Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Smart Thinking, Mr. Scott!

I am a big believer in breaking the mold and trying new things, especially when it comes to films and television. But Hollywood isn’t really into doing things differently. One of the things I mentioned sometime back was that the networks should use their cable channels as a testing ground for programs and then bring the best performers to the networks. Well, they aren’t doing that, but get this. . .

Ridley Scott, perhaps you’ve heard of him, has entered into a partnership with something called the Machinima network. I’ve actually never heard of them before, so here’s their website: LINK. They appear to be a web-based content distribution group.

Under this partnership, Scott is looking to produce a series of 12 science fiction “shorts” which will be shown on Machinima. That in and of itself is kind of cool because (1) the world needs more sci-fi and (2) Scott’s got a great track record of providing it. Even better, Scott’s got access to 80 rather famous directors in his company and the word is that several of them will be involved. So this could be some good stuff.

But now it gets better. This is where someone stepped out of the box.

According to Scott, the idea is to take the short(s) that generate the most positive responses and turn those into series! This is brilliant! This is essentially a show of pilots. What’s more it’s guaranteed to get the target audience watching the pilot because they’re going to tune in each week looking for the latest and greatest ideas in science fiction. Honestly, this is the sort of thing Hollywood should be doing all the time. . . but they don’t because they lack the creativity to come with even simple, obvious ideas like this.

Now, there are a couple potential downsides here. For one thing, I’ve often felt that one of the problems science fiction films face is that shows like the 1990s Outer Limits really plundered the genre of ideas (and misused them) and made it hard for filmmakers to come up with original ideas for films. This series may make that problem worse. Also, it’s possible that what works in a “short” won’t work in a series. Indeed, if I recall correctly, the Masters of Horror series in the 2000s, resulted in pretty much nothing memorable and nothing that anyone translated into a series or film – though I don’t think anyone was thinking that would lead to anything.

Still, all in all, I think this is a great idea. I’m happy to see that there will soon be more science fiction. There really is a shortage of genuine science fiction these days. And I wonder if an idea like this might not have prevented most of the garbage the networks have specialized in when it comes to science fiction over the past couple decades. In that regard, Scott is at least saying all the right things. He talked about this being “a tremendous opportunity for pushing the creative boundaries for both our filmmakers and the audience,” which are words network people usually can’t say without giggling, but which should be music to the ears of sci-fi fans everywhere. Also, they are targeting males between the ages of 18-34, which means this stuff shouldn’t be very soapy or like most of what you see on the Syfy channel, which apparently targets women.

I’m hopeful.



tryanmax said...

It's surprising that the idea of "proving grounds" is practically anathema to the entertainment industry. Practically every other type of business has its version of a proving ground, including the closely related advertising industry. It's not uncommon for multiple TV spots to air in different markets with the most effective spot eventually going national. I suppose entertainers have convinced themselves that focus groups are the only proving ground they need.

As far as plundering ideas goes, I don't think it's that big of a problem. Audiences are generally accepting of recycled plots so long as something better is made of them. The only time you get backlash is when the original was better than the second attempt. I can't help but be reminded of the numerous comparisons of Avatar to Fern Gully, suggesting that Fern Gully was the better of the two. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I don't understand why they have this aversion to testing their products. As you note, everyone else does it.

My guess is that it's a cultural problem in the sense that Hollywood business culture expects people to pick hits out of the blue to demonstrate that they have special skills. And the idea of letting the public do it for them probably flies in the face of the idea that they are something special (and thus deserve the compensation they get).

In my experience, when an industry is beset by static thinking, it's a cultural thing. That's why the Republicans are struggling to see politics as the business of winning votes. That's why old lawyers in big law firms resisted the internet. In both cases, they saw themselves as specialists with special knowledge and they didn't like the idea that there were better approaches which would allow anyone to do what they thought only they could. So they created this culture that basically said, "the only way to do this right is to the way we've always done it... there are no 'shortcuts'."

Tennessee Jed said...

some of the best things happening today are in television, and many of the top folks are gravitating there. I think the idea of limited series are great. The Downton Abbey model is a great one which has been used well by cable outlets. The Closer comes to mind. Fewer episodes with more time between first run shows allows for better scripts, production etc.

And sure, we can always use good Science fiction. I am less worried about the "original" aspect, because let's face it ... almost everything under the son has been tried. Bad things from Outer Limits days wouldn't necessarily adversely impact a good series. It comes down to good stories, good acting, and solid production. Hell, Mozart and every other great composer borrowed themes, motives, and everything else from themselves and others.

AndrewPrice said...

I have to disagree with you guys on the issue of originality. In my experience, the sci-fi community is very quick to dismiss things as "oh, that's just X underwater" or "oh, that was done in Y."

