The Wrong Lessons

A final post, from now, from the “Things I Wrote for WIRED That Were Never Published” vault. This is from August last year.

As the Comic-Con announcements last month demonstrated, 2015 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for genre cinema, with Superman/Batman and [World of] WarCraft being added to a summer line-up for that year that already included Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars Episode VII, Independence Day 2, the reborn Terminator, Jurassic Park IV, the next James Bond movie, Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, Finding Dory, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and the final Hunger Games movie. Pretty impressive, perhaps, but also more than a little derivative.

The swathe of anticipated big budget sequels doesn’t stop there for the year; also anticipated at some point in 2015 are follow-ups to Mission Impossible, Prometheus, Avatar, Snow White and The Huntsman and, somewhat unexpectedly, Pitch Perfect (On the plus side, we might finally have the “Cups” song out of our head by that point). When it comes to “original” genre productions, we seem to be limited to Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet and Clank and Marvel’s Ant-Man, all of which are, of course, adaptations of properties in other media.

This might seem like a sad state of affairs — perhaps one that can only lead to cannibalization given the sheer amount of big budget movies lined up to face off against each other — but you can’t blame movie executives alone for it. The genre movie slate of 2015 is very much a result of what happened this summer at the box office.

Let’s start with the reliance on familiar material. As the 2013 box office to date demonstrates, it just doesn’t pay to create something new in the genre space — or, at least, it doesn’t pay as well as recreating something old. Seven of the top 10 movies of the year in the U.S. have genre trappings, whether they feature superheroes, science fiction or monsters (Yes, monsters in university still count; I’m not counting Fast and Furious 6, even though that is essentially Car Avengers at this point in the series), and each of those movies is based upon an existing property, which isn’t entirely surprising. After all, the majority of genre movies released each year are remakes, sequels or adaptations of stories that have already created a fanbase elsewhere.

From a business point of view, this makes a certain amount of sense: Genre movies tend to be more expensive than non-genre movies — because of the cost of the necessary special effects and visual trickery necessary to make the audience believe in something that, for the most part, couldn’t exist in the real world — so the prospect of investing that increased cost in a known quantity with relatively established fanbase at least appears to be less of a financial risk than putting the same amount of money into something new, unknown and unproven.

The problem arises when the same issue is approached from an aesthetic direction. Simply put, familiarity breeds contempt, and there are only so many times we can see the same stories being told, or the same characters in action, before it gets boring. Entertainment has to be about novelty to some degree, which — by definition — requires something that we haven’t seen before. This is an area where non-genre movies — comedies, dramas and other features which tend towards realism in ways that require less money to conjure onscreen — have the edge on genre: It’s less of an investment, or business risk, to come up with something new, meaning that the ratio of “new” versus franchise outside of the genre space is far greater than it is for genre output.

As much as many would like that ratio to change — and for genre movies to become less dominated by all-too-literal attempts to recapture what has worked before — it can be difficult to argue against the business math responsible for the way things are, especially when those non-franchised movies that do get released end up falling short of the success enjoyed by the alternative at the box office. To wit: 2013 had a handful of “new,” non-franchise genre movies, each with some level of draw to mainstream movie audiences, and none made more than $100 million at the U.S. box office.

After Earth and Oblivion, both of which told similar “Earth is screwed, so we moved on but then we came back and it totally wasn’t what we expected” stories with different massive movie stars attached (Will Smith and Tom Cruise, in that order), stalled out at $60 million and $89 million, respectively. The much-hyped, fiercely-defended Pacific Rim is sitting around $86 million. The most successful of this year’s All-New Apocalypse fiction, This Is The End, is also the cheapest (It cost $32 million to make, compared with Pacific Rim‘s $190 million, After Earth‘s $130 million and Oblivion‘s $120 million); it’s managed to rake in $95 million to date.

If there’s a second lesson to learn from this summer for movie executives besides “stick to what you know,” it’s “when you choose to gamble, make your gambles as cheaply as possible.” Besides Pacific Rim, Disney’s wildly expensive Lone Ranger movie earned just $85 million, despite costing the studio $215 million to produce, never mind market. In comparison, “smaller” — and, tellingly, non-genre — movies like Now You See Me (which cost $75 million) and Identity Thief (which cost $35 million) not only recouped their investment but went on to move into pure profit.

