ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mediocrity

So after a long day of reading other people's stories, when I crash in front of the TV with the wife at night (Okay, we play backgammon. A lot.) I like to have something on that's not going to be just another story.

So a lot of the time we watch reality shows. Recently, that means American Idol, and America's Got Talent, and the one with the inventions, and the one with people imitating famous people, and the one with the stand-up comics. Etc, etc etc.

All of these shows start out the same. Eight zillion people with nothing better to do line up for hours for a chance to make it onto this TV show. And so the first 4-5 episodes are just made up of these auditions.

There are those who are pretty good. Those who are almost good. And those who are god-awful.

And that's pretty much it. Because the networks know what people want to see -- they want to see the good, and the bad. They don't care about the mediocre.

But the problem is that that's what the bulk of the people are. There's this huge hidden world of mediocrity out there, that ironically is feeding itself -- people who watch American Idol, and only see terrible singers and fairly good singers, can lie to themselves and say "Well, since I'm not terrible, I must be good enough to go on this show."

No, you're just probably just mediocre. You won't make it past the producers who screen the acts before they even get to Simon and Paula. Stay home.

But I realize that generally I have the opposite problem. Because I'm reading for mid-range companies, I'm generally not seeing the great scripts (because they get snapped up by other, better companies before they get down to this level) and I'm not seeing the truly awful scripts, because most of the scripts are coming from producers or agents, who usually know better (which isn't to say that the occasional fly-encrusted script doesn't slip through).

I'm in a world of mediocrity.

So people ask me about the great scripts I've read, or how I must read a lot of crap, and I just sort of have to shrug, because I don't have a lot of good anecdotes about this. Mediocrity is boring, a fact that TV does its best to try and hide from you, because mediocrity is death on TV.
That's what's killing the current "On the Lot". If they showed you five short films each week, and three were great and two were train wrecks, more people would watch. Instead, we get a few highs and lows, but most of it is just... mediocre.

Mediocre has its variations, of course. I've read a lot of scripts recently that are fairly solid for what they are. But it's rare that I've read a script that really made me envious that I hadn't written it.

I guess the point of this for writers is not to lose sight of this. At the beginning of your career, it's about lifting yourself up out of the ranks of the clueless and into the traffic jam that is mediocrity. It's a journey that everyone makes.

But then mediocrity isn't nearly good enough -- you have to rise above. Something that so few scripts -- or writers -- ever do.

13 Comments:

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I've been shaking my head all weekend at the last batch of shorts that were run on last week' s On The Lot (what a trainwreck this show has turned out to be, such a shame).

There was one short about a kid who asks his mother for the names of her sexual partners that was poorly produced and just wrong-headed from start to finish. Afterward, Carrie Fisher tells the filmmaker that as a female, in order to make it, she's got to be great, and that this film was...very good. Carrie was trying to make a point about the short being mediocre, but the audience heard "very good" and applauded like mad. Every film gets a screaming reception from the crowd, good or bad. The judging process is useless thus far. These may be some of the same gripes you'd hear about American Idol, but this is more like 15 Sanjayas going against each other. So disappointing.

 
At 12:46 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Scott,

I never focus on mediocrity. Rather I focus on maximizing what you have and making the best piece of art I can. EVERY story has a max. potential point. It's the job of the author to come as close as he or she can to acheiving maximum potential.

Sorry, you feel you only get to see "mediocre" work. Do you ever feel you have that little extra that can take that work and move it the ranks of the exceptional?

Being a reader, it seams to me, is priviledge position. You get to see a writer's best work, then have opportunity to build on that foundation to create a higher form of art. NEVER loose sight of that. As a reader, who gives back notes, you have the chance to push people out the relm of medioctrity.

Writers can't always see what they've got. You pour so much of yourself into something, inevitable you lose objectivity. YOU, Scott the reader, are that voice of reason so many of us need.

Great post.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

 
At 12:56 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, that's one reason I started giving notes. Because most of the time in my regular work I'm just doing coverage. I give some sense of what the script needs, but most of the time those writers never get the notes, particularly if the script is a pass.

 
At 7:06 PM, Blogger odo coileus said...

1) How exactly do you rise above the decent-but-not-brilliant, liked-it-didn't-love-it masses?

