Back in the last millennium (1999) I wrote an article for Attaché, the US Airways in-flight magazine, called “How to Watch a Movie.” Here’s how it began:
Hollywood is awash in movies no one will ever see. For every one of the 400 or so feature films that will actually get produced this year by the American film industry, there are hundreds of finished scripts in the hands of producers, directors, actors and agents waiting for a green light. The Writers Guild of America formally registers more than 35,000 newly finished screenplays every year and there are, depending on who you talk to, perhaps 20,000 scripts stacked in studio offices and at weekend poolsides, actively in play to one extent or another. According to Robert McKee, the current-reigning screenplay guru whose three-day, $475 seminars have now been attended by 25,000 people, Hollywood spends a half-billion dollars a year on story development, three-quarters of it on scripts that will never get produced.
How to Watch a Movie
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So how come the movies aren’t better? In fact, how come they aren’t great? With that kind of money flowing, why do we end up with Godzilla, Waterworld and I Know What You Did Last Summer instead of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet? What would Shakespeare have done with a three-picture development deal with Miramax? Or would they even know he was in town?
With so much creative product available, how do they pick and choose? And with all those stories from which to select, how come so many of the movies that arrive at our local cineplexes seem so much the same? Can’t they find something different for us to see?
The answer to that last question is yes, they certainly can. And the answer to the one before it is even simpler: They don’t want something different.
That was thirteen years ago. Now McKee’s seminars are four days, he gets $765 a head, and they’ve been attended by 50,000 people. (Think he’s unique? Google “screenwriting seminars.”)
But the other numbers haven’t changed much — thousands of scripts hoping to become films, $1 million spent on story development for each one that does. Neither has the explanation I gave back then: