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Friday, March 21, 2014

My Expertise in Box Office Failure

Quora.com is a website in which people pose questions, both specific and general, and "experts" on the topic provide answers.  After the back-to-back box office failures of both Conan The Barbarian and The Legend of Hercules, I seem to have the dubious distinction as an "expert" on What's It's Like When Your Film Flops at The Box Office.  The Latest question I answered was...

"Screenwriting: How did you get involved with The Legend Of Hercules?
The reviews haven't been kind.  So where did it go wrong?"

I answered this way...

I wrote a draft of Hercules in 2007. In 2013 it was rewritten by no fewer than 6 other writers one after the other, including the director. Having written that first draft and having taken screen credit on the movie, I have to share credit for its failure, but I haven't seen the final film, and I don't feel much personal connection or sense of "authorship" to it one way or the other.

Writing movies like Conan the Barbarian or Hercules is a lesson in deflating my ego as a writer and filmmaker. I take the jobs as any other member of the crew might take a job (grip, camera assistant, sound editor, location scout): in order to work and make money doing what I love to do. However, a franchise writing assignment is not the kind of job in which (at least in my experience) the writer creates wildly new characters, invents worlds, or makes a personal imprint on the final product.

The final shooting script of these sorts of movies (sequels, re-makes, and adaptations) is a product of collaboration between the various writers, the producers, the studio, the director and many other powerful forces, and that the end result tends to be a reflection of the success or failure that collaboration.

In a franchise movie like Chris Nolan's Batman series, that collaboration (a collaboration of over 800 people) worked. In the case of Conan and Hercules, which were both critical and box office flops, that collaboration failed.

To be more specific, in my 2007 script for Hercules, the lead character was an ordinary man and the story was about the real-life figure who inspired the Hercules myth. The movie was intended to have a gritty sort of realism to it. For that reason, although there were nods to mythological characters and events, the story beats were not anything like the "12 labors" of Heracles as found in the myths.  My version of the script actually got positive reviews online (Why Renny Harlin's 'Hercules 3D' Might Actually Be Better Than Brett Ratner's)

However, over time at least six different writers (all talented) re-wrote the script according to different and sometimes conflicting ideas from producers, executives, and the director. Hercules was made mythological again, but all the beats of the real-man premise were kept. A Roman-style gladiator sequence was added and a 300 style visual approach was taken. Dialogue was written and rewritten and pulled in one direction and then another.

Any one of these ideas (Hercules as a real man, Hercules as a slave, Hercules as a demigod) in-and-of themselves aren't bad, and all of the writers involved worked hard with the best of intentions. But the pieces just didn't fit together, and the impression it gave reviewers (who for the most part mocked the film) was that the Hercules myth was just ignored and that the movie barely had a story at all.

The same thing happened on Conan. That time I was the last of a string of writers instead of the first, but the problems of a failed collaboration were the same. A year after the film was released the star, Jason Mamoa, blamed the script (Jason Momoa blames the script for his huge Conan box-office flop). I know he didn't mean to blame me personally for the work I did or to single out any of the other writers involved. But, he was right that the script was dysfunctional: it reflected quite a number of different and conflicting visions of what the movie was supposed to be.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art, but the work of all the various artists involved - including the writer, director, producer, production assistant, and stand-by painter - all have to add up to the illusion that the movie was created with a single vision, or to put it another way: everyone has to be working on the same movie.

So, when I work on Halloween movies and Crow movies and Hercules movies, I embrace the job and give 100%. I commit fully to making the best movie imaginable. However, the form and quality of the final shooting script is often shaped by forces we as writers( and as actors, as directors, as producers, and so on) can't control. So, I try "let go of the results."

Great scripts emerge from a process of revision, reworking and rewriting, but that process - even when everyone working on the film is talented and has the best of intentions - can utterly fail. When a writer becomes involved in any film (as opposed to fiction or poetry where they have complete control) this is a risk s/he has to take.


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