Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do You Suffer from the SIFS?

We all do it at one point or another. We save it for Sunday.

I have to go shopping and run all these errands. I’ll just do it on Sunday.
I have this massive paper due. I’ll just write it on Sunday.
I haven’t done any writing this week. I’ll catch up on Sunday.

I used to be an egregious offender.  A huge procrastinator with my writing. I have a full-time job, and a social life from time to time, so I would always tell myself that I would tackle my writing on the weekends. Then Saturday and Sunday would come, and I would get busy…watching TV, taking a walk around my neighborhood, going to the gym, eating, reading a month-old magazine. I got no writing done. I suffered from the SIFS—not a catchy term for syphilis, but rather the Save It For Sundays. (Not to be confused with SNIS.)

See, the problem with saving everything for the weekend is that we have too much free time, which for a writer is just more time to procrastinate. And when we save everything for the weekend, writing will take a back seat to more pertinent tasks on the to-do list, like grocery shopping and cleaning. We find all these little tasks that need to get done, and then before we know it, it's Sunday night at 10pm and we haven't written anything. (We? I guess I mean I...)

SIFS may be swell for some writers, but not me. I need structure. I get more done when I have less time. That makes my time more valuable, and it doesn’t leave me beholden to waiting for inspiration. I get my best work done on weekends when I only set aside an hour or two. If I plan to write the whole day, then I keep putting it off. "Oh, I just have to pick something up at the store, but I'll get to it after," for example.

I know my limitations now. I can’t write for 5-6 hours straight. I can’t do anything for 5-6 hours straight except sleep. My writing attention span lasts for 1-2 hours, and that’s all I expect of myself. That’s how long I write on weekdays, and that’s how long I write on weekends. The blank screen is less daunting when I know I won’t have to spend all day staring at it. It’s better to get in 1 good hour of writing than spend 5 hours sitting at your computer watching classic music videos on YouTube. And if I get into the zone and write for more than 2 hours, then I’ve exceeded my expectations!

So how about you? Do you suffer from the SIFS, or do you prefer them?

p.s. I got that awesome Garfield graphic here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Maybe the Plot UNthickens: Upending Cliches

It’s so easy to resort to clichés. Many times, we don’t even realize we’re using them. The popular girl? Let’s make her blond, pretty, wealthy, and mean. The jock? Let’s make him dumb. Where will the big confrontation happen? The prom, of course! Clichés are rooted in truth; they had to have happened so many times to become a cliché. It’s difficult to surprise the reader nowadays; they know all the familiar plot twists. I tend to write a lot of clichés when I begin outlining a novel. I lean on them when I can’t figure my way through a plot point or when I want to make my story flow in a certain direction. Many times, I don’t even realize I’m using them until someone points them out.

Once I spot them, I try to flip it and reverse it, to quote Missy Elliot. Take the familiar character or plot point and go in the opposite direction; see if your story can weather the change. As storytellers, we should aim to defy readers’ expectations. Not too much, though. Just enough to keep them on their toes. The first Pirates of the Caribbean took a familiar story – pirates stealing treasure – and flipped it: the pirates had to RETURN a stolen treasure. Here are some other examples:

The Silence of the Lambs. When Clarice Starling travels to the jail to meet Hannibal Lector for the first time, she’s led into the dungeon where the worst criminals are housed. The warden gives her a horrific description of Hannibal eating a census taker. We pan down the row of inmates, all of them scary, menacing, psychotic (Miggs!), taunting Clarice and the viewer.  Hannibal is the last cell. We’re expecting him to be just as terrifying as the rest of the block. But what does Clarice find when she reaches the end? A gentleman. Hannibal is clean, courteous, and calm. The audience’s expectation of a deranged cannibal serial killer has just been flipped. And the fact that Hannibal acts so well-mannered despite having committed those heinous crimes makes him much creepier. (I couldn't upload the clip, so watch the classic scene here.)

