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07/20/2005 - Tricks of the Trade -- And why ours are better!

As I sat in the Bruin Mann Theater in Westwood, CA watching the sound and fury that is Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, it suddenly occurred to me:

So THIS is why Tom Cruise did his Eiffel Tower dance with Katie Holmes!

In a summer of really dreadful movies, where the best of the bunch is the sleepy Batman Begins -- and that's not saying much -- War of the Worlds is a disappointment.

And what's more, they knew it.

They must have taken a look at the footage in post, realized there was no there there, and said, Tom, buddy, you're going to have to go out and take one for the team.

Jump around on Oprah, pick a fight with Brooke Shields, marry somebody, do anything it takes to open this puppy, because baby, we don't got nothin' to sell.

And after all, Mission: Impossible 3 is riding on this thing. So jump high.

But the real downer for me came when the lights in the theater went back on. As I was exiting, I saw a family of four that had been seated in front of me. From the look of them, this was an outing they could not easily afford, and we had given them nothing but noise for their $10.50 each (not including parking and twenty-dollar popcorn.) They walked out of the theater not laughing, not joyous, not inspired, but beaten and blank. They'd been suckered again. Taken in. Hyped. Bamboozled. It made me feel ashamed.

And the worst part is: there is no punishment for this crime.

After the DVD and foreign markets and the TV sale, War of the Worlds will be hugely profitable. It's a "hit!" with or without critics because Hollywood has learned to fix the game. They have abandoned the old tricks of the trade, the ones designed to make movies, and substituted those designed only to sell them. Here's what they rely on now:

1. Make only brandable titles, remakes and books. (It's much easier to green-light a movie when someone else in publishing or TV has already gone first.)

2. Crank up the special effects -- fill plot holes with pot holes left by a big explosion or a Martian craft popping out of the ground -- even when that's all you've got going.

3. Call your PR firm and make sure that however bizarro you have to act, sell it big on the Today Show. And if you can get on Oprah we get women for sure!

4. Give Tim Robbins a rifle and tell him to "emote."

The tricks of the trade have become those of carnival barkers and the makers of chewable steroids for children. And frankly it's got to change. I cannot stand to look at the blank faces of little families of four anymore. We're better than this, damn it!

As an active and longtime member in the Brotherhood of Spec Screenwriters (Local 226), I have my own tricks of the trade, but I think they are more to the point. They may not be guarantees of a big opening weekend, but in the long run they are more satisfying. And I refuse to stop believing in them -- despite the business model.

1. Write an original movie! One we have not seen on Nick at Nite. And yes, we know how to create one. We don't go to the library or to the TV Guide to do it; we sit down with a pad and a pencil and work it. Yes, it takes a little longer. But this is why National Treasure is a great ride and Batman Begins is not -- for one, I haven't seen it three thousand times already!! -- it's fresh!

2. Don't bank on movie stars to open movies! Us poor spec writers can't afford the fantasy of "going there" by even casting it in our minds, and that forces us to do it the old fashioned way -- by creating characters we care about! That includes heroes we like, with goals and dreams we root for, not nihilistic ones. And we make sure the task of creating a hero comes with the care of getting the audience in sync with them and their plight from the start. (In WOTW, Tom's "character" basically is that he "drives a cool car." Yikes.)

3. Tell a story! You remember story? That's that thing where stuff happens to the people onscreen. It's "stuff" with sensational highs and lows, and uses all the emotions: humor, love, transcendence, joy, and triumph of the human spirit. It also includes something missing from most movies today: a point!

4. And if you must stunt cast, put someone funny in that cameo! Anyone light! Tim Robbins may be your pal but he's a real killjoy to me.

These are the tricks of the trade I admire when I see them used. To me, the heroes of the movies I love are the screenwriters, the "furniture movers" who know their trade and ply it with secret skill behind the scenes, guys like the Brothers Epstein who wrote Casablanca, and William Goldman who is so good, he put words in Deep Throat's mouth that made us think he said it in real life! Holdouts for the "right way" like Callie Khouri who stuck to her ending because that's what she wanted to say! And genii like Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio who, even in today's business model world, took an assignment to essentially translate a theme park ride (!!) and made magic with Pirates of the Caribbean. These are the purveyors of the tricks of the trade that I admire. The great and deservedly iconic Steven Spielberg used to know these tricks too. Look at Jaws where "Pippin" the dog goes missing at the beach -- and all that was needed to show this was a stick floating in the waves. No big special effect there -- except for the chill going down your spine.

Point is: I know it's time to go back to the basics.

Does Hollywood?

Only time -- and little families of four -- will tell.


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