Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is Arthouse Dead?

Yes. It is.

Look it up on Wikipedia or
Answers.Com. "Arthouse" isn't even there. You'll find 'art film'. From that page it seems very much this is the type of film nobody wants to make any longer, let alone see.

One of the attributes of the term 'art film' is "noncommercial". Explain to me: if a film costs millions to make, how can you be 'noncommercial' about it?

Does it mean you are intending to make a loss? Or are you trying to only just make your money back? I would like someone to explain to me how you can make a business plan that aims to exactly return the film's cost. This is an illusion.

The term arthouse film dates back from the days when a relatively healthy number of people would flock to a type of movies (or rather: 'films') that would not necessarily be entertaining, but challenging and puzzling. Antonioni, Bunuel, Bresson, Tarkowski, Oshima etc. Every main street had its cinema and every cinema had its dedicated crowd of buffs.


Today, I feel some would-be filmmakers call their projects 'arthouse' if they ignore common-sense principles, they are making anti-cinema, they don't have a strong statement, they fear most people wouldn't want to see them. The term 'arthouse' today screams 'small audience', or worse: 'no audience'.

Arthouse at today's box office means 'foreign language film' or 'quirky subject matter'. Here are a few films I saw in independent theaters over the past year:
- BELLA, a colourful, life-affirming American indie film.
- THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Oscar(R)-winning drama.
- MICHAEL CLAYTON, drama starring George Clooney.
- JUNO, winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
I haven't seen AS IT IS IN HEAVEN yet, but does a movie that grosses $1m (in one theatre only) qualify for arthouse?

What these films have in common, and what arthouse didn't necessarily have twenty, thirty years ago: a traditional three-act story. Despite their independent flavour, they are definitely not arthouse as we used to know it.

The darkest film I have recently seen is PRINCESS, a revenge tale mixing anime and live action. Subject matter: pornography and child abuse. Darker? Anybody?? Still, the film was told in a traditional three act structure.

Even if you believe your film will appeal to intellectuals only, the discerning audience, you will need that conventional story structure. Because today, without it you have no audience.


Is there no more experimenting with form? Yes there is. But people don't want to see it any longer. The audience for experimental, avant-garde or non-narrative cinema has shrunk to such small numbers that if/when these experimental films still accidentally get out into the theaters, those theaters remain empty. Mostly they remain limited to film or art festivals.

If you consider yourself an artist, you should not be a filmmaker, dixit Christine Vachon, one of the most successful producers of independent American cinema. Films that have pushed the boundaries: Kids, Happiness, Boys Don't Cry, I'm Not There. She was recently quoted saying:
"Even a cheap movie costs a couple of milion bucks and if you are spending that just to be an artist, that seems rather indulgent."

When I set out to write this article, I googled the phrase "Is Arthouse Dead" and stumbled upon:
"Art house film distributor Andi Engel, dead"
I wasn't aware Andi had passed away. I had met him in London on a few occasions, less than ten years ago. His company Artificial Eye was the icon of British arthouse film distribution. Even then, the company was having a hard time. Despite the fact that they had the rights to virtually every classic arthouse film, for the entire UK, it was a struggle.

Andi died on Boxing Day last year and I believe true arthouse cinema had gone before him.

The bottom line for the independent filmmaker:

Your choice to make a movie for a discerning audience does not absolve you from the obligation to tell your story following a traditional three-act story.



My friend San Fu Maltha, producer of Paul Verhoeven's BLACK BOOK, once asked me if I knew the total gross box office figures for Australia over the past year.

To my embarrassment, I didn't. Although San Fu works out of Amsterdam, he knew the numbers for Australia.

My attitude was symptomatic of many independent filmmakers, too focused on their own little films, not really working towards take a share of the money people spend every year. And that figure is - despite all the alleged doom and gloom - significant.

The AFC have just released the figures for 2007 and here are some highlights:


Box office: In 2007 Australian-produced features accounted for a 4 per cent share ($36 million) of the Australian box office, a decrease from 4.6 per cent ($40 million) in 2006.