So what, exactly, is going on here? Is there a cap on genre movies that don’t have a nostalgic or recognizable “in” to get audiences past the speed bump of traditionally niche-oriented material where suspension of disbelief in the unfamiliar is required? Are there only so many people who are interested in paying to watch robots, monsters and superheroes when they’re not accompanied by some level of childhood nostalgia?

It’s been said often enough that audiences need to vote with their dollars when it comes to demanding a certain kind of entertainment. That idea is complicated when what’s being offered up is so limited. If the audience wants to see all-new original material, but doesn’t want to see the kind of material that’s on offer in Pacific Rim, Oblivion or After Earth, should they “vote” for it or not? If the kinds of movies they want to see are only available in existing franchises, is paying for a ticket voting for that particular kind of movie in terms of tone and plot, or for “franchise movies” as some kind of invincible monolith?

Based on the box office results of the year so far, it’s no surprise that movie studios are focusing on the franchises as much as possible for summer 2015; they’re as much of a sure thing as is possible for the industry these days, even if the amazing, worrying pile up of Must-See Movies listed above suggests that some will inevitably fall by the wayside.

If, however, the lack of new, original genre movies is the result of the performance of this year’s batch of end of the world flicks, that’s unfortunate, and the result of a skewed test sample. Offer the audience some new ideas with the variety, optimism and invention–not to mention, please, some sense of frugality; no more $190 million budgets–missing from this year’s examples, Hollywood, and see whether or not the mainstream audience is ready to watch a genre movie that they don’t already know the story of. The alternative is simply surrendering to the law of diminishing returns.

Who is the Doctor?

From the never-published final installment of the on-again, off-again recaps on WIRED’s Underwire for the last season of Doctor Who. Funny to revisit in light of subsequent episodes.

With “The Name of The Doctor,” this latest season of Doctor Who came to an end with something that was neither a bang nor a whimper — in large part because the final few moments of the episode turned it from a revelatory finale into confusing, frustrating glimpse of things to come.

Ignoring for a second the final scene of the episode, “The Name of The Doctor” oddly crystalized a lot of the problems this seventh season has suffered through. Like so many episodes this run, Saturday’s final episode was good enough as opposed to particularly strong, and found itself relying on familiar characters, ideas and audience goodwill to distract from writing that was surprisingly messy given the series’ recent history, and filled with plot holes and unexplored ideas that could upset the story’s movement with just a minute’s exploration.

And what distractions the episode provided! We saw Clara with each of the previous Doctors in scenes that demonstrated seeming lack of convincing green screen technology (The second and fifth Doctors, in particular, appeared in scenes with a Clara obviously shot elsewhere and elsewhen. By comparison, the scenes with the first and third Doctors seemed to give her a graininess that matched the original shots), as well as henchmen that were reminiscent of both the popular Silence from the show’s sixth season and also Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Gentlemen, from way back when, and a third appearance this year from the increasingly popular Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax, the alien detectives from the Victorian era. Underneath all of this, however, was a script that ultimately failed to convince.

The basic plot of “The Name of The Doctor” was, at heart, very straightforward. Our heroes were lured into a trap by a former enemy out for revenge, which they only survived due to self-sacrifice on both of their parts. It was the meat on those bones where things got somewhat convoluted: The Doctor and Clara found themselves on Trenzalore, the site of the Doctor’s grave at some unspecified time in the character’s future in order to save Vastra, Strax and Jenny from the Great Intelligence — the villain from a storyline from the series’ original run, as well as the most recent Christmas Special and the first episode from this most recent run. After death, all that remained of the Doctor in the tomb wasn’t a body, but his personal timestream, which was less an abstract concept than a quasi-physical lightshow that could be “entered” by first the Great Intelligence seeking to undo all of the Doctor’s good works, and then Clara — attempting to stop the Great Intelligence — and the Doctor himself.

