Dog Days at the Movies: New Perceptions and the Psychology of Better Screenwriting

Seriously, Sirius in relation to Dog Days.
Seriously, Sirius in relation to Dog Days.

When I wrote for Yahoo! Movies through Yahoo! Contributor Network earlier this decade, I once took on the complicated subject of Dog Days at the movies and ended up going in an unexpected direction. I equated the rise of the star Sirius as a subtle sign of hope that two different Dog Days could coalesce. To wit, I asked people to visit their local movie theaters in August and prove the Dog Days concept wrong. It was perhaps the only time anyone saw astronomy and movies consolidate into a forced attempt toward a celestial sign helping the cinematic arts.

At the time the piece was written, it was a delusion to think the era of Dog Days for movies could ever end. Perceptions persisted for decades by that point about how late July-early August was the official “dump months” (as it’s called in movie parlance) as an allegorical cornfield for all bad movies.

A couple of years after I wrote that piece, new analysis started popping up in the media asking whether the movie industry’s Dog Days were really a misunderstood concept all along. It was equivalent to finally comprehending an elusive scientific conundrum, despite the answer staring us in the face for decades.

The movies have frequently blinded us to accepting certain things, only because they’ve been such a persuasive element of pop culture. Our perceptions transformed quickly on the concept of Dog Days once big-budgeted movies started being relegated to the winter season. Moviegoers saw evidence of this already in the 1970s and ‘80s when the patterns of wooing Oscar meant cramming everything into a fall or winter window.

By the 1980s, we saw evidence of how the summer movie season opened the underworld gates to the studio leftovers in August. Even with a few exceptions, we’ve seen a good 35-40 years of movies that continually bomb in August, which placed us on automatic pilot about what later summer expectations were.

Then something happened last year that changed these perceptions. “Guardians of the Galaxy” managed to become a major success at the box office in the first week of August. While this might not seem surprising for a superhero movie with true star power, it obliterated the idea that no one goes to the movies in August with assumptions there isn’t anything worth seeing.

It’s puzzling why it began this way in the first place when August is the final gasp of summer and people need new entertainment to fix their late summer blues. Kids are about ready to head back to school and sometimes deal with inexorable vacation boredom. Adults probably need a vacation from their vacation before perhaps heading back to work in September.

So does that mean August’s Dog Days at the movies are probably over? The true litmus test comes in what happens this year and the next few Augusts. We have to question whether screenwriters took the perception that some of their movies will inevitably end up in the scrap heap of late summer and continue to write them in cookie cutter ways. All of this may be the result of why screenwriting has been so mediocre lately in the mainstream. I base this on the prospect of screenwriters knowing their screenplays will still be sold and released in a time frame away from the Oscars as basic filler.

With that in mind, the prospect for more success in August could alter the mind state of writers and everyone in the industry toward more inspiration. One thing I’ve learned as a working writer is that you need unexpected stimuli to sometimes inspire you toward fresher ideas. Because mainstream moviemaking is caught in a dangerous rut right now, it’s worth worrying about a new generation of screenwriters feeling trapped in a sea of creative mediocrity.

The above only gets wrapped into one’s soul and alters perceptions of the world to cynical moods. It only hurts how writing in movie progresses, and right now it has far too much devolving.

We’ll have to wait and see how this August shapes up as a rerun from last year. Now that “The Fantastic Four” is opening the first week of August, clearly Hollywood wants another “Guardian of the Galaxy” situation. If the former is a success, Dog Days may officially be another frame of mind we’ve managed to alter.

This could inspire screenwriters to write something that shoots toward something meaningful in late summer. It may also domino the perception that all the great movies have to be crammed into December where they all too commonly cancel one another out.

Perhaps we’re looking at more breathing room for great movies throughout the year to avoid taking rain checks on visiting a movie theater until the holiday season.

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Exit David Letterman; Enter Colbert: How Much Does Playing a Character Factor into Late-Night TV?

