06:19:42 pm on
Thursday 25 Jul 2024

A Film Not to Write
AJ Robinson

Filmmakers these days are lucky. They have such total freedom when it comes to the stories they can tell. There was a time when their options were limited.

Film content was once explicitly controlled.

Years ago, certain stories were off limits for films. The reasons were many, but captured in three ideas. First, there were norms not easily violated; for example, Blacks in lead roles or action beyond a hint of sex. Second, the studios exercised a great deal of power over who made what film, when, where and how; follow the money. Third, there was the self-imposed Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), which set and mostly enforced moral guidelines for films from major studios, from 1930 to 1968.

If a filmmaker wanted to do a story with an openly gay character that was unacceptable. Bleak, dysphoric stories, with downer endings, disallowed because profits from such films would be meager or non-existent; ergo, the Pollyanna Hollywood ending that misrepresented life. Scrips dealing with widespread systemic corruption or an interracial couple had no chance; the Hays Code saw to that.

The Hays Code, the MPPC, was a set of arbitrary rules Hollywood devised with to head off the threat of government regulations of film content. In the early days of films, prior to 1930, there were complaints that films were corrupting the morals of the nation and action needed. By drawing up a set of rules, Hollywood addressed the issue and maintained self-control.

Some rules were understandable. Criminals were bad and required punishment for their crimes. A person could be corrupt, but not an institution. Good had to triumph in the end. Some rules, such as no interracial relationships, were more an acquiescence to the bigotry of the day.

These rules sometimes caused trouble for a book or stage play, adapted for film, which had inappropriate content or ending. As an example, the play, The Bad Seed, had to undergo a radical alteration. One, a person couldn’t commit suicide, in a film. Two, a murderer must be punished, in some way. Three, a mother couldn’t kill her own child. The solution was quite creative; a divine intervention, a bolt of lightning!

In the 1970s, with the rise in television and an increase in independent films, which could ignore the code, it finally lost its authority and usefulness. The Hays Code qua MPPC faded in 1968. Prior restraint, otherwise illegal in most areas of life, stopped.

It has taken decades, but we’ve finally achieved a point where any sort of story may be a viable film. The remake of The Bad Seed, kept its original ending. One Star Wars installment, Rogue One, got away with killing off its main protagonists!

On the one hand, this is great for creativity. Unfortunately, it can also lead to people venturing into bad areas and hence my tips for movie stories to avoid. First is what I call killer kids, which refers to slasher films, where the killer is a small child. Yes, a couple such films released and flopped.

Avoid child murders.

As the target audience for killer-kid stories is teens, they don’t care for that sort of thing. It’s an old rule of storytelling: don’t make your main characters younger than is your intended audience. Now, with a family story that can work; witness The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the numerous Harry Potter books and films, but it won’t work with teens.

Second, there is animation targeted to adults. Now, sure, anime, animation largely made in Japan and generally identified with Japan is a long-standing art form, with a huge audience. There are also a host of adult-oriented animated television shows on everything from Netflix to Cartoon Network.

An animated motion picture is different, at least for American audiences. In the past there have been films, such as Heavy Metal, Fire and Ice, and Titan A.E.,  which have not done well in theatres; still, these films often develop a cult following. If your goal is to write a screenplay with maximum appeal, avoid this genre. You likely won’t get past the first sentence of your pitch unless you created the new Star Wars tent-pole.

Now, we come to the anti-war action films. Anti-war films are fine and have been very popular. Stories, such as M*A*S*H, Jacobs Ladder and Apocalypse Now, have been critical and financial hits, but there’s a critical factor there: action. Yes, some action is okay, but you need to avoid (a) an anti-war movie where the focus is action and most definitely don’t do (b) an anti-war movie set in World War II. The people that like anti-war films don’t want to see an action-oriented story and World War II, while a terrible conflict was, for lack of a better term,  the last “just” war. I mean, let’s face it the Nazis are the perfect villains!

There’s another issue regarding anti-war movies. Korea and Vietnam, which aroused the most anti-war sentiments, went undeclared as wars; they were peace actions. Declared wars, at least for American audiences, see more sacrosanct. Protesting a peace action is good form, but protesting a declared war seems not such good form.

Another type of “anti” movie to avoid is the anti-Hollywood type of story. You can do a movie that highlights the weaknesses of any other industry, say, Silkwood, in which the main character if tortured to stop her from revealing safety violations at a plutonium plant, or The China Syndrome for nuclear power, “North Country” for coal mining and countless prison pictures to point out the failings of our penal system. Yet, do not write a screenplay about sexism, racism or any other negative “ism” in the movie industry. They don’t want to hear about their own shortcomings!

Avoid trying to create a new superhero.

Finally, avoid creating a new superhero. Now sure, superhero films are big business, they can be very popular. They tend to be expensive to make, often a couple hundred million dollars! That is not chump change. If a studio is going to bankroll such a film, they’re going to want to make sure they at least break even if the movie isn’t a hit.

To do that, the story needs a decent fan base and that’s something a new, hence “unknown.” The first installment in a superhero tent-pole usually introduces the character, his shortcomings and strengths, as well as his pals. This why Marvel and DC Comics have the superhero film genre locked in, years of building the characters and audience familiarity.

Anyway, these are my pointers and helpers regarding what stories to avoid when you’re looking to write a screenplay. Yet, remember what I said at the outset: you have a wide variety of genres to choose from, go for one that matches your idea and then go for it!

Good luck.


Combining the gimlet-eye of Philip Roth with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Working, again, as an engineeer, after years out of the field due to 2009 recession and slow recovery, Robinson finds time to write. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true. His teen vampire adventure novel, "Vampire Vendetta," will publish in 2020. Robinson continues to write books, screenplays and teleplays and keeps hoping for that big break.

More by AJ Robinson:
Tell a Friend

Click above to tell a friend about this article.