Thursday, September 26, 2013

Three Ways to Get an Audience to Root for an Antihero

(SPOILERS: Breaking Bad, The Godfather, Taken, Elysium, Bad Santa, Low Winter Sun)

With Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan) nearing its conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about how writers get an audience to root for an antihero. Before I go any further, let me define my terms: I’m talking about an antihero in the classical sense, as in a protagonist who lacks heroic qualities such as goodness and selflessness. And I’m looking at protagonists, not supporting rogues like Han Solo or Hannibal Lecter.

Admittedly not every story with an antihero protagonist requires us to root for them. Sometimes we are rooting against them, such as in some gangster or serial killer movies. We are fascinated by them, maybe we even find them charming. But we do not want to see them succeed.

You could argue that Walter White of Breaking Bad belongs in this category, but I disagree. I think we are rooting for him to be successful in his meth manufacturing, at least in the first couple seasons of the show. How do you make the audience root for a drug dealer or other un-heroic lead? Here are three techniques:

1. They do bad things for good causes. This is probably the primary tool used by Breaking Bad. In this scenario you create a likeable character and put them in a situation where their decision to do bad things is completely understandable.

In the pilot of Breaking Bad, Walter White is an underpaid schoolteacher who has to work at a car wash part time to support his family, including a son with serious health issues. Then he learns his wife is pregnant (unplanned) and that he has potentially fatal lung cancer. Poor guy! He chooses to start cooking meth in order to leave behind money that will support his family. His descent into evil begins with this decision that is completely sympathetic and understandable given his situation.

The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola) works much the same way. Michael comes from a criminal family, but he isn’t interested in joining the family business. He’s a war hero! Then someone tries to kill his father. Michael takes his first step into criminality to save his dad. Who can’t root for that?

2. They’re up against an even bigger, more unlikeable opponent. We will root for a bad guy if he’s fighting an even worse guy. In Taken (written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen) there is not much innately heroic about the character of Bryan Mills. He’s a violent, amoral man, a bad husband and inept father. Yet he’s taking on a vicious human trafficking organization. Of course we’ll root for him!

Another example of bad-vs.-worse is Elysium (written by Neill Blomkamp). Despite some charm, Max is basically a selfish criminal. He could easily be the villain in a different story. But in this story he’s going up against an unfeeling, oppressive, unfair bureaucracy of a kind that we’re all probably a little familiar with in the real world. We root for Max regardless of his moral failings and selfish motivation because he’s a little guy going up against a corrupt system.

3. They are helping an enormously likeable character. We’ll root for a bad guy if his success saves a good guy. In Taken, Mills is trying to rescue his sweet daughter from a horrible fate. Similarly, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the protagonist is Richard, a selfish failure and inattentive husband and father. But in this story he’s trying to help his daughter, Olive, achieve her dream so we root for him to succeed.

Bad Santa (written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa) has one of the most unlikeable antiheros of all as its protagonist. But early on he befriends a lonely, bullied boy. Sure, at first he’s only doing it to get a free place to crash. But we see how much this kid needs a friend and we root for Willie to step up to the task. Which he does.

That’s another important point: in most of these examples the characters become better people as a result of the story. You could say a fourth technique is to give us an antihero protagonist with the potential for heroism.

For a look at what happens when you don’t give the audience a reason to root for your protagonist, check out another AMC show: Low Winter Sun. The protagonist in this show is Frank Agnew, a corrupt cop who kills another corrupt cop. The show is about trying to cover up the murder. But we’re given no good reason for why we would want him to get away with the crime, or why we would want him to succeed in any way. He’s a bad guy doing bad things for bad reasons.

“Likeability” is thrown around a lot in Hollywood. Many execs and writers think a likeable character is more appealing to an audience. But likeability or heroism is not actually the reason we invest emotionally in the character. Rather, we invest in the character when we can get behind their goals. If your character is an antihero, make sure you give us a good reason to root for their success.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Existential Crisis in the Feature Film Business

You may have heard that this summer set a record for domestic theatrical box office. That is indeed true. But if the celebration seems muted, it may be because it’s getting harder and harder for Hollywood to find good news in the feature film business.

Despite the great summer, 2013 ticket sales – a better measure of the industry’s health than box office – are still down 2% from 2012. And this just continues a decade long decline – from 1.58 billion tickets sold in 2002 to 1.36 billion in 2012. That’s a 14% drop.

In fact, the theatrical feature film business is in the midst of an existential crisis. For the first time, industry insiders are starting to wonder if the theatrical feature business might actually cease to exist in its current form. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s much discussed conversation at USC simply put voice to what studio execs have been worrying about in private. Let’s look at some of the disturbing signs.

Making and marketing movies has gotten extremely expensive. The MPAA used to release the average costs for studio movies, but they stopped in 2008, perhaps because it was too depressing. In 2007 the average production cost was $65 million and marketing was $35 million. It’s undoubtedly a lot more now. This means that failures are disastrous and hits make less.

Remember, box office is not the same as profit – exhibitors usually take between 40 and 50% of domestic box office and sometimes over 80% internationally. On the other hand there are ancillary markets like home video and TV that bring in revenue. So it’s complex, but a commonly used rule of thumb is that the worldwide gross must be twice the film’s budget to break even.

That means if we guess that the average budget of a studio film today is around $100 million (a fairly conservative guess), the average film needs to make $200 million worldwide to break even. But bigger films will need even more to make up not only for bigger budgets, but also for bigger marketing spends. And this summer many have not, and sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Disney is expected to take a write-down of between $100 million and $190 million on The Lone Ranger – only a year after taking a $150 million write-down on John Carter. After Earth grossed $183 million worldwide on a budget of $130 million plus likely over $100 million in marketing. RIPD did even worse, grossing $61 million worldwide on a similar budget to After Earth. Other expensive failures this summer include Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, White House Down and Turbo.

Meanwhile, moderately successful movies like The Wolverine and Pacific Rim will make a teeny-tiny return-on-investment due to their high cost. Of course, studios could make lower budget movies. I’ll get to why they don’t in a bit.

Another cause for concern: the audience is aging. The cliché of the blockbuster era, basically dating from Jaws in 1975, is that big studio movies are made for teenage boys. But last year only 12% of tickets were purchased by teens 12-17 years of age (male and female combined). Even the kind of big action-adventure stuff that theoretically targets teenage boys is skewing older. The audience for World War Z was 67% over 25. Man of Steel’s audience was 62% over 25.

This is troubling because an aging audience has a predictive quality – if young people today do not develop a movie-going habit, where will the industry be in twenty years?

The business has been here before. In the sixties Hollywood lost touch with the youth audience. The movies were stuffy and old fashioned. Attendance dropped. And this led to a renaissance in filmmaking when the studios had no choice but to start taking creative risks. The seventies are widely regarded as a “golden age” of studio films as a result.

Some, including me, have held out hope that the same thing could happen now. But there are frightening differences between the world of the early seventies and the world of today. Back then there were only three television channels. Their programming was even more old-fashioned than the studios’ and they showed mostly reruns during the summer. Few people had VCRs and few movies were available on video. If you wanted to see a new, filmed story in the summer, you had to go to the movie theater.

Also, a “big screen TV" was 27 inches and standard definition. Video games were primitive. There was no Internet or texting or social networking. No iPads or Angry Birds. More people had black-and-white TVs than had access to a computer.

The world today is very different. Movies are still a reasonably inexpensive form of out-of-home entertainment, but they have to compete with an unbelievably massive amount of in-home and mobile entertainment. It used to be movies could brag of higher quality in the theater than on your home set. But in the current golden age of television, there are more quality hours on TV than all theatrical movies combined. Whether anyone really needs to go see a movie in a theater is a very real question today.

And it’s now easy to see the best movies from any era, any time. Counter-intuitively, this means the ancillary value of new movies is shrinking. Matthew Blank, Showtime’s CEO said in the Hollywood Reporter, “We see cases of a great library movie title that may perform almost as well as all the great first run titles. By the way, we want to have more movies on Showtime in five years – just not necessarily first-run ones.”

Screenwriters are fond of blaming producers and executives for the sad state of the business, but the “suits” are caught between a rock and a hard place today.

