Making the Creator King Again is Vital to Saving Film

I remember when Titanic came out in 1997, it was everywhere – on billboards, rehashed through several documentaries, on popcorn tubs, on MTV, on the news, on posters, shirts, the word on every teen girls mouth – it was the event of the year. People became obsessed with Titanic – including myself as a kid, I once knew how many rivets were in the ship. You couldn’t get away from it, or that cheesy Celine Dion song. It was a completely dominant force of popular culture and remained the highest grossing film until Avatar in 2009.

Now in today’s Hollywood, everything is hyped to such a grand scale that nothing has staying power. If everything is big, loud and explosive then nothing stands out. The sort of fanfare once reserved for movies like Titanic is now expected of films on a monthly basis. If a tent pole film doesn’t make a billion dollars it’s somehow not good enough. As studios tear through their IP war chests, exhausting all properties to the point of arriving at Bay Watch and Pirates 5, they have finally lost the trust of American audiences. I feel we truly are headed toward rock bottom.

At the same time television has seen a renaissance. A huge reason for that is creative control. Once upon a time studios used to make mid budget films from original scripts. In the 90s it seemed like the spec sales would never stop. Studios would use their big expensive blockbusters to fund these smaller properties hoping enough of them would become hits to remain in the black (thus the term tent pole for blockbusters).

Today fewer and fewer specs are being sold. Studios are no longer stand alone businesses as much as they are part of larger conglomerates. These conglomerates don’t just want movies – they want theme park rides, toys, accessories. They want every film to be just like Titanic was in 1997 where people would literally buy White Star Line napkins and talks of building another Titanic was a serious consideration. Conglomerates want studios to be less about filmmaking and more about brand-making.

The ultimate problem for movies is that TV offers the creativity that modern moviemaking no longer allows. Marketing and non filmmakers hold too much weight in script considerations and story decisions. The movie writer today is a gun for hire to bring marketable IP to life, and is less so a unique creative force. While independent films and Oscar bait still gets made, even those cinematic gems are few and far between relative to a decade ago. Or, they’re being made entirely outside the studio system.

The American public is loosing faith in Hollywood films. At a time where TV couldn’t be better and show runners are almost as popular as some of the actors in their shows – the public couldn’t be bothered to shell out $15 for a mediocre movie. It’s time to make the creator king again. It’s time for creatives to get back some control in the movie making process. Until that happens, people will continue to reject stale Hollywood IP for increasingly better content on the smaller screen.

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Hollywood on the Spectrum

It takes a certain kind of person to really flourish in this industry; someone very social, tenacious, a fearless hustler who also plays a good game. In many ways it does come down to luck for all. There are certain ways to increase those odds, and then there are ways in which you can also shrink them. It very much comes down to who you are. I am someone who, albeit is of Mensa intelligence, lacks the same social intelligence — I am someone on the autistic spectrum.

Autism, including Aspergers (which I was diagnosed with at 12) is a developmental delay. Contrary to popular misconception it is not a mental illness nor is it associated with mental illness. It is however linked to social stuntedness, a lack of self awareness, contextualizing things in black and white –and often shyness as a result. It is also linked to higher IQ, greater empathy and therefore less inclination to act in a morally unscrupulous manner. People with Aspergers are very loyal to those they care about and are not the sort of people to stab someone in the back.

In an industry where being an extroverted hustler and social savant is critical to success, people who lack that combination of traits stand a lesser chance at success. This is not to say that someone on the spectrum is not a possible combination of all those things; however there are a few notable ways in which someone on the spectrum would struggle in Hollywood. So allow me to go into some detail.

1. Taking Things in Black and White

People on the spectrum are not very good with social nuance. So much of this industry relies on coded messages and meanings. When life is defined in black and white, the grey in which Hollywood operates can be very difficult to navigate. This breeds frustration since all people like myself and others with Apsergers want is a clear answer (see the ongoing saga with myself and a former mentor). Rarely is this given, and it easily turns into a feeling of frustration when we are given codes or signs we cannot interpret. We wind up spinning our wheels on dead opportunities or wasting time on long shots. A social person with a strong perceptiveness would probably move on more quickly and rebound, whereas it’s easier for us on the spectrum to get stuck still looking for answers which will never come. Especially so when it’s what we want most.