Top five titles in 2007: Happy Feet was again the top grossing Australian film in 2007, adding a further $20.7m to its $11.1m earned in 2006. Romulus, My Father followed ($2.6m) with Rogue ($1.8m), Bra Boys ($1.7m) and Razzle Dazzle: A Journey into Dance ($1.6m) rounding out the top five.


Screens and theatres:The number of cinema screens in Australia has risen by 134 per cent between 1980 and 2007, from 829 to 1,941. Following several years of gradual growth, 2007 recorded the first fall in screen numbers since 1987, down 1 per cent on 2006.

Films screened: The vast majority (63 per cent) of films screened in Australian cinemas over the past 24 years have come from the US. However, in 2007 the US proportion was under 56 per cent for the third year in a row (172 out of a total of 317 films). Local titles comprised 8 per cent of films screened in 2007, just under the 24-year average of 9 per cent.

Box office: The gross box office rose to $895.4 million in 2007, a 3 per cent increase from $866.6 million in 2006. Admission numbers also rose in 2007 to 84.7 million. Films released through Roadshow/Warner Bros earned the largest share of the Australian box office in 2007 – 24 per cent, up from 20 per cent the previous year – with gross takings of $212 million.

Top films: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the highest grossing film at the Australian box office in 2007 with earnings of $35,527,464, followed by Shrek The Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Simpsons Movie and Transformers. Happy Feet ranked eighth.

Australians spent nearly $900m at the box office. Nine hundred million dollars. That's a nice chunk of change. Can we please have a small share of that?


Stop making arthouse films.


At the end of my workshops, I send my students home with the message: "Don't try this at home. Yet."

It is hard to apply the material of a course or seminar to your own work. At least immediately after the course. How do I know? Four of my clients took a course (NOT any of mine) that was dealing very specifically with the issues they were facing in their scripts. Right after the course, not one was able to address those issues successfully.

I am a bit wary of courses, seminars and workshops that deal directly with a writer's work. Too often, even if you point at the specific scenes, the students may not see it. Let's face it, the work of inexperienced writers is hardly ever a good benchmark to learn the craft. And it is impossible to see weaknesses if you don't have a frame of reference.

When it comes to story structure, you need to become completely familiar with the major story points before you can even look at your own work. Identifying an Inciting Incident or Crisis scene immediately after learning about it, is virtually impossible. This may sound bizarre and almost unbelievable, but it is a fact.

The only way to quickly sharpen your mind and critically look at stories, is to systematically view and analyse films. This is how I have learned much of what I now know. Watch a movie, preferably one you know well, summarise and note down the DVD timing for each plot point.

Only then, after acquiring a natural feel for a story's core beats, can you return to your own work and analyse it. Only then will you have the competence and authority to not only identify the main plot points but also critically assess them.

As promised, I have started to publish some structural overviews of films on The Story Dept. - Premium Ed.. Recently I analysed the first act of BLADE RUNNER. Meanwhile I have added the full three-act structure of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and MICHAEL CLAYTON (all links are for Premium Readers only, make sure you log in first.

This is not an exact science and we may disagree. Hell, I know I make mistakes. But the main thing is: the exercise of breaking down a story in its primary plot points helps you to understand how to shape and propel the drama.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Exciting Coincidence

"A strong inciting incident is an event that happens to the protagonist, never an action by the protagonist", I said.

Then I asked you for exceptions, i.e. strong Inciting Incidents that
are actions by the protagonist.

Now have a look at the first three responses I received: 1.) THELMA & LOUISE, 2.) PULP FICTION and 3.) KING LEAR.

Look at them again and see if you remember 1) who causes the inciting incident and 2)how does the character end in the story?
The answer is baffling.

1. Louise kills a man. The end: Louise dies.
2. Vincent kills Marvin. The end: Vincent dies.
3. King Lear excludes Cordelia. The end: King Lear dies.

