Zeitgeist: Chasing Trends in Hollywood

Zeitgeist. Chasing Trends in Hollywood

By Arik Cohen

When the Twilight movies turned 13-year-old girls into the sort of franchise-obsessed herds typically reserved for teenage superhero fanboys, it sparked a vampire trend that is just now, years later, beginning to fade.  We saw a hit franchise (Twilight), other vampire films (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Vampire Academy), as well as hit TV shows (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries).  It also spurred a hunt for the next big young adult series, with Lionsgate eclipsing Twilight with The Hunger Games.  Although maligned by most critics and filmgoers over the age of 15, Twilight spurred a trend.  If someone was sitting on a vampire spec, it was a great time to get it out there.

But what if you didn’t have a vampire spec?  What if you weren’t that sort of writer?  What if you writing about Vampires would be like Eminem recording a country album? Should you still do it? Should you follow the trend? Do you chase a zeitgeist?

The short answer is “no.”  The long answer is “probably not.” 

The popular thinking is that trends ebb and flow, so why spend time trying to surf it?  By the time you write that great vampire spec, the vampire money grab may well be over.  Now you’re stuck with a script that’s no longer “in” and not even something you liked to begin with.  Plus writing a script solely to follow the business trend is inherently lacking in passion.  In the battle between art and commerce, this would be commerce storming the beaches of art’s Normandy.  And we’re writers damn it, we’re artistic, we’re in it for the stories, not for corporate satisfaction.

I have a difficult time finding fault in this logic.  We are in it for the stories.  We are in it for the art.  But I’d like to play devil’s advocate here, because this is Hollywood so even the devil has an agent.

The vampire trend may be the rare occasion where a very specific element becomes a trend in and of itself.  This doesn’t happen as often as people think.  Trends tend to be broader.  “Expensive superhero flicks” is a trend.  “Adult bromance comedies” is a trend.  In both of these examples, the pattern is less a single element, and more of a tone.  The Sam Raimi Spider-man flicks began a golden age of superhero film, which has evolved all the way to the present day, where it’s as big as ever.  Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow began a new wave of R-rated comedies that put more weight on friendship than romance (Superbad, Bridesmaids, The Hangover), and nine or ten years later bromance films are still profitable.

These trends are more general, and as such they are a bigger sandbox to play in than “Sexy Vampire stories”.  They also have more legs, and although I imagine the R-rated bromance comedy will disappear once again (like it did in the PG-13 obsessed 90s), or at least evolve into something new, it’s still lasting a lot longer than “sexy vampires”.  As such, in my opinion, I see no issue trying to manufacture an idea that would fit under this umbrella.

But is this selling out?  Maybe.  It’s a tough call because screenwriting is an interesting form of art, in that it’s not made to be absorbed in its current state.  Nobody writes scripts with the ultimate goal of having it read by as many people as possible.  The mission objective of a screenplay is to get it made into a film in the same way that the mission objective of an architectural blueprint is for someone to construct the skyscraper.  As such you want someone to want to make your script.  You could write the War & Peace of screenplays, but if nobody is willing to produce it, then it is – on a practical level – useless.*  So maintaining a narrow-minded obsession with the principle of being true to your art is less pragmatic in screenwriting than it is in music or sculpture or watercolor. 

*The key word here is “practical.”  There are plenty of benefits to writing any screenplay.  Every page you write makes you that much better of a writer and it’s always possible that someone will love your unfilmable screenplay and hire you to write something else off of it.  But it’s still not useful pragmatically in a strict sense.

That’s not to say screenwriting is purely a commercial endeavor and you should be a cog in a machine.  Of course not.  You should inject your own interests and passion into every script you write, but if you begin writing a high budget art film about a pedophile in space who fights off an alien army of Neo-Nazis, you have to go into it knowing that the time you spend on this one probably isn’t a sound investment in your future.

On the other side of the spectrum, deciding to make your next script something that feels commercial is not a terrible idea.  Hell, even working filmmakers often have a one-for-me-then-one-for-the-studio pattern.  It’s not a bad thing to lean on the side of commerce once in a while.  You chose to be a screenwriter, not a poet, and so you chose a form of writing that is more commonly associated with business than beatnik art galleries.

So if the long answer is ultimately “maybe you should” then what’s the deciding factor?  How do you decide if this is the time to follow the trend?  First you want to make sure a trend is actually a trend.  I have to imagine that when Pirates of the Caribbean became a huge hit franchise for Disney, an ocean of pirate scripts drowned Hollywood.  But as you’ll notice, nobody ever made them.  Unlike Twilight, this success did not start a trend.  300 created a demand for sword-and-sandal fantasy flicks, but none of them ever really turned a profit.  This trend was attempted, but ultimately failed.  So you’d feel very bad for someone who spent their time crafting that perfect neo-pirate flick or monsters-meets-Athens concept.

Another aspect to watch out for is that not all trends demand specs.  Superhero films are HUGE, but I have to imagine a superhero spec is relatively useless unless it’s simply a writing sample.  They pour loads of money into Batman, Captain America, Iron-Man, Superman, but they’re not pouring money into superheroes invented in an aspiring screenwriter’s mind.  They want the pre-existing franchises with pre-existing fans.  They want that name recognition.  The same thing happened with fantasy films after Lord of the Rings, they didn’t make a bunch of brand new fantasy films, they made The Golden Compass, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Game of Thrones, all based on existing literary properties.  A spec script not based on something that’s already successful would have been superfluous, and writing a spec script on your favorite comic is a waste of time without the rights and consent.

But if you’re smart, then you’ll know.  You know the genres you excel in and the story elements that attract you.  So just make sure these ideas are developed and you’re ready to pounce.  Luck is when opportunity meets preparation so if you’re a big fan of 17th century swashbuckling flicks you can write that up or have some ideas ready to go. That way, when a Three Musketeers remake becomes a global phenomenon, it’ll be your time to shine.

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