'Similar But Different' (Part 1: Remakes)
Perhaps you are sick of me talking about how Hollywood approaches moves and TV with the business ethos of 'similar but different,' a subject I have explored here, here, here, and here among many other posts.
Hey, I am sympathetic to you. However since now more than ever Hollywood is relying on similar but different, I'm going to hammer on the subject for the next three days. More after the jump.
We start with this recent LAT article: "'Footloose:' The '80′s are dead. Long live the '80′s." Despite the inauspicious B.O. performances of Footloose, Fright Night, Conan, The A-Team and Arthur, Hollywood keeps dipping into the 80s well:
Seasons, like paychecks and Republican presidential front-runners, come and go. But some things remain constant. Like '80s remakes. And, specifically, their power to make us yawn.
[Last] weekend saw the moviegoing public shrug off two more retreads, a revival of a 1984 Kevin Bacon classic and a prequel of a 1982 John Carpenter cult hit. "Footloose," that Bacon revival, pulled in $16.1 million — not a terrible number, but considering how heavily the movie was marketed, not exactly auspicious, either. Results for "The Thing" looked more grisly — the movie eked out only $8.7 million.
The films join a long list of '80s reboots that have yielded lackluster results: "Fright Night," "Conan," "The A-Team," "Arthur."
So if 80s movie remakes may not be faring all that well at the box office, why does Hollywood keep going to that well? Safe to say the big reason is 'similar but different.' A remake is the perfect execution of that concept: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the story.
At the core of 'similar but different' is a belief: All stories have been told before. More from the LAT article:
In "Drive," the well-reviewed art-house piece that has established a loyal fan base, Nicolas Winding Refn channels the spirit of "Miami Vice" and other pastel-colored entertainment. Throwback action movies such as "The Expendables' and "Fast Five," meanwhile, have turned into the biggest hits of the last couple of years. "Footloose" may have struggled, but its spiritual descendants, the "Step Up" films, has blossomed into one of the hottest teen franchises of the last few years.
And this summer J.J Abrams looked to the movies of the 1980s, like "Stand by Me" and "The Goonies," in creating his coming-of-age adventure "Super 8." The film went on to become a huge global hit.
There are good reasons we're looking back to the movies of several decades ago: There were some storytelling values to that period, for one thing, and there are only have so many stories to tell.
Even a contemporary director such as Jason Reitman, one of the more original-minded filmmakers out there, said he felt the ghosts of decades past when he gets behind the camera. "In a strange way, I always feel like I'm doing a remake," he told 24 Frames in an interview last week. "I mean, 'Thank You for Smoking' was 'Jerry Maguire' if Jerry sold cigarettes."
So even if the B.O. results aren't overwhelming, there is a default attitude deeply entrenched in Hollywood that will persist in remaking 80s movies… then over the next few years 90s movies… and so on.
That attitude? Similar but different.
You don't have to like it. You do have to understand it.
[Another reason remakes are so popular, as manager-producer Gavin Polone notes here, is that movies are "the greatest hard asset they [studios] possess," so a remake not only generates its own revenues through box office receipts and ancillary streams, it can also increase the value of the original film, a case of double-dipping.]
'Similar But Different' (Part 2: Retro)
With several remakes currently in movie theaters (e.g., The Thing, Footloose, The Three Musketeers) and a confluence of interesting articles of late, I decided it would be valuable to revisit a familiar subject that has a definite impact on a screenwriter's life: Hollywood's default business approach of 'similar but different.' Yesterday I spotlighted this this 24 Frames [LAT] article by Steve Zeitchik that delved into the whole 80s remake phenomenon. We explored two ideas:
* On the business side, remakes are popular in Hollywood because they are the perfect version of 'similar but different,' perhaps the safest way to create a product that carries with it strong consumer pre-awareness.
* On the filmmaking side, remakes are an acknowledgment that all stories have been told before, so why not retell the good ones.
Today I want to highlight a recent article by LAT's columnist Patrick Goldstein. The title suggests one thing — "Is Hollywood's mania for remakes spinning out of control?" However if we dig into the piece, we confront a powerful dynamic that seems to be at work in contemporary culture which would also help to explain the enduring power of remakes.
Some excerpts from Goldstein's article:
"Everything old is new again," the expression goes, but in pop culture these days, it seems more fitting to say everything new is old again. This weekend is an apt example: Paramount Pictures opened "Footloose," a remake of the cheesy 1984 dance movie, and it's battling for the box-office crown against "The Thing," a new version of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film from Universal Studios.
I guess it was inevitable that we'd have a weekend where both of the big new releases were remakes. (Next week brings another: "The Three Musketeers.") Whether you're writing about Hollywood, pop music, TV or theater, the prefix "re" gets a serious workout on your keypad, since every other new project seems to be a remake, reboot, revival, reissue, relaunch, reunion, restaging, reimagining or reenactment.
