The good and the not-so-good


The Gaylord National Harbor

The Gaylord National Harbor

Every year I have the chance to review dramatic films, documentaries, nonfiction videos, and commercials. Yesterday was one of my big days. (I want to mention that the judging is at the Gaylord National Harbor this year, brand new and amazing.)

One of the most promising documentaries began with credits over a blue sky, with a calm, tranquil landscape beneath. The picture nearly perfectly followed the “golden rule” of thirds as it pertains to filmmaking – the landscape took up about a third of the frame. (This theory of pleasing composition probably goes back to Da Vinci, and is much more complex than I’m describing it.)

Suddenly, an oil tanker screams out of the sky and explodes on the ground before us. We all sat up. Certainly something New and Different is a great way to attract and keep attention.

But what happened next? A convoluted and one-sided political attack on those who have squandered our nation’s resources. Only there were no facts. Maybe they were saved for later in the 2-hour doc?

I must disclaim that I am not allowed to name this film until the competition is over and results announced, sometime in November. So I will not give away any identifying characteristics. And I do want to say that there were those who disagreed with me. For a while.

One thing I’ve noticed about documentaries. Over time, it actually has become more likely that a scriptwriter isn’t actively involved in the production, unless that production is done by National Geographic or another proven documentary machine. Why does this happen? Because most people believe they can write. Whether they’ve ever written or even read a script for any kind of production, people generally believe that their choice of words and sentences will work. Increasingly, directors believe they can write. But, as talented as they may be, generally they don’t understand the turning points of a successful story. Maybe it’s because they’re so concerned about the topic that they can’t be that objective observer that’s required in a writer in order to give an audience what IT needs.

I can say, practically without reservation, that non-writers writing is never successful. It’s like someone who wants to run a marathon. You’re not going to do that on the first day out, or perhaps even in the first year. It takes a lot of practice and discipline. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.) In the case of scriptwriting, it also takes a lot of watching – all kinds of things: television, movies, nonfiction, documentaries, museum shorts, and so forth. I don’t want to discourage any fledgling writers, or those who keep journals, from working on their writing. But if you haven’t written professionally, likely it will take you a while to become superlative at your craft.

Naturally, scriptwriting, like any other writing, takes a lot of, well, writing. You must keep up with the culture and speak its language. Not stiff, formal language. Colloquial language. Scriptwriting may not be rocket science, but it is the careful distillation of complex information, and the magical gelling of a constellation of idea, picture, word, and audio that makes a moving picture a success.

So, the story I watched yesterday cost at least $300,000-$500,000 to produce. The person who submitted this piece did not reveal the budget, but based on the lush aerial shooting and the number of locations … not to mention narration by A Famous Actor whom most of us cannot afford … this was not a cheap story to make. Plus, it involved a famous senator’s son.

What happened? We all agreed that something funky had happened with the script. The scriptwriter went away, or there wasn’t one. Or there wasn’t a trained scriptwriter. The story just wasn’t there. We disagreed on how good the result was, but I stuck to my guns and eventually prevailed.

The film was a cut above that abomination by Al Gore that was called a documentary, but was really a glorified PowerPoint. But a cut above in visual only. It tried to be a successful Michael Moore film (and I do not think that most MM films are successful), but fell on its face, like the oil tanker that blew up within the first minute (we never did find out what the point of that was).

After watching 10 minutes of the piece, none of us had any idea where the story was going. Sure, we knew it was about the environment. And quite possibly a steppingstone for the famous senator’s son (as Al Gore’s “film,” An Inconvenient Truth, was for that politcian). But there were no building blocks leading to a greater truth, inconvenient or not.

I did some digging and discovered that I may be one of a handful of people who have even seen this film, because it’s caught up in a maelstrom of egos and personalities. And the costly piece may forever escape the Big Screen.

Turns out the personalities involve, as mentioned, a famous senator’s son, the filmmaker who grew up with him (and who is also the stepson of a household name of a TV journalist), a newspaper heiress, and a wealthy Republican producer who bankrolled most of the picture. Some or all of them are not getting along.

The problem? The filmmaker took the heiress’s script and threw it out, coming up with his own. The producer and the senator’s son don’t like the result. The heiress hasn’t seen it, but she also coughed up a lot of the money to make the picture.

The filmmaker says he owns the film, even though he didn’t put up any of the money to make it. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Was there a contract? Hello?

But, again, my point (and I do have one) is this: a really good script is necessary to make a successful story. A good script must be done by a good or even a great writer. All of the fancy shooting and editing in the world can’t create Story. And every successful feature film and documentary, not to mention corporate and museum videos, has a Successful Story.

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