For these three, Tom, Brett and Margaret each earned themselves three months Premium Subscription. Well done.

Recently UNK blogged about Inciting Incident (another exciting coincidence: one day earlier, someone hit my web site using the key words inciting incident definitions.) and among his favourite I.I.'s he lists COOL HAND LUKE.

Here we go:

4. Luke cracks open parking meters. The end: Luke dies.

Exciting coincidence? Or does it mean that EACH TIME a protagonist incites the story, we have a down ending? Probably not. Perhaps the readers of this blog have a slight predilection for somber movies. ;)

Anyhow, I found the examples you sent to me striking.

More exceptions to the "event-not-action" rule:
- Simon: "Not my kind of thing really, but what about Ferris Bueller's Day Off?"
- Simon D.: "What about any story where the protagonist activates something, like the Princess and the Frog in the pond, Pandora's Box etc"
- Jim: "If Russell Crowe is the Protagonist in 'Yuma', then it happens in that."
- Chris: "3 Movies that the protagonist is responsible for the inciting incident: Scarface, June, O Brother Where Art Thou."
- Robert: "Chow Yun Fat's Hitman character accidentally blinds a girl during a hit on a triad boss that he is carrying out. Therefore he himself sets in motion the "inciting incident" and for the rest of the film sets out to redeem himself and possibly help the bling girl regain her eyesight by doing more "hits" to pay for the operation!"

Thank you all! It was a great exercise.


As to screenwriting theory, there are so many sources of conflicting advice it is difficult to know who to listen to. Each new piece of advice can be as convincing as the one that came before it. What should you do?

How do you choose who to listen to?

Do you take the word of

  • the most influential,
  • the most popular,
  • the most convincing,
  • the loudest,
  • the most confident,
  • or maybe what they perceive to be the safest.

As a person who dishes out daily doses of advice I am as guilty as anyone out there who tries to offer opinions of what you “should” do.

The fact is, at worst people do not have any idea what will work for you, and at best they can only rely on their own experience. Certainly I give you the benefit of what I have learned through my work, but you still have to work out what will work for you.

I am still learning, things still take me by surprise. You may have read me say before, I am of the opinion you can learn something from every person you meet. Your job is to not blindly accept what you are told but collate it, cogitate on it and apply it in your own unique way.

Work out the approaches that suit you best, that fit what you are trying to achieve and how. Which stories resonate with you, and enthuse you, separate out those that leave you cold.

You can never take the same journey twice, your journey is yours and yours alone, but you can learn about possible pot holes and beauty trails from people who have traveled a similar path before you.

Here I have to confess something: all the above (except the first four words "As to screenwriting theory") was taken literally from Chris Garrett's blog on blogging. When I read it, I found it so completely true for pretty much any field of learning, including ours.

My own little piece of advice on where to start learning?

Just write, every day, undisturbed by what you learn or what people say. While you are doing so, go through the list below. And take your time.

1. Read McKee's STORY, or better: listen to the audio book. You won't learn too much about the craft, but you'll get a feel for what you're in for. If you have less time and you want to be fashionable, read Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT.

2. Take a craft workshop. Mine, Hauge's or John Truby's. Read the stuff they have published.

3. Watch movies a second time to break them down into acts, sequences and plot points. Dozens of them, until you start seeing the light.

4. Carefully choose a story consultant you can trust and you like to work with. You will continue to learn, but now specifically about your own strengths and weaknesses.

At this point, you will have found your vision and direction. You will see which of the savants out there fall within your view on storytelling. Read their books, join their seminars.

Finally, you are on your own, confidently.

And while you just continue writing, your craft will improve, and improve, and improve...


It has been the core of my consultancy and teaching: the protagonist needs a clear and present desire.

Nothing new, though, Michael Hauge has been teaching this for much longer. In the context of Michael's visit to Australia in two months, I interviewed him and the full text will soon be available to my clients and for subscribers of The Story Dept. Here's an excerpt:

Karel: Two problems I often find in screenplays by inexperienced writers are 1) the choice of protagonist and 2) the key qualities of the protagonist. Would you mind giving us an insight?