The Hunger Games
upended our expectations from the beginning. People picking up the novel knew it was about Katniss playing in the titular games. The first chapter describes the reaping, where we expect Katniss to get chosen. But then twist! [mild spoiler alert] Her younger sister Prim is chosen instead, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. Suzanne Collins could’ve just began the story with Katniss on her way to Panem. Throwing in that surprise spoke volumes about her character. Also, having an innocent 12-year-old girl picked to fight to her death showed the reader what kind of dystopian, dangerous world they were entering.

On a lighter note, Kody Keplinger did a great job defying the aforementioned popular girl stereotype in The Duff. (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) Bianca, the eponymous main character, is best friends with two pretty, blonde, popular cheerleaders. Their friendship is supportive and genuine, not based on lies or putting each other down. It was a nice change of pace from so many YA novels where battle lines are drawn between the popular and not popular.

I know when writing, it’s easy to go for familiar beats. But when rewriting, do a read-through to check for clichés with your genre, and try to tweak it just a little.  What are some of your favorite examples of flipped and reversed clichés?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

There are no underwater tunnels to Alcatraz, aka plot holes

I first heard the term "Creative License" when I was 13 and watched the film In & Out. In the movie, English teacher Kevin Kline is outed by a former student at the Academy Awards. A week later is his school's graduation ceremony. Um...but the Oscars are were in March. No public school lets out in March. My mom said it was creative license, and I pictured a writer taking a driving test. A year later, I had another innocence-is-lost growing up moment when I went to Alcatraz with my family. I loved The Rock, the classic Michael Bay action opus starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. (and Brenda from General Hospital) But when I visited Alcatraz, I learned that, contrary to what the movie said, there are no underwater tunnels to Alcatraz. A pivotal plot point to that movie was an utter fabrication. Yet still both of those movies were well-liked hits. Did nobody care about these gaping plot holes?

Several movies and books that we love require suspension of disbelief. The plot of Double Jeopardy, which was #1 at the box office for 3 weeks and made a huge $116M, would never hold up in court. If Ashley Judd killed her presumed-dead husband for real, she would still go to jail. In one of my favorite movies, My Best Friend's Wedding, why did Julia Roberts have NO idea that her best friend was dating someone, proposing to someone, engaged, and planning a wedding? Did she really not receive an invitation? Book tour, my butt. She had a brick-sized cell phone. Dermot Mulroney could've called her.

But still, this was a beloved romcom, and still one of my favorite movies.

I think many aspiring writers get caught up in the plot details. To make sure every plot point and their world makes sense, they get lost in researching. However, audiences have proved time and time again that they will ignore plot holes or take flimsy excuses like being on a book tour. This is fiction, after all. As long as you provide a passable explanation, the audience/reader will usually go with it, e.g. Source Code.

People will buy stretching the plot, as long as the characters remain real. Listen to someone the next time they explain why they hated a book or movie. They will talk about how "that character would never do that," or "that character was so stupid," or simply "it made no sense." You need to always make sure that no matter what happens plotwise, your characters remain genuine with believable actions, reactions, and motivations. While people love Sandra Bullock, they hated All About Steve. Her character was unnaturally obsessed with Bradley Cooper, to the point where she was no longer a believable character. Audiences loved The Sixth Sense, but hated The Happening. The former was primarily a story about a boy yearning to be a normal kid and a man learning to move on from his failed marriage. The Happening had no such compelling character arcs; it just had evil plants. That's why people hated those films. Audiences liked Double Jeopardy because they identified with Ashley Judd's woman done wrong. All of her actions made sense in the context of reuniting with her son. People overlooked the plot holes in In & Out and The Rock because they didn't effect the characters' motivations or emotional journeys.

What was the last movie you watched/book you read that you hated? Why did you hate it?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To Blog or To Write?