(It's more of rhetorical question. I think I know how to do it. Actually doing it is a bit tougher..)

2) Is the depth of commitment required to do this worth the risk? (It is for me, but I can't speak for anyone else.)

 
At 7:29 PM, Blogger IQCrash said...

Love this blog entry, Scott.

You hit the nail on the head with On The Lot - I could never put my finger on why it wasn't as riveting as I'd hoped it would be. And you're right - it's because nobody stands out, and nobody is god awful (well, except maybe Kenny).

Here's to everyone here getting past mediocrity and writing something brilliant.

 
At 8:17 AM, Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

I don't watch reality shows or read unproduced scripts, but just as a movie-goer, I feel like I see a ton of mediocrity. Half the movies I've ever seen deserve a C+ or a B-.

Lately the movies seem to be getting better, but I think it's because my pre-judging filters are getting better, and I'm going to less movies total.

It must be depressing as hell to read mediocre scripts all day... I can't even imagine...

 
At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Completely unrelated to the post, anyway... What do you think about Lost, the TV show? Isn't it obvious that they are making it up as they? I'm amazed at how screenwriters (such as John August, for instance) like and praise it...

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I wouldn't say that they are making up Lost as they go along -- clearly they went into it with a real idea of what they wanted to do each season.

But at the same time there is a lot of flexibility to this. So if there are characters that don't work (or turn out to be drunks), they can be written out, or if characters really click (like whatsherface, the doctor in the Others) their roles can be expanded.

But no, I believe that where they are now is pretty much where they knew they'd be now when they started. Though this was a show that went into production quickly -- they wrote and shot the pilot in a matter of months -- so they may be winging it more than most shows when it comes to the details of episodes in the framework.

Still, it's a hell of a ride, and it's more interesting than most shows out there. Hard to really complain about anything -- it's free entertainment, that you can watch or not.

 
At 5:58 PM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

I like your criteria for judging the great ones, Scott -- something that makes you wish you had written it. I never thought of it in those terms, but yes, I feel the same way when I find the great ones.

FWIW, I've read for somewhat larger companies, primarily, and I'd say that the percentages in what I read break down as such:

10% very bad (including the small amount that are God-awful)
1% very good (including some very good ones beyond just the "I wish I'd written that" variety)
89% somewhere in between

But even some of those in-between ones eventually get rewritten and made into films.

 
At 7:09 PM, Anonymous steverino said...

Wonderful post, Scott.
You elevate the discussion on Worplayer too. Not to say that others don't as well.

There are moments in a movie that are directors moments and moments that are actors moments but the most important moments are writer's moments. I suppose screenwriters call them plot points, key incidents, etc.

These incidents have to be played for all they are worth. The idea can start out as a logical but unforeseen consequence. The screenwriter thinks, it makes sense, it's economical and it's unforeseen. I'd be very satisfied with myself to come up with such an idea but these qualities in themselves do not transcend the moment itself. What transcends the moment is theme

I think that theme should determine the stakes invloved for the audience.

One of my favorite thrillers is Vertigo, but I recently had trouble finding it at the video store. It wasn't with all the other Hitchcock dvds. I asked the staff if they stocked it and they said it was filed under love stories.

That piece of information hit me like a ton of bricks. I've been trying to write a Vertigo-like thriller, and now I find out that Vertigo is a love story! It's not film noir. It's not about crime and punishment. It more resembles the story of Orpheous searching the underworld for his dead wife. It's about regaining lost love and the immortality of love.

The audience spends the last part of the movie hoping that Judy will be able to keep the truth from John, and even when he finds out the truth that should condemn her the audience is hoping to the very end that they will remain together.

To have such a strong effect on the audience, almost every scene has to build on the theme, and Vertigo does do that without fail.

 
At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice little essay.

 
At 9:17 AM, Blogger Christian M. Howell said...

Great post. I don't really watch network TV, so I can't really comment but here's hoping I can send you something good to read.

 
At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of "that show with the inventors", has anyone else noticed that George Foreman's head is completely lost in the background graphic of the African continent?
A heavy thing needs to be thrown at that set director. Sorry, not so much on topic, but I had to vent somewhere...

 

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