Goldstein had a sit-down with Matthijs Van Heijningen, the 43-year-old director of "The Thing."
Van Heijningen spent his teen years gorging himself on Kafka novels and groundbreaking American movies, notably "The Godfather" series, "Blade Runner," "The Exorcist" and "Jaws." At 17, he said, he sneaked into Carpenter's "The Thing" (itself a remake) and was impressed, being a Kafka fan, by what he calls "its nihilism and sense of doom."
The movie resonated with him so much that when Van Heijningen was looking to make his feature debut here, he found himself eager to revisit the film. The whole mania for remakes tends to revolve around commercial motives — it's usually easier to sell something that is familiar to audiences — so it's hardly a surprise to discover that there was an element of careerism in Van Heijningen's decision to pursue the film.
"It is slightly strategical to do something that's familiar," he told me. "But I thought I could give the movie some of my own flavor as a filmmaker. It's a lot like making a commercial. There's already a story, created to sell a product. So as a director, you just have to find a way to express your own ideas inside of that framework."
Van Heijningen has a shrewd grasp of showbiz history. In the 1970s, with the studio system in a state of collapse, a generation of New Hollywood filmmakers seized power, inspiring a decade of auteur-driven artistry. But by the 1990s, Hollywood was once again firmly in the grasp of media behemoths. Intent on bringing order and sustainability to their often-chaotic studio subsidiaries, they began systematically developing the kind of film franchises and remakes that were easily marketable and offered predictable profit potential.
Here we see the merging of the two points we explored yesterday: Hollywood's 'similar but different' credo, filmmakers attempting to find an aesthetic justification to retell a story that's already been told. But later in the article, Goldstein cites another dynamic which suggests that the real energy behind remakes may not be studios or filmmakers — but consumers themselves:
Why are we so culturally backward-looking today, especially when our technology — our iPhones, iPads and computer graphics — leaps forward at such a dizzying pace? If anyone has a good theory about this deceleration of pop culture, it's Simon Reynolds, whose recent book, "Retromania," is about how pop music has gone from being an exploratory art to a form of cultural archaeology.
He argues that retro has become a structural feature of pop culture, acting as an inevitable down phase to an earlier manic burst of creativity. Though he's speaking in terms of music, many critics might apply that logic to film or TV as well. "Like a boom-time economy, the more fertile and dynamic a genre is, the more it sets itself up for the musical-cultural equivalent of recession: retro," Reynolds writes. "The sheer creativity of its surge years (the sixties, seventies and parts of the eighties) inevitably made it increasingly irresistible to be re-creative."
But today's retromania is also tied to the way young consumers experience pop culture. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with my parents' music or movies. I needed to carve out my own cultural identity. Today's kids, thanks to the easy access to Netflix and YouTube, make far less of a distinction between what is old and what is new. With a century of culture just a click away on any computer, young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation.
What if remakes are primarily a response to a retro consciousness permeating contemporary culture? "Young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation."
What if old is the 'new' new?
Given the business, aesthetic and consumer state of affairs that suggest 'similar but different' is going nowhere soon, what is a screenwriter to do? It's easy for a professional screenwriter when asked by an aspiring writer, "What should I write," to go to the default answer: "Be yourself, write something original." Frankly I wince whenever I hear that, not at the spirit of the answer, but at the absolute lack of help that advice offers as it stands in complete opposition to nearly everything the Hollywood movie business is about.
The reality is this. A screenwriter has two choices: To play the game or not play the game. That is the subject of Part 3 of this series.
'Similar But Different' (Part 3: Playing the game)
It may not be pretty, but screenwriters — professional and aspiring — have to deal with it: Hollywood's default business model of 'similar but different.'
* Movie studios want projects that are similar to movies that have been hits. Per their logic, this is a safe way to approach script acquisition and development — If something was successful before, it can be again — and increase the odds the 'new' project will make a profit — Marketing efforts will benefit from pre-awareness among consumers.
* Movie studios want projects that are different enough from movies that have been hits. When they toss out a phrase like a "fresh take," they don't mean wholly original, rather they want a story that offers a spin on something that has been produced before.
I'm not saying this is a good state of affairs. Nor am I saying it's necessarily a bad state of affairs. I'm just saying it is the state of affairs.
In the first two posts in this series — here and here — we looked at this phenomenon from a studio, filmmaker and consumer perspective, each a contributing factor to the preponderance of remakes, prequels, sequels, and heavily similar movies.
Today we bring it all down to the screenwriter. And the simple fact is you have a choice:
You can play the game. Or not play the game.
You may look at the status quo of the Hollywood movie business and decide you simply can not work within the 'similar but different' framework. You want to write original stories, cutting edge scripts, movies not just filmed product.