I apologize, readers. It has been a week without a new blog. Skipping a week may slide with more seasoned bloggers, but this is not the first impression I wanted to leave on the blogosphere. I've been hesitant about starting a blog for this very reason. I don't want to start a blog and then let it peter out. What have I been doing instead of blogging? Writing. While I was working out the plot for my new novel, I kept thinking about how I'm falling behind with my blog. Yet when I blog, I worry that I'm wasting this valuable novel writing time. Because of my full-time job, my free time is limited. I'm still trying to find that balance. But I wonder what's more important -- blogging or writing?

I am excited to enter the KidLitosphere. It's a great way to network with other YA writers and readers, all of whom are super welcoming and supportive. I've loved interacting with people, and I want to continue to meet more people in this community. But any blogger will tell you that to build up a presence, you need to be consistently blogging and interacting with other bloggers. I can't be megablogger for a week, then drop off the face of the web, then resurface weeks later pretending I never left. I'm not a deadbeat dad. I also happen to like blogging and writing articles. Like writing, I may procrastinate and dread it a little, but once I hit the keyboard, I know I'm in my element.

On the flip side, what is my ultimate goal? To get published. And for that, I will need material. I can blog til I'm blue in the face  carpal-tunneled in the fingers, but if I don't have a manuscript to show anyone, then it won't do me any good. All agents say that at the end of the day, your writing is what counts most. Not how strong your internet presence is. There are authors who get published without ever having TwiFaceBlogged, but there are no YA bloggers/tweeters who get representation without a manuscript to show. (There may a few exceptions. And non-fiction/humor books are a different story.)

When I lived in Los Angeles many moons ago, I met aspiring screenwriters who had this same problem. TV and Movies are a much more difficult nut to crack than books because you HAVE to know someone to get an agent. No slush pile hopes. And when an agent/industry person asks to read your script, you can't tell them to wait a month. They will want to read it now. Aspiring writers have to be out there networking and meeting the right people or else they have a slim chance of getting an agent to read their scripts. Many of them also have day jobs in the industry, which can eat up 10+ hours. Or they are in theater/improv troupes. So day job + networking = little time for actual writing. They'll either write on weekends, before work, before bed, on lunch breaks. Comparatively, the YA writing/blogging dilemma is not so bad.

What I think I will do is make a weekly time allotment to write my blog entries and set them to post automatically during the week. This is a task, just like writing. Stephen King's "Butt on chair. Hands on keys." mantra applies here, too. As writers, we will have to get used to deadlines. Might as well start now.

What say you readers? How do you manage your time between writing and blogging?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Slumps Were Made to Be Broken

For these past few months, I've been in a writing slump. I barely wrote anything. I hit a metaphorical brick wall with my manuscript, which I then chucked at an actual brick wall. I didn't even read publishing blogs. I didn't know what I wanted to write next and how I would ever get back into the swing of things. I was slumping hard.

I'd like to think several writers go through the agony of slumps. Writing is like exercising. It's really hard to get back into it when you've been avoiding it for a while. And when you do try to write, it comes out like mush. Popular writing advice has always been "write every day," and I do think that's true. But it can take some false starts before we get ourselves to that point. And until then, we slump. The best thing about slumps is that they end. They are never permanent. Even the Red Sox won a world series after almost a century.

There are 2 stops on the road to ending your slump: the Savior and the Turnaround. The Savior is when you see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's maybe a day or late night when you get the urge again to be creative, and you scribble away for a few hours. It could be a one-time thing, like being inspired after watching a movie but then the high wears off by next morning. You know your slump isn't over yet, but you now know you have the power to break out of it. The Turnaround is when you harness that power and turn things around in successive creative sessions. A marathon weekend brainstorming your next novel maybe, or a week of hitting up a coffee shop every night after work to write.

Writers are not the only ones who find themselves in slumps.

