Anatomy of a Bad Movie

#Film

Mon, Apr 14th, 1997 02:00 by Raymond Belair ARTICLE

"How did that piece of crap ever get made? I could have written a better movie!"

How many times have you walked out of the theater muttering these phrases? Chances are with a little work you probably could have put together a superior script, but that doesn't mean a good movie will come of it. Film, more so than any other art form, is a collaborative effort.

Symphony violinists don't ad lib while performing Beethoven's 9th, nor will a Broadway director bring in a new writer to punch-up the third act of Hamlet. In Hollywood, the originator of the source material, the screenwriter, has the least amount of input into the finished product once it leaves his hands. It's been said that you can't make a good movie from a bad script, but that you can make a bad movie from a good script.

Here's how.

A producer is usually the first person a completed script goes to on its way to becoming a movie. Producers find strong, bankable material,get a top director and as many A-list stars to commit to it as possible,then sell this package to a studio that has the clout to green-light the project. In order to attract Mel, Demi or Scorsese in the first place,the script needs to be tailored to the target celebrity. This mean re-writes, maybe by the original writer, but more often by a hired gun with a quick spell-checker. Then it needs to be molded to the needs ofthe studio most likely to lay out the millions needed to make a movie these days. If that studio already has a romantic alien invasion comedy just like the producer's script in development on production then there are more re-writes. The romantic alien becomes a menacing Cro-Magnon cloned from fossils by a brilliant, but lovely female scientist. It's not nearly as good as the original, but the studio loves it and buys it.

Now the studio has control. They bought the rights to the script,but all they really wanted was the concept. So they bring in their own writer, and commission a complete page-one re-write. By this time Demi has dropped out, but Pfeiffer is interested - only if she can play the Neanderthal. No problem. But it's too violent, the studio needs thisto get a PG-13 rating in order to get the widest possible audience. The action gets toned down and now there's a wacky miniature talking dinosaur named Squimpy as the comedic side-kick. As soon as everything is set,all the studio heads are fired and a whole new management team is brought in. The project gets shelved for a year or so, until a junior exec finds it and decides that this is the movie that will launch him into the corner office. Three drafts later, the script is now about a mad scientist/racecar driver who combines his DNA with a dinosaurs and morphs into Velocity-Raptor! Scorsese is long gone (probably off making The Godfather VII),so it goes to that hot new director who made such a big splash at the Sundance festival.

Now the flavor-of-the-week director has control. He's finally made it into the big time - no more independent films with budgets that barely rival most people's monthly grocery bill. But the studio has given him a truly awful script. On the other hand, they have given him an astronomical budget. He decides to do his own re-write and fix the rest while shooting. By this time the only talent available is the guy from the Old El Paso salsa commercials and the studio head's favorite daughter. Things aren't going so well during shooting, the director decides he needs more special effects and stunts to liven things up and the studio grudgingly ups the budget. It doesn't seem to be helping, but the director is confident that it can be fixed in the editing room. It can't. Now the studio has a finished product that they've invested $60million in and isn't worth the plastic it's printed on. So what do they do?

Throw more money into it! The marketing machine is fired up and media blitz is on. Awe inspiring previews show up at the theater. The buzz begins. Next, the stars show up on every talk show that will have them.

"It's the best thing since Last Action Hero," they squeal, enticing audiences everywhere. Kids are barraged with ads during their most holy of times - Saturday morning cartoons - and beg their parents to take them to see Velocity-Raptor or they'll never be able to show their faces at school again. A week before the opening, the hype reaches epic proportions. Raptor toys fill the stores, McDonald's beats out Burger King for the Happy Meal tie-in, and obscure reviewers who have yet to seethe film are raving about it. Interest is up, but so are expectations.

You dash out to the theater on opening weekend, buy your ticket and stake out a prime seat in the middle of the theater. As the opening credits flash, you notice the ?Based on a Story By' credit and see the original writer's name listed. The film starts and your heart sinks deeper and deeper into the pit of you stomach as you watch the garbage unfolding before you. You shuffle out of the theater, cursing the moron who came up with such a stupid idea in the first place. Meanwhile, the original writer shuffles out of another theater somewhere just as depressed wondering why he even received a screen credit since not a single word, character, or concept of his appeared in the film, and regrets even being associated with such a horrific production.

That's how that piece of crap got made. There are dozens of variations, but it comes down to the fact that so many people have control of the script at any given time. In many cases this collaborative process will improve a script on its way to production, with each participant applying their unique talent and contributing something of quality. But,too often, it has the opposite effect of diluting the original idea,making it overly commercial or formulaic. So the next time you get suckered into seeing a bad movie, try not to heap all the blame on the writer - it takes a lot of good people to make a bad movie.

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