All these pressures mean the variety of types of movies is narrowing. Studios have abandoned many genres, particularly those in the mid-budget range. Who needs to go to the theater to see a courtroom drama or detective story when there are so many high-quality versions on television? How many feature dramas can match the quality of Mad Men or Breaking Bad?

This is a major reason studio films are becoming so expensive. The one thing Hollywood has always been able to count on as their trump card is spectacle. Spend enough money and you can put something on the screen that can’t be seen anywhere else. As competition has increased, so has the studio demand that movies be spectacular.

But now they’re even losing that battle. Visual effects are becoming cheaper and easier. It’s no longer impressive just to see a building blow up – a talented high school kid can make that on his home computer. TV shows like Game of Thrones regularly pull off amazing visuals. And every summer blockbuster is full of routine CG spectacle. Studios are realizing they can no longer spend their way to success.

If the studios are going to survive, they’re going to have to think about what will convince people to leave their giant TVs, Netflix, X-Boxes and iPads. It won’t be more buildings getting destroyed.

And screenwriters who want to write theatrical features need to think about this, too. What material has a shot in the marketplace? More importantly, what material will have a shot ten years from now? Are you building a professional identity that is viable for the long haul?

For many writers it may be time to consider whether features are really the best place for the kind of stories they want to tell. Recent statistics from the WGA are revealing: There were 25% fewer writers employed writing feature films in 2012 than in 2007. There are multiple reasons for the drop, but the biggest is simply fewer films getting made. On the other hand, TV employment is growing and new media residuals went from $6 million to $16 million in the last year. The flip side of Warner Brothers’ film studio needing to compete with Netflix is that Netflix is now hiring writers (and actors and directors).

But don’t fall for all the hype about the democratizing power of the Internet. Look at the shows Netfilx has produced. All feature stars, veteran creators, or both. Amazon Studios is making very traditional looking sitcoms. There is more creative opportunity, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean the barriers for entry have vanished.

It’s enough to make a screenwriter’s head spin. Remember, the saying, “May you live in interesting times,” was meant as a curse.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Character vs. Charicterization

(SPOILERS: The Heat, The Godfather, Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer)

My friend Ken Aguado (co-author with me of The Hollywood Pitching Bible) is fond of saying that film is not really about character, it’s about behavior. In other words, it’s not about the elements that have shaped the character to be who they are today, it’s about how that character’s persona is revealed on screen.

This is because film is a visual medium that unfolds with immediacy. You have to reveal in the moment. It doesn’t matter how interesting and brilliant and unique your characters are if they all talk and behave the same.

Of course in order to give proper characterization to a character, the writer must understand who that person is. We have to know what motivates them, what scares them, their hopes and dreams, their political, moral and religious beliefs. But none of that work will come across to the audience if we don’t reveal it through behavior and other elements of characterization.

There are several characterization tools at our disposal:

How the character looks: In most cases the first impression we’ll get of a character is their appearance. In screenplays it’s best to avoid long descriptions, but whatever you choose to describe about the way a character is dressed or their physicality or how they’re groomed should tell us something important about them.

For example, in The Heat (written by Katie Dippold), the contrast between Mullins’ sleeveless sweatshirt and fingerless leather gloves and Ashburn’s button-up pantsuits tells a lot about who they are – and why they probably won’t get along.

The character’s environment: The environment a character creates for themselves at home or work or wherever can tell us a lot about them. In The Heat we see Mullins’ trashed apartment in a run down building, her fridge filled with weapons and a two-day-old half of a sandwich. That gives a pretty good insight into her personality, doesn’t it?

How the character talks: Character voice is one of your most useful tools when it comes to characterization. The way a character speaks can reveal their personality, their socio-economic status, hints of back-story and, of course, their emotional state.

There’s a great scene in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) where Michael goes to Vegas. He meets with Mo Green, who has taken in Fredo. In the scene, Michael tells Mo he wants to buy out his interest in the casino. Mo gets furious, yelling and screaming – “Do you know who I am?” Michael stays calm, waits out the storm, never saying more than he needs to. Meanwhile Fredo continually tries to defuse the situation.

Mo’s bluster tells us he’s an arrogant guy with a temper who’s used to getting what he wants. Michael’s calm authority shows his confidence and self-control. Fredo’s rambling and wheedling and attempts to make nice reveal that he’s averse to confrontation and lacks self-confidence. (This scene also makes good use of costuming: Michael’s expensive, conservative dark suit vs. Fredo’s flashy suit with a scarf tied around his neck.)