Recently, Universal Pictures found itself in a rather enviable position: in a 6 week span, it released 3 films that crossed $100M domestically. Kiddie film Hop has earned $108M; Fast Five has sped off with $205M and counting; and Bridesmaids is at $124M with no end in sight. Reporters are claiming that Universal's slump is over. After 2 1/2 years worth of costly flops like Land of the Lost, Funny People, Duplicity, Green Zone, Robin Hood (I could go on...), Universal has come roaring back. All of the major studios have endured slumps. A few of the recent ones:

  • Universal - 1998. 
    • The flops: Blues Brothers 2000, Spice World, BASEketball, Meet Joe Black, Babe: Pig in the City, Primary Colors. No film grossed more than $45M.
    • The savior: Patch Adams, released Christmas Day. It opened at #1, stayed there for 2 weeks, and grossed $135M. 
    • The turnaround: Universal had a much better summer in 1999 with the string of hits The Mummy, Notting Hill, and American Pie
  • Disney - 2004
    • The flops: The Alamo, Hidalgo, The Ladykillers, Raising Helen, Home on the Range. Much was made about the fact that documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which Disney refused to distribute, had grossed more than all of Disney's films that year. It was a huge comedown from 2003, when Mickey and co. had the 1-2 punch of Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean.
    • The savior: The Village. Despite the critical drubbing, it scored Disney a badly needed #1 opening and $114M gross that July.
    • The turnaround: That fall, The Incredibles and National Treasure cleaned up at the box office, occupying the #1 position for a combined 5 weeks in a row. 
  • Fox - 2008
    • The flops: Space Chimps, The Rocker, Australia, The Happening, X Files: I Want to Believe, Babylon A.D. Fox was the only studio that summer without a $100M grosser. It went 7 months without a #1 opening and 9 months without a blockbuster. 
    • The savior: Max Payne. The Mark Wahlberg action film hit #1 in October, giving Fox a pulse at the box office.
    • The turnaround: Marley & Me and Taken both opened at #1 in December and January and had leggy runs, ending with $140M+ each. That summer, the studio released 3 films in a row that earned $170M+ apiece.
  • Paramount - 2003/2004
    • The flops: The Stepford Wives, The Manchurian Candidate, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Paycheck. Paramount had a 2 year slump without any big hits. Sure, they had minor successes like Mean Girls, School of Rock, and The Italian Job, but no blockbuster that studios need to pay for the midrange films. 
    • The savior: Lemony Snicket, Paramount's only $100M+ grosser in 2004, and its highest-grossing film from the past 2 years. Though, with $119M, it was not the franchise starter the studio had hoped for. 
    • The turnaround: Summer 2005. Paramount had back-to-back smashes with The Longest Yard and War of the Worlds
So as you can see, even multibillion dollar enterprises go through slumps. The key is working through it, rather than accepting it. Yes, the studios didn't have a choice. They had to keep making films. We don't have to keep writing. (although we should!) But if you look at the movies that got these studios out of their slumps, for the most part, they aren't risky films. They are safe bets. Proven franchises. Proven box office stars in the types of films audiences want to see them in. To help us writers get out of creative slumps, we should go back to what always inspires us. Reread a book you love, or listen to an artist that usually inspires you on repeat. Try writing something short in your favorite genre, just to get the creative muscle working again before circling back to your WIP. Have faith that your slump will end. I know for me, after a few months, the creative thoughts and ideas bubbled back up to the surface. They were always there, and they were tired of being ignored. Finally, I got myself back into a position where I could listen to them again and put pen to paper.

Have you ever had a bad creative slump? Are you in one now? How did you get out of it?

(all Box Office figures pulled from

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Difference Between Teen Books and Teen Shows/Movies

When I showed my friends and beta readers the first YA manuscript I ever wrote (which shall remain in a drawer hibernating), the main criticism they had was that the MC seemed too mature and too sexual. Within the first half dozen chapters, she had already been in bed with two different guys, and she was well aware and comfortable with the friends w/ benefits status. I kept telling my critics that-
  1. This book was aimed at a 16 and up audience.
  2. Just look at the Gossip Girl series!
The Gossip Girl book series, of which I admit I leafed through a few volumes, contains sex and drugs, all told in a salacious, fun, and well, gossipy tone. And the Gossip Girl TV series also had a healthy dose of sex, drugs, drinking, partying. My friends, who admitted they were not well-versed in YA today, maybe just didn't understand.

