John Lasseter and 7 Storytelling Instincts

February 2nd, 2015 by

In my recent Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class, one of the writers in the group – Bob – posted this link to a recent feature in The Telegraph on Pixar and Disney Animation head honcho John Lasseter. It’s a terrific read on how Lasseter and team have turned around the fortunes of Disney Animation. Spurred some thoughts which I am reprinting here.

Great, Bob, thanks. That is an excellent article and speaks so much to some of the key reasons for Pixar’s success and Disney Animation’s ‘resurrection’. Specifically 7 storytelling instincts present in their work and approach to their business.

1. Passion: Lasster and crew love making movies, telling stories and animation in all forms. It’s not just a job, it’s not just about hitting quarterly earnings requirements. There is a genuine zeal for what they do.

2. Creativity: They value it, they embrace it, they do everything they can engender it. Notice how they completely restructured the way Disney story development operates. I know all too well about Disney and their propensity for giving notes, a top-down approach to the story-crafting process. In the article, you’ll note when Lasseter came onto the scene at Disney animation, the setup of the actual administration building reflected this model. No more. Creatives have a place of authority and respect.

3. Wonder: As opposed to cynicism. This line from Lasseter: “They thought the world had grown too cynical for traditional fairy tales, but I was sitting at Pixar thinking, ‘No! Hollywood’s grown too cynical for them! The rest of the world loves them!'” Whether the lifestyle of a Hollywood studio executive attracts edgy, negative personalities or the job itself relentlessly grinds a person into a cynic, while there is room for dark movies, that’s not what a majority of the world’s population wants. Or perhaps even more importantly… needs. I’m not talking pablum stories. Neither is Lasseter. As we’ve seen in this course, Pixar deals with some really serious themes: death, loss, self-identity. But they tells stories with those serious themes from a place of wonder, that amidst all of the potentially destructive dangers of this life, there is also beauty, courage, friendship and love.

4. Curiosity: Note how the article emphasizes the research Disney (and Pixar) do for each project. Go out into the world! See what’s out there! Immerse yourself in the unique story subculture! Open your eyes! Hollywood denizens are too often informed by their insular experience of the 405-101-10-110 bubble. There’s a reason they refer to the broad stretch of the United States between LA and NYC as “flyover country”. As writers, we benefit by living life and burrowing deep into interesting corners of it.

5. Openness: No longer stories where female characters sit around waiting to be saved. Disney animation now goes where culture goes, reflecting the experience of actual contemporary human beings, rather than slavishly following the dictates of tradition.

6. Respect: And yet, they don’t trample all over what has come before. Disney had decided to dump 2D animation. Lasseter put an end to that. He loves and respects the artistry of ‘old’ Disney movies. I believe some of that has to do with the tactile experience of working with pen or pencil and paper. 3D is great, of course, but it’s not the same as hand scratching images on a sketchboard. There is a kind of direct vitality and inspiration that can emerge from that witness Pixar’s famous lunch where Wall-E and the house from Up emerged. There is much to be learned from the history of movies and storytelling.

7. Fun: Their primary audience is children. And children like to have fun. Adults do, too, even if they get so caught up in work and responsibilities, they sometimes forget that. So with everything else that goes on in the story-crafting process, Lasseter is always innately cued into the potential for fun. I mean, the dude owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts! That’s his work apparel!

Look at that list. Know what? That’s a great list of attributes for any screenwriter to have. We should embrace and engender the spirit of those seven qualities in our own lives and writing lifestyles.

Again thanks for the article, Bob. Definitely worth a read!

I don’t care what genre or type of stories you write, these 7 storytelling instincts are good ones to engender. And honestly, if Hollywood development execs and producers would embrace these, I think the film and TV business would be better off.

To read The Telegraph article, go  here.

The Year of a Bunch of Totally Solid Movies

January 22nd, 2015 by

An informative look by the Black List’s Terry Huang at the movies of 2014:

It’s a sentiment that has been expressed enough to seem worthy of note:

2014 perhaps wasn’t the best year for movies.

When thinking about this year in comparison to other years and in particular last year, which had both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, should we feel shortchanged?

Well, first off, we need to distinguish two things when deciding our definition of a “good” year for film.

1. The actual quality of films released. Were there fewer good films released this year? How do the “best of the best” stack up against previous years (Oscar contention)? Was there an abundance of bad films? Was it a year of more mediocre movies?

2. The perception of the quality of films released. This takes into account the same variables above, except we need to add an element of how well publicized, distributed, and/or patronized the good movies were compared to the bad movies. Collectively, were bad movies more present than good ones? Were people simply unaware of the good films?