2. Charlie Hustle

Ever watch ‘Better Call Saul’? Jimmy McGill’s nickname is Charlie Hustle. He started in the mail room and eventually rises to the rank of attorney through hard work, social cunning and strong perception. His ability to feel out situations where he could ascertain an opportunity or advantage allowed for great success — not to mention his personable nature.

The same skills are required for success in Hollywood. You will eat crow in low paying positions with the only way up the same skill set Jimmy had. Just to find those mailroom positions is often difficult enough on its own! This is not to say people with Apsergers lack hustle – not at all. We work just as hard but often require more guidance or mentorship at the outset of our careers. We lack the same level of natural perception and social cunning that might make us take risk or sniff out that ‘new position’ which may not yet be available. We work hard but constantly second guess ourselves and are unlikely to pick up a phone without encouragement — good luck finding that in the mailroom! Without a good mentor, it’s very easy to wind up lost and directionless navigating a complex industry.

3. Oversharing & Blunt Talk

So much of this business is about having a certain personality. Part of that is being really level-headed, positive and not oversharing. People on the spectrum tend to lack a filter that comes natural to others. Sometimes this leads people to conclude someone on the spectrum is too blunt. We’re usually too honest for our own good. Especially when we’re frustrated, or doubting ourselves — we take to Twitter, blogs or just vent to others because we desire to be understood and seek empathy. This could come across as emotionally unstable or weak (i.e why would someone say that?). We’re not emotionally unstable, but we are sensitive (weakness in this field). This industry requires thick skin and an understanding of when to say a white lie or avoid how one is really feeling. You gotta sell that confidence and that smile – you’re happy to be here! People on the spectrum are honest and morally inclined. To lie, be phony, talk shit or just play a good game of bullshit is not in our nature. We are more likely to despise it.

4. Adherence to Meritocracy

Those on the spectrum tend to have very high IQs. They usually know they’re very smart and so for someone who is morally inclined and intelligent it is hard to settle for the world of nepotism, favors and brokered deals which place intelligence and potential after ‘the right cultural fit.’ It is hard to watch ‘the right fit’ win over the best qualified, or the person with most potential. Hollywood is not a meritocracy. This is probably the most annoying thing to those on the spectrum because of their moral inclination and very black or white sense of fairness and justice. It’s why people on the spectrum tend to flock toward industries which are more meritocratic like the hard sciences. There one’s intelligence and capability is more important. Not so in Hollywood, you could be average and capable with the right personality and win over the person who may be brilliant but not be ‘the right fit.’
While many with Aspergers are writers, directors and musicians, not many are screenwriters; probably because writing novels is an introverted process whereas writing scripts is collaborative. You have to deal with that junior exec’s notes; someone who got the job from their aunt. Being a director or musician, one is in charge of the creative process (and the directors I refer to here aren’t the Yes men working for studios, but in the Indie world). You must have incredible social aptitude to be a good screenwriter – not just a good writer.

Conclusion.

All of these examples may not apply. In some cases none apply. However in most cases a combination of those difficulties can make it extremely difficult to break into the coveted film industry with autism/Aspergers. While many on the spectrum are very creative and capable, they are often deemed not the right fit. It’s easy to fall trap to social stuntedness. The most one can do is be self aware of these limitations and try to fight them (it’s what I do every day). I won’t say it’s not hard — it’s a constant struggle where for others the pursuit is more effortless. I am a well of potential crashing up against the walls. While I will never use my Apsergers as an excuse, certainly not for my failures, I will also not deny that it does occasionally play a part. I am my own worst enemy, and I must conquer myself before I can the industry beyond.