Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dumbing Downer

John McFetridge

Saw this great quote from Kurt Sutter, the creator and showrunner of Sons of Anarchy:

"Stop making decisions based on research data, and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. If people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better."

And this one from Roger Ebert:

"As the leadership of many studios is taken from creators and assigned to marketers, nothing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread. The urge to repeat success can be found even in the content of modern trailers, which often seem to be about the same upbeat film. Even The Beaver, with Mel Gibson battling mental illness, is made to look like a hopeful comedy with a cute stuffed animal."

Now that speaks to every writer, for sure, but I want to add, “Let’s not be so quick to try and give these research data-reading marketers exactly what they want.”

Sure, that’s easy to say, and I did spend a lot of yesterday in a development meeting at a Canadian network telling them exactly how we can make this cop show different from every other cop show while still being similar enough not to scare off an audience.

And sure, I believe we’ll try to do that but there will be a lot of compromises along the way – we all know that even if we don’t say it out loud.

Because I also saw this yesterday:

"Comedies are the hardest thing to do," says Gary Carr of Targetcast. Even ‘30 Rock,’ a survivor on the NBC schedule, "goes over most people's heads. It's not doing that well."

This is from a guy buying advertising on the major networks. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of 30 Rock but I don’t think that’s because it’s going over my head. I just don’t find it that funny. I really like Tina Fey and I’m pretty sure I’m getting all the jokes, they just don’t make me laugh. Maybe I’m just too old for this show but I find that there’s too much silly and I really don’t care about the characters and their problems. I do like The Big Bang Theory, though I’m pretty sure some of that actually is going over my head.

Which brings me back to books. Yes, publishing isn’t perfect but at least there’s no one buying advertising for your book saying that it’s going over people’s heads. All of the editors I have dealt with so far have been creative people with degrees in literature. Sure, they have to deal with the business people and accountants but it’s a far cry from the movie and TV biz.

And there are the small publishers and self-published books which have the potential to be purely art-driven.

But we have to write them. It still comes down to that most cliche of advice, “Write the book you want to read.”

Lately when I look at a self-published e-book I wonder, is this something I could get from a publisher? And if it is then I’m not that interested – but if it isn’t, if it’s something unlikely to be published by one of the big five, say a short story collection or a novella or some really experimental fiction or something really genre mixing, or, more and more these days, something that sounds “ordinary” like small town cops without any superpowers – then I’m more interested.

Maybe all these TV networks and ad buyers are right, maybe the stories really do need to be dumbed down in order to find an audience, but I doubt it. So, I’m glad there are now other ways to get those kinds of stories out there.


Dana King said...

Given the popularity of styleless, formulaic books, I'm starting to come around to the point of view that a lot of authors ARE writing the book they want to read, and it's devoid of style and based on formula. I've read a couple of self-published e-books lately, and there's nothing wrong with them, if you're looking for the exact same stuff you can find in best sellers. No one forced these people to write this, and a lot of those books get sold, presumably also to writers. So maybe they are writing the books they want to read, and some of us are outliers in more ways than one.

Benjamin Sobieck said...

Remove the shareholder component, and you'll get rid of the "safe" decisions. Replace it all with a person at the top who understands what John's saying. It all starts at the top.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Dana, outliers. But maybe if there's enough of us...

Benjamin, I like the idea of getting rid of shareholders. The other option is for them to accept a smaller rate of return. Some people have said that the best publishing has ever done is a five percent return, which was enough when the companies were run by the people whose names were on the doors but not enough for the shareholder-driven multi-nationals that bought them.

In the movies and TV it's a lot tougher because much more upfront capital is needed (though Netflix getting involved in production is interesting because they might work out a kind of royalty system with producers based on the number of times a show is viewed) but publishing has a lot of room to move.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I really think that you've put the best reason out there for a reader to buy a self-published book. If it isn't something the big publishers are doing such as the short story collections - then it is safe to say those are good bets. I'm not a big e-reader so I have only bought a few e-books. The short collections and unusual books have all been the best of the bunch.

And yeah - write the book you want to read. Always good advice!