The Best of the Best

In our collective memory years from now, we’ll probably only remember the greats. So it’s worth exploring, independently of all the junk, the most highly-rated films of the year. This won’t tell us overall the quality of film, but it will tell us if this year produced films that will filter into our future canon.

For this analysis, I’ll be using Metacritic as a proxy for quality of film.

Why use Metacritic over Rotten Tomatoes? Basically, Metacritic answers more granularly “how good” the movie was, not just what percent of critics liked it. It also favors more established, well-regarded critics. There’s a long explanation you can check out, and you can also reference Metacritic’s own explanation of how they calculate the score. I’m not saying it’s better; it just tells you something slightly different.

Why use Metacritic instead of anything else? Well, mostly because it already exists, it broadly tracks movies, and we’ve all heard of it, so we have a common reference point.

Let’s just look at the Metacritic scores of the top 10 films by year, regardless of how widely distributed they were.

2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
#1 100 99 96 97 94 99 95 95 100 100
#2 93 98 94 94 94 95 94 94 100 95
#3 92 91 92 92 92 94 90 92 97 95
#4 92 91 92 91 89 92 89 92 97 92
#5 90 90 91 89 89 91 89 90 96 91
#6 89 89 90 86 88 90 88 88 94 91
#7 88 89 89 86 88 90 87 87 94 90
#8 88 89 88 85 87 88 87 87 93 90
#9 87 89 88 85 86 88 87 87 93 89
#10 87 88 88 84 86 88 87 87 92 89
Average 90.6 91.3 90.8 88.9 89.3 91.5 89.3 89.9 95.6 92.2

So looking at the “best of the best,” this year was actually the second highest scoring year in the last 10 years, right behind 2013. That sounds like a pretty strong year for film! 2013 was an exceptionally strong year (the average is 3.4 points higher than 2014). Coming off 2013 probably skews our perspective a little about the quality of 2014.

I’ve been telling people the same thing: We’ve had a couple of years with some superior movies. For 2014, Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Whiplash, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Edge of Tomorrow, Interstellar, The LEGO Movie, Gone Girl, The Fault in Our Stars are movies that easily spring to mind. I’m sure I’ve forgotten several others.

For all you numbers people, check out the rest of Terry’s post here as he really gets granular re the movies of 2014.

Twitter: @terrykhuang.

Check out the Black List blog here.

Documentary: “Pixar: 25 Magic Moments”

December 28th, 2014 by

A 2011 BBC documentary: Pixar: 25 Magic Moments:

Through 25 key moments, this programme takes a look at the highs and lows of the multi award-winning animation studio Pixar as it celebrates its 25th birthday, and discovers the secrets of how to make a Pixar movie. With unique access to Pixar HQ and the creative team, it features memorable moments from hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc, as well as exclusive interviews with Billy Crystal, Tim Allen, Holly Hunter, Kelsey Grammer, Michael Keaton, George Lucas and others.

A nice way for any Pixar fan to spend an hour, especially writers as some of the interviews involve Brad Bird, Ed Catmull, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Bob Peterson, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, members of the company’s Brain Trust, as well as Steve Jobs, who if you didn’t know co-founded the animation company.

If you love Pixar movies or simply want to learn some of the key narrative principles behind their success as storytellers, I encourage you to take my popular 1-week online class Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling. It starts January 19th and I only offer it once a year. Check it out here.

THR (Video): Producer Roundtable

December 22nd, 2014 by

From THR:

If you’d taken a snapshot of the men and women who participated in this year’s Producer Roundtable about 15 years ago, you’d have seen most of them in very different jobs: Peter Chernin (Exodus: Gods and Kings, St. Vincent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), 63, then was Rupert Murdoch‘s right-hand man at News Corp., running one of the largest media companies in the world; Marc Platt (Into the Woods), 57, was president of production at Universal Pictures, capping a long career as a movie executive; John Lesher (Birdman, Fury), 48, was an agent (and soon to become head of the specialty label Paramount Vantage); Emma Thomas (Interstellar), 43, was just beginning her career as a producer following a stint as an assistant to Eric Fellner (The Theory of Everything), 53; and Cathleen Sutherland, (Boyhood), 48, was manning a series of jobs in production. Their very different experiences colored their perspectives and taught many of them how to see the industry from a bird’s-eye point of view rather than from the narrow window of one film — though, as Platt notes, “What’s liberating about being a producer is: Your first thought can just be, ‘Here’s a project I want to invest my time in.’ “

Here is the entire 43 minute video:

Via THR.

