The Art of Story: On Life Support…and Fading.

March 7, 2011

From Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:

Where Have You Gone, Story Teller?

The Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

As a result of the lethal combination of the denigration of writers and the fear of risk taking and other factors in The New Hollywood, technical wizards abound but storytellers are scarce indeed.

The Old Hollywood generation of storyteller directors like Frank Capra, Billy Wilder (pictured at left), Preston Sturgis, Sidney Pollack, William Wyler, Anthony Minghella, and Stanley Kramer are sadly no longer with us.

Wonderful directors like Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, The American President), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), Sidnet Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict), James Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Spanglish), Barry Levinson (Rainman, Good Morning Vietnam, Diner) and Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Silkwood, Catch 22) are still making films but only occasionally.

There are very few directors working today who specialize in character-driven stories with no visual effects.

My old friend  Nancy Meyers (pictured at left, The Holiday, It’s Complicated, What Women Want ) and Nora Ephron (Julie and Julia, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail ) still proudly carry that torch, as do a very few others like Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction), Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown) and Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger, Reign Over Me) but they are in a rapidly dwindling minority. (I personally consider Binder to be the most underappreciated writer/director working in film today.)

Many of us embrace special films that we can watch again and again. The primary reason for our desire to do so lies in the fact that we never tire of spending time with the characters that inhabit that particular film. Characters who are that memorable comfort us and make us feel like we are spending time with old friends. While the actors obviously play a huge role in creating those characters, any actor will tell you that memorable characters are first created by the screenwriter.

Compounding the challenge of making character-driven films is the unfortunate fact that genre directors are given far more latitude and many more chances than directors who make character-driven adult-oriented films.

For instance, Cameron Crowe made the hugely successful Jerry Maguire but then stumbled commercially on Elizabethtown (which I personally loved) in 2005. Crowe hasn’t had a film released since then.

On the other hand, M.Night Shyamalan directed the huge hit The Sixth Sense in 1999. After that, he made five other films (Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening), all of which fizzled at the box office but studios continued to back his films. I am not lobbying here against Mr. Shyamalan, whom I admire. I am simply illustrating how treacherous it has become for writer/directors like Cameron Crowe in the New Hollywood.

As the disappointing box office summer of 2010 dragged on, the lack of story emphasis in The New Hollywood was duly noted.

On June 29, 2010, USA Today quoted Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo: “I think Hollywood didn’t even try this summer. They decided to let sequels and spin-offs dominate the summer and didn’t worry about story.”

Update: In 2011, a record 27 sequels will be released.

Memo to The New Hollywood: some records are not meant to be broken.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lynn Anderson March 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

I agree completely! I’m a huge fan of Nancy Meyer’s witty, well-written, true-to-life screenplays. Another extraordinarily talented writer whom I would love to see step up from television to film is Beth Sullivan, writer/producer of “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman”, but it appears as though she’s now doing image work for Pixar these days. Maybe it got too tough for her too!

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