That Clara was successful was hardly a surprise; the show could hardly let the Doctor die with episodes left on the clock (and anyway, we dealt with the faux threat of the Doctor dying last year). Instead, the interest in Clara’s attempt came from the fact that, by entering the Doctor’s timestream, she became scattered across his life as multiple people with no recollection of who she had been — the multiple Clara’s we’d encountered up to this point, and the “impossible girl” who had captured the Doctor’s attention in the first place, leading to his meeting the “main” Clara for the first time. Well, that and the other character Clara and the Doctor met inside the Doctor’s timestream, but we’ll get to him soon enough.

For every smart idea in the episode — The explanation for what made Clara the “impossible girl” after all, her remembering events that had been wiped from history because the Tardis was leaking time, the post-Doctor’s death slow revision of the universe’s history, and how that altered character relationships — there were moments that just seemed unfinished or needlessly rushed. The Doctor warned about crossing over with his own timeline and later collapses from having done so, but just two season finales ago, “The Big Bang” relied entirely on his doing just that without any ill-effects, for example; similarly, the surprisingly speedy and easy discovery of Clara within the Doctor’s timestream felt unearned, and undercutting the drama of her having seemingly sacrificed herself doing so just minutes earlier.

But see, we’re already at the final sequence I mentioned earlier. Up until that point, “The Name of The Doctor,” for all its flaws, felt like an ending (albeit a disappointing one). Then, in the midst of the Doctor’s personal timestream, Clara and the Doctor met a shadowy figure with his back to the camera; he was someone the Doctor was seemingly afraid of — or afraid of Clara discovering, perhaps — describing the figure as, essentially, the incarnation he’d like to forget, the Doctor who doesn’t save the day.

That this new Doctor — A future incarnation that “our” Doctor knows about because he, too, has entered his timestream? A past one? — is played by John Hurt is important only for the BBC, who’ll doubtlessly like to boast of an actor of such popularity and credibility taking on the role (How else to explain the hilarious “Introducing JOHN HURT as THE DOCTOR” credit once he turned around?); for fans of the show’s larger mythology, what is more important is that this brings the number of incarnations of the Doctor to twelve, leaving the character with just one more regeneration to go before his death, according to rules set up in the original run of the show. In recent years, it’s been teased that the rule no longer applies, but never definitively stated within the series itself.

With just one scene at the end of the episode, “The Name of The Doctor” went from disappointing closure to a shameless tease for November’s 50th anniversary episode: What has this new Doctor done that is so terrible (Being responsible for the death of every other Time Lord, an established part of the character’s backstory since the show’s 2005 revival, would be the most obvious guess)? Does the thirteen incarnation rule still exist, and if so, is the Doctor close to his final life or is there another incarnation that we don’t know about? And, more subtly, but arguable more importantly, will the Doctor be able to reconcile his actions in that incarnation with his self-image, and stop repressing an entire period of his life?

The scale of the final scene of the episode ultimately overwhelmed what had come before; it left the audience feeling energized and excited, but it was a cheap thrill in many ways. Despite the title of the episode, the name of the Doctor wasn’t revealed on Saturday, and the slight of hand that managed to make that disappointment (or relief, perhaps) disappear from fans’ minds was a sign that — perhaps, if we’re lucky — the Who that lies ahead will be as bold and fun as the one they fell in love with. It may have been a sign of better things ahead, but that doesn’t change the fact that what came before was underwhelming at best, and a sign that, when it comes to this series, familiarity may be breeding contempt after all. In more ways than originally intended, perhaps, a lot depends on the 50th anniversary episode coming up in November.

Enough Nostalgia Already, Star Wars

Another Star Wars piece written for Wired, and another one that didn’t run for reasons best left undiscussed. It was actually given back to me to offer elsewhere; I would have run it at the Hollywood Reporter, but I felt that it was too similar to an Indiana Jones piece I’d written for them a month or so earlier (especially with the Indy mentions).

As the adage goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The same, it seems, is true for those who forget Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with reports claiming that J.J. Abrams’ first Star Wars movie will focus on the cast of the original trilogy in order to give fans “one more chance to enjoy them.”

There is only one sensible response to this idea: Please, no.

