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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Machiavelli part 2 and 1/2: Some Thoughts and Words of Warning

Since I started this blog on Machiavelli, it's been eye interesting to then go and observe recent moves in Hollywood or re-examine moves in the past.

Recent news that Edward Norton has been replaced as the Hulk for the Avengers movie really got me thinking. Some people may think that it's a cost saving move. Others may say it's karma, payback for Norton's past bad behavior. In way that's true. Norton has behaved badly in the past. In particular however he had a habit of rewriting his own lines. According to sources, Norton would show up on The Score with new dialogue he'd written that night. He'd tell director Frank Oz that these were the lines he'd be using that day, end of argument. I don't know if that was his modus operandi on the set of the last Hulk movie, but if it was then his firing makes perfect Machiavellian sense. The director on the Avengers is Joss Whedon, a man who knows a few things about writing. Marvel and Whedon probably decided better not give him the opportunity to test their power so they cut him off when he was weakest, before cameras started rolling.

Then there's the case of Joe Carnahan. As you'll remember, Joe and his handpicked screenwriter were the last men standing after 9 others had taken their swings at writing The A-Team. That minor victory proved to be a major defeat as it left no one other than Carnahan to take the fall when the movie failed. The only other culprit could have been the producers who greenlit the project in the first place. That was never going to happen.

Then there's the case of Jerry Bruckheimer, one of Hollywood's most successful producers. It's fascinating that you don't see his name associated with a lot of projects based on established material. Or at least nothing so popular that the writer would have a lot of power coming in. He hasn't made a superhero movie. He hasn't taken on a YA fantasy series. He has produced movies like those, but they are always original creations he can control. Rather than have to deal with Dan Brown he made National Treasure. Rather than deal with Marvel, he adapted a Disney theme park ride. Who's going to complain about what he does in that series? The guy who built the ride when the park opened? In his behavior you can see Machiavelli at work. He's avoiding possible confrontations with people who might wield as much or more power during the process like Stephanie Meyers or J.K. Rowling.

All this comes with a warning. Machiavelli, a lot of people forget, was often talking about a zero sum game. That is you win or you die. That was the case for a Renaissance prince. That's not the case here. Your career is not zero sum. There are degrees of success. Plenty of people play power politics and at some point, if your career goes anywhere you will have make a stand. But most of the time you should be able to take your money and your credit and walk away with a smile on your face. If you keep playing all or nothing, sooner or later you will end up with nothing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Machiavelli’s The Prince and Screenwriting Part 2

Continuing the discussion on how Machiavelli’s The Prince can help the screenwriter’s career. It’s obvious when you read Nikki Finke or the Hollywood Reporter, when you hear about how Robin Hood was mucked up or how The A Team needed 11 different writers, it’s obvious; screenwriters have very little power. Take this post from Hollywood Roaster. It’s not real, but it’s a “funny because it’s true” joke.

If somebody gets screwed in the process, you better believe it’s the writer. There is very little to do about it early on in your career. They’ll throw a bunch of money at you then tell you to get lost. By their way of thinking the writer should be glad for just getting a paycheck and his opportunity. And that’s not wrong. The paychecks for features are BIG and you can’t have a career until start one. But after you start, then you need to look out for number one, and try to take as little of number two as possible. So how does old Nicky M suggest we proceed?

To start you need to understand two very important things. There’s the script and then there’s your career as a screenwriter. They are two entirely different things. Writers tend to conflate one with the other. An individual script is (hopefully) one of many. Fighting too many battles early is a sure way to get a “difficult” label attached. Now everyone in the movie business is difficult. Just ask the assistants or the security guards at the gate. When a person is labeled as Difficult it’s because the value he or she adds to the project is lesser than the amount of problems they add. If you add enough value to a project the studios will put up with anything up to and including major felonies.

4 Why the Kingdom of Darius, Occupied by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of the Latter After His Death


In Machiavelli’s day there were two types of kingdoms, those which were absolute monarchies and those that were more feudal in nature. Feudal kingdoms were easier to conquer, he said, but harder to hold on to whereas absolute monarchies were just the opposite. How does this apply to the screenwriter? Look at the A-Team. 11 writers worked on that. That’s a lot like a feudal kingdom. In a situation like that it’s easy to get hired on as writer number 7 or 8. The trick is to be the last writer standing. In the case of the A-Team the last writer was a friend of the director. Directors are like the absolute monarchs. Announcing a director puts a project on track. If he leaves it usually derails the entire works. It’s not that easy to get a directing job. You have to have the track record that’s worthy of the purposed budget. There are plenty of projects languishing in Hollywood because the director attached is no longer considered as bankable. Because of this it’s hard to become a director and harder still to remove one from the project.

