Story doesn’t matter.


Some filmmaker friends are tearing into the quotes from a Disney exec in this article. Essentially, he’s saying that Disney is going to pull back and focus on big, expensive tent-pole movies. It’s the only kind of film that makes sense with the marketing budget they need to bring in really huge numbers of people. (Added later: this particular exec doesn’t actually greenlight films, so here’s a grain of salt.)

He’s also saying that, for this kind of movie, audiences don’t care that much about the story. They like the big budget spectacle, and if the story doesn’t hold together, well, that’s a secondary consideration.

Frankly, I find it hard to refute him. He points to ALICE IN WONDERLAND (which made a billion dollars?? Really?) and I point to TRANSFORMERS. The writer of the article brings up TRON: LEGACY, which had lots of spectacle, a crappy story, and which failed at the box office, but honestly, we can all point to the reasons any individual movies drew (or failed to draw) a big audience after the fact. Everyone thinks they can Monday morning quarterback surprise hits and flops, but no one can predict it reliably.

Personally, I’d love to know what’s driving the success of those movies, but I haven’t seen them. I watch some of them on DVD when they hit the library, but in the theater? Not so much.

However! There is an ongoing TV series that a lot of people really enjoy with plenty of spectacle (on a TV budget), a large and enthusiastic fanbase, and really awful stories. I mean, dumb stories that don’t make any sense at all, or that seem spackled together with bullshit and “Hurry past, don’t pay attention here”. And that’s DOCTOR WHO.

I quit the show when I realized that too often the “stories” were an arrangement of emotion-tugging moments with only the most spurious connection to each other. A really good story will evoke powerful emotions, but if that can’t be managed, the moments themselves can be strung together (“My friend is in danger!” “This is worse that I thought!” “You don’t scare me, Villain Of This Episode!” “Thank goodness you have been safely rescued, Friend!” “Oh, I stare stonily at the terrible cost of battling evil!”). Even without the context of a sensible, well-crafted story, those moments can force emotional responses from our well-trained brains.

Isn’t that what these big “tentpole” movies are doing? They mix spectacle with specific emotion-tugging moments (cue long-withheld hug from father), and if the story makes sense, well, that’s just a little extra gravy.

That’s how it seems to me, and as a person who creates (and tries to sell) stories, this is something I need to figure out.

13 thoughts on “Story doesn’t matter.

  1. Shecky

    It’s a tough balance. I’ll freely admit that I enjoy the snot out of big-spectacle movies; I’ll also freely admit that I love a well-crafted story. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor mutually dependent. And things like the use of genre standards right and left are neither good nor bad in and of themselves.

    What makes any of those good is the craftsmanship, how WELL they pull off the intended goal. Look at the movie “Avatar”. If we tried to survive on the story there, it’d be like trying to live entirely on three Twinkies. But it was a gorgeous ride that was an absolute treat to watch. Pratchett’s Discworld series subordinates story to humor as well, although he does a fine job of constructing a pretty good story as well (actually, my favorite Discworld book, Night Watch, is also the most story-driven, but it’s more the exception than the rule; most creators are good at one or the other and don’t necessarily do well when jumping the fence), all without bringing down the funny.

    At the same time, there are also story-heavy works that appeal to me just as strongly and satisfy me just as viscerally. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I do need both; I need both the serious/refined and the pure-entertainment for full satisfaction (although I don’t necessarily have to have them both at once). A good, satisfying meal isn’t a single-ingredient thing. A snack or a dessert, sure, or maybe one course, but not the whole “meal”.

    Look, each of the forms (and everything on the continuum between) has its place. And let’s face it – the big spectacle is a crowd-pleaser, always has been and always will be. But that doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY way to go. I think Disney’s shooting themselves in the foot if they go whole hawg in the direction espoused by the quoted exec.

  2. Fred Hicks

    Re: New Who. Your critique very much applies to the show under the prior show runner. I’ve found it to be less true under the new guy and the latest Doctor. A welcome change.

  3. Steve

    I hate to admit it, but I really enjoyed the Honor Harrington series, even though the emotional manipulation was beyond blatant. Same for the original 1631 (or whenever) series, where the (again, blatant) payoff was largely how ethically superior and enlightened the displaced Americans were to the people of the time. So there’s something to be said for the cheap heart-tug. That said, I eventually stopped reading both of those series, and I hope to stick with yours for a Butcher-esque timeframe (I’ve been a fan since the original release of Storm Front with no signs of stopping, so that’s… a long time:-)

  4. alex

    In my opinion, a good book has several elements.

    These are important, since a book/movie can be weak in one area, and still come off as good, but any more than that and it feels like a waste of time.

    The Story
    Your plot- I like them complex, but there needs to be at least a coherent plot to interest most people i know.

    The Action
    the story has to progress towards a goal, and on the way, it helps if there are obstacles and trials to overcome
    I tend to prefer my obstacles to be the bloody violent type, or the mystery type, but they are all good if you can put the outcome in doubt/or surprise the reader

    The Dialog
    This is where a large amount of the character development takes place, so its kind of important.

    The World
    The world the media piece is set in has to be coherent and believable, but other than that, it is slightly less important than the other elements.

    I’ve been reading a book a day on average for the last 6 years, of every genre, and therefore i am kind of picky

    That said, I think you are doing a good job.

    I think most people wouldn’t know a good book or movie if it hit them in the face.

    The reasons transformers and alice in wonderland did so well is because they are not original media. Most films that make it big have an already frothing fanbase ready to rake in the money.
    I talked to lots of people who were around for the original tron, and they just weren’t that excited for it. Lots of transformers fans went to see the movies, not for a good movie, but to see optimus prime and the crew kicking ass in high definition.

    You just need a little more word to get around. Jim Butcher’s blog brought me to your first two books, and i wouldn’t be surprised if circle of enemies sells nicely. I know i’ve got it on pre-order.

    I thought avatar was a horrible movie though.

  5. I do understand why they’d make that choice. Marketing a movie is expensive and despite everything, the surest bets are the really big budget tentpoles.

    But it won’t last.

  6. I still haven’t seen AVATAR. I suppose I should.

    Thanks for the kind words. Instead of dialog, I’d put Characters in there. That covers the dialog and some of the action. Certain books and movies do really well because of the relationship between the characters; no one rereads Nero Wolfe novels for the plots.

  7. Sara

    I can go either way. I’ll take spectacle-without-coherent-plot if it grabs me the right way. or example, I thoroughly enjoyed Repo: The Genetic Opera even though the dialogue and characters were a bunch of poorly-explained cliches, because it looked so damn cool. I’m willing to put up with poorly-executed tug-the-heart-strings moments if they involve David Tennant’s hair.

    Don’t get me wrong; TV shows and films which do this will be docked points. What really matters is whether there are other bits that make up for it.

    But you might be on to something with the movies + spectacle = audiences thing. After all, look at all the movies in theaters that are in 3D. I hear they do very well overseas….

  8. Neerdowell

    What… The newest Doctor Who director isn’t as good as Davies.

    Two specifically great episodes: both on youtube.
    1) Planet Midnight (great writing/acting)
    2) Blink

  9. I saw Blink before I gave up the show, but I’m not sure about Planet Midnight. My little boy has been enjoying the show, so we’re making our way through the seasons. I’ll see them eventually.

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