zigongosaurus gets us to the chorus

3/28/11

When it comes to our Hollywood lives, I try to have one rule that guides our projects, our pitches and our energy: simply put, “would you be excited to see 2-3 of insert show here waiting for you on the DVR?” In other words, does the mere idea – or feeling – behind the show give you that extra feeling of excitement to watch it?

It’s the show, or movie, that inspires the following kinds of utterances:

“Oh, I’ve been dying to see that one.”

“I can’t wait, I’ve got nothing to do all night except watch three of them.”

“I know it’s silly, but I’m addicted.”

“It’s just so goddamned funny.”

“I need my insert show here fix.”

Yes, the occasional reality show inspires all of the above, but when you’ve got a movie or a scripted series doing it, you’re about 90% of the way to becoming a legend. Right now, “Modern Family” evokes that reaction, as did “House” in its day, and “Battlestar Galactica” for the sci-fi crowd.

You need to look at your project from a million miles away. Step back as far as you possibly can, and put yourself in the shoes of working moms and exhausted dads and hyperkinetic college students and your aunts and uncles, and then imagine yourself as each of them, with a million things they could be doing, and how they would react to the faintest whiff of your show.

When, during the course of this out-of-body experiment, you can still fearlessly say you feel excitement, then you might be on to something. Every show that becomes a hit, or even a critical darling, does so because it possesses at least one element that makes it undeniably compelling, even in the abstract. The essence of it allures.

For “House”, it’s Dr. House. For “30 Rock”, it might be the rat-a-tat-tat between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. For “Inception”, it was the 2-second glance of the city curling up upon itself. For Lucy, it is Dinosaur Train… I mean, come on, it’s got DINOSAURS and TRAINS!

buddyandmom.jpg

Buddy the young T-Rex and his adopted Pteranadon mom

I’m not saying every project needs to be converted to mindless colostrum in order to keep the unwashed masses suckling their lives away, and that there’s no room for your passion project about a difficult subject. But no matter what, your job is to find that ONE THING about your endeavor that will make the needle jump the record, make the executive suddenly look up from her pad and pen.

So when “Mars Needs Moms” flopped so badly a couple of weeks ago, people were pointing fingers in all directions. Some blamed 3-D ticket prices, some blamed the animation style, and the editor of Boxoffice.com posited that “there’s only so much room in the market for family films.”

Anyone with young kids knows that’s dead wrong; if anything, there’s not enough really good movies for families, at least the ones that won’t give your kids three weeks of fuckin’ nightmares. If movies as good as “Up” or “Ponyo” were released every week, there’d still be room for more.

No, the failure of “Mars Needs Moms” is patently obvious when you step back several thousand miles and look at it with through the eyes of a parent holding the hand of their 4-year-old girl: NOBODY WANTS TO SEE A MOVIE WHERE MOMMY GETS STOLEN AND TAKEN TO ANOTHER PLANET. The NYT barely mentions this fatal flaw, but to me, it should have been obvious at the pitch session. The decision not to see “Mars Needs Moms” wasn’t even a conscious one, I’ll bet – it just vaguely seemed like a bummer, so parents rented How to Train Your Dragon instead.

Robert Zemeckis, the director of “Mars”, is someone I’ve always admired, and gets a lifetime pass for having given us “Back to the Future”, “Romancing the Stone” and “Contact”. I’m no rocket scientist, but I know I saw the trailer for “Mars Needs Moms” and thought, “well, that’s one movie Lucy ain’t never gonna see.” And it has inspired me to shape up our next projects into the kind of ideas that beg more before we’ve even begun.

0 thoughts on “zigongosaurus gets us to the chorus

  1. tregen

    my wife rented “big bang theory” I want to hate it…cause I hate TV….but for all the reasons you said above, I love it… hard as that is for me to say. Hope to see something your doing someday…

    Reply
  2. Meredith

    The book! The book is one that I stumbled upon and then bought for all of my good friends who have recently become parents. It’s lovely and touching and makes me cry each time I read it.
    The movie was totally different. Even as a huge fan of the book, I wasn’t about to go see it nor take my 4 and 7 year olds. it’s a shame.

    Reply
  3. Neva

    My 10 year old just saw this movie (with a friend and her family). I knew nothing about it until she came back and talked about it. She had exactly the same reaction – it was sad and depressing.. and she’s 10 years old. Imagine how the 5 year olds would feel.
    It did spark a discussion about using nannies to raise your kids(which is evidently part of the story too), and my 21 first century daughter came back saying “I will never leave my kids with a nanny”. Was this the other message of this movie?
    The other discussion it sparked was why so many kid movies do have a Mom (or Dad) missing, imprisoned or dead. Think of most classic Disney movies. Bambi, Dumbo, Snow White, etc. etc. They all struck me as sad for this reason. Maybe the Mars Needs Moms folks were just thinking they were working off that theme but I like to think we have progressed a little with modern times to the point where a good kid movie can actually have an intact family?!

    Reply
  4. Anne

    I don’t recall having that aversive reaction to “Bambi.” And I saw it multiple times. As you know it begins with the horrific death of Bambi’s mom in a fire.
    I see Neva has raised this and other Disney oldies, above. I hadn’t ever thought of them as “sad” to a child, and I was an ULTRA sensitive introverted little kid. I did find them scary but that’s part of what made them compelling as stories. How about “Wizard of Oz” — Dorothy not only is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, but then she is whisked away from them by a truly terrifying tornado. (Tornado dreams have been one of my nightmare staples since childhood.)
    I guess I’m not sure children are scarred by these plot lines. Graphic violence: yes, maybe. But not the archetypal fairy-tale plots of primal loss… the child left to fend, to battle evil, to find her way through a scary world. Harry Potter? — another orphan, set upon routinely by evil entities.
    Boo!

    Reply
  5. Salem's Little Sister

    Ben now asks at the start of most cartoon movies, “is the mom or dad dead in this one?”

    Reply
  6. littlerattyratratrat

    Zemekis’s motion-capture style of 3D animation gives me the willies, just creep-show. You can have the best story-line and voice actors on the planet, but if you film your story in the Uncanny Valley, it’s not going to be a pleasant experience. It doesn’t matter how “innovative and technically brilliant” it is, it’s poor animation. (A good animator, in contrast, can make you care about the perils facing stick figures in a flipbook.)

    Reply
  7. Virginia

    Dinosaur Thrain really is the best. Not only do you get Dinosaurs and Trains, the music is pretty good too. As for Mars Needs Moms,as Meredith mentioned the book is amazing. I read it to my girls all the time. It simply tells kids that despite our daily clashes over chores and mischief, a parent’s love and protection is always present and selfless. It is intense when Milo must save his mother but, like Where The Wild Things are, most kids get the dream sequence idea right off. It is so visually appealing and there is a strong similarity to the late, great Bloom County for us cartoon geeks of a certain age.
    The movie seems to have messed this up so badly, my kids said they don’t even want to see it.

    Reply
  8. Neva

    I’m not sure kids get sad about the things parents do. As a kid I didn’t find Bambi or Dumbo as sad as I did as a parent.
    Also, my 10 yo daughter just read Dairy of Anne Frank and I worried the whole time that it would upset her but it didn’t. I think their reality is so different at such a young age that their fears are different too.

    Reply
  9. Neva

    Okay – comment above – you could read my first sentence differently than I meant it – I meant that parents and kids find different things sad (in movies, books, etc). I’m sure that things parents do make kids sad. Okay, this is why I’m not the writer.

    Reply
  10. jp

    As the parent of two kids who are not living with their original parents, I cringe every time I realize that yet another movie is about yet another orphan. It gets really, really old.

    Reply

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