If this is who you are and what you are about, two things:
First you absolutely have the right to write whatever stories you want. Indeed I'm sure all of us who visit this blog applaud your courage and creativity. God knows we need visionaries and unique voices creating distinctive films.
Second if you go this route, eventually Hollywood may seek you out if you create a successful niche for yourself, but on the whole that approach is not the studios' first resort. Rather they want screenwriters and filmmakers who work within the confines of 'similar but different.' In other words, screenwriters who can play the game.
What is the game?
It's coming up with similar but different stories.
It's providing your take on writing assignments that is — shock! — similar but different.
It's trafficking daily in a world of ideas and story concepts that fit comfortably within the broad perimeters of stories that have been written and produced before.
You must understand that almost every single professional screenwriter including A-listers, make their living writing these type of projects.
For example, Sony asks Aaron Sorkin to write a Steve Jobs movie which you can be sure the studio is thinking is similar but different to another Sorkin film, The Social Network.
Warner Bros. hires Ben Affleck to write a movie version of "The Stand" that is a remake of a TV mini-series.
Name any A-list screenwriter or filmmaker and I guarantee you they have worked on at least one and more likely many more similar but different projects..
Here's the thing: There is no inherent reason why a similar but different movie has to be bad. Indeed they can be great. Look at some of this year's quality hit movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, The Help, Rango, Contagion, Moneyball.
Why do some of these similar but different films succeed aesthetically while others just feel like knock-offs? I would suggest that it's because the filmmakers looked below the surface of remake and retro sensibilities to some familiar, powerful dynamics that exist in all stories which we can mine to craft compelling narratives: archetypes.
'Similar But Different' (Part 4: Archetypes)
In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we have been exploring Hollywood's default business strategy of 'similar but different' pretty much on their side of the playing field.
Now it's time to move the ball to our (i.e., writer's) side.
As we have noted, simply because a movie is 'similar but different' doesn't mean it will necessarily be a bad one. Indeed there are remakes that are arguably better than the originals, one of which we will consider below.
Thus if we acknowledge it's possible to create 'similar but different' stories that are good, even great, it behooves us a writers to figure out how to do that.
For purposes of this discussion, I will suggest two narrative elements we can use to write entertaining and compelling 'similar but different' stories, thus allowing us to survive, even thrive as we play the screenwriting game in Hollywood. Today we look at one of those elements: Archetypes.
Now I suppose only I could attempt to pull a discussion like this back to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but honestly doesn't 'similar but different' apply to the very idea that all stories share universal elements? Whether we talk about The Hero's Journey, metamorphosis, and other character or narrative archetypes, aren't we essentially looking at variations on familiar themes?
The difference between the Hollywood studio version of 'similar but different,' furiously digging through development slates for something that hearkens back to a successful previous movie, and a Campbell-Jung approach tapping into character and narrative archetypes, patterns that have evolved over thousands of years and exist both in our consciousness and unconsciousness, is a matter of depth. And therein lies the secret: By using archetypes to dig deeper into our stories, we go beyond a shallow, surface level approach to writing, which is prone to generate nothing more than 'knock-offs,' to find and create stories that resonate with script readers and movie viewers on multiple levels of entertainment, meaning, and emotion.
Archetypes have power because they carry with them associations we have made through the tens of thousands of stories we have read, heard, or listened to in our lifetimes.
Archetypes are true because if used well, they reflect genuine and real aspects of the human condition and the universe around us.
Archetypes are entertaining because we recognize them consciously and intuitively, both as familiar forms and when crafted against type to surprise us as fresh variations.
In other words, understanding and being attuned to archetypes as we craft our stories, even 'similar but different' ones, allows us to find deeper drama, humor, thrills, action, suspense and all the rest of the psychological reactions we hope to evoke in our characters and plots.
A great example of this is the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. As noted previously, a remake is Hollywood's perfect version of a 'similar but different' story: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the narrative. Any filmmaker who sets out to do a unique and compelling retelling of a previously told story has a huge challenge. In my view, one of the major reasons the Coens succeeded with True Grit is because of their understanding and use of archetypes. Whether they were conscious about these elements as they wrote the script or not doesn't matter. The fact is their cinematic version of True Grit is infused with powerful character and narrative archetypes.
I have already done an analysis of the story's archetypes here, so I will only summarize my thoughts [I encourage you to go back and read my OP].
In the movie, we see the five primary character archetypes:
Protagonist: Mattie Ross
Nemesis: Tom Chaney
Mentor: Rooster Cogburn
Trickster: Mattie's father
Each character provides a specific function to the story and in aggregate create a rich tableau of personalities and interrelationships.
