Ghostbusters 2016?

In the run-up to the new Ghostbusters movie, much of the marketing had a clear undertone: “Go see this movie so the anti-woman internet trolls won’t win,” it seemed to say. In fact, in an odd parallel with the 2016 presidential campaigns, this message has eclipsed any discussion of the movie’s actual quality.

Lost in the discussion about whether a female-led Ghostbusters franchise reboot can succeed is this: Why is “Ghostbusters” considered a franchise? There was the excellent original movie in 1984 and a cash-grab sequel in 1989. There were tie-ins: the toy-driven kids’ cartoons from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s and the 2009 video game with  a plotline that, on the big screen, could have been the third part of a trilogy. Importantly, most of these center on the same characters as the original movie.

But media coverage of this year’s reboot seems to accept the idea that Ghostbusters is on par with the likes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel’s Cimematic Universe, Superman, and other film properties with long track records of success. That’s just not true. As an example, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters last year, it was the seventh movie in a lineup that enjoyed mixed critical reviews but scored big box office numbers across multiple decades, and – this is important – inspired an expanded universe of new characters. Ditto with recent Star Trek movies, which recast characters while, incredibly, keeping the old ones. And that’s in a universe which has enjoyed multiple successful spinoffs only tangentially related to the adventures depicted in the original televeision series. Again, until last week just about every successful incarnation of the Ghostbusters centered around the same four original characters.

That creates really unreasonable expectations of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters 2016, which flushes the old story completely in a very limited universe where the old story was pretty much the only story.

If the new Ghostbusters see their box office returns dip, don’t blame sexism. Blame Sony Pictures’ green light to build a new house on a pretty shaky foundation.

 

Funny First

“Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story.” – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis might have been talking about religion, but his words apply to politics, too. Overt politics makes for bad entertainment.

It’s a lesson America’s political conservatives certainly ought to have learned by now. Right-leaning would-be entertainers have spent years trying to counter the left’s dominance of the culture with movies that clumsily and unsubtly push conservative ideas. There’s a considerable list of failures. The awful 2011 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged bludgeoned audiences with bad acting, forced dialogue, and an anti-government message. In 2008, David Zucker’s An American Carol pushed unabashed patriotism with poor satire and awkward slapstick. Fox News tried to counter the Daily Show’s bias with “The Half Hour News Hour” in 2007 – a Weekend Update-wannabe whose laugh track was the only way viewers would know where the jokes were. There are numerous enough examples to prove that artists who focus on political messages first and their art second will lose their audiences.

That lesson applies on the left, too.

Will Farrell caught heat recently after media reports linked him to the title role in a project titled Reagan. The satirical comedy reportedly revolved around staff members coaxing the former President through his second White House term through the fog of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dementia is comedy gold, right?

Enough people thought otherwise – including Reagan’s family – that Farrell backed out of the project not 48 hours after those reports hit the mainstream news.

Unfortunately, the screenplay’s apparent goals went beyond making a political satire. Positioning Reagan – still the champion of so many on the center-right – as a witless buffoon comments negatively not only on conservatism, but Alzheimer’s as well. The would-be filmmakers (including Farrell, screenwriter Mike Rosolio and others attached to the project) seem to have allowed politics to cloud their judgment when considering what audiences would laugh at. Blinded by ideology, they lost sight of comedy.

It’s too bad, because there’s a nugget of value in that plot. Imagine this alternative: A party leader, so desperate to win some race (maybe state legislator or even Congress) hatches a plan. He recruits an aging, politically uninvolved former actor, who doesn’t watch much TV or pay attention to social media, into appearing in a “movie” about running for Congress. Except, the actor isn’t filming a movie, he’s filming commercials, and participating in actual debates rather than staged scenes. Now imagine Farrell, playing a comically demanding prima donna actor past his prime, as the hapless, unwitting candidate. (Maybe Steve Carell could play the unscrupulous party leader.)

In this version, the objects of satire are party leaders political image-makers. The film doesn’t target anyone else suffering from Alzheimer’s, or cast the voters and supporters of any particular side as easy dupes. It wouldn’t have the major buzz that controversial subject matter attracts, but with smart, witty writing and a tight plot, it could achieve the type of cult-hit status that films like Dave or Thank You for Smoking have enjoyed in political circles.

