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03/16/2002 - Friday Night and the Feeling's Right

Every Friday night sees the opening of new films, hitting the box office with a carefully crafted formula of concept, timing, star bankability and splashy P&A. Month after month, year after year, the amount of new films first excite and then tire the moviegoing public, wearing us all down with an onslaught of entertainment. Do we have to go to the cineplex every single weekend? Is it our second job to make sure that the weekly top-grossing movie takes at least 20 million?

I've always been one to not worry about catching a movie on opening night. The panicked rush to the movie theater after a long work week is way too stressful. Then once you miss Friday night, it's easy to blow off Saturday night, too. Sunday night's a school night. Week nights are too busy. You're too tired to go the next Friday night. It's easy to blow off Saturday night again... and so on. Before you know it, the "new release" is available at Rocket Video on La Brea, and now you've saved a few bucks! Maybe you even start to feel clever about the whole thing.

That is, you feel clever until it's YOUR movie opening on Friday night, or in my company's case, next Friday night. Now the importance of going to the theater matters. Deeply. Now the surge of home entertainment and the scourge of digital piracy loom large, threatening to steal box office bonanza and reduce your clout, clout that enables filmmakers to make daring movies that fly in the face of bean counter wisdom.

I've watched this current movie develop from the first screenplay draft to the bus stop poster. To see a film rise up and off the script page is amazing, because you watch a project change from a creative idea into a marketing product. At some point the machine takes over and the movie's fiscal success becomes more and more important, until you arrive at opening weekend. Your film will ultimately be judged by whether or not it whups every other film at the box office, and if it doesn't, the bean counters turn with resignation to international receipts, video-on-demand, VHS and DVD sales.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to see a movie materialize and hit the market. It's just nerve-wracking to worry about whether the movie-going public will see it as the fragile miracle it was all through development. It becomes just another product on the shelf with all the other miracles, perhaps to be ignored by people like me, who are too tired on Friday night.

How should this perspective impact a screenwriter? Just remember that the script you're writing and may someday sell will become something else, maybe something you don't recognize. The writer is at the arty end of the business, but on the numbers side of the business, you're writing a widget. Remember this when you're watching a movie, or criticizing one. See which aspects of a movie make it into a trailer and which don't. See if you can separate the movie from the campaign.

Take a close look at the central concept in your screenplay - what is the main theme? How would a bean counter look at your script? I'm not suggesting that you turn into Joe Eszterhas, just put on the marketing glasses so that you can intelligently acknowledge what sort of widget you wrote, and find the right production company to read it. Don't hide from the ugly capitalistic truths; embrace them.

And do you really need to spend approximately ten dollars to see that Spielberg movie about the alien in the theater on opening night? Isn't that more of a DVD thing? Surely there's something more dynamic opening on Friday, March 22nd at a theater near you.


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