For tips on how to create character voice, check out my character diary exercise.

What others say about the character: I suppose this is not strictly characterization, but it can reveal a lot. Remember, actions speak louder than words – we believe what a character does more than what they say about themselves. But we will also tend to believe what other characters say about them. And, it’s much more believable for someone to talk about another person’s character than for that person to talk about themselves.

In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), other characters tell us about Rick – how he doesn’t drink with his patrons, how he always stays strictly neutral. And it is Laszlo that reveals that Rick used to be something of a freedom fighter. Speaking of Laszlo, he never comes out and talks about what a noble and honorable man he is – that would just sound arrogant. It’s the other characters that tell us that.

Behavior: The best way to characterize someone, however, is through their behavior. Little things can be particularly helpful – the way Sally in When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) always gives explicit instructions about how to prepare her food whenever she orders something in a restaurant, for example.

Behavior can even show character change. In Kramer vs. Kramer (screenplay by Robert Benton), there’s a scene the morning after Ted’s wife has left where he attempts to make French toast for his son’s breakfast. He obviously has no idea what he’s doing, getting eggshells in the mix and burning himself. It’s clear he has not participated much in the domestic chores of the family before this, which tells us something important about him.

Then much later in the movie Ted again makes French toast for his son – only this time his cooking is smooth and effortless and he carries on a meaningful conversation with his son the whole time. He’s a different person now, with different priorities, who has learned from his experiences through the story.

So develop your characters, of course, but also spend some time thinking about how to characterize them with their appearance, environment, voice and behavior. It’s how we tell stories on film.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Recommended Screenwriting Books

From time to time I’m asked what screenwriting books I like. Below are some books I recommend as a starting place to build your screenwriting library.

Making A Good Script Great by Linda Seger

This is the book I would recommend to someone who knows nothing about screenwriting. It’s broad but a little shallow – in other words, it covers most of the crucial parts of the screenwriting craft, but somewhat superficially. It provides a good overview and a good base to build from. It is ostensibly a book about rewriting, but really what it covers is what you have to think about in the outlining and first draft stages as well. Also, Seger’s philosophies and approach to screenwriting pretty closely mirror mine.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler

This book describes how to apply the mono-myth as described by Joseph Campbell to screenwriting. It’s a different approach to screenwriting than the more typical three-act structure, though the two work together well. Not every story fits the mono-myth, however if you think of it metaphorically, most will. What I like about it is that it approaches plot from the standpoint of the character’s journey, making the story very character driven.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Recently unfairly maligned, Save the Cat is as comprehensive as Seger’s book, though more uneven in my opinion. I disagree with some of Snyder’s structural breakdown and a lot of his advice works best if you’re writing the kind of light comedies and family drama that he specialized in. However he also gives a lot of tricks of the trade that I’ve heard pro screenwriters talk about but haven’t seen in a book before. Perhaps that's because this is one of the surprisingly few screenwriting books written by someone who’s actually had screenplays produced.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

These guys tell it like it really is in Hollywood. If you want to work within the studio system, you should know what you’re getting into. The book is both cynical and hilarious, and it offers some good tips for dealing with difficult situations you'll encounter in the business. It’s less useful when it purports to give advice on actually writing, but for dealing with the industry and maintaining your psychological health, it’s invaluable. And again, here is a book by actual produced screenwriters.

The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard and Edward Mabley

David Howard was one of my professors at USC. This book contains lots of useful techniques that are frequently overlooked in other books. The only problem is that the book is not organized in such a way that a beginner could easily build a writing process from it. However if you start with Seger’s book, this one will offer more advanced treatment of many crucial concepts.

And because I can't not mention it...

The Hollywood Pitching Bible by Douglas Eboch and Ken Aguado

Okay, I have to put a big asterisk by this one because I co-wrote it. But I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t think the information was valuable. Pitching is a crucial part of being a professional screenwriter. Our book tells you how to do it effectively. And speaking of screenwriting books I wrote, there's also...

Any favorite screenwriting books I missed? Let me know in the comments!