Friday, September 28, 2012

The Arts and Sciences

While I don't actively work in film and television anymore, I am still an avid reader of blogs and news sites that track the development of upcoming projects. A trend that has been noted (and complained about) by everyone on these sites is the huge volume of films and TV programs that are reboots, remakes, and well-worn adaptations, with recent announcements ranging from the new Beauty and the Beast series coming to the CW (which was already a TV show in the late 1980s) to a reboot of the The Mummy, which completed the final film in the original series all the way back in 2008.

There are a lot of obvious reasons for the endless stream of rehashed pop culture. The entertainment business is high-risk with a margin for error that makes "razor thin" seem like the size of the Grand Canyon. The decisions of a few executives affect the lives of countless cast and crew. The 2008 WGA strike, which lasted only 100 days, cost the industry over $2.5 billion. When that amount of money is at stake, key decision makers are prone to stick with proven success.

I believe there is another reason beyond financial preservation, and that is that many producers at the studio level and the creative level have no frame of reference outside Hollywood. Have you ever wondered why there hasn't been any truly original live-action kids' television outside of Sesame Street? That's because the majority of senior Nickelodeon/Disney Channel writers came from the "TGIF" family or have been entrenched in those shows for decades. The lack of true creativity on multi-camera sitcoms, long dominated by Chuck Lorre, is largely because his shows have always shared key creative personnel, in some cases dating back to Roseanne. The recycled nature of popular programming prevents the infusion of new ideas.

The inability to incorporate the wider world beyond Hollywood, at the expense of higher-level creativity, is more apparent and damning in the adaptation process. One of my favorite books is World War Z by Max Brooks. Utilizing the malleable framework of a worldwide zombie plague, Brooks structures his story as a historical anthology, with various narrators from around the globe recounting the story of their nation's response to the epidemic and subsequent war to retake the planet. The stories featuring characters from countries like Israel, North Korea, India and Russia were compelling because of their foundation in the countries' actual history, religion, cultural values, politics and international relations.

This book was optioned by Paramount as a future tentpole, but the eventual shooting draft stripped away the novel's structure and global scope, reducing it to essentially War of the Worlds 2 with Brad Pitt instead of Tom Cruise. Even worse, the book was blatantly ripped off by Daniel H. Wilson's vastly inferior Robopocalypse, and that book is getting a movie adaptation too.

I believe that to create a work of pop culture that truly resonates with audiences, you need a muse beyond pop culture itself. The best recent high-profile Hollywood example that immediately comes to my mind is District 9, which used alien contact as a metaphor for South African apartheid. While District 9 was sold by this high concept, it's also an intensely personal story of identity and loss, providing timelessness beyond its social message.

My personal creative portfolio largely focuses around the idea that the human experience requires a full appreciation of life's landmark moments, as well as the progression of world society in general from both a scientific and social standpoint. My initial inspiration came from reading physics books by Michio Kaku, whose work I was fortunate enough to be introduced to by my Dad.

Kaku's work, from his landmark book Hyperspace to his most recent Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future projects human scientific progress beyond the 21st century to tens of thousands of years from now, outlining the possibility and even inevitability of fantastic technologies like interstellar travel and artificial intelligence. Learning about potential space flight technologies like solar sails and ramjet fusion engines, as well as astrophysical theories like the Kardashev civilization scale, not only provided a strong knowledge base for authentic speculative, but a belief in human ingenuity that can be incorporated into any creative piece, either personal or commercial.

My desire to further my education beyond television and marketing was further strengthened while working as a part-time copywriter at the American Program Bureau. One of the reasons that I accepted the position was because APB's CIO told me "it's very easy to be inspired here" and it was honestly an understatement. As an industry-leading speaker's bureau, the company represents the top minds in fields ranging from geopolitics and biomedical research to environmental protection and entrepreneurship. I was exposed to fascinating works about the global women's rights struggle (Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn) and national economic disasters (Harry Markopolos' No One Would Listen). Constantly writing promotional copy about vibrant figures and their causes taught me how to speak in the language of multiple fields of study, and provided a creatively fertile range of settings and issues for future creative pieces.

I read an article when I was living in LA about how the one of the easiest ways to get a "bad" script sold was to craft a narrative that combined low shooting costs with more infamous pop cultural trends. While it may be tempting (and honestly, a lot of fun) to have The Situation team up with the Long Island Medium to rescue Khloe Kardashian from a hostage situation at a WWE show, I will always maintain that the best creativity comes from education.

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