5. The Way to Govern Cities or Dominions, That, Previous to Being Occupied Lived Under Their Own Laws


When those state which have been acquired are accustomed to liver at liberty under their own laws, there are three ways of holding them. The first is to despoil them; the second is to go and live there in person; the third is to allow them to live under their own laws...

This might be the second best known tenet of Machiavelli’s next to, “It is better to be feared than loved.” It’s certainly an idea that gets put into practice a lot in business. Usually when there’s a takeover what follows is a purge. Out with the old team and their projects, in with the new. That is certainly the case in the entertainment industry where a change in management usually spells doom for the projects already under development. It also happens in writing especially. This is why there isn’t anything left in the movie Robin Hood from the smart and very original screenplay Nottingham. As soon as a new writer was brought on, the first thing he did was scrap what had been done before and come up with something new. Artistically it’s indefensible. The practice has resulted in some the worst, most disjointed Franken-scripts in Hollywood history. Yet it’s a sound career tactic. As Machiavelli says, “And whoever becomes the ruler of a free city and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it…” Unless you are absolutely secure in your relationship with the producer, director and star of the project, in which case you probably would have been the original writer, then you need to make a mark and demonstrate what value you can add. If you spend your time praising the work of the previous writers you’ll probably join them as previous writers.

6. Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability
7. Of New Dominions Acquired by the Power of Others or by Fortune
8. Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy
9. Of the Civic Principality
11. Of Ecclesiastical Principalities


Machiavelli spends these chapters talking about how kingdoms are acquired. They all boil down to the same advice however; secure a power base, neutralize or eliminate those who could prove a threat, always strive to be top dog in the pack. Of special mention is chapter 8 Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy. Why is this important to remember? Because no matter how good you are you’ll always be a villain to somebody. Never more so than when your work actually starts getting made. It will start with the internet trolls, the people who swoop in on discussion boards and talk crap. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Get used to the idea that somewhere out there there’s a group of people laughing at or hating on a story you sweated bullets to get just right. And it can spread. Look at Ehren Kruger. You’d think he ran over somebody’s puppy. But as long as you make preparations and not get caught up in the negativityyour career will continue. (Interesting here is Kruger is now pissing off the actors which could spell doom for that career of his if he’s not careful)


10. How the Strength of All states Should Be Measured


And whoever has strongly fortified his town and, as regards the of his subjects, has proceeded as we have already described and will further relate, will be attacked with great reluctance, for men are always averse to enterprises in which they foresee difficulties,…

That last part should be framed over everyone’s head, “…men are always averse to enterprises in which they foresee difficulties,…” Universal truth. I know, you hear a lot about the great entrepreneurial spirit of America, that just means we’ve 1 in 10 who are willing to take on a difficult project whereas in the rest of the world it’s more like 1 in a 100. Odds are if there’s any great difficulty attached to a project, large budget, difficult shooting conditions, no name actors, it probably won’t get made. Unless of course it’s more difficult to NOT make the project. Harry Potter 7 could have cost half a billion dollars and it was still going to be made. Ideally you want to, as much as possible, make it hard for studios to pass up your project. This is especially true today. You have to do more than minimize the reasons to say “No.” You have to make it potentially hazardous for them to pass up on it. Today that means established properties; getting your story published first as a novel or a comic book. Marvel Comics went direct to video fare to its own studio in less than a decade. Harry Potter and Twilight are destroying box office records. Those who can create material and build a following have a huge advantage over screenwriters with just a spec. They have advantages over producers and even studios if the fanbase is big enough. Can you imagine what would happen to a studio exec who tried to step on J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers? It’s an odd set of circumstances that exist right now. On one hand Hollywood has all but shut down the spec market, limiting opportunities for writers. On the other they’re obsession with established material gives certain writers more power than ever.

Next Post Part 3

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