Thursday, 25 December 2008

That's entertainment

It's inevitable at this time of year, people take stock about what they have done and achieved over the past twelve months. I've done a bit of that but I'm not going to bore you guys with it! So too we look forward and think about what we want to do in the next twelve. But I'm not gonna bore you with that either, save to say that I want to secure an agent, make a short film or two and continue to write the scripts I want to write. And it's that last bit that I want to focus on, not for me personally, but what do we writers as a whole want to write in the coming year?

This will apply mostly to speculative film scripts, which as we all know stand a very small chance of getting picked up, let alone actually made. But leaving that aside for now, the slush pile is still out there, it grows stronger by the day and it's not going anywhere any time soon! I've listened to and read about many excellent people explaining the problems of the British film industry - and I dare say they all know a great deal more than I do and talk a lot of sense. Why certain films get made over others, why most fail at the box office and why our industry appears to continually live on the brink of collapse? But ultimately, although many grit their teeth when admitting it, all films start with one thing... the script. Films get made based on the scripts screenwriters write (loosely in some circumstances! And not forgetting commissions which don't start as the writer's idea - but even those have to still be written).

So to some degree at the very least, the films that are made are dependent on the scripts we write. And to some extent at the very least, we can choose what they will be. Let's think back now to what John Woodward and Chris Collins from the Film Council said back in September.

Films should be entertaining. You need to remember that. There’s a bit of a British thing that sees a lot of history scripts and biopics. That’s fine. We welcome them. There’s nothing better than telling a story about something familiar with a new take on it... But there is also a need for contemporary stories that are about something... It’s worth noting that it’s easier to
finance genre movies than straight drama. But the statistics and submissions seem much more weighted towards drama. This is dangerous if you want to create a commercial, profitable industry.

I read a lot of scripts, from companies and individuals, so can form my own idea of how this slush pile is looking. And I think we as writers can still do more to create more entertaining and commercially viable scripts. Commercial seems to be a dirty word here that of course it's not in Hollywood. But funnily enough, no one seems to mind when Hollywood creates a fantastic blockbuster, a comedy or action movie or whatever, that everyone enjoys, critics included. The 'commercial' slur is only brought out when a crap film is made and seems like a complete sell out with no value, commercial or otherwise, at all. This is not what I am talking about. For our purposes, let's assume that we are talking about good scripts, because that's what we all set out to write. But for some reason, in the UK, we often choose to invest our creative energies in gritty, social realism dramas, mostly about abuse of some kind, that tend to end tragically. I can't for the life of me think why. Maybe it's seen as a more noble form of writing. Maybe it's a cultural thing, our writing heritage often linked to the stage, whereas America's is from the screen. Maybe it's because when award season comes along, the films recognised are much more likely to be dramatic 'message' movies.

I want to be clear that there is nothing 'wrong' with these movies. There is tremendous value in these films and their excellence deserves to be recognised too. But I believe that there is an equal value in films whose only goal is to entertain. What's so wrong with that? Entertaining people, making them laugh, or just making them happy, is a noble pursuit in itself. Think of the films you reach for when you've had a crap day, or you're depressed or just in a bad mood. When I was in hospital a few years ago two of my best friends turned up with a Playstation 2 and a copy of Love Actually. During the many weeks of recovery I would watch Shakespeare In Love, or South Park Movie, or The Office, or pretty much anything that made me laugh. As much as I admire Traffic or The Insider etc, I certainly didn't feel like watching that type of movie.

Without a shadow of a doubt, there is room for both types. But if you have a couple of ideas, one an entertaining genre film and the other a gritty drama, don't think the 'right' thing to do would be to write the message movie. I don't even think it will necessarily show off your writing to any greater degree. (Comedy is often thought to be the hardest thing to do, but make someone laugh their arse off whilst reading your comedy feature and you've got a good chance of getting a meeting.) Although to be honest if you are writing a television feature it may be worth ignoring this entire post. I find it interesting that the precious TV one off slots are pretty much exclusively reserved for 'issue led' dramas. This is both a shame and shameful. Whatever happened to just good story telling with excellent characters? There is merit in that too - a screenplay can just be about that (I say 'just' as if that's not hard enough to write!).

It's just a thought, mine and no-one else's. At the end of the day everyone has to write what they want to and are passionate about. But I think it's worth bearing in mind when starting a fresh project in 2009. Turn on the news and it's all doom and gloom. Read a newspaper and it's global economic implosion. Should the entertainment industry not do what it says on the tin? Should our creative output add to this worldwide feeling or should we take the opportunity to make people happy and laugh? Is there any more worthwhile creative goal than that?


Lisa said...

Insightful as always Jez. I'm almost ashamed to admit that, as a wannabe, I love writing feel good movies. Yeah, there's room for both but I always have this nagging doubt that my particular desire to write rom-coms or just happy films is going to be my downfall. I hate misery porn books, I can't stand misery porn films but I can't help thinking that we have a snobbery in this country that means we cannot admit to liking films that leave us fuzzy and warm. I also believe that because we have such a small industry it's easy for it to get dominated by 'names' and those 'names' hold all the aces. Richard Curtis, king of the rom-coms. Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, kings of the gangland movies; you get the picture.

Personally, I watch movies to be entertained. If I want to be informed I watch a documentary. I want to escape, leave the world for a few hours, go some place different where life is sweeter or easier. My opinion is we should be embracing feel-good and proud of it and I've never understood why we can't be 'commercial'. I don't think it's a sell out, I think it's an opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Each to their own, I say. Give me a depressing kitchen sinker and suddenly my sad little life doesn't seem so grotty afterfall.
Furthermore, as a fully paid up miserable git, I find it very hard these days to find a 'feel good' film that actually does.