Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why do so many movies fail the Bechdel Test?

For a movie to pass The Bechdel Test, it must:

1. include at least two women...
2. who have at least one conversation...
3. about something other than a man or men.

This seems like a rather low bar and yet about half of all movies fail this test (

This question was orriginally posted on Quora; here is my answer to it:
Interestingly enough, most Horror movies (for which the primary target audience is young women) pass the Bechdel Test. Also, the movie Conan The Barbarian 3D passes the Bechdel Test, barely, because I changed one of the villains to a woman (Marique, played by Rose McGowan) and gave her a scene with the leading lady in which they talk about resurrecting a dead witch. Go figure.

I would argue that the Bechdel Test reflects what movies get greenlit and what audiences have traditionally shown up to see, not a flaw in the screenwriting or even the development/rewrite process.

In my own crreer, I've written several unproduced screenplays in which the lead character, the main supporting characters and the villain, are women. An example is Blackwell, a thriller based on a real event in the life of Nellie Bly, one of the first female investigative journalists. The movie, set in 1888, follows Nellie as she fakes insanity in order to go undercover as an inmate at Blackwell's Island, an impenetrable women's asylum. However, once inside she discovers that it is nearly impossible to get out.

Although A-list actresses such as Ellen Page and Charlize Theron have shown interest in the script, the fact that it has a "female lead" makes it difficult for my producers to set up at a studio.

The factors that make a large number of films that make it to the screen fail the Bechdel Test are:
1. Most Hollywood films have a male lead character. Statistically speaking (and Hollywood loves statistics) movies with female leads open significantly worse at the box office than movies with male leads.

2. Most (primary) villains are male. Although fabulous female villains to appear in movies, the majority of villains (people who are powerful, sadistic, violent, and otherwise bad) tend to be male. Perhaps men are generally thought to be more threatening.

3. "Character actors" tend to be male. The quirky supporting character with a funny nose, strange voice, or flabby belly, are typically dudes. Audiences (again, statistically speaking) like their actresses young and pretty. There isn't a "Steve Buscemi" among female character actors.
4. "Best Friend" or sidekick characters are usually men. Female leads sometimes have male "best friend" characters (often gay,) but Male Leads almost always have male "best friend" characters.

5. The most popular "hot female stars" (i.e. the one's on the cover of magazines) are in their twenties to thirties and most often play the "love interest." The most popular "hot male stars" (the ones on the cover of magazines) tend to be in their thirties and forties, and play lead characters.

6. Items 1 through 5 mean that most scenes between two characters in a movie will have at least one man.

7. Since protagonists and antagonists in movies are usually men, and a scene between two women is likely to be "about" the protagonist or antagonist, as they are the major characters in the story, conversations between two women are likely to be about a man or men.

8. Movies made for women tend to be Romantic Comedies or Romantic Dramas. Thus, the subject of conversations is most often tend to be about romance and relationships, i.e. men.

So it nothing to do with the screenwriting process, and everything to do with which screenplays are chosen to get made.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How To Make a Better Science Video

Originally posted by Liz Kalaugher on

The S Factor: how to grab attention with your science videos

 And no, that doesn’t mean including footage of people attending exercise classes. The S Factor under scrutiny in this blog is the S Factor Workshop on how to make successful science videos, held at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December. The event saw a panel of Hollywood professionals critique ten entries, picked from a total of 42 submissions by hopeful researchers.

 On the panel were marine biologist-turned film-maker Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, and his former film-school classmates Sean Hood, now a screenwriter with credits such as horror movie Halloween: Resurrection and Conan the Barbarian to his name, and Jason Ensler, co-producer and director of Franklin & Bash, and director of episodes of Gossip Girl, Chuck and Psych.

 The trio were cheerfully disparaging of scientists’ storytelling skills, saying that many of the videos took the approach “here’s our lab, here’s our kit, come see us some day”. But story is key - “think of it as making a trailer for science”.

 One exception was San Jose State University’s Green Ninja. The panel felt this video showed good storytelling, with a character who clearly has a problem - his oversized and ever-growing feet - that he needs to solve.

