where the big stories are

I recently ran across an interesting – albeit brief – read about the current state of Hollywood. In it, the writers says

Part of Hollywood’s current decay was unavoidable. As a monoculture splintered permanently into niche groups, the idea of a film everybody sees and everybody can’t stop talking about fades further into the cultural past. The rise of cable networks willing to spend serious money on shows like “Game of Thrones” further dents Hollywood’s ability to be the main supplier of big stories.

The article then goes on to discuss how the business model they’ve created has painted them in a corner where heartfelt sincerity is out, out, out and big, big, big profits are in, in, in. Where audiences have, when it comes to summer movie-watching fare, either this superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved -or not) or that superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved – or not).

And if the superhero movies are all basically interchangeable and easily forgotten, where’s the magic in going to the movies? Short answer: there is none. Which is why people are staying home and watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or whatever.

Now, I understand the financial logistics of this. I know foreign markets (China, Russia, Israel, Germany) drive profit. That Hollywood, being a global business – as in the whole world and not just America, a fact we somehow forget here in the States – isn’t necessarily making movies just for the domestic audience which, in truth, feed less and less into their bottom lines.

Really, though, Hollywood knows films that are heavy on action, explosions, dudes in capes and light on dialogue are easily translatable for Chinese, Russian, German audiences. And if your business is making money – and Hollywood’s is – a film that translates easily regardless of borders is, or could be, the way to go.

But they’re forgetting one important fact. They’re ignoring the one thing that makes it harder and harder to get those butts in the seats:

Where are the big stories?

Really. Where’s the frickin’ magic? Why go to the movies anymore? Where’s that one film that slyly incorporates those special effects audiences love while giving us characters audiences care about, feel for and never forget? Because that’s the film this industry needs. Desperately.

Being the relentless optimist I am, I strongly believe you can have action and magic in a film without relinquishing heart and soul.

If you revisit franchises like Harry Potter or even The Hunger Games, those movies ticked a lot of boxes. Centered around strong narratives – remember those? – they both successfully blended the fantastic with emotion. They married action with heart. And they gave audiences necessary, important battles without abandoning reason or hope. Cities didn’t need to crumble, the universe didn’t need to quake and thousands of cars didn’t have to get trampled underfoot for those films to make their point and make an impact on audiences.

You see? If you have a true big story – not just a loud story – you can go simple. If you’re supported by a strong narrative peopled with unique, relatable characters, you can be quiet. And if those people are imbued with hope, heartache, anger, fear, helplessness, frustration, loneliness, doubt, strength, the story they tell, even without the predictable Armageddon, will be unforgettable.

Why? Because no matter how different that person on the screen is from those in the audience, they’ll be speaking the same language. A language which doesn’t rely on translation or destruction or annihilation. A language that can be felt in a place deeper than words.

Emotion.

If you really want to find the big stories in today’s Hollywood, the stories audiences are truly craving – reminder: everyone’s staying home watching cable — that’s where you begin. With what people feel. And if you can bring to life a solid story with a character who is blessed – or cursed – with the impossible and yet is still driven by their hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, disappointments and dread, a person driven by their emotions, that’s where audiences will go. In fact, that’s where audiences will go again and again and again.

I believe if you can reach into someone’s heart, speak to that part of them that wants to feel – it’s why we go to the movies, right? – and reawaken that innate hope we all have being part of something bigger while still entertaining, still dazzling, still scaring and surprising them, they’ll come. They’ll leave their homes, come to the theater, make a night of it and see that film. They will. We’ve seen it happen before. And, god willing, we’ll see it happen again.

But that journey has to begin with the heart.

Because that’s where the big stories are.

 

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JK’s Casual Vacancy

I was going to title this Post “reality bites”, but decided to play nice.

A rousing discussion got me thinking about the Why of a celebrated author receiving 1 Star Rankings from a staggering 42% of people over on Amazon. Are people just vindictive little howler monkeys — yeah, I used that phrase over in the comments elsewhere, but loved it so I’m using it again — and eager to tear down something they’ve built up because it’s become too successful?

Perhaps. Oh, okay. Probably.

But I think it’s a bit more complex than that.

You see, for the last hundred years or so, JK Rowling has been carried by a once in a lifetime marketing juggernaut not seen since Jesus was body slammed into immortality on the back of the Bible (a very clever bit of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th century PR if there ever was one).

Am I overstating things? Yeah, but a point is being made. Bear with me.

Having left the Potter Universe, the door of Hogwarts closed and locked behind her, she’s now trying to create a new universe. Give new people life. Dazzle with a new story. Mesmerize us in unexpected and, more importantly to her, different ways.

But it doesn’t seem to be working.

You see, if we look at things realistically, the success of Harry Potter was less about the brilliance of the Writer JK Rowling than it was her talent as a storyteller. It was the boy Harry Potter tapping into the angst and struggles and difficulties of being different and disliked. For being hated because of who he was, his scar forever branding him as an Other. It was about being trapped by a Fate others couldn’t understand. And being punished for it despite the fact you were going to save the world and the butts of everyone who now hated you. And beneath all that it was about the world not recognizing just how special and unique you were.

For YA audiences — a genre that was forgotten and on the verge of death before Potter came along — it was the equivalent of hitting their G Spot. Over and over and over again. They were Harry and Hermione and Ron. And so were their friends. Even if you were an adult, the books spoke to you, the hapless Potter and his wand exorcising your adolescent ghosts.

And that’s where the juggernaut comes in.

But it wasn’t about the writing. It was NEVER about the writing.

Now JK is asking that it be about the writing. And therein lies the problem.

No longer insulated by the success of the Potter Universe, people are rediscovering the WRITER JK Rowling and not the Hogwarts storyteller. And many aren’t liking what they see.

Which could be a good thing for her in the long run.

THE CASUAL VACANCY will be a hit based on the curiosity factor alone. But, if early reviews are to be believed, it won’t be beloved. In fact, it might even be universally panned as the worst steaming pile of dog dookie since 50 SHADES. Which lowers the bar for ol’ JK. Which makes the feverish excitement surrounding the release of the book after this a bit less daunting. Having been disappointed by her last one, people will expect less. Expecting less, they’ll go in with an open mind.

And that gives her a chance to start from scratch, really break the bonds of Harry, and have people rediscover her as a Writer who writes and not the woman who created Harry Potter.

Five books from now, will we remember the 42% who hated her first foray away from Potter? Probably not.

But I guarantee you we’ll be looking at JK Rowling as more than just the woman who brought us Hogwarts.