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Column D - Story Receptors

In case you missed it, The Hollywood Reporter published an article recently (two actually) bemoaning the dismal summer box office numbers this year. So far, reports are that movie revenue is down twenty percent, and if the trend continues, the full year will come in at four or five percent below last year.

abandoned cineplex

The article cites a couple of different reasons for the decline.

The first is that television has siphoned off much of the audience with the new, hipper series that are currently showing on HBO and other pay channels.

In that regard, it seems that a new storytelling form has emerged - the limited long-form series, ten episodes give or take (e.g. True Detective). They're longer than a feature film, but shorter than the typical episodic series that the big three networks have traditionally tried to provide.

The second reason cited is that the demographic that Hollywood generally aims for in the summer (all year really) - young men - has been staying away from the theater. There are various theories as to why that is, but whatever the case, the fact remains that they just aren't going to the cineplex this summer.

I don't disagree with the article and the reasons cited, but I'd like to offer a third explanation, one that I believe encompasses both of the reasons The Hollywood Reporter gave us. And one that's considerably simpler...

We’ve seen it all before. And even if we haven’t, we think we have.

Back when I was teaching at Boston College, I would tell my new screenwriting students every semester that they were the most accomplished and experienced “story receptors” in the history of mankind. It’s a statement I made then and continue to make now with complete confidence and without reservation.

Think about it.

In the Middle Ages, how many stories do you think the average person heard in their lifetime? Twenty? Thirty? When the only "formal" stories that they could receive were oral, how many could there have been?

While plays/live performances have existed since the Greek and Roman days, they only became popular on a wide scale much later in history. When they did, what did that form of storytelling add to a person’s story inventory? Maybe another twenty or thirty over a lifetime? Fifty tops?

The invention of the printing press made stories available for the first time on a purely individual basis and that undoubtedly added to a person’s story collection. No doubt about that. Except that literacy levels in the U.S. didn’t reach over 80% until the late nineteenth century, so one has to wonder how many stories the average American took in on an individual basis before then.

Arguably, it was the invention of the motion picture camera that dramatically increased the number of stories that the average Joe could “receive.” Still, even during the heyday of film in the ‘30s and ‘40s, how many motion pictures did people go to? One or two a week? If so, that’s maybe one hundred more a year.

Throw in radio during its brief run in the 1930s and 1940s and certainly the stories received by that generation had to have increased from the ones that preceded them.

Taking technology to the next step, television surely added to the number of stories that people have been able to experience. Those of us in the Baby Boom most definitely filled up on “stories” from TV in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

However, with the proliferation of cable TV in the last forty five years, the Boomers can’t compare story-wise to what the average Millennial, not to mention Gen-Xer or Gen-Yer, has been able to experience from television in their first twenty years or so.

Back to my original thesis, consider that these new generations have had as story sources the multiplex, free television, pay cable, books and, perhaps most importantly, the VCR and later the DVD player. Add to that the burgeoning content on the internet, along with the staying power of graphic novels and it seems self-evident that the teenagers of today have “taken in” thousands of stories by the time they are eligible to vote.

So what does all this have to do with screenwriting?

Well, everything. And that’s the operative word: everything. As in, they have seen it all.

It seems incontrovertible to me that the screenwriter of today has a much harder job than the screenwriter of even twenty years ago. The producers and studios producing content today claim to want "something new," just as their predecessors did, except that "new" is much harder and harder to come by these days. So what we have seen in the theaters these last ten years or so has been a procession of prequels, sequels, remakes and other stories based on previously created intellectual property. Ho-hum.

Boyhood is the movie with the most buzz this summer. In it, Richard Linklater tells the story of one broken family over the course of twelve years, using the same actors and filming only a piece of the story each of those twelve years.

That's "new," ground-breaking even, and the reviews are glowing, but I wonder if it will make a killing at the box office. I certainly hope so, as it will spur other writers to think along similar lines when it comes to finding "new" material.

I don't have any answers for all the questions I raise here. All I know is that today's audience is both sophisticated and highly experienced when it comes to "receiving" their stories.

So if you have chosen to pursue this craft, good luck. You have some work ahead of you trying to find something that hasn’t been done before.

Keep that in mind when you come up with an idea to write. Then think long and hard before you commit to write it.

Because if it feels familiar to you, chances are it will to the latest generation of story receptors out there.

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