The Art of the Story

This NY Times article on MIT’s Media Lab examining titled “Saving the Story (the Film Version)” bothered me on a number of dimensions.

The first huge issue is confusing form and function or the story and how it is delivered. Consider this –

The center is envisioned as a “labette,” a little laboratory, that will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.

How a story is delivered – via the studio distribution system, YouTube, or Twitter has nothing to do with whether the story has a beginning, middle and end.

The art of storytelling has existed since man learned to communicate. The form has changed. Dramatically.

A good chunk of the rest of the article is about Hollywood griping about Hollywood.

But Mr. Kirkpatrick and company are not alone in their belief that Hollywood’s ability to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.

“I even saw a plasma screen above a urinal,” said Peter Guber, the longtime film producer and former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment who contends that traditional narrative — the kind with unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — has been drowned out by noise and visual clutter.

A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling.

Whatever, people! Hollywood’s ability has not been “nibbled away” by text messages!! It has been nibbled away by the fact that every decision is made by focus groups and marketers – not the the writers and the directors!

Let’s look at Slumdog Millionaire – how has that story been affected by the noise of tweets or smses? If the story has merit, it stands above the trash… er… or above the urinal screen, as the case may be.

Open-ended series’ – who created them? Who produced them and distributed them? Right – you, Hollywood.

The article goes on to talk about Hollywood insiders complaining that small stories can’t compete with Transformers. So? Hasn’t that always been the case? And if the problem is getting worse who’s making it worse? You, Hollywood!

And again, what, pray tell does this have to do with the “story”? Nothing. So far, all I’ve heard is whining about marketing budgets.

And then there’s the classic “blame the audience” strategy.

Ultimately, he blames the audience for the perceived breakdown in narrative quality: in the end, he argued, consumers get what they want. Bobby Farrelly, a prolific writer, and director with his brother Peter of comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal,” concurred.

“If you go off the beaten path, say, give them something bittersweet, they’re going to tell you they’re disappointed,” Mr. Farrelly said. He spoke from his home in Massachusetts, where he is working on the script for a Three Stooges picture, and said he missed complex stories like that of “The Graduate.”

Really? Really?? Let me point you again to Slumdog Millionaire. People are thirsting for great content, but your marketing focus groups will never tell you that. If you miss complex stories, then write them! Is a complex, intriguing and multi-layered story burning inside you Mr. Farrelly? Please, please write it and get it made. You know enough people to do that. I promise you I will spend my twelve bucks to watch it. Why are you writing stuff like Shallow Hal and then complaining that you are being forced to do so?

The only person I agree with in the whole article is Ken Brecher, the Sundance institute’s executive director.

“Storytelling is flourishing in the world at a level I can’t even begin to understand,” said Ken Brecher…


If anything, Mr. Brecher added, technology has simply brought mass storytelling, on film or otherwise, to people who once thought Hollywood had cornered the business.


So what exactly will the Media Lab be doing?

The people at M.I.T., in any case, may figure out whether classic storytellers like Homer, Shakespeare and Spielberg have had their day.

Starting in 2010, a handful of faculty members — “principal investigators,” the university calls them — will join graduate students, undergraduate interns and visitors from the film and book worlds in examining, among other things, how virtual actors and “morphable” projectors (which instantly change the appearance of physical scenes) might affect a storytelling process that has already been considerably democratized by digital delivery.

Rubbish. They are not going to figure out whether classic storytellers are done. They are going to investigate how new technologies will affect the creation and the consumption of content.

And that is… fine. In fact, it is great and wonderful. And it makes for a good, news-worthy article. So why on earth did the Times make it about “the story”? The article opens with

The movie world has been fretting for years about the collapse of stardom. Now there are growing fears that another chunk of film architecture is looking wobbly: the story.

Let’s get it clear – as long as there are writers, no, as long as there are people, “the story” will survive. It is part of us. My grandmother is a fantastic storyteller and there are thousands of people out there who are telling stories every day.

What’s at risk is Hollywood’s business model and the standard methods of distribution. And perhaps the Times’ ability to figure out what the underlying story is all about!