Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.
You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.
But you can’t pitch quality.
And you can’t package it.
So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.
So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.
First up: two different bands.
Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.
Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.
Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.
Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.
Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.
I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.
OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.
My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”
My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”
No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?
Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.
Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.
Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.
Next: two different books
Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.
The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.
Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.
Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.
Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet, asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.
The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.
Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.
Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.
The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.
How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?
As a huge fan of action movies, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the Era of Epic Explosions is over.
Stick a fork it in.
It’s kaput. Done. Dead and buried.
X-MEN: OSCAR ISAAC WEARING 30 POUNDS OF MAKEUP is only the latest nail in the cinematic coffin, though it’s a nail that cost more than the domestic product of Paraguay.
Now, I liked the movie more than I expected after all those bad reviews. HOWEVER: the big action set pieces where the villain started destroying the world?
Big shrug. Didn’t care.
Here’s why explosions were once movie magic and now make people sneakily check Twitter on their magical phones.
1) In the old days, big explosions meant big budgets and big stars
Way back, only the biggest productions could afford to blow things up.
Those same movies also had the best directors, best actors and biggest budgets.
Meanwhile, B movies had incredibly cheesy explosions and effects that looked like Ed, president of the AV club, cooked them up on his Macintosh during a long weekend fueled by two-liter bottles of Orange Crush and two over-sized bags of Cheeto’s, which should be spelled Cheetoh’s but isn’t. Not sure why.
This is why the following compilation of great movie explosions skews toward old action movies. Because they actually blew things up, using real explosives, instead of spending millions of dollars on fake pixels.
2) Explosions were rare and therefore precious
In the Golden Age of Things Going Boom in the Movies, directors and producers had much smaller budgets, which meant you couldn’t have things explode on screen every two minutes.
You had to (a) find an abandoned building that fit your script, (b) file permits with the city for permission to blow it up and (c) hire professional people to blow them up on time and on schedule, while cameras rolled.
If the things went wrong, you were out millions of dollars and needed to find a new abandoned building.
Therefore, action movies of yore couldn’t go overboard with fire, smoke and debris. They had to use explosions when it mattered most.
This was a good thing, for movie budgets and for people sitting in dark rooms while they munched on overpriced kernels of exploded corn.
3) Today, everybody can afford special effects and explosions
It was epic when Bruce Willis sent the office chair down the elevator shaft in DIE HARD.
And I be you can remember the first time you saw the Death Star explode in STAR WARS. (The second and third times, not so much.)
Directors making movies today grew up watching those cool, big-budget movies with amazing explosions. Even if they’re working on a cheesy TV show, now they can afford to blow up anything they want, as big as they want.
So yeah, they do it.
All. The. Time.
It goes deeper: people making fan movies or YouTube parodies have the technology to blow up New York City, the West Coast or the entire solar system, if they’re truly ambitious. Check out the insanely detailed fan-made movies about Star Wars with excellent lightsaber effects. Amazing.
With giant budgets and armies of CGI people, it’s insanely easy these days to spice up a bad scene with explosions. Except it’s used so often, it’s a cliché.
Michael Bay has created an entire career out of blowing things up in slow motion. Here’s a montage:
4) Easy CGI means explosions aren’t believable
Audiences today grew up watching real explosions in action movies. We know what they look like.
Even big movies with big budgets struggle to get CGI right.
When you know it’s fake, you don’t care.
5) We’re numb to ka-booms by now, and we know the villain will lose
It’s a staple of every action movie, comic-book movie or thriller that (a) the Bad Guy Wants to Destroy the World and (b) the Bad Guy Gets to Start Blowing Up the World because (c) it wouldn’t be any fun if the audience didn’t get to see six blocks of Manhattan get demolished for the 2,874th time.
The old rule of storytelling was to always, always raise the stakes. If saving your wife and daughter from terrorists was good, then saving an entire city from a stolen nuclear warhead was better and stopping a villain from destroying Earth had to be the ultimate.
Except we expect this now. We’re numb to it.
And audiences know how it ends. The villain never, ever gets to truly destroy Gotham, New York City or the Earth.
The dice are loaded. The villain is going to lose.
Which means there’s zero suspense.
Oh, we’ll get a little look at the Big Bad Guy stomping on a few blocks, or a glimpse of how his doomsday device will flatten New Zealand, but no, the villain never gets to actually win.
So as I sat there watching the X-Men head off to stop Apocalypse from destroying civilization, what should have been the most exciting part of the movie had zero thrills whatsoever.
