Whatcha, Whatcha, Whatcha Want?

My wife and I were in the mood for a film this weekend. We used to go to the theater regularly but have weaned ourselves down to: almost never. I’m not sure if it’s the chatty patrons, the cost, or the nice TV we have at home now or what. We just don’t go. This weekend, however, we were in the mood for popcorn at a nickel a kernel, and she pulled up a list of what was showing.

Of course! How could I forget that John Carter is playing? The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories are currently at the top of the SF lists on Amazon (I glance now and then). I’d seen some of the previews, and it looked like a good popcorn-muncher. (I can suspend disbelief long enough to watch a dude bounce a hundred feet into the air and sling boulders the size of minivans but still be unable to break the chain loose that holds him to said rock).

Two seconds after getting my hopes up, however, and smelling the butter in the air, my wife pointed out the poor reviews. 51% on rottentomatoes.com. Probably not worth our $30.

Having not seen the film (I will when it comes out on video), I’m left guessing at how such a huge investment in an established franchise can fall flat. Producers know what you want, right? They know the tropes you like, the characters you’ll root for, I mean . . . this is what they do for a living. How can they get it wrong? And so spectacularly?

Burroughs provided the stories on a platter. They’ve been tested and they have proved themselves on the market. The budget for the film was $250 million dollars. The talent was proven (a Pixar writer was at the helm). And yet, some are saying the projected losses could be in the neighborhood of $200 million, making it one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.

Which brings us to Wool. Why would any studio green-light an unknown work of science fiction when mega-hits like John Carter can’t win? They probably won’t, but let me tell you why they should (as if any of you need convincing).

The problem with film studios right now (and big publishers and SELF publishers) is this: We have no idea what you want. That’s right. We’re constantly guessing and almost always wrong. And I think I know why.

My personal theory is that there are only a handful of stories to be told; the rest is variation. These most primal stories, the tropes, appeal to a genetic commonality amongst us, a sense of right and wrong, of good vs. evil, of underdog vs. long odds, stories of love, tragedy, change, and accomplishment. This is why plots that are thousands of years old, told in foreign languages to people of supposedly vastly different cultures, continue to resonate with us today. THE ILIAD still makes sense, still moves us emotionally, which is strange when you think about it. It’s why I don’t buy that we are products of our cultures; our cultures must be products of us. I’m not convinced that we’ve changed all that much in the last few thousand years.

The problem, then, is one of oversaturation. It’s what killed WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE and SURVIVOR. As much as we love tropes, we want something new; we just don’t know what that is until we see it. If JOHN CARTER is too much like AVATAR, we’re going to be bored enough to note the plot holes and weak characters. The CGI isn’t going to distract us. That worked for TITANIC, and it’ll never work again.

WOOL’s viral success highlights the ignorance we as producers have for what you want as an audience. I never mentioned nor promoted WOOL until after it had already taken off. I tossed it out there and it did its own thing for months. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I assumed no one else would. It was too non-traditional. Now, there are tropes hidden within the plot (and it becomes more and more traditional as the series continues), but that first short story should never have gone out in the shape it took, not if there were any gatekeepers to warn me and tweak it first. WOOL ignores too many rules. Which ended up being a good thing.

Movie studios need to embrace this truth: Almost everything has been tried, so let’s give new a chance. Have you seen MOON? One of the best sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in ages. Haunting and poignant. I don’t think it hit a single theater near me, and I’m still too caught up in the rational to believe it could have been a monster hit even if it had been given the right push. Still, I suspect it would have done better than JOHN CARTER. I suspect WOOL would do very well if given an honest account on the big screen, and not because I think my shit’s all that great, I honestly don’t. I never gave WOOL a chance until readers told me through sales and reviews that they liked it. Which is why I think we should be listening to you rather than chasing those handful of tired tales paddling around in our collective gene pools. Sure, we may intuitively sense that these are the stories you want, but you’ve already heard them. I suspect you’re looking for something different. I just wish (along with every ad expert in the country) that I knew what the hell that was.

23 responses to “Whatcha, Whatcha, Whatcha Want?”