In the 1980/90s, you had all of these half-hour or hour-long shows (Amazing Stories, Ray Bradbury's Theater, etc. and even episodic shows like TNG) that basically plundered every science fiction idea you could think of. They rarely did much with them except use the idea for a quick twist. But I very much get the sense this killed the idea of more "pure" science fiction in theaters because there were no great twists left you can put on things now. So film (and television) seemed to drift into using science fiction more as a background for something like a cop story or a soap and seemed to get away from doing the cool sci-fi idea.

AndrewPrice said...

Also, let me add that there is a huge difference between repeating "two doomed young lovers" as a plot and repeating "it's a time loop where they guy kills a butterfly and changes the world" as a plot. It's a matter of degree and the second feels much more derivative, no matter how you present it.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, agreed, ripping off a twist ending is an absolute no-no. I was referring to using the same setup as being forgivable. For example Running Man, Rollerball, Gamer, The Hunger Games are all the same basic premise.

And while I don't have any examples off the top of my head, I expect even taking a twist can be acceptable if the twist is used as a setup rather than a conclusion.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. If you take a broad enough premise, then you can make the same movie and people don't realize it -- The Island, Rollerball, WALL-E... they're all a version of Brave New World but no one realizes that because they feel so differently.

But once you get into the twisty part of sci-fi (i.e. the pay off part), then it becomes impossible do it twice without people accusing you of ripping it off. And the problem I saw with shows like the 1990s Outer Limits was that they basically went like this:

1. One minute intro of concept.
2. 58 minutes of depressed characters wasting time until the reveal (plus commercials).
3. One minute of sci-fi twist reveal... barely related to story.

This is what I mean by plunder. They basically took every sci-fi idea they could think of and turned those into 1-2 minute shorts and then tacked them on the end of 58 minute shoes about nothing. The end result was a rather poor show which basically misused as many quality ideas as it could.... it poisoned the sci-fi well.

So now when someone says, "... then it turns out the human is really a robot..." everyone says, "Uh, yeah, saw that on ____ and ____."

tryanmax said...

True, but in all fairness, the twist ending is a hallmark of thrillers, while I think the best sci-fi is the sort that puts universal issues against an alien backdrop in order to demonstrate universality--no twist required. So it's really just the sci-fi/thriller genre that's been strip-mined.

Anonymous said...

You're wel - oh, a different Scott. :-)

This is similar to an idea I've read about for years...

The networks (both broadcast and cable) should use the Internet (sites like Hulu) as a testing ground for new pilots... the ones with the best reaction get picked up.

The networks spend tons of money on pilot development season, but only a small fraction get filmed, and only a small fraction of those make it to TV, and only a small fraction of those make it past three or four episodes!

I also agree with Jed: the British model is better - fewer episodes, more quality all around. Hell, look how good Sherlock was - three 90-minute episodes per season and that's it! This can apply to sitcoms as well (see: The IT Crowd).

The only caveat is when I think of all the good shows that may never have aired if the process was left to audiences... but I'd like to think intelligent stuff like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos would get chosen, too, along with crap like Two and a Half Men. :-)

And you're right: Masters of Horror was strictly an anthology series - I don't think anyone was thinking TV pilot at the time.

I'm not a horror guy but I managed to watch John Landis and Joe Dante's episodes: they were... okay.

I'm surprised Joe Dante's anti-war satire "Homecoming" didn't get more of a reaction but it's probably for the best. (Soldiers coming back from the dead as zombies to get revenge on the politicians that sent them off to war. Supporting characters included a Karl Rove-esque operator played by Dante regular Robert Picardo and an Ann Coulter-esque TV personality who was into S&M!)

djskit said...

I'll only trifle with the definition of "good" sci-fi (maybe a subject of a different thread!)

Good sci-fi applies the universal (and unchanging) human condition to situations that are beyond our day-to-day existence.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, "strip-mined" is a good word for it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, In hindsight, it's amazing that no one thought to do more with Master of Horror, but they didn't. And the shows they ultimately produced were just bland. I'm not sure why given the names they had and the opportunity to do things really wild, but they all seemed to choose to choose to play it safe.

I would think that things like Sopranos would definitely be picked up by audiences because they were picked up by audiences. These aren't shows foisted on the public by critics, these were shows the public responded to.

As for using the net, I think it makes more sense to use cable channels because the audience is broader.

The British model is hit and miss. Don't forget that we only see their best programs -- just as they see our best. They have as many misses as we do. As for the low number of episodes, that is not a guarantor of quality. That said, that's the model HBO has gone with.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Good science fiction is the stuff that stretches the mind. That's paradoxes, social commentary hidden in robot stories, and ethical situations brought to life in extreme ways. But those are the very things that got "strip mined" by shows like Outer Limits, which just needed a surprise (usually cynical) ending each week.