Michael: In almost every case where the problem seems to be choosing the wrong protagonist, the writer isn't clear about what the story concept is, about what the hero's visible goal is.

In other words: if the writer is operating under the belief that they just need to portray characters and show them going through a situation in their life and let's see what happens, then that's the quicksand they have stepped into. Because movies are about heroes who are pursuing specific visible goals.

It is about stopping the serial killer, about escaping from the panic room or from N.Y. or from Alcatraz, about winning the love of another person or winning an athletic competition. Or it's about getting the buried treasure. But the goal must be specific, must be visible, must have a clearly defined end point.

The first part of the full interview is now online on the Premium Ed. As usual, it will be visible for a few days only. After that you will need a subscription to see it. Part two and three will follow over the next few days, as well as a podcast (audio) version of the telephone interview.


The RATATOUILLE DVD shows has 1 (one) deleted scene. It is a long, uninterrupted travel from a wide establishing shot of the Paris skyline down to street level, through the Auguste Gusteau restaurant and ending on Remi, our hero.

The shot could have been spectacular, reminding of the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL and its pastiche in THE PLAYER.

Brad Bird's commentary talks about the reason why it was cut and it is simply: Point of View.
ego.JPGThe natural question that would occur is "Why would you cut this spectacular shot?", because it is obviously great. "I want to see that film!" Well, I feel that way, too.

The problem, once you get passed the initial sort of rush of seeing this very elaborate shot that shows you a lot of different things in one shot and very impressively, is that it is no character's point of view.

It is just a sort of God-like shot where you're presented this whole world and it is spectacular and there have been many fine shots like that - Touch of Evil being one - that were great but I felt that this is Remi's movie and it needed to be Remi's perspective.

And I want to know the emotions that lead up to Remi looking into the kitchen. I don't just want it laid on a platter, you know, just cut to Darth going "You're my son, Luke."

We should be with Remi when he has that moment. We should know how he is experiencing it and what is he feeling when he is experiencing it. And you kind of aren't, this way.

It did lay everything out, but I don't think that it took the audience with it.

-Brad Bird

Brad Bird's reasoning confirms what I have written about 'omniscient POV': it is weak, or worse, it doesn't work.

Movies are inherently about empathising, even identifying with characters.

When you step out of the protagonist's POV, it should be to shift to another POV, never to take an omniscient POV.

Omniscient POV is devoid of emotion.

Read some more about Point of View here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Killing My Darlings

This blog started when a certain analysis of Michael Mann's THE INSIDER sparked my frustration. Discussing BLADE RUNNER in a story workshop recently, I felt I was close to doing the exact same thing. To this date I don't fully agree with her INSIDER analysis but Linda Aronson taught me this: to learn story, you will have to be ready to tear your favourite films apart.


When last year the restored BLADE RUNNER screened in Sydney in all its 4k digital splendour, I was present at the Cremorne Orpheum, on the hunt for story weaknesses. It didn't take me long. After fifteen minutes and thirty seconds, I put the scalpel aside and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the film, i.e. Act Two and Three. (For Premium Subscribers, my brief analysis is here.)

This year the Coen brothers snatched the top Oscars despite issues with the ending of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I won't add to that discussion but if you would like to read some incisive thoughts, check out this article on the Mystery Man on Film blog.

Long before the Coen brothers won their first Oscar with FARGO, they had established themselves as favourites of the Cannes film festival with a Golden Palm for BARTON FINK. I have watched it a few times since and I still enjoy its Faustian slant, the flamboyant performances of Michael Lerner and John Goodman and the wonderful production design.