  1. You have served Wool on a platter to your readers, at their behest, and yes, business folks are going to want to make money on that success. They are going to talk budget (something in a silo can be made on the cheapity-cheap) and exposure and fan base and all sorts of bells and whistles. Wait for the guy or gal who talks heart and story. There are brilliant filmmakers/directors out there who know how to bring a story to life and they will seek you out.
    You are right, there are only a handful of stories out there. We are hungry to hear them told in a new way, every generation wants a new version that incorporates their understanding of the world.
    Thanks for giving us Wool. I trust that you will move forward in the best possible way when it comes to bringing Wool to life on the screen. You will hand it over to someone who honors the story and brings something new to it as well. When I handed my first play over to the director and caught an early rehearsal, I was in tears. He was ruining my play! When I caught the first performance, I was in tears again… because he made me look brilliant. I never cried again. Letting someone else bring your story to life into the ‘real world’ is better than sex. I mean that. Almost.
    Hand the story off and trust with all your heart and soul that the right person knows what to do.
    Wool already lives inside your readers. Our own, personal versions of Wool. That won’t change.
    I see “Wool” as a BBC series. You know, like Masterpiece: Downtown Abbey, only underground. And yes “Kaylee” should definitely play Juliette.

    1. Good advice, Lara. Thanks! I’m completely sold on Kaylee as Jules.

  2. MOON rocks! (no pun intended). It was such a different type of sci-fi, and so eerily sterile. I stop and watch it if I ever pass it on cable.

    W.O.O.L. is the same thing for me. Though the first post-apocalyptic series I can remember reading, it is a vastly different take on a future I too often fill with a sci-fi world of space travel and aliens. Like W.O.O.L., there’s isolation, and a smallness to the main character’s world. In both, a truth is uncovered, which sets in motion a chain of fantastic events.

    Oh, and I keep spelling Wool, W.O.O.L., because I keep thinking back to a reference you made about it also being an acronym. Did you ever divulge it’s meaning? I’m thinking: World Order something something. But even with the search function on my kindle, I was having a hard time coming up with a good meaning.

    1. Operation 50.

      The number of silos. Those damnable Greeks. Governments and their love of acronyms.

  3. John Carter was a good flick. The bad press was largely a reaction to the financial situation not the plot or acting. Disney (rather foolishly) spent $250M+ on a film with no clear target demographic…and the business press has gone ape over how much money investors will lose. Many would-be viewers are confusing all of this “flop” buzz resulting from financial worries with whether the movie itself is any good.

    It is. My $.02.

    1. Now you’ve got me hungry for popcorn again!

  4. Why try going after a big studio to produce your work? While, yes, sometimes a big budget could play a rather poignant factor in the way it’s presented, there are people out there who can do wonders with less. Independent film makers, web series creators–there are a lot of options out there to get your creativity and imagination out there for the world to see. It could be something to consider along with kickstarter.com since a “cult” following on the internet is an extraordinary thing.

    And honestly, a movie would NOT do the Wool series any justice because it would be too condensed, too compact. A television series is the best way to introduce your characters, letting them build up a rapport with your audience in a similar fashion as the installments of the story. Let them know your characters and fall in love with them. If it can any way resemble the gritty fashion of TV shows such as The Wire or even the more current The Walking Dead, I think people would embrace it.

    Is this the “Kaylee” that I’m thinking about? :D

    1. Totally agree. I would love to see this done in webisodes, actually. Low budget, unknown cast, shooting with SLRs, no sfx needed, and put it on Youtube with a donate button. Be an interesting experiment.

  5. Both Wool and Moon are amazing.
    I think that now it is difficult to have good science fiction movies (Moon is of course an excepion) because recently movies rely only on special effects and not on the story itself.
    I’ve read some critics about Avatar saying that some part of the plot were taken from John Carter (maybe this is one of the reason of its flop: what it tells was already told by another movie).
    And I absolutely agree with Lara, a BBC series is perfect for Wool!

    1. I almost mentioned the Avatar connection in my post! Completely agreed.

  6. I think Amazon Studios may be on the right track with their “rough cut” story board movies. For those of you unfamiliar with their concept, here’s a starter link: http://studios.amazon.com/

    I’ll admit their process it a little “Survivor-ish”, but at least it might help break up the current paradigm a bit.

