Monday, February 21, 2011

Villain (Amazon Contest Winner)

Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Premise: One of the top villains in the world is pushed out of the villain coalition when it’s suspected that he has too much compassion for others and might actually be – gasp - good.
About: Villain is one of the first two Amazon Screenwriting Contest $20,000 winners. The writer, Richard Stern, tried to push the script on Hollywood a couple of years ago and while he got a lot of reads around town, nothing came of it. There is apparently a lot of controversy surrounding this script in that it resembles some recent Hollywood release. I believe Megamind maybe? (not sure – I’ve never seen it). One thing I do know. I’m terrified of the comments section for this post.
Writer: Richard Stern
Details: 112 pages – 8th draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

The most e-mailed question I’ve received over the last couple of months has been, “Carson, what do you think of the Amazon Script Contest?” And my answer has always been…I don’t know. I knew I couldn’t give an opinion until reading that long list of rules on the site. And because the last thing I want to do is carve out an entire afternoon to read some rules, I’m still pretty ignorant about the whole thing.

I’ll admit that what I’ve heard isn’t good though. Something about anybody can change your script whenever they want to (sabotage anyone?). Something about they hold the rights to your script for a year. And I’ve even been told there’s a site dedicated solely to pointing out how bad most of the scripts are.

But if you’re going to tear the contest apart, you have to give it its due as well. The one thing Amazon does that none of these other contests do is it allows the readers to see what beat them. That’s a huge deal since it helps writers learn about their competition and the craft.

Of course all I care about for today’s purposes is if the script is any good. I don’t care if the fucking thing comes from Hickory Sam’s Smokestack Screenplay Contest where each script is battered and skewered on a frying pan before Cleevus the One-Eyed script reader reads it. If it’s a good script, it’s a good script.

So what’s the deal with Villain? Is it a good script?

Impossibly Handsome super-agent Drake Develin is finally proposing to divinely beautiful super-agent Alicia Cox. “Marry me,” he says. And she says yes. But before they can start making flower arrangements, a GIANT ROBOT crashes into their room, grabs Develin and SQUEEZES HIM TO DEATH. Agent Drake Develin is now Agent Drake Dead…lin.

Cut to Professor Mortimer Savage, criminal mastermind super-villain and the apparent orchestrator of this death. Together with his cloned robot-bodyguard-butler, Hugo, Savage is on top of the world. That is, until Savage realizes that by killing his arch-nemesis, he has no one to compete against anymore.

This hurls Savage into a mid-life crisis, punctuated by the Villain Coalition dropping him from the club for not being evil enough. He’s replaced by some new copycat robot-builder named Jackal, and before Savage knows it, he’s unofficially a “good guy,” teaming up with Develin’s old partner, Agent Fox, battling Savage’s network of evil villains.

Of course (spoiler), Savage eventually finds out that The Jackal is really – wait for it – Develin! Which means Develin is now a bad guy and Savage is now a…good guy. I think. Whatever the case, Savage will have to get in touch with his inner hero to finally take down Develin/Jackal and save the world! Or an island. Or something.

Okay, a couple of observations right off the bat. This is so not my thing. To be honest, this script was dead before it even reached my hands, because goofy super-hero humor is my reading kryptonite. I can’t appreciate it on any level. Maybe that’s why I have no idea if this is a Megamind clone or not, because I’ve never been interested in seeing that movie either.

Something else I realized right off the bat was that this wasn’t a good script for Amazon to pick as its winner. The problem is, Villain is one of those scripts that’s very easy to make fun of. The humor is so silly and the plot so ridiculous, that even though that tone is intentional, it creates a fertile ground for angry writers to tear it apart. Onscreen, a robot crashing through a hotel chasing our hero might be pretty awesome. On the page it’s, “This?? THIS BEAT MY SCRIPT?? THIS FUCKING STUPID SHIT!?!” One thing I’ve learned from reading scripts is that there’s no easier genre to tear apart than goofy comedy. In fact, there was a script that sold a couple of years ago for a million bucks with a very similar tone to Villain (Iron Jack – you can read the review here). I’d imagine that script would’ve received the exact same reaction had it won the Amazon competition.

But I *can* see why this won. Having run a couple of contests myself and talking to other contest runners, I know that out of every 1000 entries you get, you’re looking at about 10 decent scripts. And that’s just decent. While those scripts have some impressive component (great premise, great dialogue, unique approach) which helps them stand out, they’re usually plagued by sloppy uneven execution. It’s so rare that you find a contest script that’s consistent all the way through. And say what you will of Villain, but the script is consistent (yes, I'm not unaware of the obvious joke here).

As far as the screenplay itself, you can pick out a number of things that the writer did well. First of all, you have a high concept hook. A villain mastermind who’s hiding a big secret – that he’s good. That one decision puts you ahead of 70% of the competition, who don’t have any hook at all. You have some cleverness here (things like the bad guy ends up being the good guy and the good guy ends up being the bad guy). The dialogue is by no means exceptional, but it’s funny and clever most of the way through. The three act structure is executed to a “T.” The story moves at a very brisk pace. There’s barely if any fat here – a result of creating multiple ticking clocks throughout the script. And it’s a really easy read. I mean this script reads faster than a Japanese bullet train, a testament to the writer understanding the writer-reader relationship.

So whether you think this script is stupid or not, professional readers can easily identify that Stern understands how to tell a story in screenplay form and as much as I hate to say it, 80-90% of writers who enter a competition don’t know how to do that yet. Which is why this script rose above the rest fairly easily.

Now of course none of this matters to me, because I detest the subject matter. There were a lot of angry posters Saturday when I brought up the awesomeness of the Dead Island trailer - pissed that we were getting, yet again, another zombie flick clogging up our multiplexes. Well imagine that feeling times a hundred and you now know how I feel about super hero flicks, real ones or parodies. To me, this script is no different than The Incredibles, which was another well-put together story but did absolutely nothing for me.

And of course, as we discussed in the Chinatown review, I can’t give something a high grade if it does nothing for me emotionally. So despite the technical achievements of Villain and despite me understanding why it won, it was definitely not for me.

Script link: Villain 

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I have no idea why Villain didn’t find a home when it went out a couple of years ago, but one of my guesses is that it would be insanely expensive. You have giant robots chasing people through hotels. You have battles taking place on volcanic islands. It seemed like every other scene was a 30 million dollar set-piece. While I used to subscribe to the theory of “write what you want and let the producers figure out the budget,” I think in these times more than any, producers are counting money when they read your scripts. They’re thinking “How am I going to sell a 200 million dollar non-pre-existing property to a studio?” They know they can’t so they move on to the next script. So while I’m not going to lay down any hard and fast rules, writing a 250 million dollar film probably isn’t in your best interest.