Friday, September 9, 2011

What I Learned This Summer

***Reminder. Tonight starts my 9k Weekend Writing Challenge. Keep up with my progress and give me a cyber kick in the pants if I'm falling behind on Twitter @FillupSeagull. You can also join the challenge. Details here.***

Who says you can't learn anything when school is out? I saw a bunch of movies this summer in lovely air-conditioned, popcorn-scented theaters across Chicago, and I learned some valuable lessons about writing that I would like to pass onto you, my casually loyal readers. Now that Summer 2011 is over (although technically it's not over until September 20th), let's look back at a summer box office filled with surprises:

Midnight in Paris = Just write!
This summer, Midnight in Paris became the highest-grossing film in writer/director Woody Allen's career. And you know how he's celebrating? By writing and directing his next film, which will be released in 2012. For the past 35 years, Woody Allen has made nearly one film a year, which is an unheard of rate. Some of his movies are hits, some are bombs. But no matter what, he keeps cranking them out. As writers, we must do the same. Always keep writing. Don't rest on your laurels. Don't wallow in your doubt. Not everything we write will be a masterpiece, but you have to write through the crap to reach the gold.

The Help, Bridesmaids = Stay true to yourself!
Both movies were humongous hits this summer, and as I said back in June, Bridesmaids, and now The Help, prove that not just teenage boys go to the movies. Both movies also featured behind the scenes talent who fought to get their vision on screen. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo did not let Bridesmaids devolve into a trite, Kate Hudson-esque romcom. They fought to keep the raunchiness in there. They fought to let Wiig star. They fought to cast mostly unknown actresses. In the end, Bridesmaids shushed all doubters. Kathryn Stockett, writer of the novel The Help, said the movie could be made only if the studio let her childhood friend Tate Taylor write and direct. He had bought the movie rights to the book when it was an unpublished manuscript. (after 60 rejections!) Taylor had only one tiny independent film to his credit. He and Stockett also demanded that their close friend Octavia Spencer, the inspiration for Minnie, get to play the feisty character, too. Dreamworks, the studio, gave in and took a gamble, staying true to Taylor and Stockett's wishes. The Help has been #1 at the box office for 3 weeks running.

The Green Lantern, The Change-Up = Don't write what you think will sell!
Poor Ryan Reynolds. He was the punchline of the summer. Both of his starring films were huge bombs. A criticism of Lantern and Change-Up was that they seemed formulaic, chemically engineered to be hits, yet ultimately bland. The former had all the routine elements of a comic-book film: mythology, brand recognition, hero with inner demons, and lots of CGI. The latter came off as just another body-switch comedy that brought nothing new to the genre. They screamed "We want to make money!" which turned off audiences. When writing, don't write something just because you think it will sell. Write it because you want to. Most agents will tell you not to follow trends, and they are savvy enough to recognize a manuscript riddled with cliches.

Horrible Bosses, Bad Teacher = A great hook can go a long way!
I couldn't wait to see these R-rated comedies, and neither could millions of moviegoers. Horrible and Bad had fun, catchy titles that stood out on the marquee in a sea of sequels and nebulous titles (Super 8, I'm looking at you). The hook for Horrible Bosses - 3 men plot to kill each other's bosses - was the best of the summer. I didn't like Bosses, but the hook and title drew me in. When agents sift through thousands of queries a year, and readers scan thousands of books in stores and online, a sharp title and nifty hook can go a long way in making you stand out from the clutter. Don't just assume that your novel will speak for itself.

Transformers 3, Kung Fu Panda 2, Pirates 4, Cars 2, etc = Crap happens, get over it!
Yes, crappy movies still get made and they still make a lot of money. Crappy memoirs from "celebrities" still get published and still receive higher marketing budgets than 100 of your favorite YA books. Get over it.  There will always be lousy books and movies. This is a business after all. All you can do is focus on writing a good book. And if it has series potential, then even better.

What were your favorite movies of this summer? My favorites were Bad Teacher, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and, despite the title, I loved Super 8.


  1. Great post and idea. Best of all possible luck with the weekend 9k!

  2. Love this post, Phil! So smart. Midnight in Paris was one of my favorite films of the year. I felt pure joy while watching it. And I didn't know the story behind The Help. Thank you for sharing it. Good luck with your weekend writing challenge my friend.

  3. I enjoyed Cars 2! I know it wasn't received well, but I liked it! And because I didn't see many movies, that's the only one I'll comment about.
    Darn. I really need to get out more!

  4. Loved The Help, wasn't aware of the info you gave. Thanks for sharing -- makes me love the movie even more.

  5. @Kelley - Thanks!

    @Melissa - I really liked Midnight, too, although I though Rachel McAdams characters was too nasty. I want Owen Wilson's tweed jacket from that film.

    @ER - I didn't see Cars 2, but it was the worst-reviewed Pixar film, and it didn't get much adult, non-family crossover business like Nemo, Incredibles, or Toy Story. But it did make a lot of money, so lots of people enjoyed it.

    @Jill - Glad to share it!

  6. I didn't get to see many movies. I saw and enjoyed Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2 but I'm still a big kid with some things.

    I read The Help and have been wanting to see the movie but the timing hasn't panned out. Hoping to rectify that sooner than later. I also read about Stockett's persistence even though her MS was rejected 60 times.

    Best of luck sticking to your goal :-)

  7. God, what a bore I must be. Out of all of those, I only saw Bridesmaids, though I really wanted to see Horrible Bosses. The Help is sitting in book form on my kitchen counter waiting for me to read it. Progress!

  8. @Angela - I'm realizing I shouldn't have dissed Cars 2. It has a following. The Help will be playing for a while. You have time.

    @Nancy - I didn't like Horrible Bosses that much. And Bridesmaids was good, but dragged. And read The Help! I'm sure you will like it!