Well, we've had a pretty good run, haven't we? But now I guess it's time for me to pack the pen, paper and laptop, saddle up my old hoss and ride on out of town -- me and the oh, however many hundreds of thousands of other unfortunate souls who've been trying to make a living writing movies. Because some researchers over at M.I.T. have decided that what we've been talking about when we talk about story is over -- at least for screenwriters -- and they're busily throwing money at lab rats, trying to figure out what may already be taking the Old School story's place.
According to the New York Times, news that your mom's brand of movie isn't going to cut it for 21st century folk has prompted the M.I.T. Media Laboratory to create a new Center For Future Storytelling, founded by former Paramount Pictures president David Kirkpatrick:
[The lab] will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly
those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle
and an end — is in serious trouble.
...2008's domestic motion picture box office appears poised to match last year’s gross revenues of $9.7 billion, a record. But Mr. Kirkpatrick and company are not alone in their belief that Hollywood’s ability to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.
“I even saw a plasma screen above a urinal,” said Peter Guber, the longtime film producer and former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment who contends that traditional narrative — the kind with unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — has been drowned out by noise and visual clutter.
The image of Mr. Guber seeing the writing on the urinal wall has a certain kind of perverse irony, given that it was he who helped usher in a new age of story-weak blockbusters with Batman, back in 1989 -- a visuals-driven progenitor of the very kind of movie that's now being declared the Angel of Story Death.
Gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or "Spiderman" have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling. ...“How do you compete with ‘Transformers’?” asked Mr. Guber.
Write better, would be my glib reply, and I'd argue that in fact, it's the virtues of good old-fashioned yarn-spinning that made the Potter books so popular. True: in the current market, the present-day spec script (i.e. "original storytelling") comes in second to adaptations, according to Mike Scherer's enlightening statistics site, but it's hanging in there with surprising tenacity.
Still, Guber and the other Chicken Little-like film pundits interviewed in Times reporter Michael Cieply's
article of course have a point. New media is expanding, shifting, and undoubtedly renewing the way stories are told and perceived. This past NY Times Sunday Magazine was a fascinating read devoted to screens -- e.g. from smart phones to Imax -- headlined How We Watch Stuff. And its Moments That Mattered article, featuring "Twelve writers, directors and bloggers describing the year’s most memorable clips, scenes, shows, videos and computer graphics," featured only a single big screen movie scene among their choices (and that one, from an indie documentary).
Is a younger generation raised on today's technology less likely to relate to a traditional story told conventionally? Probably. But I'd say that's more about the packaging than the product. Take a look at one of this year's biggest hits, the Pixar animation Wall-E. It's about as classic a capital-s Story as you'll find under a 21st Century Christmas tree. The Dark Knight, serial installment though it may be, had unusually strong story values for such a genre potboiler, even as everything else about it screamed video-game.
Journalists have a tendency to seize on the either-or dichotomy, as it makes for headlines (remember election coverage?). Yet it always seems to me that with every push of the cultural pendulum comes a swing back in the other direction. Digital hasn't killed the analog star; CGI-driven event movies actually help create an audience for a low-budget little indie like Juno. And to his credit, reporter Cieply balanced his coverage by noting that at the Sundance Institute, the idea of traditional film storytelling is alive and well:
is flourishing in the world at a level I can’t even begin to
understand,” said Ken Brecher, the institute’s executive director. Mr.
Brecher spoke last week, as his colleagues continued sorting through
9,000 films — again, a record — that have been submitted for the coming Sundance Film Festival. ...If anything, Mr. Brecher added, technology has simply brought mass
storytelling, on film or otherwise, to people who once thought
Hollywood had cornered the business.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-science. I believe in evolution, gravity, and toaster-ovens. But having lived through the time when scientists told us that margarine was better for us than butter, and then told us that margarine was really bad, I tend to get the giggles whenever some guy in a white labcoat pontificates with great certainty about some new thing that's bound to replace the old.
You try telling a story that has no beginning, middle and end to a friend (especially say, a child) and see how long you can hold their attention. Me, I'll be busy reading this article I just saw on how the theater's really dead.