Moreover there are several narrative archetypes at work as well:
* The Hero's Journey: Mattie leaves her Old World — the family farm — traveling to the New World — the wilderness — in order to pursue the goal of killing her father's murderer.
* Metamorphosis: Along the way Mattie confronts both her adult self and juvenile self, going through a transformation of her psyche.
* Romance: In LaBouef she finds an idealized version of a potential lover.
* Surrogate father: In Cogburn, she finds a more powerful and compatible version of a father figure.
* Good versus evil: She is an innocent who is exposed to the harsh realities of a dark and dangerous New World.
* Stranger in a strange land: She is a fish-out-of-water.
* Underdog: The odds are stacked against her.
I'm sure you can find more.
These character and narrative archetypes connect with us psychologically in a variety of ways and in so doing create a depth of experience that transforms this remake of True Grit into a powerful 'new' version of the story.
So how to survive as screenwriters while playing the 'similar but different' game in Hollywood? One set of tools we have is archetypes. Use them well and we can play their game while playing our game… and everybody wins.
In order to use archetypes well, we don't come at them randomly, but must see how they service a story's central organizing principle — its psychological journey.
'Similar But Different' (Part 5: Psychological Journey)
In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we explored Hollywood's default business strategy of 'similar but different' from the vantage point of movie studios. In the fourth post here, we shifted the perspective to the writer's side of things by considering powerful tools available to writers — archetypes — how they can be used to transform a 'similar but different' story into its own unique and compelling narrative.
But that's only part of the story. Character archetypes and narrative archetypes do not exist in a vacuum. Properly understood, they serve a story's central organizing principle: its psychological journey.
In any script, there are the events that transpire in the External World, the domain of what the reader can see (Action) and hear (Dialogue). I call this the Plotline.
There are also a related movements that occur in the Internal World, the domain of what the reader can sense (Intention) and interpret (Subtext). I call this the Themeline.
The Plotline and Themeline comprise the two realms of the Screenplay Universe.
Throughout the course of a story, events in the External World impact characters. They process and assimilate what happens which causes a change in their attitude in the Internal World. In turn that shift in perspective gets reflected in how they act back in the External World.
So throughout a story, there is this recurring dynamic — action, reaction, action, reaction — that plays out like a dance between Plotline and Themeline.
The result of that is the Psychological Journey. A character begins the story in one Psyche State and over time through a series of actions and reactions ends up in quite another Psyche State.
[Almost all movies feature a Protagonist going through some sort of metamorphosis].
To the degree we as writers create a compelling psychological journey [or set of psychological journeys] in a story, the more likely we are to entice the reader into our story universe. Furthermore a 'similar but different' story can evolve into a compelling experience for a reader. In other words, the specifics of a character's psychological journey can transform a familiar narrative into a unique one.
Yesterday we looked at the Coen brothers' remake True Grit to explore that story's use of character and narrative archetypes. Today let's examine another remake — the most obvious example of the 'similar but different' mentality — with the script we have been analyzing this week: The Thing.
In the 1951 original (The Thing From Another World), the story's psychological journey was focused on the group of men and women banding together to successfully defeat an alien force. The psychological journey of the remake is substantially different:
* Unlike the original, the remake's take on the Thing is that the alien has the capability to enter into a human's body and transform itself into an imitative version of its host. This sets into motion the primary component of the story's psychological journey for its characters: Paranoia. Who has been 'infected'? Who is for us? Who is against us? Have I been infected? Is my or their behavior a sign of the infection?
* Instead of a more typical Hero's Journey as reflected in the 1951 version of the movie, where the crew defeats the Thing, the remake is a much darker affair: alien kills humans, humans kill humans, humans kill alien. Eventually as witness in the story's denouement, what is left is two human beings [MacReady and Childs] playing a game of chess, awaiting their eventual death either due to Antarctica's unrelenting winter or the emergence of the alien presence in one or both of the characters.
In effect, every character in The Thing plays a Trickster — at points they are allies, at other points enemies — until eventually their real nature is revealed.
In terms of narrative archetypes — the tribe versus outsider, underdog, Hero's Journey, metamorphosis [with an alien twist] — each of these dynamics serve the story's psychological journey, the devastating impact of paranoia and inevitable decline into violence. In other words the remake of The Thing is a transformed movie experience precisely because of its radically different psychological journey.
To sum up our own journey through this series of posits this week, while we may be inclined to look at Hollywood's fixation on 'similar but different' movies as a negative, I would encourage us to keep in mind movies like True Grit and The Thing, remakes which use elements — character archetypes, narrative archetypes, psychological journey — that demonstrate how writers have the opportunity with any story to transform that which is familiar into that which is unique.
As writers, we have the tools to do this. All that's required is an understanding of those tools, careful use of them, creativity, and the passion to create distinctive stories.
Similar But Different | Scott Myers