Stephen_Colbert_2014

When Stephen Colbert left “The Colbert Report” last fall, I pondered just how challenging it must have been for him to balance both a satirical politically conservative character and his true self. Personas on TV stick to the public consciousness as strongly as a magnetic force. The more compelling the persona is, the more people believe you’re really that character. You can see evidence of that in the history of TV from Lucille Ball, to the cast of “All in the Family”, on up to the era where characters didn’t just reside in sitcoms and into reality programming.

In the world of late-night TV, you could argue manufactured personas existed along with all the prime-time programming airing three hours earlier. The personas of talk show hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were sometimes different than how they were in their private lives. While all talk show hosts might have had to invent a persona in order to be entertaining, that sense of playing a character seems to have become more pronounced in the David Letterman era.

Now that Letterman is officially retired from late-night TV, and all the analyses of his positive contributions in entertainment have been said, nobody ever pondered that he and Stephen Colbert might have been linked closer than we’ve realized.

Letterman’s subversive nature helped turn late-night TV on its ear 33 years ago with assumptions he was being his true self. The mystery is whether Letterman was really his own self or just playing the dumb guy taking a wrecking ball to late-night TV conventions.

Only on very rare occasions did Letterman break out of his role on-air and admit he wasn’t really that dumb. We didn’t really need to be told, because we all knew he knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it well. Plus, we eventually discovered a much more serious and intellectual man behind the veneer when he did his iconic shows post-9/11. While most talk show hosts would have done the same, it was all the more incredible to see one of the most sardonic hosts in history become one of the most articulate and thoughtful TV hosts after a national tragedy.

For many, that was the real Letterman before everything went back to normal again. In the world of Stephen Colbert, you have to wonder how he would have handled 9/11 had “The Colbert Report” been around in those days. We all know Colbert mastered the art of a complete persona mostly opposite of his own. It was also the worst possible comedic pit to be in due to setting the persona so deep that we’re still questioning how he’ll get out of it when taking over Letterman’s chair.

If Letterman had at least a sliver of a made-up persona, we still don’t know what Colbert is completely like when being himself. We’ve seen some glimpses of his real self on “The Colbert Report”, especially when doing a heartrending tribute to his mother when she passed away. Otherwise, how do we know if Colbert can completely shed his former persona when moving into the “Late Show?”

Most likely, he can’t entirely if you go by the idea that you need to create a familiar persona in order to make it in the late-night TV arena. Most viewers tuning in to Colbert’s first “Late Show” will expect him to be the same character he was on “The Colbert Report” in order to gain any immediate comedic momentum. Maybe he’ll have to form a new character if his real self can’t translate into a satirical mold. In that scenario, it may mean a repeat of the usual late-night TV path of starting slow and building strength over a period of months or years.

Also, if Colbert can’t be himself on late-night TV, what does it tell us about other late-night TV hosts that we think we know? Consider the public once thought they knew Johnny Carson when he did “The Tonight Show”, even though we found out later he wasn’t anywhere near his public persona when behind closed doors.

As far as we know, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, James Corden, and Jimmy Fallon are nothing like we know them once the camera goes off. With so many comedians feeling like they have to be “on” whenever seen in public, you can see why they have to be something other than they really are. It’s a strange dichotomy and reality that many comedians are dull and nearly lifeless when not on a stage. Then they turn on immediately when in front of an audience.

One thing we do know: Colbert is one hell of a good person in his private life based on what we’ve heard in the press. This alone seems to indicate that his real self is probably better than his previous character or any character he decides to portray. This alone improves upon what we found out about Carson and Letterman in their private lives.

Perhaps bitter, sardonic humor in late-night TV is going out with the amazing legacy of Letterman. Should the real Colbert present himself, we may discover the perfect balance of edgy hilarity with compassion and warmth for every guest entering this new late-night world.