“How Reese Witherspoon and Megan Ellison are changing the movies”

November 24th, 2014 by

A Washington Post feature by Alyssa Rosenberg:

Last week, I wrote about how hard it was going to be to fill the slate of Best Actress nominees at the Academy Awards, given how few movies this year gave women significant screen time and rich, complex parts. But two of the movies that have produced genuine contenders–David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild”–have one thing in common: Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard.

Witherspoon, who was part of the Hollywood Reporter’s annual actress roundtable, told the magazine that her success as both a producer and a potential Best Actress contender (she stars as memoirist Cheryl Strayed in “Wild”) were the result of a recent decision: to stop waiting for other people to start making movies about interesting female characters.

“I can’t speak for other people. I just recognize that about three years ago, I started seeing this complete lack of interesting female leads in film. First I got mad, really mad. And then I was like, “It’s nobody’s fault; if you’re not proactive about things …” I’d had a company before, but it was basically about trying to develop things that I would eventually be in,” Witherspoon explained. “So I just switched the idea: If I can develop anything for any other women, I don’t care who it is; I just want my daughter to grow up seeing complex, interesting, nuanced women in film. So I started it with my own money — you know, the first thing people tell you is, “Don’t put your own money into anything” — so I was like, is this really dumb? But I got a great partner [Bruna Papandrea] and the first two things I sent her were ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Wild.’ And those were the first books that we optioned.”


Witherspoon is hardly the first woman to make this hike, of course. Her potential awards-season dominance recalls that of Megan Ellison (daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison), whose Annapurna Pictures production company has also turned out a reliable series of contenders and intelligent provocations. Annapurna Pictures movies tend to be less intrigued by the inner lives of women, and they are more likely than Pacific Standard films to have male main characters. But the women in movies Ellison makes never seem less than formidable and fascinating, even when they have to swipe the movie from a male co-star or lead.

As Darnell Hunt in my recent interview suggested, the issue of gender and racial inequality on all fronts of the Hollywood movie and TV business is systemic. One thing that is needed is for creatives to take the lead in creating and championing stories that embrace diversity as well as compelling, interesting characters.

What Witherspoon is doing is admirable, but we don’t have to be a movie star to take up the call. As writers, we have a choice as to the type of material we write. If we’ve got a great story idea that features a female and/or ethnic lead, don’t let conventional wisdom stop you. Write that script. The more and better material out there, the more likely we’ll scripts that embrace diversity get produced.

For the rest of the WAPO article, go here.

Does a record-setting October box office mean anything?

November 5th, 2014 by

Per Box Office Mojo:

Overall business totaled $755 million, which is up a whopping 20 percent from last October. It’s also a new October record ahead of 2009’s $693 million haul.

While Gone Girl and Annabelle were the top performers, the big year-over-year increase can be chalked up to strong numbers in the middle. Seven titles earned between $30 and $55 million in October; in comparison, only one movie wound up in that range last year (Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa).

I’ll grant you $30-$55M is peanuts compared to the revenues generated by big summer superhero franchise movies. However consider the October numbers with these Box Office Mojo headlines from this last summer:

May Box Office Hits Lowest Level Since 2010

June Box Office Down 16 Percent From Last Year’s Record

July Box Office Falls Short of $1 Billion

August ended the summer on an up note, primarily due to Guardians of the Galaxy, however the fact is movies underperformed domestically this year while October set a record.

Does that mean anything? I’d like to think it does, specifically there are audiences who enjoy Comedy, Drama, Family, Horror, and genres other than Science Fiction and whatever we might choose to call Superhero movies. The more Hollywood can expand their development slates to include those genres, they can stop leaving that money on the table.

Ron Meyer on Hollywood ‘Assholes,’ CAA ‘Monsters’ and Advice for the Next Generation

October 15th, 2014 by

The Wrap’s Jeff Sneider provided a good summary of a recent appearance by one of the most powerful people in Hollywood:

NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer headlined the spotlight interview at TheGrill on Tuesday, where he sat down for an intimate chat with Jason Blum titled “When Does a Mogul Become a Legend?”

Meyer and Blum had a solid rapport, which comes as no surprise given that Universal and Blumhouse have a 10-year first-look production agreement.

Blum was especially impressed that in a town where executives trade jobs like musical chairs, Meyer has stayed at the same place for 20 years, prompting him to share his secret to longevity.

Here is one quote I found particularly insightful, Meyer talking about how he started out as a young agent:

“I was never the smartest person but I had certain fundamentals that really made the difference. Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups and it changed my life. I decided I’d treat people the way I wanted to be treated. You can be a chump once but not twice. You can’t always tell the truth but you have to tell the best truth you can and work as hard as you possibly can. No matter what job you have to do, ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’ are the two best words. I said “yes” to everything they wanted and thanked them for letting me do it.”

