Monday, March 26, 2012

Panem-monium

THE HUNGER GAMES opened this past weekend and made about $150 million dollars American. Guys, that's a LOT of money. Imagine the rose garden President Snow could plant with THAT! Whenever there's a "phenomenon," as it's called in the biz, people twist themselves into pretzels with their graphs and algorithms and equations and focus groups and whateverthefuckelse they use to so cogently and accurately explain why Things Are The Way They Are.

TWILIGHT was easy. Only crazy, stupid girls and sad, lonely ladies like TWILIGHT. It could be easily dismissed as outside the norm. An anomaly. Something that doesn't need to be repeated, THANK GOD, but will eventually just go the fuck away.

Or was that just how the TWILIGHT fans were treated at Comic Con? Maybe. I can't remember.

(For the record, I am not a TWILIGHT fan. It gives me hives. But I loved a lot of crap when I was a kid and if people love something, then they love it. We can stay away.)

THE HUNGER GAMES books are terrific. Well written. Great characters. A strong premise that is always reinforced and carried through the books. Suzanne Collins proves to be a fantastic world-builder, which is certainly not an easy thing to do (as the post-HUNGER GAMES books have proven). The movie looked like it was going to be a faithful adaptation, and it was. But the first HARRY POTTER movie was a faithful adaptation, too. It just wasn't a very good movie. HUNGER GAMES, though, is tremendous. Gary Ross didn't just ape the books. He got into the soul of the books and of the world. I thought the movie was gripping and inspired and I don't think Gary Ross has ever been better.

The economical choices he made were tough but I thought they worked well. I wanted more of everything but that, of course, is not possible in a movie. Katniss Everdeen is not Bella Swan. Katniss Gets Shit Done. Bella feels contemporary, in that she's an inward-looking girl without an identity, until supernatural boys give her one. That's not a problem if that's your experience, and it proved to be surprisingly universal. Katniss, on the other hand, is sitting quite near the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. For her, it's all about survival. Everything she does strengthens that. And it makes her a strong character, too. "Survival" is a more universal identifier than "passive." Unless you're a boy, of course. More on that later.

Bella and Katniss are female characters who star in their own blockbusters. So naturally, everyone has to scramble to figure out why the hell these movies are making so much money. Because there are GIRLS IN THEM. THE HUNGER GAMES is tougher to dismiss than TWILIGHT. Katniss isn't the usual girl. She can't be categorized like Bella. She's not the mother, the whore, or the symbol. She's not the man's sidekick. Her existence doesn't inform some male hero, so she's not the typical female movie character. But there are BOYS reading these books. And BOYS went to see the movie.

BOYS. AT A MOVIE STARRING AND FEATURING A GIRL WHO IS NOT SHOWING OFF HER BOOBIES OR FIGHTING ROBOTS WITH A MALE FANTASY CHARACTER. OH MY GODZ, WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF THIS???

Fear not! The Internet has figured it out. The Internet, Forbes in fact, was pretty stunned that the HUNGER GAMES audience wasn't comprised solely of teenage TWILIGHT fans. According to the research, it was a fairly even split between men and women. But what's so remarkable about this heinous article is that a WOMAN wrote this headline: "Single Cat Ladies and Soccer Moms Will Beat Teens At The Hunger Games Box Office."

A FUCKING WOMAN WROTE THAT.

Forget about the fact that MEN went to see it, too. Because I guess if you write that, then you can't make fun of 51% of the population. 51%, incidentally, who are currently being attacked by the right wing of this country. Dear Forbes Woman, WHAT THE FUCK? What is WRONG with you? How clueless ARE you? Single cat ladies? Soccer moms? Giggling sixteen-year-olds? Lovelorn Lenny Kravitz fans? THAT'S IT? THAT COMPRISES YOUR GENDER?