But after a long talk with one of my friends, I realized that maybe they had a point. When I thought back on the storylines of the GG book series, they were not as X-rated as I remember. In the first few books I read, Blair was anxiously waiting to give her virginity to her long-term boyfriend Nate, Chuck tried to force a move on Little J but was stopped before anything happened, and Nate and Little J were caught quasi-but-not-really fooling around on a faux sex tape. While the books were by no means G-rated, they were not as jaded and overtly sexual as I remembered. The TV series, though, got into serious drugs and threesomes and teenage characters acting like adults.

TV series focused around young adults are much different than books marketed to young adults. Although most shows on the CW revolve around teenagers, they are aimed at an adult audience. The target demographic for the CW is Women 18-34. Same for ABC Family. MTV's most popular demographic is Person 12-34, teens lumped in with people old enough to be their parents. That's right -- networks aren't creating programming for teens, even if they know teens watch their shows. In order to make money, networks have to reach large audiences, even in niche targets. Millions of teens may watch Glee or 90210, but those shows ideally want to reach 20- and 30-something adults, hence the  mature characters and storylines.

Movies also want to reach large audiences because the goal of releasing movies is to make as much money as possible. That's one reason why many animated films like Shrek have jokes meant for parents that go over the kids' heads. They want to entertain the parents and they also want cross-demographic appeal. Hollywood does a better job of making product geared for teens, but they also count on adults buying tickets as well. Studios have divided all moviegoing audiences into four quadrants: men and women 25-and-under, and men and women 26-and-over. A "four-quadrant" film like Pirates of the Caribbean appealed to all audiences, theoretically. Even in these quadrants, teens are grouped in with 20-somethings. And I can tell you from personal experiences, me at 25 was vastly different from me at 15.

Movies nowadays are so expensive to make and market that it's hard to financially justify targeting a film solely to teenagers. Compared to $200M blockbusters, movies like Mean Girls and Easy A were super cheap to make. Mean Girls had a negative cost of $17M and Easy A only cost $8M, according to Box Office Mojo. However, each movie probably spent another $15-25M on prints and advertising. So that's on average $30-35M to release a teen film. Can you imagine if a publisher spent that money to release one YA novel? (A boy can dream...) The inevitably high cost means the movie studio can't rely on just teens to turn a profit.

Now, YA novels, those are aimed squarely at teens. I don't have publishing data, but I'm assuming that it costs far less to publish and release a YA novel than it does to air a TV show or release a movie. The publisher can target a sliver of the population, sell a couple thousand copies, and still make a profit. They don't have to consider pulling in different audience segments (although that's always welcome). The authors have the freedom to write specifically for -- and only for -- teen readers. Mass-market aside, books aren't trying to appeal to a broad audience; that's what makes them so special. Books are the most personal medium; all of the excitement happens in your head.

There are several YA books that deal with very mature, serious topics, but those are written through the viewpoint of a teen. (And contrary to the Wall Street Journal, they are an essential part of the YA market.) They never take on a preachy tone or step back to comment about what a struggle the MC is going through. The authors take into account their readers' limited perspective. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire dealt with grave issues seen through the eyes of a teen, but that was marketed to adults.

Was my MC too sexual? Not necessarily. I think that the issue was in how she handled it and her attitude towards sex. Life isn't like a TV show.  And from now on, I won't be comparing what I write to what I watch.

What do you think? What differences do you notice between YA books and teen shows and movies?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Do Women Go to the Movies? For the Millionth time -- DUH!!

The biggest surprise of the summer movie season thus far has been the success of Bridesmaids. Critics love it, audiences love it. The film broke through the $100M barrier this weekend with much more to come. Hollywood is shocked – SHOCKED – that a female-driven comedy with no male leads has been such a huge hit. According to Deadline Hollywood, the film industry was watching Bridesmaids’s performance carefully before greenlighting any future comedies starring women. Funny how they didn’t feel the same way about comic book films or Seth Rogen after The Green Hornet fizzled.