The film was early in its development. Perhaps, had news of the project not been so widely reported, smarter minds would have revised the concept as the script went through re-writes. More likely, the production would have suffered the same insular groupthink that made it acceptable to use dementia for laughs because of the patient’s political party. The most probable result would have been a disastrous finished film that inadvertently spent two hours making fun of people stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Audiences don’t want movies that sacrifice a story in pursuit of political points. Farrell, Rosolio, and company should be happy they learned this lesson before they sank any more time and money into a sure box office bomb.

3 Rules for Message-Driven Media

Unsurprisingly, my prediction that Atlas Shrugged would suck proved to be true.

Scathing review notwithstanding, the filmmakers deserve plaudits for the ambitious attempt.  The movie might have been a swing-and-miss, but you have to hand it to John Aglialaro, who ponied up the cash to get the picture made, and the team who put the thing together quickly.

The truth is that Atlas Shrugged falls into the trap so many attempts at “conservative entertainment” fall into.  It is reminiscent of 2004-2005, when several documentarians from the center-right grabbed a camera to answer left-wing movies like Supersize Me and Farenheit 9/11. Just about anyone who put something mildly amusing on videotape was labeled “the conservative Michael Moore.”  In the years since, others have followed in various media.  Fox News Channel’s “1/2 Hour News Hour” was supposed to be the conservative answer to the Daily Show.  Websites spoofing the news as a conservative answer to the Onion spring up every now and then.

Being “the conservative version of [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” is pretty much an epitaph, defining a project by its political views rather than its quality.  And unfortunately, that’s what happened to Atlas Shrugged.

This is, however, a teachable moment for those on the center-right who want to entertain people with a good message.

 

1.  Be entertaining first.

A major problem with Atlas Shrugged (the movie) was that its commitment to libertarian philosophy led to an unhealthy reliance on the book.  Plot points and even dialog were almost directly lifted from Ayn Rand’s text.  The result was muddled, outdated, and difficult to follow with characters and characterizations that were difficult for audiences to identify with.   With a plot that’s hard to follow and characters who are difficult to warm up to, philosophy becomes the most recognizable element of the film.

 

2.  Give the people someone to identify with. 

Speaking of characters, another common mistake of politically tainted entertainment is the lack of attention paid to character development.

Not to continue picking on Atlas Shrugged, but business moguls do not fall into the “warm fuzz” category.  That problem isn’t as pronounced in the book, which gives fuller portraits of the characters and allows the readers a peek into their thoughts.  In the movie, the titans of industry are simply business executives who happen to be in the story.  With the financial problems of 2007-2009 still close in the rear view mirror, that does not make for especially sympathetic characters. (Sure, there are many reasons it’s easier to create compelling characters in a book – dialog doesn’t have to be quite as sharp, and the body language of the actors isn’t as important.  But if you take on the task of producing visual media, accounting for that goes with the territory.)

More to the point, though, is the fact that the most memorable stories work on emotion, and having identifiable characters allows the audience to share in that emotion.  Star Wars is still celebrated because a generation of kids grew up pretending to be Luke Skywalker (and occasionally fighting with their brothers over who got to be Luke Skywalker even though, you know, you’d think the oldest would get first pick).  Everyone thinks of themselves, at times, as the orphan living under the stairs, so we all share in Harry Potter’s elevation from forgotten one to chosen one.  We all wish we could spend the day bowling and drinking like Jeffrey Lebowski (or like Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII: Man, It Sure Is Boring Without the Empire).

 

3.  Have respect for your audience.

The show goes on because of the folks in the seats.  Politically-motivated entertainers who use the stage as a pulpit to advance messages that are important to them may do so at the expense of what’s important to the audience.

That isn’t a problem for those tuning into overtly political entertainment, where strong views are expected – for instance, dialing up Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann.  The people tuning into those types of shows are doing so because they want to hear the entertainer’s views.  But the audiences in most movie theaters (regardless of the individual audience members’ personal philosophies) are going for something completely different.  Ditto for the family that sits down to watch a sitcom together.  (Do people even actually do that anymore?)

In that respect, there’s a sort of arrogance and rudeness in coming to the stage to push a message; it prioritizes the entertainer’s goals over the audience’s.  Unless you’re Don Rickles, nothing turns off a crowd faster than disrespect.  A little subtlety goes a long way.

