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Black List 2008 – Black Christmas Wrap-Up

To recap:

  • The Beaver—A disaster of a script that the development process may or may not redeem.
  • The Oranges—Terrible. Everything it tries to do has been done better elsewhere.
  • Butter—One of the worst scripts I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of bad ones.
  • Big Hole—This is a movie that should be made. Not a perfect script, but pretty great despite its few flaws.
  • The Low Dweller—Decent writing but boring as hell. If this embraced its schlocky action-movie roots rather than trying for “pretentious meditation on tedium,” it could be very enjoyable.

  • Fuckbuddies—One of the most inept and grating scripts I’ve ever read. Holy Christ, why would anyone favor this over some of the other stuff making the rounds?
  • Winter’s Discontent—A winning but wildly uneven screenplay that needs to undergo a major rewrite before it’s worth considering.
  • Broken City—Boring as shit—like Fuckbuddies, it tries way too hard and suffers for it. All the rawness feels completely artificial.
  • I’m with Cancer—Shocking: a comedy in the top ten that’s consistently funny. I know—I couldn’t believe it, either. Like any comedy, the humor is hit-or-miss, but unlike the other scripts in the top ten, the hits overwhelm the misses. It has some story and character problems, but it’s in much better shape than 90% of the scripts on this list.
  • Our Brand Is Crisis—A fictionalized version of the documentary, it’s a decent enough script but feels aimless, content to tell us things we already know instead of giving us something interesting or challenging to think about it.

I read these scripts not (entirely) to entertain and enrage the blogging (m)asses, but to gain a better understanding of the market. I wanted to find throughlines, or some kind of consistency, so I could gain a better understanding of what Hollywood wants. Rumors abound that over the years, the list has been tainted by politics. After reading the scripts, I find it hard to argue with those rumors. However, if film executives do like these scripts more than anything else out there, it’s important to understand why.

So why? I haven’t got a goddamn clue. Much as I want to hone in on derivative concepts like Fuckbuddies and Our Brand Is Crisis (hate to single that one out since it’s not a bad script, but it is a remake that doesn’t quite justify its existence) and call the industry on its unwillingness to look at new ideas, I can’t quite do that. I don’t think The Beaver is particularly original or clever, but it’s clear that Hollywood does—it suggests, no matter how misguided, they’re trying. Besides which, two scripts I didn’t hate (Big Hole and Winter’s Discontent) are clever reinventions of standard formulas—inching toward actual creativity. I’m with Cancer has a certain Judd Apatow vibe, but it also has an unusual story that gives it an edge of uniqueness.

I guess that’s it: Hollywood wants a regurgitation of something that’s already been done successfully, only with a thin veneer of originality they can hopefully buff out during the development process. Also, they want the concept, not the words on the page. (If all they wanted were shooting-draft-quality scripts, there would not be a development process—never has this been more clear than in reading the top ten Black List scripts.) Not surprising conclusions, but I guess it was inevitable.

Looking at the scripts from a qualitative standpoint—not necessarily the Hollywood way—I noticed something fairly interesting. I can’t speak to the genesis of Big Hole, hands down my favorite of the ten, but I know I’m with Cancer is inspired by actual events, and Will Reiser’s connection to the material is evident. In addition to its unexpected verisimilitude, it had a certain current of “passion project” flowing through it. This is an almost indefinable quality in a script, but if you read enough of them, you can feel the difference between “labor of love” and labor of work.” Only Big Hole and I’m with Cancer felt like labors of love. The others felt like writers trying to cash in with high-concept, low-quality shit sandwiches.

Most of the time, I found myself ranting about believability. Characters are the engine that drive the story, but they have to follow something like railroad tracks or, at least, a paved, well-marked road. If they veer off the beaten path of plausible human behavior, audiences won’t buy the story. It could be the most straitlaced, realistic story in the world, but if the things the characters do strain credibility, the whole script suffers. At the same time, I’m more than willing to buy the story of a depressed guy who betters himself with the help of a beaver hand-puppet if the writer gives believable reasons for this behavior. Most of these scripts suffered from impossible-to-believe actions and reactions, and I have to believe this is part of the “cash-in” mentality. These writers have not observed anything like the situations they’re writing about firsthand, and they’re not good enough writers to fake it with any sort of plausibility. That’s a problem.

I can’t help wondering where this leaves the state of Hollywood. The answer might be, “Nobody knows anything.” I prefer, “Forget it, Stan. It’s Tinseltown.”

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