Late-Night TV Roundup: James Corden’s ‘Late Late Show’ and the Sincerity vs. Snark Battle

Will James Corden become the most sincere late-night TV host?
Will James Corden become the most sincere late-night TV host?

It seems every time anticipation builds for a new late-night host, the stakes become higher for the host to perform up to expectations in the first week. With that, the late-night host has been shaped recently as someone personable, yet also sardonic, sarcastic, and capable of being ironic. If you can blame David Letterman for setting this path 33 years ago, or if it was formed further with the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report formula, sincerity isn’t always in the DNA of a modern late-night host.

When you look at the entire timeline of late-night hosts, you can see how sincerity was once a major part of capturing viewers. Late-night icons like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were always sincere, though also had a hint of ego to keep a comedic balance. Carson evolved from a sincere young host to one arguably a little more egotistical and sarcastic by the time the 1980s and ‘90s rolled around. By then, sarcasm was more popular in comedy where new late-night hosts had to adapt.

You could say Arsenio Hall was the most sincere late-night host on the block back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Even though he brought in the younger demographics craving a young and hip late-night host, the return of his sincerity to late-night syndication a couple of years ago didn’t go over well. While you could blame the lack of marketing and promotion on the cancellation, it could be Hall simply didn’t have enough edge people expect in a late-night host for the 21st century.

Now, when you add up Letterman (as sarcastic as ever in his last year on the air), Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’ Brien, and Seth Meyers, you have a collectively snarky late-night bunch that contrasts interestingly with Jimmy Fallon. Yes, the latter host is a little more sincere, even if he also has a darker edge that wavers between sincerity and bitter cynicism, which is an appealing combination.

But what happens when you get a comedy host who’s always sincere, even through his comedy routines? In the world of The Late Late Show, the comedy style of Craig Ferguson was even zanier and more absurd than even Letterman managed. Letterman went very serious during the 9/11 terrorist attack and changed the entire foundation of his cynicism. If he went back to cynical comedy not long after, you can’t say Letterman has ever been quite as cynical as he was back in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Fortunate or not, Ferguson never had to go up against a serious, world-changing event. His comedy thrived living in its own surreal world, mixed with profane Scottish wit. This combination of freewheeling comedy with a Scot accent was a winning combination for a decade, yet definitely never sincere. Any moments of Ferguson being sincere was for only brief moments or when the cameras were off. The rest of the time, the late-night format and all guests were simply one entire joke.

With James Corden now taking Ferguson’s chair, we see some British wit once again on American TV, though this time with what appears to be the most sincere late-night host we’ve ever seen. Corden already seemed to set this persona in his promo commercials for The Late Late Show over the last several months. Then he proved it on March 23 where he debuted his gentler approach to comedy, view of the world, and honest rapport with guests (two at once) on the roster.

Whether Corden really is this way, or it’s a persona he’s set for his TV personality, it’s something seemingly very genuine. And as time goes on in a world of cynicism in entertainment, a lot of people may appreciate this approach, despite missing the loud guffaws with Craig Ferguson.

The question is whether the public will accept less cynical comedy from Corden, or if they’ll find it too soft. Looking at it from a wider view, it’s also a tug-of-war in all of comedy where a darker view of the world brings bigger laughs than a more genuine view.

Then again, having a genuine personality in a cynical world could be much funnier when you put it in perspective. Think of it as the Forrest Gump effect where Forrest’s genuineness and naïve qualities about the world helped bring an endearing comedy and sweetness helping the jaded view the world differently.

James Corden may just look at the world differently, and that’s very refreshing in the cutthroat world of show business. Let’s hope he doesn’t become jaded in the process while likely fighting detractors along with his likely many supporters. So far, the biggest names in showbiz are showing support, which is the best foot forward.

With a few tweaks of his show format, Corden may nurture a new path in late-night TV where genuine behavior brings a new type of funny that’s almost a throwback to a time on TV when cynicism had no place on a single network.