In the weeks leading up to the movie's release, there have been numerous articles about how THE HUNGER GAMES ripped off BATTLE ROYALE. First of all, NO. Dystopian science fiction has been around much longer than Japanese schoolgirls. When HARRY POTTER came out, the articles about what "inspired" the franchise were also numerous and -- no, hang on. They weren't. There was no mention of Jane Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones and the entire sub-genre of wizard school books that have existed for decades. HARRY POTTER, a book for a MUCH younger audience than THE HUNGER GAMES, was immediately accepted as adult fare. Embraced, even. People acted like they'd never even SEEN a thing like it before. Which certainly speaks to how limited people are in their reading material.

But Harry Potter shares a lot of the same characteristics as Bella Swan. He's passive, entitled, special for doing nothing, and the entire world revolves around him. It's okay with Harry, though, because he's a boy. It's not okay for Bella because of the uterus problem. And apparently, the deserved success of THE HUNGER GAMES has to be picked apart and challenged and denigrated because nobody can figure out why people (meaning MEN) would go see it.

There's a really fucking easy answer, people -- IT'S GOOD. Sometimes good things are hits, and then we should be happy and gratified and not denigrate them and the audience, okay?

It's really mystifying to me that people are so beside themselves about this being a young adult book. "It's so dark and violent! So not for kids!" Really? What the fuck were YOU reading when you were a kid? Kid's fiction IS dark. Family pets are constantly being killed by their teenaged owners. It's SO dark, in fact, that my parents got me THE RED PONY when I was a kid because they figured if a pony gets its eyes pecked out by a buzzard, it's GOT to be a kid's book. It is not, of course. But it's not like I hadn't already been scarred by WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS.

Back before young adult became its own genre, these books were called juvenile fiction. Robert Heinlein was the king of juvenile fiction and although he didn't think much of women (weird, given how smart and educated his wife is), he somehow managed to create some decent female characters, including Podkayne Fries in PODKAYNE OF MARS (yes, I KNOW about the ending). He treated the children in his books like human beings who were coming of age, which is kind of the point in juvenile or young adult fiction. And coming of age isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Some more literary people have cited LORD OF THE FLIES as a HUNGER GAMES inspiration, as if LORD OF THE FLIES isn't fucking namechecked ENOUGH. Heinlein, in fact, wrote a pretty terrific LORD OF THE FLIES type book in TUNNEL IN THE SKY.

 It's funny how much attention there is on this phenomenon. It's already led to some seriously bad dystopian young adult books, and I'm sure it'll lead to some seriously bad dystopian young adult movies. And then people like this Forbes person will put THE HUNGER GAMES in a little "we don't understand why this was successful when the shit that came after it wasn't" box, and the next big hit will surprise the hell out of them. But just for a second, let's look at how many female leads there are on television. Off the top of my head: FRINGE, ONCE UPON A TIME, REVENGE, ALCATRAZ, UNFORGETTABLE, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, GCB, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, SECRET CIRCLE, 90210, ARMY WIVES, GOSSIP GIRL, BODY OF PROOF, CASTLE, FAIRLY LEGAL, THE GOOD WIFE, GREY'S ANATOMY, HARRY'S LAW, HART OF DIXIE, LOST GIRL, MISSING, NIKITA, RINGER, SMASH, BONES, RIZZOLI AND ISLES.

That's 26 shows with female leads. Interestingly, only four out of the 26 are on cable, which is probably a whole other blog post. But where's the wonder at all the shows with female leads? Oh. Right. There isn't any. Because television isn't movies, and movies are the stomping ground of men.
 Whenever a movie with a female lead makes money it's considered an anomaly, and the audience is denigrated. But whenever a big comic book movie with a male lead makes money, it's assumed that everybody is going to see it. Or, that only nerds and geeks are, but somehow that's okay because nerds and geeks are a more acceptable audience than women. The days of "geeks are fat mouth-breathers who live in their parents' basements" are long gone, which is good because whenever a stereotype can be smashed with a hammer that's a good thing. But let's not replace one stereotype with another. And let's be honest -- we KNOW why that stereotype has been diminishing. Because this shit makes MONEY. And whenever something makes money, it's welcome. Unless it's something confounding, like a movie with a GIRL in it.

