Why You Keep Seeing the Same Movie Over and Over Again

There is no end to the lengths Hollywood will go to make a major theatrical release that can be summed up in a poster

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Kimberley French / 20th Century Fox

Best friends Tuck (Tom Hardy, left) and FDR (Chris Pine) compete for one woman in "This Means War."

This is a Hollywood story. It contains fleeting sex, mild comic violence and no liberal cant, yet may be of interest to those who are curious as to why you keep seeing the same movie over and over again.

Some time ago, I received a script for a comedy film that was in want of work. This happened often when I was at The Simpsons, typically after all the senior writers had rightly passed. This script had been through several drafts before it got to me, and it was truly terrible, perhaps the worst I’ve ever read that somebody had paid cash money for. This umpteenth draft contained a scene of a screaming man riding a wrecking ball and not one but two scenes of a character overhearing two people apparently having sex (“Deeper! Deeper!”) who are in fact doing something else (e.g. massaging a leg cramp, kneading dough). It was tailored for two African-American comic actors and was riddled with ridiculous and impenetrable urban slang that turned out to be wholly invented by a middle-aged Caucasian.

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I met with the executive in charge and laid out a plan for a movie that would have the same title as the script. The executive agreed that the writing was awful, that it required as much work as I said, but “we need somebody with less problems with it, because we’re shooting in six weeks.”

The script was This Means War. The meeting took place circa 1998. A movie with the same name, starring Reese Witherspoon, opens this Friday.

The realized version of this long ago irredeemable screenplay could very well be swell. Witherspoon is always adorable, and the director McG knows his way around action comedy. I will be seeing it, in spite of myself, because I know that the fact that this movie got made at all is what is wrong with our entertainment apparatus.

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When you hear a movie took many years to make, you think of an artist who fell in love with a piece of material, a story, a character, perhaps just an idea and fought for years to get it made against all odds. This Means War was not that. It was a movie that was going to get made, no matter what, even though it had no characters or story or any real idea behind it, only a concept, and that concept was not for a film but a poster.

Two CIA agents compete for the same woman using high-tech weaponry. (In the draft I read, they designed video games but still had access to guided missiles.)

This Means War is “high concept,” meaning the whole movie can be conveyed in a tweet or, better yet, a pictogram. What this also usually means is that there is no movie there, and that whatever movie there is to be has to be stuffed into the sausage casing or whatever filmmaking metaphor you prefer. This is by no means doomed to failure; faced with a moribund Mission Impossible franchise, director Brad Bird and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec managed to reupholster the series handsomely.

The problem with this dependence on easily marketed or presold goods is not (always) with the movies that get made but the ones that don’t. These unmade movies, conceived from the inside out, driven by character and thematic exploration, routinely get dismissed as “execution dependent.” In other words, to be successful, the movie would have to be good. That terrifies Hollywood.

Meanwhile, as I was writing this, some spam infiltrated my inbox. It invites me to a webinar, whatever that is, promising in 90 minutes and for $59 to reveal the answer to the question every screenwriter today must ask:

“Is Your Concept High Enough?”

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