    W.O.O.L. script anybody?

  7. Lara’s dead right in her thoughts. One of the huge appeals of Wool is it’s believability. We don’t have a far stretch of imagination to relate to the silo, as we all have very visual memories of enclosed tight spaces from childhood, and memories of old metal structures. We can relate to the Bernards of the world – moving from hating his guts (he still makes me want to spit), to understanding why he does what he does. The scene of Juliette’s swim still makes me hold my breath. We’ve all been there as a swimmer, when you thought you couldn’t make it to the top to breathe fresh air. Your characters are vivid, and the reader can relate. One of your commentators on Amazon mentioned the potential “antiquity” of computers, screens, and a mouse. My mind justified it by thinking that the silos were stocked with whatever was left as the civilization realized that things were going bad. I continue to catch myself thinking about how things occurred in the silo, and wondering how things got that bad. Then I see the news where some #$&^)_* in France made the effort to chase a 7 year old down to put a gun to her head and pull the trigger, and I know how society got that bad.

  8. Then we should make it ourselves! We are a talented bunch (I think so, at least) and I bet we could make some pretty awesome W.O.O.L webisodes if we pool our talents! :-)

  9. Also,
    @Vince “The bad press was largely a reaction to the financial situation not the plot or acting. Disney (rather foolishly) spent $250M+ on a film with no clear target demographic…”

    That is EXACTLY why I think the movie failed. Even when I see commercials for it, I’m not sure if it is a kids movie or a movie for adults. And, honestly, I had no idea what the movie was even really about until I read about it on here, and I watch a lot of TV! If anything, I am more interested about going to see it now than I was before.

  10. If we’re talking web series, you might have a lot of luck with the SLEW of talented independent film artists. You mentioned you would like a gritty feel I think in an old tweet or post… I immediately thought of something I watched awhile back.

    Dan Trachtenberg: http://youtu.be/4drucg1A6Xk
    The Purchase Brothers: http://youtu.be/ZKffQO2UZBE

    Despite the fact that their short films are based on video games, they’ve got a gritty feel to them. You should check out their work and see what kind of ideas you have for your own series in regards to tone. I think the fan base who really want a live version of this to happen will find ways to help you out in realizing it.

    1. Sweet. Thanks for the links!

  11. No Escape was brilliant. I thought of Jules.

  12. My family loved John Carter. (My husband couldn’t possibly miss a Burroughs story on film.) And we routinely ignore reviews, mostly because we rarely agree with them. Reviewers try to make things so complicated. We aren’t very sophisticated that way; we just like to be entertained. And we generally hit the theater every weekend, (when we deplete the bucket of popcorn that we refilled on our way out of the theater). So, whatever you decide for Wool, we will be there.

    1. You’re selling me on the film! Maybe they’ll turn a profit yet!

  13. The genius of Wool is that it is intensely personal. It’s been a long time since I read characters that seemed so believable, and could identify with what they were going through.
    We have shared the voyage of discovery with the Wool characters. We know as much as they know and not much more.

    And I agree with Lara. Wait until you find someone who gets the story, and is not simply weighing it’s value in financial terms. If you find that person, the finances will take care of themselves.

  14. Here’s the deal movie making and publishing has become less about artistic expression and all about the money. Now I understand why, it’s a business. But as businesses get REALLY big and entrenched they become less innovative. They NEED to make ideas like WOOL fit into safe boxes filled with sparkly vampire, blue aliens, and teen wizards. They forget those ideas weren’t safe when they were created either. They involved people spending a crap load of time and passion developing worlds that no one knew anyone would care about. So as I’ve said before, be true to your vision and the rest will works itself out. I’d rather watch a movie like Moon which makes you think than Avatar anyways.

  15. If you are interested in exploring the various reasons for John Carter’s failure, read http://www.vulture.com/2012/03/john-carter-doomed-by-first-trailer.html. I found it to be entertaining but too familiar and inconsistent, particularly regarding the physics of his existance on Barsoom.

    And yes, MOON was indeed a fantastic film.

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