Making Pancakes In the Pancake Factory

28Jun13

As I semi-completed another screenplay, and I’ve been musing on my next career step, I’ve been contemplating the bigger picture of the World of Entertainment, and how a person can possibly survive in that world. I’ve been listening to podcasts again, been having lively critical(-ish) discussions with friends, and the ensuing stew has been brewing around in my head.

I’m going to attempt to make sense of this, despite the fact that I tend to ramble and things like this (may) only make sense to me.

Here goes:

I was discussing Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” with a group of friends, and the conversation ultimately turned into one of those “They don’t make them like this anymore” kind of chats, which has its merit because it’s largely true. This particular circle of friends is largely improvisers and comedians and wannabe filmmakers, and one of the group members brought up how “Manhattan” was so beautifully done and how it wouldn’t work today (in many ways). Yet a film like “The Hangover”  — which left most of the room cold — represented some kind of 21st century re-birth for major movie comedy for the masses.

Another friend capped this conversation by saying something to the effect of, “The Hangover isn’t for you. It’s a pancake. Hollywood is a pancake factory. They make pancakes, not art. And there’s a lot of people in the country, in the world, who enjoy that brand of pancake, and will continue to support the making of such pancakes.”

I think that makes sense. It did to me, and it’s been rumbling around in my head ever since, as I’ve been listening once again to the “Script Notes” and “Fat Man on Batman” podcasts, both of which are headed by major and semi-major Hollywood talent. A couple of recent episodes have highlighted the “pancake” element in a new light for me. “Script Notes” (as dedicated readers will no doubt remember) is run by writers Craig Mazin (“The Hangover” 2 and 3) and John August (“Big Fish,” “Charlie’s Angels”), and they don’t spend nearly as much time complaining about movies as my friends and I do. Partly, I imagine, out of professional courtesy, but also because (I think) they enjoy these “pancakes.” They talk all the time about how much they enjoy good writing, but it seems that — according to their subtext — good writing and good filmmaking can and will be mutually exclusive. Or, more to the point, they just like pancakes.

This makes sense to me, because if they want to remain go-to, A-list screenwriters, it would help if they enjoyed writing the things they were writing. Or trying to write. This brings me to Kevin Smith, the host of “Fat Man on Batman,” and his recent on-air debate review with a friend about “Man of Steel.” The friend (the very funny and insightful Ralph Garman). Suffice it to say, Garman didn’t like “Man of Steel” as much as Kevin Smith did. Truth be told, I probably side more with Garman’s side on both “Steel” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” which Garman lambasted and took a lot of Twitter heat for doing so… but that’s not* the point. The argument came down to Garman couldn’t get past the film’s machinations to make Superman dark and disturbed for no reason beyond “hipping up the character,” while Smith enjoyed the movie for what it was.

And that’s just it. Smith — the filmmaker who has had some success — enjoyed the pancakes, Garman didn’t.

However much of a fringe artist you want to call him, Smith works in the Hollywood world, and part of his success in that world feels — to me — to have been aided by the (supposed) fact that Smith loves the “pancakes.” I imagine if I took a poll of all the characters in my diatribe — including Mazin, August, Smith, Garman, myself and my friends — on who liked “Man of Steel,” the “Liked It” guys would probably include the Hollywood Guys, while the “Didn’t Like It” guys would be me, my friends and Garman (aka the Non-Hollywood Guys).

What does this have to do with my career? WELL…

I want to work steadily as a writer in Hollywood, and I think that means that I have to be able to not only write “pancakes,” but enjoy them, too. There’s professional courtesy, sure, but there’s also the fact** that in order to do a job with passion and vigor, one must enjoy the work. A painter who hates painting will most likely result in worse work than a painter who loves painting. Or he’ll at least be less prolific, and therefore forfeit any chance of improving through repetition. The more you do something, the better you’re going to get. You can’t get better by not doing it, and you’re more likely to enjoy the work if you actually ENJOY the work.

That’s not to say that successful screenwriting careers are made from people writing their version of “pancakes,” because I believe directors and producers and agents can smell the stink on those scripts. But once you’re in there, once you’re getting writing assignments to write the next “pancake,” you can’t say “I hate pancakes.” You were hired to do a job, and in order to deliver on draft after draft after draft (after DRAFT), your love of said pancakes will hopefully carry you through. Say what you want about “The Hangover” series, it seems like Mazin likes them. It seems like August likes them. Or they’re at least smart enough to keep their nitpicks to themselves.

In fact, the one major filmmaker who I’ve associated with criticizing the filmmaking business is Woody Allen. In “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson plays a very successful Hollywood screenwriter who is tired of, I guess, being successful. This isn’t even a First World Problem. This is a 1% of the 1% Problem, but it stands alone in the realm of criticism against the Pancake Factory.

The Lesson, I suppose, is to find something you enjoy, but also find what makes your take different. Everything’s a superhero movie now, right? Fine. Then either write the best superhero movie, the best criticism of the superhero movie, or come up with the next big pancake trend to convince the Pancake Factory to change its recipe.

I’m hungry.

 

*Even if he’s right.

**By which I mean “fact.”

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