On paper, it’s something that makes a strange kind of sense: Using Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in Star Wars: Episode VII gives the new movie some legitimacy, while also shamelessly zeroing in on whatever affection existing fans of the original movies have left in their hearts after the prequel trilogy.

There’s an argument to be made in favor on a purely story level, as well, with the familiar faces acting as an “in” for the audience to whatever the new status quo of the Star Wars universe is. Simply by showing us how they react to the new world, we as an audience will know whether we’re in favor or not, because we already identify so much with them. On that level alone, it’s a shorthand that has to be very tempting to producers — but that still doesn’t make it an idea that’s good enough to make it all the way through to the final movie.

One reason to ignore the appeal of the idea is to look at the bigger picture of what such a move would do to Star Wars as a franchise. Episode VII is already the most high profile Star Wars project since 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and for many people will act as a reintroduction — or, perhaps, an introduction for the first time, depending on age — to Star Wars as a contemporary movie series.

Centering that movie around characters from a series of movies that ended more than three decades earlier seems contrarian to the point of insanity, in that case: a statement that the franchise isn’t forward looking or brand new at all, but an exercise in nostalgia that’s targeted at pre-existing fans who’ve seen all of the movies to date. Despite the title, Episode VII should be treated like a new beginning, not “the next installment of something you really should’ve jumped onto earlier” (For those thinking that J.J. Abrams is too good a filmmaker to make this mistake, I present Star Trek Into Darkness as the perfect example of a movie which was tripped up by nostalgia at entirely the wrong time).

Worst still, there’s the fact that fans don’t want to accept: as a contemporary action movie — which Star Wars really has to be in order to jumpstart the franchise the way that Disney inevitably wants it to — Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford are, at 62, 57 and 71 years of age respectively — too old to take the lead roles. As much as we may wish otherwise, for fear of our own age and growing mortality, there’s a limit to what audiences are likely to accept from their action heroes in terms of age, and the lead trinity from the original movies are at least a decade beyond that limit these days.

The mention of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull above was intentional; remember the last time Ford returned to a fan-favorite franchise and moviemakers tried to adapt for his age by giving much of the stunt-heavy action to his newly-introduced son? Instead of making us excited for Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt, it simply made Indy seem old and somewhat lesser, in some strange, indefinable manner. Imagine that happening again, but for the three leads of the original trilogy, and ask yourself, why would anyone want to do that again?

When the possibility of Episode VII was first rumored, there was much talk about having Ford, Fisher and Hamill appear in cameos in the film, passing the torch to whatever characters the new series would eventually center on. If, as reported, that idea has been shelved in favor of more focus on the original characters, I hope it’s a decision that gets reversed sooner rather than later. It’s not that the Luke, Leia and Han should be missing from the new movie — there really is a lot of benefit to their making an appearance, albeit a brief one — but they shouldn’t dominate it. For Star Wars to survive, it needs to be about a new hope, and not stories that happened a long, long time ago.

Internet Cynicism

Written for Wired, and left unpublished for reasons I can’t explain — there was excitement behind the scenes for it, but it never ran. Who knows?

We’re still some distance away from Star Wars: Episode VII — Two years away, in fact — with production on the movie still months away from getting started over in London. You might assume that that would mean there’s little to say about the movie at this point, but you’d be wrong; for months now, we’ve seen wave after wave of “exclusive” reports announcing the involvement of one actor or another, of some plot development that will almost certainly be happening in the movie, and so on. Let’s be honest: It’s gotten more than a little exhausting.

With that exhaustion — and your limited schedule, dear reader — in mind, we’ve decided to offer the all-purpose Star Wars: Episode VII casting rumor report. Simply delete and fill in the blanks as applicable. You can thank us later.

Our exclusive anonymous sources from deep within [LUCASFILM/DISNEY/THE GENERIC MOVIE INDUSTRY] have revealed to us that [ACTOR WHO WAS IN AN EARLIER STAR WARS MOVIE/ACTOR WHO WAS NOT IN AN EARLIER STAR WARS MOVIE BUT IS A RECOGNIZABLE ENOUGH NAME TO GET CLICKS] will appear in the next Star Wars movie as [THE SON/DAUGHTER/CLONE/GHOST] of [INSERT NAME OF FAN FAVORITE CHARACTER FROM EARLIER STAR WARS MOVIE].