A useful technique, as detailed by Nicholas Kristof, is to follow the story of one individual and, ideally, to reach an uplifting conclusion. According to Olson, Kristof argues that an article on death is depressing but an article on people fighting a disease engages. In the same way, a story about coral deterioration could be depressing or dull, but a story about a man interested in coral can catch people’s attention.

Since film is good for conveying emotion and humour but not for transmitting information, it can be useful to break your complex content down to a simple story. According to Ensler, it takes time to develop stories but they can be overdeveloped and lose some of their original spark. Hood stressed the need “to keep hold of that nugget of awe”, and that scientists should “inspire the eleven-year-old in all of us”.

It’s also worth considering changing the order of events from a “that happened, then that happened, then this happened” type of narrative. Replacing “ands” in the storyline with “buts” and “therefores” can change the direction of the story and add tension, the film experts explained. For example, in Volcano from Space, the storyline could have been “We monitor volcanoes but they’re hard to see so we need new techniques.” Arguing two sides of an issue can also create a good story.

Ensler recommended that researchers set up cameras whenever they are in the field so that they have plenty of interesting footage to use in their videos. But interesting is not enough; if somebody says interesting after Hood’s latest film pitch, he knows “I’ve failed, because I haven’t grabbed them emotionally”. People are most engaged by people talking, not things, he said, so it’s useful to show a person alongside a piece of scientific kit. Because watching a person speak in real-life is different to seeing them onscreen, if you’re filming a talking head you need multiple cameras and different angles, as per the TED talks, to stop it from being boring.

That said, many of the films submitted began with somebody speaking to camera - the panel felt there was no need for this. According to Olson, it’s good to arouse and fulfill - grab the audience’s attention, make them want, then fulfil their need. For example the Mata Eruption video from JISAO (Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean) could have put its amazing video footage of an undersea volcanic eruption right at the start of the film before answering the questions the footage raises. Alternatively, Ensler said the team could have made the audience want by promising them they were going to see some great footage but first explaining why it’s hard to obtain.

As film is a visual medium it can be helpful to see if you can get the gist of a short film without listening to the soundtrack, the professionals explained. Indeed, one of the most well-received videos - Perspective, which used animated graphics to indicate the relative energy release of large earthquakes throughout history - contained no sound at all, and was praised for its Hitchcockian withholding of information from the audience. In summary?

Every picture (should) tell a story…

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Filmmaker's Life: Digital Hollywood NYC 2011 - Part 2

Reprinted from Ted Hope's Blog: Hope For Film

TED HOPE: Jacques Thelemaque returns today to complete the download of his lessons learned from Digi Hwood knowledge fest. What's the future? Does anyone know? This much I DO know: I would love to have one person cover for our HopeForFilm community all the film related seminars over the course of the year, be they in NYC or LA, and compare what can be gained from these conferences and how they vary. I wonder if we can find a sponsor... I wonder more if we could find one person who can endure -- even with the enticement of tasty sandwiches!

Digital Hollywood NYC 2011 - Part 2
by Jacques Thelemaque

The second day of Digital Hollywood started earlier, but I was there on time, excited by the film-specific panels and those bagels, croissants, muffins and pastries with my name on them....READ MORE

A Filmmaker's Life: Digital Hollywood NYC 2011 - Part 1

Reprinted from Ted Hope's Blog: Hope For Film

TED HOPE: Conferences abound in the US Film Biz and sometimes seems like another example of industries that still financially prosper in a field that has regularly been headed downwards (18% drop in theatrical attendance this year anyone?). Yet, as corporate focused as they often are, they do point to a tendency to continued education. Perhaps most hopefully they point to a willingness for our industry to evolve and embrace some aspect of change. We sent Filmmakers Alliance (link) founder and past HopeForFilm contributor (link) Jacques Thelemaque to Digital Hollywood NYC to get the perspective for the truly free film community.

Digital Hollywood NYC 2011 - Part 1
by Jacques Thelemaque

I don't go to seminars and conferences as often as I used to. Mostly because getting anything beyond a sales pitch out of them is like panning for gold. I've lost patience with sitting through hours of presentations to get a single nugget of new/good information. There are exceptions, however (such as Ted and Christine Vachon's excellent master class which I will post a blog about soon), so I was genuinely excited for the opportunity to attend Digital Hollywood NYC last week. READ MORE.

Friday, December 2, 2011