Spoiler proofing and script leaks in TV and movies

Feature Mark Harrison 9 Jul 2014 - 05:56

If the script for something you're dying to see leaks online, it's tempting to read it... but you're better off waiting, as Mark explains

In the age of online entertainment journalism, it seems like information about big productions, including spoilers, is generally freer than ever before. The onslaught of casting rumours, set pictures and videos of filming has only led producers to double down and become more secretive about their big projects.

As a proponent of the oft-criticised “Mystery Box” mode of marketing, JJ Abrams would be a prime example. It worked for Super 8, because we knew very little about the film by the time it came out, but infuriated people when he and his team wouldn't admit the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek Into Darkness for months on end, when we all guessed who he’d be playing pretty early on. We’ve yet to see if his approach will hold up to such scrutiny on his next film, a little project called Star Wars Episode VII.

The demonstrable problem with Mystery Box marketing in the current climate of fan discourse and geek gossip sites is that the filmmaker is telling you they have something to hide, which only makes some of the more ardent newshounds more motivated to find out what it is.

It’s like the episode of The IT Crowd where Roy tells his manchild boss Douglas that there’s a twist in a film they’re about to watch and he spends the whole thing trying to guess what it might be. Except in this case, we all have access to the internet and torrent sites and spoiler articles, and despite the best intentions of the producers, leaks still get out.

There are plenty of cases where complete or near-complete works have appeared on file-sharing sites prematurely. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and X-Men Origins: Wolverine both had leaked work-prints online ahead of release in the last decade, and TV series regularly seem to have pilot episodes leak ahead of their transmission date, especially where they’re based on a pre-existing property with a lot of fan interest.

Without condoning or condemning, we can understand if a finished film or TV episode is readily available that someone's patience might be stretched to its limits. But what about script leaks?

It’s often very interesting to read the script for something after you’ve seen it, partly to help you understand the craft of writing, but also for little nuggets and snippets that might not have made it past pre-production or the editing room. But if you’re reading a script before something has even come out, there’s little context other than spoilers.

Still, script leaks do happen and producers have gone to extremes to cover their tracks. One of the more amusing rumours about Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice is that Warner Bros hired Kevin Smith to dish out misinformation about the film, including the writing of a 156 page script for the express purpose of misdirecting sites like Ain’t It Cool News and Latino Review, which are infamous for their production scoops on projects such as these.

Smith has certainly made headlines by verifying or debunking certain rumours through his podcasts, validated by his friendship with new Batman Ben Affleck and director Zack Snyder. We’re not sure he’d make the time to write a fake script, but anyway, Smith has now denied the rumour. Before he did so, in the absence of official word, debate was being stirred up on the very sites that Warner apparently wants to be distracted.

Real leaks have frequently been in the news over the last 12 months or so, most notably when Quentin Tarantino’s Western screenplay The Hateful Eight got out into the public domain. The filmmaker was understandably pissed off, publicly voicing his disappointment that the first draft leaked online when he only entrusted a small number of people with it and launching a lawsuit against a movie site which shared the download link (the lawsuit has since been dropped).

Moreover, the experience seemed to actively put Tarantino off making the film. He has since relented, hosting a well-received live reading of the script with his dream cast and then admitting that he may have overreacted. It’s now the next film he’ll shoot, with principal photography scheduled for November.

He may have come around on the issue of discarding the script altogether, but his reaction to the leak seems entirely within reason. Few writers are perfectly happy with their script on the first draft, much less with actually putting it online for all to read.

The thing is, I can speak from experience in saying that this isn’t the first time script leaks have befallen Tarantino’s films. I read the whole script for Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds online before they were released in cinemas. In the case of Kill Bill, I was too young to see the films in cinemas, and with Inglourious Basterds, I was too impatient. With QT’s scripts, it’s like reading a novel before seeing the adaptation- his scripts are dense with detail and that dialogue jumps off the page as you read it.

I can also tell you that the script for Django Unchained leaked early, because I resisted reading it until after I saw the film. One of the main reasons for this was Christoph Waltz. None of us really knew who he was until Basterds came out, so none of us could have imagined how good his Oscar-winning performance as Col. Hans Landa would be. Reading the script for Django after seeing his performance as Dr. King Schultz (which won him his second Oscar) was a much more satisfying experience.

As much as reading those scripts was like reading a novel, I haven’t read Django or The Hateful Eight ahead of release because Tarantino doesn’t write novels, he writes movies. The script will be just as entertaining to read after seeing the film, but the film will inexorably lose something if you’ve already read the script and that’s as good a reason as any to resist chasing up script leaks.

It’s comparable to that irresistible urge to take a peek at your Christmas presents when you’re a kid, except for the crucial difference that you’re not getting them early here. This is more like finding Argos receipts which just describe everything you’re going to get, and the trade-off for a minor boost in anticipation is to divest your Christmas stocking of any major surprises.

It’s ultimately down to your own personal policy on spoilers. There’s definitely an appeal to the craft of screenplays which make it tempting to read ahead when the material does become readily available online, especially if you want to get into screenwriting yourself. But in our opinion, it’s immeasurably more satisfying to examine the blueprint after you’ve experienced the finished product, with all of its working parts and intended enjoyment.

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