Did ‘Birdman’ Bring a Catharsis to Hollywood Rather Than Provoke Celebrity Culture?

Public Domain
Did “Birdman” manage to save Hollywood in more ways than one?

A couple of notable films have gone after Hollywood with a vengeance early this year. One managed to win over Oscar, and the other is likely to be forgotten by the Oscars next year because of a release this coming March. But there isn’t any denying the connective strings between Birdman and Maps to the Stars in their stinging condemnation of show business and celebrity culture. Arguably, the latter film has more of a beef against how Hollywood works than the former. And if Hollywood has a possible beef in return with Maps to the Stars, what are they possibly thinking about Birdman?

The above latter film has had a surprising path since it released in theaters this last fall. While working as a writer at The Movie Network over the last six months, I did a review of Birdman and pondered how the Oscar voting academy would take to a film that clearly pointed to show business as destroyer of families, credibility, ethics, and career. While that’s only a possible outcome for anyone, there was a lot of familiarity there. We even had to use the overused term “meta” because Michael Keaton’s own trajectory mirrored that of his character, Riggan Thomson.

Thomson’s character doesn’t have the same outcome as Keaton, which gives an even more powerful metaphorical parallel to actors in the Hollywood system. The greatest thing about Birdman is that Thomson eventually becomes aware of how much he’s been destroyed by his career and the trap he’s found himself in trying a comeback on Broadway. Regardless, with so much of Hollywood going to Broadway lately, I still posed the question of whether the film would offend celebrity culture voting in the academy.

It turns out that assumption was wrong on every level. Birdman has won every major award on the award circuit up to this writing. With this blog written a day before the Oscars, it’s likely the film will either get Best Picture or at least Best Director as a split with Boyhood.

So did the magic of the filmmaking behind Birdman usurp its message? Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t offended at showing celebrity culture as an inexorable trap nobody can escape. Maybe Hollywood found it refreshing that a film finally took on the issue in a bold way without flinching. It possibly even created spirited discussions in the voting community that would have made a great documentary on its own.

The reality is that celebrity culture has to be aware of the pitfalls their industry has had for decades. Birdman makes it even more painfully aware without necessarily offering any answers to fix it. The film’s ending alone is one that many people are still debating and whether it’s redemption or just giving up.

Any notable person watching the film must have had any complacent thoughts about their own career shaken to the core while accepting either interpretation of the ending. There isn’t a doubt movies are waking us up to increasingly more complex issues in culture and in our lives so we can work toward improvement. Many of those movies aren’t offering direct answers and instead let us know about hidden issues so we can find the long road to finding solutions, possibly years from now.

Maps to the Stars (from director David Cronenberg) is a film that also takes this same tack, though much more blisteringly than Birdman. Cronenberg shows us a ruined actress (this time played by Julianne Moore) with people in her orbit even more ruined by the ravages of show business and parental neglect. The pyromaniac character of Agatha Weiss (played by the still underrated Mia Wasikowska) is an interesting contrast to Emma Stone’s Sam Thomson, despite both being the emblems of what we see so much of in the entertainment industry.

Both of these films had to have hit a nerve with Hollywood families who’ve had kids ending up almost exactly like Agatha and Sam, if even worse (or dead). An Oscar victory for Birdman may be the message that the academy voters get it and they’ll work toward preventing more Riggan and Sam Thomsons from happening again. To them, ribbing celebrity culture and smearing the concept for all of its egoism and hedonism wasn’t the point of the movie. They may have seen the film in a much different light from the public who had more mixed opinion.

The irony here is that because of Birdman’s other innovations in direction, it’s going to be remembered far into the future than Maps to the Stars likely will. Both, however, may be just the beginning of films taking Hollywood to task for their perpetual craziness, whether seriously or through satire.

It may have already been enough for the celebrity world to permanently change things for the better.

Reducing the Academy Awards Telecast to an Hour: A Practical Guide for Oscar

Don't let the Oscar stand in that position for four long hours.
Don’t let the Oscar stand in that position for four long hours.

