Baseball Toaster Screen Jam
A Lot of Trouble
2007-05-31 08:36
by Jon Weisman

On the Lot, the filmmakers' American Idol that premiered on Fox this month, has been tanking in the ratings to such an extent that television audiences might not get to see who wins the big prize. But even so, there is something worthwhile to be learned from it.

Filmmakers, learn to tell a story. Please.

Mass access to filmmaking technology today has redefined what an amateur production looks like. When I pursued screenwriting fulltime, I wouldn't have had the resources to make a professional-looking film. I wouldn't have had a clue how to make it look good, either, but presumably that's something I could study. But for the candidates on Lot, at least in the one-minute shorts produced in the round of 18, strong production values were the norm, even in work done on the fly.

But in learning how to film, these would-be directors seem to have abandoned any schooling in storytelling. Considering these were the finalists, even though it was a made-for-TV competition, it was shocking how little sense these people had of making their content worth watching, no matter how pretty it looked. The pieces were riddled with hackneyed elements in a way that made you think of Idol singers forgetting the words or letting their voices crack, without apology.

We at Variety were asked to write capsule reviews of the 18 shorts. I took on two myself, though I watched them all. In the end, I felt privileged to get to review one of the three or so out of 18 that showed discernable storytelling skill. Yes, it's hard to tell a complete story in a minute, but not so hard that so few should be up to the challenge.

Lot was not a strong showing for Hollywood's future, but it was a useful cautionary tale. If you're an aspiring filmmaker, make sure you're not spending too long fooling around with the gadgets. Learn to write, or if you're not going to write your own material, learn how to read. Film is a visual medium, but without worthwhile content, all you've got is the negative.

2007-05-31 11:08:05
1.   the OZ
My best filmmaking professor in college was far more concerned with the construction of something dramatic than in any values of production, which he never took into account when grading (other than poor audio, which is unforgivable). He had a roundabout way of teaching how to build a narrative, but he always came back to the idea that film is literature. He said if you want to be a good filmmaker, you need to read voraciously (things like Kafka and Remembrance of Things Past), paying very close attention to what the author is trying to accomplish in each and every word and sentence. I think I understood his lesson, but I didn't have the patience or passion necessary for a filmmaking career and took another path. It sounds like the "Lot" gang could learn something from this guy.

Still, even if you have an innate understanding of crafting drama onscreen, it's no gimme to "put the ball in play", so to speak. The same professor frequently said, "even terrible films are very difficult to make." So in that way, being a filmmaker isn't all that different from being a baseball player. Even good ones make a lot of outs.

2007-05-31 11:10:34
2.   Kevin Lewis
Speaking of film, I finally watched "Children of Men" last night, and I really enjoyed it. I know I will need to watch it again, but after the first viewing, I was impressed by the acting and storyline.
2007-05-31 11:15:08
3.   Jon Weisman
1 - I'm with you. Clearly, you need to be able to do both, and like I said, I couldn't direct a film to save my life. But then again, I'm not trying to be a director.
2007-05-31 11:38:03
4.   the OZ
3 I think part of the problem is the way filmmakers are academically trained today. I learned filmmaking on a quarter system, typically taking two 10-week production courses in each of three quarters per academic year. A student will typically have three weeks to get their script and storyboards squared away, three weeks to produce, and three weeks to edit with a final cut due 10th week. Since student filmmaking also requires a good deal of volunteer cooperation, students will usually be working on two or three other classmates' projects simultaneously. And they're doing this in two different classes. There's just not enough time and mental energy to go into crafting a solid narrative in two weeks in addition to everything else they've got going on.

Plus, as you mentioned, the advent of powerful personal digital editing and effects equipment has made sharp style a relatively cheap commodity. I also assume that young filmmakers' peers are more impressed by a fun effect than a good story, so there's little social pressure to do really rich work.

2007-05-31 13:02:00
5.   MadMonk
2: I loved Children of Men and was glad that I had watched it in the theater. The movie's construction was impeccable, and the acting are very good.

3: They probably all went to the George Lucas School of Filmmaking.

2007-05-31 20:33:22
6.   Bluebleeder87
i don't know what it is about your writing style Jon but i truly enjoy reading your stuff. i ain't kissing up either i sincerely mean it.
2007-05-31 21:26:37
7.   Jon Weisman
Thanks, Bluebleeder.
2007-06-01 00:13:26
8.   mintxcore
but jon, telling a story is so much WORK! who needs a narrative when you have a star wipe?

I think the problem with visually interesting, storyless (or at least a painfully bad story) films is that people tend to be willing to ignore the story because they figure the hard part IS the production.

Of the handful of AFI thesis films I've seen, I've been shocked by how bad the stories have been and can't imagine what kind of mentor or teacher gave the go ahead? It almost seems to me that teaching someone how to shoot a beautiful looking film is way easier than teaching someone how to write an engaging, interesting story.

2007-06-01 00:37:29
9.   Andrew Shimmin
Is Zach Braff getting a lot of commercial VO work lately, or has he always had it, and I just didn't know his voice? Just today, I've recognized his reading the Wendy's and Cottonelle toilet paper spots.

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