Sunday, March 24, 2013

Big Dumb Movies

Step into the Wayback Machine with me, Sherman, and take a trip to the ancient era of 1982, when yours truly and his writing partner, Roy Thomas, were briefly Warm in Hollywood.

Thanks to a script we'd written for Ed Pressman (which would eventually become the less-than-we'd-hoped-it-would-be "Conan the Destroyer") Roy and I enjoyed a momentary notoriety as the go-to screenwriters for Big Budget Fantasy and/or Science Fiction Films. We were pursued by top agents, we were offered hot (or warm) projects ranging from The Mad Magazine Movie (don't ask) to John Carter of Mars (we wanted that one desperately). We wrote a script for Orion Films called X-Men: The Movie; we sold a science fiction film based on a one-line pitch (which was later became an entirely different movie when the studio head decided he didn't think audiences would turn out for a movie based on time travel -- this was the year before "The Terminator," "Back to the Future," and "Star Trek IV"). We were for a time the Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci of our generation, though with considerable less long-term success than those snot-nosed punks, probably because they're much more talented and business savvy than we were.

(Hi Alex, Hi Bob; love you guys!)

Anyhow. In our capacity as Momentarily Warm Writers (otherwise known as Flavor of the Month, though in our case it lasted a couple of years) we had a ring side seat to the spectacle of Hollywood's earliest attempts to quantify and formularize what at least one producer we met called The Big Dumb Movie.

We have all lived in the Big Dumb Movie world for the last thirty-odd years, so it might be fun to have a look at what some people were thinking back in the prehistoric days before the Big Dumb Movie became a fully-fledged category of Hollywood-processed entertainment.

I'll post more about this era in future blogs, but for now, I'd like to explain the concept of the Big Dumb Movie as it was explained to us by a Hollywood Producer who'd been around a while, and to put the time period I'm talking about in historical context.

First, the context: Roy and I sold our first screenplay in 1979, while Hollywood was still trying to get its collective head around the triple whammy of "Jaws," "Star Wars," and "Superman: The Movie." We owed our first sale to the fact that an assistant at the production company we pitched to knew our work from comics and vouched for us with her producer. Hard as it may be to believe today, but in 1979, a history of success in comics was actually an obstacle to overcome for the eager new screenwriter. Most producers of the time were in their 40s and 50s and their cultural references, at best, were formed and frozen in the 1950s, or maybe the early 60s. The younger producers, like Ed Pressman, were products of the 60s counter-culture, and imagined themselves to be "hip," but there was a world of difference between hip in 60s terms and the geek-hip of today. Roy and I were extremely lucky to find a sponsor-producer who was willing to overlook our shady comics career to buy our first script. Even luckier that he had an assistant who went to bat for us based on that shady comics career.

After that first script, we became acceptable commodities, allowed a seat at the grown-up table, though we were relegated to the then-ghetto of fantasy and science fiction films. Producers and studios were all floundering about, trying to get a handle on Big Budget Fantasy, with mixed success. (Anyone here remember "Krull?" Anyone? How about Disney's "The Black Hole?") Independent producers and low-budget productions had more success -- Ed Pressman and Dino de Laurentiis made "Conan the Barbarian," Jim Cameron made "The Terminator" -- but generally speaking, Hollywood producers had No Clue how to make the kind of Big Dumb Movie that has become a summer staple the last three decades. Primarily because they thought of it as a Big Dumb Movie, is my guess.

So, what exactly, in the mind of the producer who explained it to me, is a Big Dumb Movie? A Big Dumb Movie is a movie with a big budget (the big part) based on what the producer perceived as a dumb idea (ie: a rebellion against an evil Galactic Empire led by teens with light saber swords). (Alternately, a Big Dumb Movie could also be a big budget High Concept Action Film. That takes us into Die Hard territory, which I'll approach in another blog.)

How, you might wonder, do you approach making a Big Dumb Movie as a producer if you cynically believe you're making a fundamentally dumb film? Good question, which is why Roy and I got hired for several writing gigs during this period, and why we were momentarily Warm: hire people who've written or directed other Big Dumb Movies and hope they know what they're doing. Of course, since you believe the entire idea is dumb already, you won't really respect anything they say or follow their actual suggestions, but at least you can explain yourself in terms other cynical producers will understand. You hired the guys who are supposed to know these things! Is it your fault they made something dumb? (Actually, yes, because you wouldn't let them do anything smart, since, by definition, you were making a Big Dumb Movie, and the dumber the better, right?)

I mention all of this because last night I saw "Olympus Has Fallen," which is the very apotheosis of the Big Dumb Movie approach to filmmaking. And in my next post, I'll explain why I think that.

1 comment:

Manticora Comics said...


That was LOW!

Great intro and in the last words to be written today,the cliff-hanger!

Now, the long wait for the next chapter...


Ed Flores