[ACTOR’S NAME] has secretly been in discussions for the role for months, with director J.J. Abrams [EAGER FOR THEM TO REPRISE THEIR ROLE FROM THE EARLIER STAR WARS MOVIE/EXCITED TO WORK WITH THE UP-AND-COMING STAR/A BIG FAN OF THEIR WORK IN ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL MOVIE OR TELEVISION SHOW]. Our sources tell us that [ACTOR’S NAME] is so excited for the opportunity to [RETURN TO THE FRANCHISE/BE PART OF THIS HISTORIC MOVIE SERIES/WORK WITH ABRAMS AGAIN BECAUSE WE ALL KNOW THERE’S A GREG GRUNBERG IS IN STAR WARS STORY DUE ANY MINUTE NOW] that [INSERT SOMETHING ABOUT GIVING UP SOME OTHER OPPORTUNITY IN ORDER TO FREE UP THEIR SCHEDULE].

While [NEGOTIATIONS HAVEN’T FINISHED YET/NOTHING HAS BEEN SIGNED/SOME KIND OF GET-OUT CLAUSE TO COVER US WHEN THIS SCOOP TURNS OUT NOT TO BE TRUE], it should be noted that [ACTOR’S NAME] has previously [INSERT LINK TO PREVIOUS STATEMENT ABOUT HAVING ENJOYED, GROWN UP WITH OR HAVING SOME FORM OF POSITIVE EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE CONNECTED WITH STAR WARS IN SOME WAY] in the past. Keep watching this space for even more Star Wars: Episode VII exclusive news!

Pass, Flunk or Incomplete? WIRED Gives 10 Fall Shows A Midterm Exam

Pass, Flunk or Incomplete? WIRED Gives 10 Fall Shows A Midterm Exam

Ahead of Schedule/Thinking of Scheduling

An odd day. Yesterday, I wrote a bunch; today, I wrote a lot of emails to set up things for later writing (A lot of invoicing, too; it is the last day of the month, after all). It’s probably a healthier thing to do, essentially take an admin day to map things out for the future (Interviews have been set up for tomorrow, potentially Thurs or Fri depending, and Monday, and plans made for things beyond that, too).

I’m still trying to settle into a new rhythm with the various things I’m doing now. I’m still writing for publication daily, with Newsarama and Digital Trends, but I’m also writing for future publication a lot more, with Time, Wired and – end of May release, and the first time I’ve said this publicly, I think? – Playboy magazine, and that part, the “I am writing longer things that aren’t immediate and short, but need research and interviews and reflection and everything” makes me nervous, still.

I mean, I’m still working and juggling and all, but there’s definitely a part of me that has a “You mean only two websites have content from me today? That’s lazy!” thing going on in my brain. I’m sick that way, I worry.

Reports of My Demise Were Only Slightly Exaggerated

It’s been a week, people.

I don’t mean that in the literal sense – Well, I do, I guess; I am talking about the last five days of work, which is technically a week in the work sense if you want to be technical and all. But what I really mean is, it’s been a rough week; I got sick last weekend through what was nothing more than just overwork and overstress and exhaustion, and then that just didn’t really have a chance to go away, because I had the kinds of deadlines and workloads in front of me that I had to break my “No Work On The Weekend At All” rule in order to just keep my head above water… which meant that, robbed of the chance to destress for a couple of days, I was just under-powered and increasingly overwhelmed all the time this week.

That happened at the time when I had to go a couple of bigger-than-usual stories – interviews, really – for Wired (One about streaming video and the growth of the audience on tablet devices, and another about MonkeyBrain Comics and their new print titles) that had particular hand-in deadlines that couldn’t be switched or changed, as well as an increased workload for Newsarama because of the death of Batman’s sidekick (Instead of the one front page news story for them per week, in addition to my daily blogging duties, I had two and a half: here, here and here) and my regular Time essay, which was also connected with the deceased Boy Wonder. In almost every case, the work-as-handed-in and the work-as-published were considerably different, due to the editing process that’s almost always a good thing but also means that there’s a bunch of stuff that was written and didn’t see print this week, moreso than usual.