Why could BARTON FINK never appeal to a mainstream audience? It is about a screenwriter. But more importantly, the end of Act One makes a promise, then Act Two doesn't deliver. Variety wrote at the time:
"After a little more than an hour, the pic is thrown in a wholly unexpected direction. There is a shocking murder, the presence of a mysterious box in Fink's room, the revelation of another's character's sinister true identity, three more killings, a truly weird hotel fire and the humiliation of the writer after he believes he's finally turned out a fine script."
In essence there is nothing wrong with 'a wholly unexpected direction' but the problem is: no new promise is made. What do I mean by that?

The end of act one shows us what the protagonist's objective is: Fink wants to write a screenplay. It promises a clear direction for the film. Once the murder is introduced, Fink doesn't really have a clear objective and the story suffers from that. The film as a whole survives because of the exquisitely funny references to the real world of Hollywood in the 1940's, the sensational performances, the amazing sound design etc.

Recently somebody mentioned WAG THE DOG (1997) to me, written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet. In my memory, this movie was a hilarious touch of genius. Upon re-viewing, I was dumbfounded as not much of the exhilaration from ten years ago had survived for me.

Again, problemo numero uno: Hollywood behind the scenes. No matter how important we believe the workings of Hollywood are, no-one cares.

Secondly: no matter how clever, genuinely funny and genuinely TRUE the premise - don't trust your president when he goes to war, the story is preaching to the converted. I don't believe one single vote was gained or lost because of this film.

The core problems with this film lie on a pure story level. It seems Robert De Niro is the protagonist, his objective: fix a potential presidential scandal. Then we shift to Dustin Hoffman. His objective: stage a war. Soon, however, it appears neither are really facing any seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. Problems are solved as quickly as they arise.

Ultimately the film industry outsider is left with a self-indulgent, unsatisfying and uninvolving story. Mamet's dialogue is brilliant but this is not the type of film I can watch more than once without an element of disappointment.

Whatever I may say about WAG THE DOG, the fans will rightfully point at the film's respectable BO figures. Oh well. Star-power saved the dog.


The Story Dept.'s Page Rank has gone up a full notch and I'm now in the company of such excellent PR4 blogs as The Unknown Screenwriter and the above mentioned Mystery Man on Film.

If you have the Google Tool Bar installed, you can see a white/green strip indicating the PageRank of the page you are visiting. It is usually located in the top middle of your page, under the address bar.

Last year, the world of SEO was turned on its head when millions of web sites saw their Page Rank drop. OZZYWOOD Films was one of the victims, sliding from a respectable Rank 4 to an okay 3.

In all fairness and humility, this web site may be on par for PR with Mystery Man and UNK, but no need to say yours truly will have a long way to go to deserve equal status with these boys.


Your second draft is the easiest of all. Why? Because the first draft is so bad each problem sticks out like a sore thumb. It is full of great ideas, but the execution stinks. To your editor/consultant it will be instantly obvious what needs fixing first. Hence, improving your story massively, immediately is actually a breeze.

On the other hand: the final draft is the hardest. Almost everything is as almost good as you can get it. Still, those few minor details that need fixing, jeopardise the entire rest of the script. Not only is it technically challenging, you aren't quite sure which one is the right move. You can't see the wood for the trees any longer.

Worst of all: after a long development you are so worn out you may be sick of this script and want to move on. You will need all the support and encouragement you can get, from your producer, your editor, your mum and dad (or wife and kids).

To move from draft one to two, it really takes only basic to intermediate skills. To move from draft eleven to twelve, it takes tremendous craftsmanship, talent and arduous persistence. Early on you will get heaps of great tips and advice from your story/script editor; towards the final draft more and more decisions will be yours: here is where your instinct comes into play.

The comforting factor: it is often no longer a matter of working or not working, but of good or great. At this stage, you might have also shown the script to a few industry people, who should be encouraging you to run the last mile.


With Michael Hauge's Australia tour in May, I'll be publishing a podcast and interview transcription, in conjunction with Inscription.

- Movie structure breakdowns (Premium)
- RATATOUILLE's deleted scene
- Why the '3 Act Structure'?