Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pirate Wisdom

Terry Rossio.


How about Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot?

Still nothing?

Okay... how about The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl, Shrek, Alladin... rink any bells now? Terry & Ted are among Hollywood's most exceptional writers, penning all the above blockbuster hits. If any of their films bombed (Small Soldiers, Godzilla), or were received with dubious acclaim (The Puppet Masters, The Legend of Zorro), you can be sure it almost always wasn't their fault—as is common practice in Hollywood, someone either stepped in to fix a good thing or didn't listen to their story notes.

Terry & Ted are also responsible for starting up the phenomenal screenwriter website Wordplay almost ten years ago where you can expect to unearth a treasure chest of screenwriting goodies. Terry & Ted's Wordplay Columns ought to be mandatory reading for all aspiring screenwriters.

As it happens, Terry also has a blog on Myspace. He doesn't post frequently, but when he does, it's long... like, epic long. Because it's really just a day-by-day production diary, he'd do better (in my opinion) to break it into bite-sized chunks to maintain viewer interest over time. In this age of A.D.D. surfers, who has time anymore to read through a small novella of piecemeal anecdotes?

Evidently, I do.

Today I found a kernel of wisdom about the value of using test audiences:

Jerry [Bruckheimer] recalled the audience preview to Glory Road. Jerry had seen the film and liked it, the studio thought they were in trouble, turns out the test score was through the roof. Gore [Verbinski, the director of Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest] said he had the same thing happen in reverse with Mouse Hunt. They had a decent score from a previews screening, but the studio forced some changes and then the studio loved it, but Gore hated it. The new score was 22 points lower, thank goodness, and Gore got to put it back the way it was. Audience testing giveth and audience testing taketh away.

Gore put forth a theory on test audiences, that they put themselves under a sort of pressure, they want to be 'right' in test rooms, which is not the same experience as when they pay cash. Ted noted that audiences are forgiving for up to twenty minutes in real theaters—since they chose the film, it's like picking a horse in a horse race, they're rooting for it to do well. Jerry noted the key value in test screenings is the response that tells you exactly where you forced them to be confused. "You just can't believe you left out some key detail," he said, shaking his head.

What I like most about this quip is that it equates film viewers to gamblers. Adam Smith once wrote, "The seller assigns a price, but the buyer assigns a value." Just so, if you're reaching into your wallet to pay for a movie ticket, it's a gamble: you're betting that the value of the product is going to be worth more than the money you're buying it for. If not, you wouldn't buy it. And when you put money down, you are still hoping your horse wins, even if evidence is to the contrary for the first lap or so.

Another insight is how influential test audiences can be, even on the writers themselves. Anyone who's seen The Player will remember this amusing (or frightening, depending on your point of view) exchange:
Griffin Mill: It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.

June: What elements?

Griffin Mill: Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

June: What about reality?

Storytellers want to tell a good story, and they want to please their audience... but at the end of the day, a storyteller who respects his ability to tell a good story might do better to remain true to his or her own internal story tuning fork. You tell a story you want to tell and get clear with what kind of audience is willing to hear it—happy ending or not. The Cohen brothers are so aware of how niche their audience is (so Tanya tells me) that they storyboard every frame of the film and only shoot what they storyboard.

Trying to save dimes, some filmmakers skip the storyboarding step because storyboarding ain't cheap, but the Cohen Brothers are extremely smart because the money spent on storyboarding in pre-production will save boatloads of money during production from no unused setups, which means more money made overall.

And that means, ultimately, you get invited back to the table to keep making films.

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