(For those curious about my workload: There’re also daily blog posts for Digital Trends, another handful of Wired pieces – including some that still have to run, and I think are showing up this weekend? – and the final Food or Comics for Robot 6 from this week, too. I also had to do the Comix Experience store catalog from scratch last weekend, which was a bear this month for some reason, and the Wait, What? podcast, which remains the highpoint of my work week.)

All of which is to say: I know, I know; I’ve been very quiet here lately, but it’s not by choice, I promise. Just as I owe people emails (Sorry, Adam, David and Lauren – Soon, I promise!), I owe this blog all kinds of attention. Hopefully, things will be less crazy this upcoming week, and we’ll get back to something resembling normal service. We can but hope, right…?

It Never Rains But

The odd flip of yesterday, today was insanely busy workwise, with the various delays of yesterday turning into a crush of thingtodo today; at one point, I was writing two articles, rewriting another and being taught about the back-end stuff necessary for me to post to Wired all at the same time, just because everything had to be done by a particular deadline. On the plus side, everything got done in time, and my Wired story was apparently the #1 story on the site after it went up, which was… nice? And an entirely welcome boost to my writerly ego after yesterday’s hurry-up-and-wait bump. These new work rhythms are going to take some time to get used to, I suspect.

Goodbyee, Goodbyeee!

It’s been a weird day, Internet. Today, I’ve written my final posts for both Comics Alliance and SpinOff Online – although the latter won’t appear until tomorrow and Sunday, meaning that there’s always time for them to end up very outdated before anyone actually sees them, always a potential thrill with writing things ahead of time. This week, I also wrote my final column for Robot 6, all of this happening as I clear my schedule to start writing on a regular basis for Wired.com next week (Officially Tuesday, but we’ll see if I have any space in my schedule on Monday).

It’s a weird feeling, not having CA or SpinOff around anymore; it’s not really sunk in yet. For the last couple of years (Well, year, for CA), they’ve defined the rhythm of my work week and my deadlines in a way that was often frustrating and exhausting, but also somewhat comforting in the regularity: Five op-eds and ten news posts ever week (That’s in addition to the weekly Time essay, the Blog@Newsarama posts, the weekly Newsarama top 10 and my ten Digital Trends posts). I knew, for the most part, what I’d be writing every day, even if I didn’t know what I’d be writing them about, and there really was something to that. There were times when it was a grind coming up with that much information – those many words – week-in, week-out, don’t get me wrong, but there was also some… security, perhaps? Something welcoming about not being entirely lost at sea when it came to output, and knowing that the work was there, if that makes sense.

I didn’t write a farewell post on any of those sites; I came close, twice – The final Robot 6 column makes mention of creators moving on, which was intentional, and the closest I came to actually saying “Byeeee” – but it felt too vain and self-conscious. I don’t know if my absence on any of those sites will be noticed, or remarked upon (Knowing my success with the commentariat at SpinOff, I think it’ll be applauded), and I’m not sure that I want to know. Let those sites, and me, move on and do something else, instead.

(Ideally, I’d like to go back and do stuff for SpinOff and Comics Alliance again in the future, and have told the powers that be in both places that, so hopefully it’ll happen. And I also recommended replacements to both sites, in case they were looking; it’d be great if my recommendations get the gigs, but we’ll see.)

That ending and my resultant melancholy wasn’t the only thing that made today particularly unusual, though; because these things come in threes, today was also the day when I finally made good on my promise to draw D-Man for Dylan Todd (Something I promised earlier this week, but have been meaning to do for far, far longer) – I was, because it’s me, stupidly anxious about sending that to him because I was all “It looks terrible! Real artists have done stuff for that blog!” but he was kind enough to say it was good, bless him – and the day when I found out that I am thanked in the acknowledgments for an upcoming non-fiction book by a writer whose work I admire, but didn’t even think knew I existed, because of “smart things on the intercyberwebnet that helped [him] shape some of [his] thinking on the subject.”

So, yeah; weird day. January, my friends; it’s always a month that feels like a somewhat uncertain prelude for everything else that’s coming in the year ahead.