Why I fear the Atlas Shrugged movie will suck

The timing is perfect for a movie based on Atlas Shrugged.  The political debates waged in the last five years offer a nice backdrop to the hypotheticals Rand came up with more than a half century ago.   So the opening of the movie this weekend should be a cause for celebration.  I haven’t seen it yet (I plan on it), but color me cautious.  Here’s the trailer:

The fact that the film being released this weekend is part of a trilogy is concerning; it implies that the filmmakers are sticking as closely as possible to the original text.  That’s probably a bad idea.  Aside from the oft-repeated concern that stuffing an 1100-page book into a 120-minute motion picture is difficult, the caricatures of lobbyists, crony capitalists, and government officials translate better in print than they are likely to on screen (based on the trailer above).

And, despite the fact that the film is reportedly set in 2016 (the not-too-distant future), the plot revolves around the railroad business.  When Rand wrote the book, railroad barons were not long removed from being cast as the villains of American industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s; today’s audiences can’t relate to that.  More troubling is the promotional strategy.  The Tax Day  release, combined with the heavy influence of FreedomWorks, suggests that traditional movie promotions will not work.  If that’s the case, then Atlas Shrugged will be viewed primarily by conservative audiences who already agree with its messages.  It won’t get widespread exposure to audiences that just want to go see a compelling movie and don’t care about politics.

All of this adds up to a misguided effort to make a movie which drives home a point rather than tells a good story.  Media which forgets entertainment at the expense of politics gets lumped into the latter category and loses its widespread appeal.

There are plenty of reasons why books rarely make it to the screen without major overhauls.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfathertold of the childhood of Vito Corleone and the back stories of several other characters; then the book was translated to film much of those details were skimmed out.  The problem with Atlas Shrugged as a movie is not simply length, but the fact that the book uses that length to unravel a mystery around the core concept of a production strike.

In that central theme is a very compelling movie idea based loosely on (but still true to) Rand’s work.  What if the people who held up the world simply shrugged their responsibility?  Instead of being national in scope, the idea might have been better set in a small town, perhaps with small business owners rather than moguls of industry as the protagonists.  That would help audiences relate to the characters – and ultimately the messages.  After all, who wants to root for a billionaire?  (That’s why the Richie Rich movie lost money at the box office.  Don’t you dare blame John Larroquette.  Don’t you dare.)

With a relatively low $10 million production cost,  the movie will be true to one core Rand value: it is almost guaranteed to make its money back even if it bombs miserably.  Assuming an average ticket price of $7.89, Atlas Shrugged need only sell 1.3 million tickets to cover expenses.  Putting a price tag on the missed opportunity to tell a compelling story for our times is much more difficult.

And now, the real news about the fake news

The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month.  The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real.  It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs.  It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like  Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s.  The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived.  Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.

Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success.  What has given the Onion its staying power?

The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution.  It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email.  When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.

There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content.  The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth.  The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows.  None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend.  Funny always came first – and the money followed.  Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.

Welcome back, Keith!

Keith Olbermann will return to MSNBC on Tuesday night after a box-checking suspension for his monetary donations to Democratic candidates.  In defense of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow bragged that the NBC News rule against such donations illustrated the difference between MSNBC and Fox News – calling Fox News a “political organization” where on-air personalities act as political fundraisers.

Johnny Dollar’s Place has a video that makes a point I tried to make last week (and makes it much better): that just because they aren’t reporting to the FEC doesn’t mean that MSNBC’s news opinion.entertainment personalities aren’t making campaign contributions:

This weekend in DC: Sanity gets restored.

The left is looking for a savior, and Jon Stewart is in town.

The Big Daddy co-star’s Rally to Restore Sanity, along with famed Congressional witness Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Fear, descends upon Washington DC this weekend just before the election.  Many are hoping this event – which figures to be huge, both here in DC and in satellite rallies across the country – helps round up the Obama flock in a final push for the polls.  That hope is misplaced, if only because of timing.

If the idea was really to organize and mobilize, the weekend before Election Day is far, far too late.  When Glenn Beck and FreedomWorks held rallies in August and September, there were still months – months! – to go before election day.  There were doors to knock on, voters to call, and independent friends and neighbors to convince.  Those who attend this weekend’s rallies will surely vote, but aren’t likely to impact campaigns.  (And even if they did, who’s to say that the Stewart/Colbert crowd will all be center-left oriented?  I have plenty of right-leaning friends who are looking forward to the weekend.)

Stewart and Colbert can be pretty funny – especially Colbert, whose commitment to staying in character is nearly unparalleled among television comics.  More than likely, their show will have more value as a comedy extravaganza than as a political movement.