Someday, a poll has to be taken on how people perceive the Oscar telecast and all of its sometimes tedious three (or four) hours. Do people really enjoy watching it straight through with interest in the details, or do they just have it on as a pop culture event not unlike the Super Bowl? In that regard, the Oscars might really be defined as party wallpaper for an excuse to invite friends over and empty another half-dozen Doritos bags into a giant bowl of salsa dip.

But if it’s the other way around, there probably isn’t a single person on earth who sits through the entire show. As much as the show tries each year, and despite producing team Craig Zadan and Neil Meron bringing a classy production the last few years, the Oscars simply can’t seem to end without going well over three hours at the very least.

Brevity in any kind of entertainment is becoming more sought after than ever, with proof through shortened TV seasons, six-second marketing videos, and bite-size episodes of Netflix shows bringing in the masses. What would happen if the Oscars ever managed to realize that a bloated telecast just isn’t going to cut it for future audiences? What if they dared to make an Oscar show only an hour with merely the essentials?

Let’s take a look at what would potentially be left in and, ultimately, the majority of what’s taken out.

The Opening

If Neil Patrick Harris becomes the next Billy Crystal at the Oscars, you can be sure the opening will never change in length. The only exception is if the Oscars suddenly decide that dramatic actors or even other media figures need to host for diversity, despite being unblessed in reading teleprompters effectively. If this happens, you’re assured the opening monologue or any comedy bits would have to be shortened to only five minutes. That’s because the talented writing teams always present the weakest hosts with at least one sizzling joke for the first few seconds.

One thing that should never change: An opening musical number. As we’ve seen with straight-up comedian hosts without singing or dancing talent, the opening monologue sometimes feels like a late-night show guest host filling in for the real host who has the flu.

This isn’t to say they couldn’t force a dramatic actor or more serious individual in pop culture as host to sing and dance in a comedic way. Even Neil Patrick Harris frequently has tongue-in-cheek while in musical mode. Then again, Twitter would have an implosion record if someone like Meryl Streep or Matthew McConaughey decided to sing and dance while hosting. This can’t mean flying over the audience on a wire, or it risks tacking on five valuable minutes.

Presenting Some of the Major Awards Earlier in the Telecast

In today’s culture, you have to hook people with something great early and not expect everyone will wait an eternity to see what they really want to see. While the supporting acting categories are always worth watching, there usually isn’t any surprise with those wins. And Best Supporting Actor is always the first award presented of the night.

For an hour show, Best Director, or even one of the lead acting categories, should be given first. This sets off buzz on social media, plus a chance for your Oscar partygoers to stave off cleaning out the bowl of guacamole dip in the first 20 minutes. It also sets up more suspense about who will win the opposite gender acting award later in the hour.

Yes, this hints that Best Actress is more important to the public than Best Actor. Let the Best Actor go relatively first, with a major award following a minor award every 10 minutes to keep everyone from turning to The Walking Dead, now in it’s 15th year within our imagined future.

Eliminate the Summaries for Each Best Picture Nominee

Do we really need extra time tacked on for a summary of every Best Picture nominee? You can add an extra minute because the celebrity they acquired to present it has to walk half a mile across the Dolby Theater stage to reach the microphone. Then we’re treated to redundant clips of the movie that have already been played many times in the media.

Of course, they could take risk and have comedic analysis of each film from Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. While hilariously high-concept to some, the majority would be staring at their smart TVs with jaws in their lap, covering the last piece of pizza at your Oscar party.

If people are really serious about wanting to learn more about the Best Picture candidates, place video summaries of each film up on Oscar.org.

Let the Winners Talk as Long as They Want

While this risks the show perhaps going 1 hour and 10 minutes (still a record short length), the acceptance speeches by the winners are by far more entertaining than any written material. Let the winners say whatever is on their minds for as long as they want considering spontaneity always assures the most memorable Oscar moments. By eliminating unnecessary segments, they already have extra time and won’t feel rushed by that annoying exit music.