Because you knew the villain would lose. No question.
This is part of the reason why CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR worked so well. The story is smaller and the stakes are lower. The villain isn’t trying to destroy the third rock from the sun. He’s simply trying to get revenge by turning the Avengers against each other. Yet you care far more about CIVIL WAR than BATMAN VS SUPES or X-MEN: COME SEE WOLVERINE FOR TWO MINUTES. And the reason why is simple: audience will always, always care more about living, breathing characters than bits of concrete and rebar.
TL;DR: Blowing up things isn’t shocking or thrilling anymore, not when it’s CGI pixel nonsense. Also: Villains with evil plans to destroy Gotham, D.C. or Earth never get to actually do it, so stop making that the plot of every action thriller and comic book movie.
Bonus video: Expectation vs reality – action movies
Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.
THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.
They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.
What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?
Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself
You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.
THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.
Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling
This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.
A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.
Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.
In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.
The villain is where the writers truly nail it.
In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.
Not this time.
The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).
The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.
These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.
In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.
The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.
In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.
A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.
As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.
You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY WORDS.
So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.
After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.(This may be a world record. Bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.(Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.)Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will get recruited to foil this plot in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine and make the reader care about what the heroine looks like in the first place. I don’t know, a conflict, a situation, a hook.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.(Now we’re beating the Dead Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)
Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper.(Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have heard of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.)Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper.So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.
Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)
Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.
“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sore–throat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill
Page 1 of this turkey consumed barrels and barrels of red ink, even though all my red ink is digital and such. Had to change my way of editing to handle this thing, because usually, anything edited gets turned red, but if I did that to this first page, 90 percent of this thing would be red, and it would be all Confusing and such.
So this is a mess, and not a hot mess.
God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better. HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later.
The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.
Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule.
So why did something like this sell like hotcakes?
I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product. Not because that’s how things should be. It’s just reality.
The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.
What else can sell or sink you? Images. That’s why the cover of a book or punk rock album is so important. It’s why we remember the movie poster for JAWS. When we’re thinking about what to spend our monies on in Barnes and Noble, and what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket, covers and posters and titles are where we start. Images are more visceral and powerful than words. I am not making that up. THERE IS SCIENCE AND SUCH.
If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling clone wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her pony tail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.
If you really want to go traditional, it’d be Fabio wearing a suit while he holds a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.
And if you put that different title and cover on this very same book, it wouldn’t sell 40 bazillion copies and get turned into a movie. It’d be just another book in a genre that isn’t exactly new and wanting for titles.
I bet you anything the unusual title and cover is why FIFTY SHADES OF GREY went viral and became a smashing success.
True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.
I am not making this up: Larsson wanted to go with MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.
Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies starring James Bond.
The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle. The packaging matters more than the product.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.
Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback titled A BUSINESS AFFAIR with Fabio holding a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.
Give the same novel a different title and cover — and the gloss of lit-rah-sure — and that makes it OK for people to read what they might otherwise never get caught dead: romance and erotica.
This reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which were hot sellers because they slipped in page after page of shockingly naughty scenes to readers — mostly men — who simply expected ninjas fighting with swords and such. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl, but switched from a nice safe PG movie to something unsafe and dangerous and wild. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for my driver’s license, because I don’t have one yet? NO WAY.
Back to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and why the first page, aside from the awkward messiness of it all, is just not interesting. You could hire a team of authors to rewrite the same plot points and they would throw up their hands and say forget it, we can’t do magical things with wet unruly hair and cramming for finals week, because there’s nothing truly at stake here.
It is beyond boring to read about some college student kvetch about her hair and her schedule. Try having a job and a kid and a commute, then talk to me.
There’s no conflict, no reason to care about the heroine. Is she fighting for any cause greater than herself? Are there public stakes at all? No. Private stakes that we can divine? No. Maybe if her boyfriend just dumped her, hey, now we have somewhere to go. A catalyst, a hook. But we’ve got nothing to work with here.
The heroine seems shallow and self-centered. I have no feelings about her, Kate or this Mr. Grey, because there’s nothing on the page to make me care, and no foreshadowing that anything more exciting or interesting might happen on page 2, page 22 or page 222.
I don’t mind entertaining trash, no matter the genre. In fact, better that a book or movie embraces its entertaining trashiness than beats me on the head with the Cudgel of Prententious Nonsense, which is never any fun at all.
HOWEVER: Entertaining trash better be GOOD trash, and not forget the entertaining part. This page 1 is an epic fail on both counts.