It seems that this debate pops up every time a female-driven film overperforms at the box office, since women (over 50% of our population, btw) are still considered a niche audience in Hollywood. They are perpetually forced to prove their spending power to the suits in Hollywood, who immediately question it if one film bombs. Think Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain of box office grosses.

Over the past few years, female-driven films have had big highs and crushing lows at the box office, and almost wiped from existence at one major studio. But each time, they came roaring back. So can we please stop acting surprised when a movie is successful and it just so happens to star women? (Pretty please…)

2005 – LOW
Aside from being a weak year for movies all around, 2005 was especially hard for actresses. An Entertainment Weekly column pointed out that this genre was in dire straits. No film with a woman as the sole lead broke $100M that year. Flightplan was the closest with $90M, even though that Jodie Foster film was originally written for a man and even kept the character’s name Kyle. The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers portrayed the romantic comedy from a male POV to much acclaim. They were humongous hits at the box office, showing executives that bromance could top romance. Even the Best Actress Oscar race was slim pickings that year, with Judi Dench and Cherlize Theron scoring nods with unpopular films. Has anyone even seen Mrs. Henderson Presents?

2006 – HIGH
The Devil Wears Prada saved the female-driven film. That’s all.

All the main characters were women, and yet the film did not center around a wedding or finding a husband. Hollywood was stunned. Women actually went to the movies! Prada opened against Superman Returns on July 4th weekend and earned a strong $28M. Word-of-mouth carried the film to $125M domestically. Overseas, it pulled in over $200M – more than the hyped, uberexpensive Superman. The film turned Meryl Streep into a box office star; she delivered another 3 blockbusters in 2 years. Most important, the success of Prada gave Sarah Jessica Parker the confidence to forge ahead with the Sex and the City movie.

2007 – LOW
Bromance films reigned supreme. Sausage fests 300 and Wild Hogs pulled in a combined $379M during the traditionally sleepy spring season. Summer comedies Knocked Up, I Now Pronouce You Chuck and Larry, and Superbad all grossed over $120M apiece. Meanwhile, pricey films The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and The Brave One starring Jodie Foster flopped big time. This prompted Warner Bros. President of Production Jeff Robinov to declare, "We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead.”

2008 – HIGH
Once again, the industry was shocked – SHOCKED – that women go to the movies. Sex and the City opened in May to a record-breaking $57M – the biggest romantic comedy and R-rated comedy opening in history at that time. It was seen as the first female-driven “event” film, with women going in groups to see the movie the way fanboys attended comic book films. The film grossed $153M in the US, proving the true power of women at the movies. Again. And the fact that the film starred 4 women over the age of 40 gave Hollywood a heart attack.

That fall, another female-driven franchise opened to stellar numbers: Twilight. Need I say anymore about Twilight? To this day, it’s the most popular and highest-grossing film franchise powered predominantly by female audiences, with nearly $800M in domestic grosses thus far.

2009 – MEGA-HIGH
The weekend of November 20-22 was one for the record books. Twilight: New Moon and The Blind Side, both female-led films, gave a 1-2 punch to the box office, earning a combined $177M in just 3 days. Female audiences were the driving force behind the attendance. 80% of New Moon’s and 59% of Blind Side’s opening weekend audience were women. New Moon had the third biggest debut in history. It was the second highest-grossing weekend in history ($250M for all films), just behind the opening weekend of The Dark Knight. The dynamic duo grossed over $1 Billion internationally. The Blind Side won Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. (Don’t worry, Twihards: Kristen Stewart won an MTV Movie Award for her performance, too.) It was the highest-grossing picture to win an actor an Academy Award – male or female – since Forrest Gump in 1994.

Oh, and did I mention who released The Blind Side?