BIG MO said...

Andrew - it is intriguing. Not quite the same concept, but it reminds me a little of the webisodes that BSG did.

You also mentioned Masters of Horror. Did you ever catch the even shorter-lived Masters of Science Fiction? Only a handful of episodes were made, but it had some serious potential. Whether one could serve as the basis of a series is debatable, though. The first episode, "A Clean Escape," is a great bit of psychological drama starring Sam Wasterson, as written by author John Kessel. Also, the 1990s Outer Limits did have some excellent stories (the 2001 episode "Think Like a Dinosaur" stands out for me) but yes, a lot of cynical twist endings.

And I wondered if I was the only one who remembered Amazing Stories.

Oh, and ScottDS - "Hello, IT; Have you tried turning it off and on?" ;) ;)

K said...

I wouldn't get my hopes too far up.

The Cartoon Brew site mentioned some months ago that Machinima was commissioning a set of short animated films which they were going to show on their site. I've been over there a couple of times and found the site interface confusing and mainly geared to advertising video games. The animated shorts I did find were of C+ to horrible quality and not worth the click over.

I assume that R.Scott wouldn't work for dimes so if they are going to take advantage of this some kind of site make over should happen. One thing to remember as well, video games are now making significantly more money than movies. I wouldn't be surprised if the short vids aren't required to have some kind of game tie in.

Anonymous said...


Ha! I also love Denholm's line when Jen asks what kind of people she'll be working with:


I remember the Masters of Science Fiction series - I don't even think ABC aired all of them but most of them have since appeared online. There was one with Anne Heche and a robot husband and one with Brian Dennehy and a shipload of mutants.

One gets the impression is was just mid-season filler.

There was also a network series from the Masters of Horror people called Fear Itself, but I only watched John Landis' episode. This series was also cancelled pretty quickly, again most likely a mid-season thing.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I can't ascertain the overall quality of Masters of Horror without having seen all of them... BUT they did play it safe. You'd think nothing would be off-limits for Showtime but there was an episode even they refused to air.

I guess it's reassuring to know some things are too out there even for premium channels!

In retrospect, I think the series was produced more for the home video market - the DVDs were jam-packed - and Showtime's interest was just a convenient happenstance.

Re: the UK - you're right. We get their best stuff and they get our best stuff. For every Sherlock or Downton Abbey, there are no doubt three or four rejects.

But I've read having a shorter episode count can help. Even when Star Trek: Enterprise went from 26 episodes a year to 22, the creators were elated. Four less episodes can make a difference. Then again, no guarantee - just a step in the right direction. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, I haven't seen Master of Science Fiction.

I remember Amazing Stories and Ray Bradbury Theater. Sometimes these shows did hit upon memorable episodes, but by and large i think they just strip mined ideas. I remember one interesting one about a nuclear holocaust creating vampires.

BSG did do some good stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

K, We'll have to see, but they could well be aimed at video games or at least video game tie-ins. Still, I'm not worried because there have been some really good video game stories lately.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It wouldn't surprise me if the idea behind Master of Horror really was just DVD sales. Either way, it felt like a show with a ton of potential that ended up being little more than a gimmick which never paid off.

On the shorter stuff, I think the key is having a story arc. Shows that don't have a story arc are no better written if time is taken or not, but those with a story arc seem to do better with fewer episodes. That fits the HBO model perfectly.

Commander Max said...

18-34? I wish these these guys would quit using that demographic. Which means less true sci-fi and more pointless stories. Or worse pointless action sci-fi with no plot.
The argument against 18-34 most in that demo do not have money. Shows should be tailored across all age ranges, to maximize audience.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, That's the video game demographic... which is also where their money is going. I think the problem with modern sci-fi is that they aim for women most often, and they are using the wrong stereotype to do it. That's why so much sci-fi these days is so soapy.

Commander Max said...

Video game demographic, funny don't we fall into that?
That's right we are over 40, and we used to leave our house to go play video games. Which required a little thing known as exercise.

It does seem funny to go after the video game market, aren't those kids to busy playing games to watch a show?
You can tell it's being created by people over 50.

A show of pilots?
Nothing new there, remember the "Action Pack"?
It spawned several rather famous series.

The chickificatiion has been getting annoying. I miss the days of women being exploited as sex objects, all running around topless while the bad guys get shot.

Kenn Christenson said...

I'm still waiting for an actual science-based science fiction film or TV series - kind of like 2001 - only with interesting characters and stories. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Max, The chickification stuff is bad news for sci-fi and every time I think they've moved beyond it, they come right back to it. It's frustrating.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, Same here. I keep hoping that someone takes the risk and does something really high-brow. I don't see it happening, but it would be nice.

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