Inside view: why does Hollywood skimp on the script?

Feature Dan Turner
24 May 2012 - 00:42

Dan Turner argues that the screenplay is the one thing that Hollywood really shouldn't cut corners on...

Sometimes I wonder if Hollywood suffers from partial amnesia? Two of the biggest blockbusters this year, The Avengers and The Hunger Games, have something in common, scripts that were fully developed by skilled scriptwriters and honed until they were ready to go before cameras.

Now we read that Lionsgate is rushing The Hunger Games sequel - Catching Fire - into production as it already has a release date set.

The script isn’t ready and it's ordering hasty re-writes.

Instead of pausing to get the script right, and have the proper amount of pre-production, the studio is pushing to get the film turned around as fast as possible. This will also have serious repercussions on the post-production schedule, with the visual effects in particular having to be rushed to meet the release date.

JJ Abrams took a stand last year, by declaring that he wouldn’t have the Star Trek sequel production be dictated by a release date and would only sign on as director when he was happy with a script. Paramount relented and delayed the release date to accommodate Abrams.

Sadly, this is the exception to a very foolish rule.

Because movies, especially big budget blockbusters, are seen more as spikes on a balance sheet, the release date more often is rigid simply because a movie studio cant afford to have a poor fiscal year in this current financial climate.

In the case of Catching Fire, the only logical reason behind Lionsgate’s decision to rush a sequel, to the monster hit the first movie turned out to be, is that they think its teen audience will grow tired of the franchise, a school of thought Summit applied to the Twilight series. Add in the spectre of actor availability and Lionsgate is prepared to throw millions of dollars after a rushed production at the expense of a great movie.  

Its a risk. Because if Catching Fire disappoints its core audience, Lionsgate may have trouble with the third installment.

Hollywood seemingly places very little emphasis on the script.  Its amnesia about great scripts making great movies is omnipresent in movie history.

Movie history is littered with famous examples of productions with unfinished scripts. What is more difficult to understand is that it costs money to fix the problems created by an undeveloped or unfinished script. Surely the money men must understand that?

Famous examples include Alien 3, Pirates Of the Caribbean 3, Tomorrow Never Dies and the notorious Last Action Hero. A script with so many rewrites that it lost all coherence and ended up with whole scenes being improvised, with the production going over-budget and post-production being reduced to a ridiculous two weeks!

More recently, Men In Black 3 went into production with not even half a script finished. Production took a two month hiatus whilst the script was finished (the official line was due to tax issues - which since turned out to be erroneous). When production resumed, scenes from the already filmed first act of the film had to be re-filmed due to changes in the latter part of the script that changed the overall time-travel story.

The film went over $200m in budget apparently, and one can imagine a lot of nervous people in the high chairs at Sony next week.

Even director Barry Sonnenfeld says ““We knew starting the movie that we didn’t have a finished second or third act. Was it responsible? The answer is, if this movie does as well as I think it will, it was genius. If it’s a total failure, then it was a really stupid idea.”

Effects supremo Rick Baker is less diplomatic “It was a crazy production. We had a writer actually on the soundstage writing the words moments before the guys had to say them. I don’t think that’s any way to make a movie."

Scripts are not just the foundations for any film, they are the bricks and mortar and the most single most important element.

Without a script, a movie is nothing.

There’s a scene in Robert Altman’s The Player where movie executives speculate that writers could be replaced by simply taking newspaper headlines and easily creating movies that way. 

It sums up how Hollywood often contemptuously treats the whole writing process, and it doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.

You can find Dan on Twitter, here. His new film, The Man Inside, is released in cinemas later this year.

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