Monday, March 08, 2010

The Return of Spectacle

According to Box Office Mojo, Avatar has made over $2.5 billion worldwide to date. it made over $77 million domestically opening weekend. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has been out since Friday. It made over $116 million opening weekend, over $210 million worldwide.

When cinema first became a commercial enterprise, it was completely innovative. People would go to the movies just to see the moving pictures. For a little while, there was a tension - would cinema develop a narrative structure or would it become a purely visual art form? Obviously there is a lot of art in cinema, but the narrative won out to be the dominant commercial structure.

But with the box office smashing releases of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, spectacle is again becoming a huge audience draw. 3D isn't a new technology. But Avatar was the first movie that audiences felt they would not have had the same viewing experience if they didn't see it in 3D. Alice in Wonderland is continuing the trend of movies that are MEANT to be watched in 3D as opposed to movies that are made and then made into 3D.

What is NOT a new trend is the tension between spectacle and narrative. Often films that are visually awesome lack a lot in story (did you really think I was going to get through this post without mentioning Micheal Bay?). No one's going to argue that Avatar was not a technological marvel. It was awesome. And I wasn't going to go see it unless I saw it in 3D. The same goes for Alice in Wonderland. But honestly, the narrative of Avatar didn't break any new narrative ground. And commercial film is primarily a NARRATIVE beast. Some wonder if the same problems will befall Alice in Wonderland.

The question for writers is - should this trend towards 3D films change the way we write? Should we be writing towards spectacle?

The answer is - yes and no. Yes, keep up with the times. Be one of those writers that is 3D minded - if that is your genre. You're not going to write Garden State in 3D. A film's vision starts on the page (don't tell the director). Your job, as the writer, is to get the reader to visualize the movie. Can they visualize the potential for 3D? No, because you had BETTER have a strong story, first and foremost. No matter what. Story first, fancy pants spectacle later. What reader is going to be interested in your 3D potential if they don't care about your characters or your story?

Technology is going to change the way movies are made and watched. And written. But the transformation is going to be slower than any of the other technological developments in our lives, cell phones, wireless, DVR. Cinema-viewing hasn't really changed since its advent. Neither Avatar or Alice in Wonderland were spec scripts. The writers aren't typically the ones that on the forefront of change. But that doesn't mean that we need to be the last ones catching up on the industry changes that are actually very pertinent to the way we write.

On Oscar news, here's an article on the weird VMA Kayne West moment. I got to see most of the Oscars despite the annoying Cablevision-ABC battle. Hopefully next year it will be more entertaining.

1 comment:

Liza said...

I totally agree with your statements there, Amy! I saw both Avatar and Alice in 3-D and they were both visually amazing but lacked a strong plotline.

I'm really surprised, though, that you didn't mention the fact that Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director! I'm interested to hear your opinions on this, as several of my female friends in the Film department here at U-M have been discussing it all day =)