Warner Bros.

While young men may be a more reliable moviegoing demographic, that doesn't mean female-driven films should forever be an endangered species. I do understand where Hollywood is coming from. Women will watch a movie starring all men (e.g. The Departed, The Hangover) but it's tough to get men to watch a movie starring all women. But that doesn't mean they should stop making female-centric movies altogether. The reason both genders saw The Departed and The Hangover is because they were good movies. That's why they're seeing Bridesmaids. There is an audience for female-driven movies, but it's an audience that cares about quality -- no matter if it's a man or a woman on the screen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Which Came Firster: The Prequel or the Reboot?

On the eve of X-Men: First Class’s release tomorrow, there is a question that needs to be answered once and for all: Is this a prequel or a reboot? What’s the difference?

Both genres include films that go back to the origins of characters and trace how they came to be in the current franchise. They feature actors playing younger versions. And they usually get released years after the last film. Fox is hoping First Class is considered a reboot. At the box office, the prequel genre has been littered with mostly bombs, save for the Star Wars trilogy Episodes 1-3.

Prequels seem good in theory. They can delve into histories of beloved characters and explore rich worlds and mythologies. However, they have a limited audience, primarily fans of the original franchise. People think if they haven’t seen the first one, they won’t get or care about what’s going on in this one. Prequels are viewed as flashbacks, and you need full knowledge of what went down previously to be emotionally invested. Watching a 10-year-old boy race in a pod isn’t compelling unless you know he grows up to be Darth Vader. (Even then, it wasn’t that compelling.) Going into a prequel cold is like going to party where you don’t know anyone, and everyone is telling inside jokes. The reason the new Star Wars trilogy worked was because Darth Vader is so ingrained in our culture that all moviegoers knew the backstory, even if they didn’t see the original films.

Moviegoers are savvier today. They also understand that most prequels released are desperate cash grabs for the studio – not a sincere attempt to continue the story. For one, they’re cheaper to produce. The biggest expense for a sequel is usually cast salaries. With a prequel, studios can cast younger (read: cheaper) actors but still play on the name recognition of the franchise. Most of the prequels in this decade came along unwanted by fans and years after anyone cared about the previous film. Nobody was clamoring for Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Exorcist: The Beginning, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, or Hannibal Rising.

In turn, Hollywood also got savvier. They realized the toxic connotation the word ‘sequel’ contains. Now when they want to salvage an aging franchise by hiring young, cheap actors and going back to the beginning, they call it a reboot. Batman Begins kickstarted the trend, followed by Casino Royale and Star Trek. All 3 films scored with critics and audiences. While prequels consider the existing movies as canon, reboots start from scratch. Christopher Nolan’s Batman does not exist in the same universe as Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher’s Batman, and the Warner Bros. marketing team made sure we all knew that. Wolverine was a prequel because it continued the story of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine from the original X-Men franchise. Reboots are usually strong enough brands where they don’t need to rely on what happened in the last movie to propel their new story. Batman and Bond have been played by multiple actors, and the previous films were self-contained. The new Jack Ryan movie Paramount trying to get off the ground falls into this category as well. The line does get blurry: technically, Star Trek is a prequel because it employs Leonard Nimoy as older/alternate universe Spock, meaning that it accepts the older Star Trek films as truth. But the writers were smart and had the character go through a wormhole/plot device spitting them out into an alternative timeline, thus preserving the original films while standing on its own. (And they did a good job of explaining this in the movie.)

So what is X-Men: First Class?  I’m going to call it a prequel because it does accept the previous trilogy as canon.  And as popular as the series is, the brand is not strong enough to stand independent of the previous movies. A casual moviegoer cannot go into the movie knowing next to nothing about the series. Finding out how Professor X and Magneto became enemies is not as broadly appealing as how Anakin became Darth. Hopefully the strong reviews of First Class will translate into word of mouth and it doesn’t fall prey to the prequel curse.

What are your thoughts on prequels and reboots?