Obviously, there has to be some limit, so anyone trying to hijack the show after winning would just be carried off by a comedic crew of bouncers.

In Memoriam for In Memoriam

This is a tough one to eliminate because I (and many others) respect this segment every year for honoring the late legends that made the movie industry great. But since every other award show does the same thing, including other media, it’s worth not having it once to make a one-hour show possible. If nothing else, to save time, do a one-minute segment with a large-screen pic collectively showing all the names and faces of those in the industry we’ve lost.

One thing you’ll notice with all the In Memoriam segments: We’ve seen so much crossover in show business that many of the notables who pass end up in the same memorial segments on the Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, and SAG Awards.

Bring the Oscar to the Winner Rather Than Vice Versa

As noted above, the biggest time-waster on award shows is the amount of space that has to be traversed to physically claim an award. The worst offender to this is the Golden Globes that’s now been deemed an official maze based on how many tables an actress or actor has to go around before reaching the stage.

It’s not much different at the Oscars where more than a few celebrities trip on their own fashions climbing stairs that look as if they were built for a monument in Ancient Greece. After all, Jennifer Lawrence can only fall on steps so many times before someone hands her the Oscar in the audience.

Why not bring the Oscar to the winner and have microphone stands out in the audience so they don’t have to walk a mile? Having the audience of their peers (and family) surrounding the winner would be ideal. You also have more social media action because you’ll see the losers sitting nearby reacting during the winner’s speech. An eye roll from one of them is inevitable.

Have a Special Online Pre-Ceremony for the Minor Categories

Personally, I get frustrated when I see so many great foreign films and short films win Oscars that few people have even seen. It would be a difficult choice for me if having to choose to eliminate those for an hour-long Oscar show. Regardless, the Oscars should have a pre-ceremony show that’s streamed online for those minor categories so they’re still represented. For television audiences, the presentations of these categories are when most people are off in the kitchen making a sandwich or ridding their beer in the bathroom.

Keep in mind that the Tonys have done a pre-ceremony for years that’s also shown online (and even broadcast once on a different network) so the TV broadcast has only the major categories. Conversely, they also aren’t the best example since the Tonys are known for running over three hours themselves.

Have Only the Winner of Best Song Perform on Stage

We have to admit that many of the nominees for Best Song seemingly get weaker every year. Great movie music is far and few between nowadays, though you can’t say all the performances of the nominees have been boring on the Oscars in recent years. Unfortunately, some song performances are so dry that they have to resort to offbeat production values in order to gain any attention on the Oscar stage. Some songs are also mundane enough where you wonder why they were even nominated. This gives the notion the academy would have preferred just nominating the one lone standout song from a movie.

In an hour show, let only the winner perform after winning the Oscar. This also eliminates any chance of the Oscars being blamed for secretly wanting to be the Grammys, even if they really want to be your next favorite reality show.

What Happens if They Run Under the Allotted Hour?

All of the ideas above would easily shave off two hours and could make for a smooth one-hour telecast. This isn’t to say that with the attention to brevity and quicker stage logistics, it might run five or 10 minutes behind. With local ABC affiliates probably panicking that they’d have to air infomercials for juicers afterward, the Oscar host would have to be resourceful.

One thing that would make an ending of an hour-long Oscar show memorable is having the A-list celebrities in the audience involved in antics onstage. If Ellen Degeneres and her epic selfie last year took things to the stratosphere, why not re-create something done in the 1959 Oscars show? In that broadcast, host Jerry Lewis had to fill time because it became the only Oscar show in history to fall under time.

Going with some spontaneous comedy, Lewis brought well over 50 A-list acting legends up on stage to dance their way off the stage. As a result, it turned into one of the most memorable and subsequently notorious Oscar endings of all time.

May every Oscar telecast face the same dilemma in the coming decade for its own good.