You could pretty much strip out each sentence in that paragraph as takeaways:

Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.

I decided I’d treat people the way I wanted to be treated.

You can be a chump once but not twice.

You can’t always tell the truth but you have to tell the best truth you can and work as hard as you possibly can.

No matter what job you have to do, ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’ are the two best words.

Every May, I send off a wonderful group of college graduates off to internships in Hollywood. I suspect I’ll walk them through each of these tidbits, insight into how Hollywood power brokers think… and pretty good advice for getting ahead in the business.

Here is some video of the session:

For the rest of the article, go here.

The ‘shortening’ of movies

October 14th, 2014 by

In my conversations with fellow screenwriters, there is a general consensus that the typical movie scene is getting shorter. Whereas scenes 50 years ago might have 3-4 pages long on average, when I first broke into the business in the late 80s, the rule of thumb was 2 pages. Nowadays it feels like the average scene is more like 1 1/2 pages long.

Likewise there is a sense that what used to function as the end Act One plot point now is more likely to occur at the midpoint of the first act.

The same seems to be at work with page count. A quarter-century ago, a normal script might run to 120 pages. Nowadays I talk to writers who like to hit 110, even 105 as an ideal length.

In thinking about this phenomenon of ‘shortening’ movies, there’s really nothing more than anecdotal evidence. Sure, we can screen the 1984 original version of The Karate Kid, note that Miyagi doesn’t officially start training Daniel until nearly midway through the story (although he has been teaching him basic hand motions in a surreptitious fashion), and realize that could never happen in a contemporary movie.

Audiences are smarter. They need less setup. They want to get into the action quicker. Everything about social media is about fast, faster, fastest, and that seems to be reflected in contemporary movies.

But again, no hard evidence… until now. From a recent Wired magazine article:

As filmmaking technology has advanced, films have changed to take advantage of it. The 2005 version of King Kong looks and feels nothing like the 1933 version. The newer Kong appears in vivid color, and thanks to CGI he’s a convincingly lifelike beast. The original soundtrack is tinny and shrill; in the newer one, the great ape’s snorts and growls are deep and realistic.

Movies have changed in less obvious ways too, says James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University who’s been studying the evolution of cinema. Cutting presented some of his findings at a recent event here sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “All these things are working to hold our attention better,” Cutting said.

The average shot length of English language films has declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today, Cutting said. At the Academy event he showed a scatter plot with data from the British film scholar Barry Salt, who’s calculated the average shot duration in more than 15,000 movies made between 1910 and 2010. That’s a lot of shots. In a 2010 study, Cutting found an average of 1,132 shots per film in a smaller sample of 150 movies made between 1935 and 2010; the King Kong remake, incidentally, had the most: A whopping 3,099 shots packed into 187 minutes.

Here is a chart visualizing that data:


Why this trend?

Cutting says some people have tried to pin declining shot lengths on MTV, by invoking a sort of video-killed-the-attention-span hypothesis. He doesn’t buy it. For one thing, Salt’s graph of declining shot durations has no obvious inflection point in or after 1982, the year MTV was born. Shot durations were declining before that, and they kept declining at a similar rate after.

Cutting isn’t sure what’s driving the change. One factor could be that older films tended to pack more characters into a shot. As a result, film makers had to allow more time for viewers to look around to see who was there. In one recent study Cutting found that each additional character added 1.5 seconds to the length of a shot on average.

So here is actual empirical evidence that at least one respect, there is some shortening effect going on in movies: the length of camera shots.

Does this buttress the argument that there is a shortening effect at work in movies: scenes, Act One, page count? What do you think? And if this is a trend, why do you think it’s happening?

For the rest of the Wired article, go here.

HT to Franklin Leonard for surfacing the article.

Is this the model for a “next-generation film studio”?

September 25th, 2014 by

This interesting news item was announced in March:

Several years ago, the Hollywood producer Robert Simonds Jr. began thinking about how a movie studio for today’s age — with the ascendance of China and a dizzying array of distribution channels — should look.

Now Mr. Simonds and his backers, including TPG Growth and the Chinese investment firm Hony Capital, think they have the answer.

The group plans to announce on Monday the formation of a studio with ambitions to fill in a space abandoned by bigger rivals. Its focus: $40 million movies featuring big-name stars, the kind of comedies and dramas that have lost some currency in Hollywood, displaced by giant summer spectacles. The group’s goal is to invest more than $1 billion in new projects over the next five years.

