ones that make you scratch your head and wonder where it all went wrong. Why did Independence Day need a sequel 20 years later? Why did we reboot Ghostbusters? Couldn’t we have done another female led buddy film?

I read a book on writing adaptations and the one lesson that stuck with me is this: You owe nothing to the source material. That opened up possibilities but also worried me.

It’s when you owe nothing to the source material like flops like The Last Airbender offend our silver screen. On the flip side, you can also get fantastic adaptations such as Deadpool, which mixed characters from the comics spectacularly. Wade’s buddy, for one, was a blend of two characters, and Negasonic was only taken from the comics by name and given cooler superpowers.

There needs to be an appropriate amount of give and take, and a willingness from the Powers That Be to create new, different things. If you build it, they will come. You just have to have something good. You can’t throw Jupiter Ascending at us and then whine that nobody wants originality.

At the heart of it all: You need to tell a good story. All other factors – budget, high profile actors, licensed characters – should be secondary.

Audiences are not stupid. Everyone has consumed enough media to be a bit of an amateur critic themselves, and in these days of social media omnipotence, you want those mini­critics to extol the virtues of your film. It’s the ones who gush about how hilarious Deadpool is that swell a box office to $363,070,709 in gross ticket sales, with an opening weekend that blew the entire pantheon of X-Men films out of the water.

If a story is all over the place and a main character is not interesting or sympathetic, you better hope there’s enough ridiculous action and adventure to keep a couple rounds of audience members mildly amused. If you don’t, they’ll ruin you.

Sources:

Telegraphing emotion through music in reality shows

My deep love of movies has many facets to it. Sometimes I’m simply enraptured by the visual side; jaw-dropping imagery that instills excitement. Other times, it’s a really good story, that wraps me into a completely fictional world and makes me care as if it were my own. And then, there’s the wonder of the soundtrack.

I could probably devote several blog posts to the art of soundtrack music, but we’ll start here for now.

Music is telling you how to feel

Okay, spooky, but why?

I believe it’s a carry-over from ye olden days of early film, when movies were jittery black and white moving pictures projected without sound in dark theaters. Well, not completely without sound, because the projectors could be loud, rattling things. To cover up that noise, pianists would hammer away at their ivory keys, playing to the action on the screen and covering up the annoying racket of the projector.

By the time sound film came along, the idea of music playing during the story had already become ingrained in people’s minds. Movies are now almost never without some sort of musical soundtrack. The soundtrack, like the moving picture itself, evolved into its own art form.

Reality Shows

I don’t watch a lot of reality shows (don’t have much patience for something without a plot) but the few I have watched I’ve begun to notice the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle cues present in the production music. In order to up the drama, the show does a little subliminal mind control.

The music utilized in reality shows tries to tell you how to feel about a situation by playing something with a direct emotional response: i.e. sad, slow music for a depressing moment, upbeat quick tempo music for a happy moment.

I’ve noticed this “telegraphing” (aka Mickey Mousing) happening in reality competition shows….a lot. I watch very few reality shows, but the few I have seen have been so obvious with their use of telegraphing, I can’t help but mention them.

Face Off – Syfy

This competition show pits a number of movie makeup artists against each other for a grand prize that includes working in the film industry. It’s a great show for anyone interested in filmmaking to check out, because you see the level of planning and immense amount of work that goes into creating fantastical creatures.

It’s a reality competition show, so there’s all the emotional drama you’d expect. Now, if you notice, whenever something is good or bad for a contestant during the judging portion, certain tracks will play:

The editor of this show dramatizes emotions and makes you feel positive or negative about a contestant’s results by what music and sound effects they play over the judges’ commentary.

If you watched the clip above,  you’ll see several contestants showing off their creations to the judges. The music underscores the initial discussion, adding a layer of unease and concern for the artists through its use of echoing undertones and dark, minor key notes. Are they going to make it? Did they make a mistake with some of their choices?

Then, as an emotional shift takes place and the judge says something kind, a snare drum/cymbal”Whoosh” plays and the music changes tempo, with higher, brighter notes. It automatically feels more upbeat.

Chopped Jr. – Food Network

I was watching Chopped Jr. recently and realized they do the exact same thing. I’m now assuming this is standard operating procedure in most, if not all, reality-based TV shows.

When the judges are telling the kids what they did well, the music is upbeat. As soon as they mention a misstep (their fish was overcooked, sauce was runny, whatever) the music immediately shifts. Combined with the reaction shots of the kids responding to these comments, we’re supposed to wonder who is next on the chopping block.

In the clip below, we see a contestant named Emma creating her dish. When things start to go wrong, the music mirrors her anxiety:

Chopped Jr uses a sort of staccato, picked guitar to indicate something bad is going down. Emma’s candy is burning, and she has none left. Uh-oh! This is grounds for being chopped. Tensions are running high.

To show Emma has some hope, the music shifts into a quicker tempo, now strumming and a little rock-n-roll.

Final Thoughts

The next time you find yourself watching a reality show, pay special attention to the music in the background. There’s a reason why it’s there. Ask yourself what this show might be like with completely different music, or no music at all.

Now that you’ve noticed the role of soundtrack music in reality TV, it’s going to be hard to be oblivious to its influence.