It's implicit that entertainment is still geared towards men. It's acceptable that men won't go see movies with female leads. It's okay that the majority of women in these male-driven movies are one-dimensional symbols.

Why?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Serialize THIS

Gentle readers, I am going to check out Community on your say-so. I'll let you know what I discover.

I'm done with the gender thing for awhile (hooray! say you all), with one final note -- WonderCon would totally and completely fail the Cornell Ratio. In fact, of the ten participants on a Writing for Genre TV panel, there are two women. Now, if we're talking about comic books and whatnot, it might be tough to find more women to put on a panel, and that's work that should be done in the future. But a Writing For TV panel? Seriously? Two? That's IT?

Anyway.

Some serious TeeVee scholars gave the business about the TeeVee model and how it's being ruined/isn't being ruined. This started with this post about how The Sopranos ruined episodic television. The short version is that the blog fellow thinks The Sopranos' tendency towards serialization made other networks/shows realize that they don't have to do traditional episodic television anymore. Episodes don't have to stand on their own, and this blog fellow considers this a move towards the novelization of television, where "installments" replace "episodes." To which I go, "The Sopranos? Really? That's your bete noir?"

It was entirely possible to pick up an episode of The Sopranos and figure out what was going on. And while The Sopranos wasn't episodic in the same way something like CSI is, it was episodic. There were episodes, and things happened in them, and then those things were wrapped up. Yes, the show tended more towards serialization but not any more than your average nightly soap, and it certainly didn't give anyone license to go crazy and serialize the shit out of everything. The blog fellow then goes on to talk about the USA shows, which he figures are the standard-bearers for episodic television. The USA shows, in fact, are not episodic because USA invented episodic television. The USA shows (by which I refer to USA, TNT and those types of cable networks that require something very specific) are an outgrowth of network television, y'all. If you're old enough to remember Quinn Martin, then you know what I'm talking about. USA is doing Quinn Martin shows. They're doing 80s detective shows. This is a model that isn't working on network TeeVee right now, so these cable nets have taken it and have run with it.

So the contention that USA somehow INVENTED the model that has been around since fucking DRAGNET is bizarre.

I think the uproar over the ending of the first season of The Killing has emboldened people to write this sort of thing. But the problem with The Killing wasn't that they didn't solve Rosie Larsen's murder. The problem was that the marketing for the show TOLD the audience that you would find out who killed Rosie. That's not the show's fault. But sure, if you buy into the marketing and you are watching the show for that specific reveal, then you feel ripped off. Because you WERE ripped off. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the show. Consumers do not like dishonesty.

So this guy thinks The Sopranos started us down the slippery slope where all the networks are crushing on serialization. This is simply not true, because they are not. At this point, I don't think anyone even considers HBO, Showtime, AMC or Starz as actual television. People are not being fooled into thinking that you can sell an HBO idea to NBC. The business has become incredibly specialized and if you're blogging about television, shouldn't you know this? I was having this very conversation the other day. When you come up with ideas to pitch, you can no longer take one idea all around town. When this began, you had network ideas, and cable ideas. Which was a bit of a pain, to have to develop more ideas. Because prior to the beginning of this fragmentation, writers generally had one idea that they pitched to the networks. If you didn't sell it, then cable was the dumping ground. But as the business changed and networks passed on more stuff that cable was able to turn into hits, people started turning more towards cable and developing just for them. Hence the network ideas, and the cable ideas. Cable networks started developing their own identities.

But then cable, led mostly by the success of the USA shows, began to build on that. More cable networks developed more identities. And as these networks are mostly owned by the studios that own broadcast networks, the success of that model started to bleed into networks. Establishing a brand identity is crucial to the success of a network. I know that's obvious, but I think it can get a little muddled because the broadcast networks are having a tough time. There's no viewer loyalty because we can basically watch anything we want whenever we want to watch it. So people don't settle in on CBS. They don't watch ABC, or NBC. This makes branding incredibly difficult. But over on USA, every show has the same structure, feel and look. They don't have to branch out and do comedy, reality, family drama, or darker shows. The broadcast networks are, I think, struggling because they still adhere to an old model. It's SO much easier to cross-promote your shows when all of your shows are watched by the same audience. The broadcast networks seem to think that this is still happening for them, but it isn't. So cross-promoting a drama during a comedy or a reality show (which causes its own sets of problems on broadcast) isn't going to work. It's not the same audience. But cross-promoting The Royal Pains during Burn Notice, that is absolutely going to work.

