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!
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.