The thing that caught my attention: $40 million movies. That is precisely the type of budget the major studios have been avoiding like the plague. So duly noted until the venture took more shape. Cut to yesterday when this was announced:

Former Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson has been tapped as chairman of the motion picture group at Robert Simonds’ new film and television studio.

Fogelson, a film biz vet who headed Universal Pictures from 2009 through September 2013, will oversee all aspects of the company’s motion picture group, including its production, marketing, distribution and home entertainment strategy.

Bringing in the former chairman of a major studio is big news and tops a list of several important hires in the last six months. More information on their business strategy:

The still-unnamed studio is currently ramping up to finance and self-release up to 10 films a year, produced with budgets in the $20 million-$60 million range.


It was a natural for Fogelson to turn to the slate of 34 to 40 films he greenlit while at Universal, including “Safe House,” “Contraband,” “Identity Thief,” “Bridesmaids,” even “Neighbors” — successful mid-range budgeted titles that fit the model of Simonds’ new company.

“Being able to hyper-focus on that with the kind of size and scale and do it 10 times a year,” eventually got Fogelson to join Simonds’ team, he said.

With the major studios making fewer movies and focusing on either $100M+ franchise movies or micro-to-low budget genres films, there is this gaping hole in the middle which this venture is making the centerpiece of their business strategy. In fact, it is being dubbed a “next-generation film studio”. Hyperbole? Probably. But then this happened two days ago:

Citing the explosive growth of Chinese giant Alibaba, Fosun chairman Guo Guangchang predicted great things from former Warner Bros. film chief Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8 at a press briefing with top Sony Pictures brass and Robinov at the Sony lot Tuesday evening.


Generally, Robinov said he is looking to make the types of broadly commercial and “visually unique” films he made at Warner Bros., which included Ben Affleck’s Argo and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Anticipating a staff of about 15, his company will have green-light authority but rely on Sony for marketing and distribution. Within three years, he hopes to be releasing as many as six movies annually.

Robinov said he will make films of varying budgets from $45 million to north of $100 million, looking “opportunistically” for projects that could be Chinese co-productions or otherwise “take advantage of Fosun’s relationships in China.”

Apart from the fact Studio 8 is tied to Sony, there are a couple of similarities between this venture and the Simonds/Fogelson initiative: (1) Chinese funding. (2) Mid-range budgets: $20-$60M / $45M-$100M.

Does this represent the wave of the future? Maybe. For screenwriters, it should mean more movies which translates into more gigs. Yea! Hopefully it means more movies for folks who like comedies such as Neighbors and Bridesmaids, dramas like Argo and Safe House, and other mid-priced movies featuring actual human beings, not just CGI eye-candy. Double yea!

What do you think? Are you encouraged by these developments? Think it will succeed? Head to comments and let me know what you think.

How Movies Synchronize the Brains of an Audience

September 1st, 2014 by

Reboots. Remakes. Sequels. Prequels. Franchises. And now this:

Picture a movie theater, packed for the opening night of a blockbuster film. Hundreds of strangers sit next to each other, transfixed. They tend to blink at the same time. Even their brain activity is, to a remarkable degree, synchronized.

It’s a slightly creepy thought. It’s also a testament to the captivating power of cinema, says Uri Hasson, a psychologist at Princeton University. At a recent event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hasson presented his research into what happens inside people’s brains when they watch movies. His work got a receptive but somewhat wary reaction from several film makers, including Jon Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man, Chef) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan).

“Somewhat wary reaction”? Seems to me this could take Hollywood’s formula fetish to a whole other level:

On the second evening of the two-night event, Aronofsky and his writing partner and sometimes co-producer, Ari Handel, were on stage with the scientists as Hasson presented the results of a small study he’d done with a clip from Black Swan. It comes near the end as Nina, the main character portrayed by Natalie Portman, is unraveling. She hallucinates black feathers poking through the skin on her back. It’s an intense scene, and like that of Dog Day Afternoon, it seemed to get nearly 70 percent of the cortex firing in synch across subjects.

“They do look very similar, but it’d be more surprising if they didn’t,” said Handel, who earned a PhD in neuroscience at New York University before getting into movies. “If you’re watching a movie, that’s your entire sensorium and your feelings.” If people’s brains were out of synch during a movie, Handel suggested, that might be a bad sign that their minds were wandering. One person might be thinking about the call they need to make, while another contemplates making a popcorn run.

“It’s a scary tool for the studios to have,” Aronofsky said. “Soon they’ll do test screenings with people in MRIs.” The audience laughed, but it didn’t seem like he was joking, at least not entirely.

Here you go: Movie test screen audience of the future!

For the rest of the Wired article, go here.