The scope has narrowed so much that a network's brand identity can't exist in comedy, drama and reality. It just can't. When Lost became a hit, then the networks all wanted the next Lost. This is not a successful strategy, because Lost was unique... like ALL hits are. And that's what made it a hit. But rather than accepting the alchemy of the situation, the networks tried to deconstruct what made it a hit. And that's impossible. They still try it because in the corporate atmosphere that these executives unfortunately have to occupy, they generally aren't going to get fired if they build a show based on what came before. But if they take a chance on something and it fails, then they can be considered to blame. So it's fairly obvious why they take the route they take, and who can blame them?

So the executives are getting more specific with what they want. For example, a network may tell the writers they have on deals (these are mostly the writers who will sell projects, BTW) that they want a modern take on The Count Of Monte Cristo. While there are all kinds of things wrong with this that go straight to the heart of what makes television work in the first place, for right now, this makes sense. The broadcast networks have put themselves in the position of having to narrow their focus. So it's better that they tell writers exactly what they need instead of pretending that it's still all about a writer's passion. That's not where we are right now.

Where we are is, writers have to come up with ideas for each outlet. We know this, but the industry hasn't quite caught up with it, which makes "development season" rather a cluster-fuck. Everybody needs to understand that we are no longer going to be able to take out one idea and ride that sucker all the way to the end of the pitching season. Producers are starting to get this, which is fantastic. Now everyone else needs to get onboard. We don't have the luxury to just be dreamers anymore. We have to be practical and proactive. Writers and producers and agents and managers have to become marketing professionals and develop specifically for each market. This is super tough for a lot of writers, who may struggle with one idea for a year and put all of their hopes on it. This is somewhat easier for writers on deals, because they know going in which market they will attempt to crack. For the rest of us, who are on our own, that's a shitload of ideas to prepare. Not only is it about coming up with the idea, but then you have to create an entire television show - which takes a long fucking time - only to pitch it at one or (if you're lucky) two places. And unless you're pitching at HBO or Showtime (and you're not), you have to make sure the show seems episodic. Easier if it's a cop show. Harder if it isn't. Because at the end of the day, they all still have syndication in the backs of their minds, and you have to be aware of that. If someone tells you that your show doesn't feel like a show, that probably has a lot to do with it.

What is truly frustrating is that even with all of these different and unique markets, there still isn't a strong place to sell a genre show.

We're still not working with a new business model, but I think we're getting closer to doing that. Nobody knows exactly what it is, but I think the first step has to do with the stories. What do networks want to hear? Who do they want to hear it from? How will writers react to being directed in a much more stringent way?

Personally, tell me what you want and I'll come up with a pitch. I think we need to be this way but it's tricky because agents and producers don't all seem to get this yet. Instead, you wind up crafting pitches in a black hole and then find out afterwards that you can't pitch them anywhere. That's a huge fucking waste of time. I am giddy when a rep sends me a list of demands from a network. Giddy! Because the directives are getting so specific so if that's what they're looking for, that makes my job easier no matter what anyone thinks. PLEASE JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT, HOLLYWOOD. I don't need my ego stroked here. I want to sell some shows.

And that is, to me, the state of television at the moment.

So when some blog fellow talks about how there's no such thing as episodic television anymore because The Sopranos ruined it, he doesn't know what he's talking about. He hasn't done the work necessary to understand the state of the business. It's one thing to glance at the surface of things and it's another entirely to get down into the gutter and figure out what's happened to the business that has created these symptoms. I think that's much more interesting than complaining about people mainlining seasons of Breaking Bad.