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What Assassin’s Creed’s failure teaches us about dramatic tension

Image of Michael Fassbender from Assassin's Creed film

Assassin’s Creed was produced on a budget of US $125 million and released around the world at the end of 2016. Over the last month, the film has only pulled in a meagre U.S. $203 million. As of this posting, the film has scored a critical rating of 17%.

Assassin’s Creed seemed to have everything going for it. Big name producers Frank Marshall and Arnon Milchan. A serious director, Justin Kurzel, at the helm (2015’s Macbeth). Outstanding actors in the lead roles. Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons.

In the trailers, we saw mysterious, hooded figures leaping off 50 storey buildings only to land on their feet. Super cool looking ninja-style fights. The cinematography was flashy, the CGI effects state of the art, the parkour stunts exciting.

Image of fighting from Assassin's Creed

On top of all the heavyweights in front of and behind the camera, the movie was based on a computer game series which already has a legion of fans.

Assassin’s Creed should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it’s been a total flop. If you add up the marketing and distribution costs, Assassin’s Creed is set to lose over U.S. $100 million.

The video game curse

Many have put Assassin’s Creed’s failure on the very fact it was based on a computer game. When you look at the history of computer game movie adaptations, it’s not hard to see why so many speculators have come to this conclusion.

Every game adaptation from Super Mario Bros. through to Street Fighter have been outright box office bombs. Where computer game adaptations have succeeded, the success has been mild (except for the Resident Evil series which has made close to U.S. $1 billion on a total budget of U.S. $250 million for five films).

Image of Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil

Personally, I think video game adaptations could be great — if they were adapted properly. Though I’ve never played the games, I don’t think Assassin’s Creed’s failure has anything to do with a “video game curse.”

Observe the first half-hour of Assassin’s Creed and you’ll see it’s loaded with screenwriting sins. Poor structure, shallow characters, dialogue with zero subtext. Characters without goals or with goals that are unclear to the audience. Scenes that don’t build, scenes that don’t climax.

Yes, it’s terrible screenwriting…but still, this isn’t the core reason why this behemoth tanked.

Assassin’s Creed’s crazy plot

The film’s plot is packed with details that (I assume) only the gaming fans would fully understand.

In the present day, the Abstergo Foundation rescues Callum (Michael Fassbender) from death row. Abstergo wants to find a special device called the “Apple of Eden” which controls all human free will. You know, that old world domination chestnut.

Image of Apple of Eden from Assassin's Creed

The reason they need Callum is because he’s the descendant of a 15th-century warrior, Aguilar. By plugging him into a machine called the Animus, Callum will be able to relive Aguilar’s memories back in the 15th century and help Abstergo find the coveted Apple of Eden.

Convoluted in a science-fictiony way? Yes. Messy? Definitely.

A story concept that folds in…on itself

At first glance, it looks a little like a time travel plot. It looks like Abstergo wants to send Callum back in time to find the Apple of Eden. But put a microscope on the story and you’ll see this isn’t the case.

The story mechanic of the Animus is this — when Callum is plugged in, he experiences the memories of his 15th-century ancestor. He relives the memories of his ancestor Aguilar.

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed

Callum has no control over events. Actions and outcomes have been decided by “history” because they’re memories! The moment Callum is plugged into the Animus machine, he’s rendered a passenger.  

Callum won’t find the Apple of Eden. He’s just going to relive/watch/experience Aguilar finding it.

Marion Cotillard’s dialogue explains the mechanic openly — 

What you’re about to see, hear and feel are the memories of someone who’s been dead for more than 500 years — you can not change what happens.”

The story mechanic has rendered the protagonist passive

Dramatic tension

In case you’re not sure what “dramatic tension” is, it’s a writers term.

As defined by filmmaker Frank Daniel, dramatic tension is —

“Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.”

Audiences pay top dollar to see action adventures on a big screen with surround sound so powerful the floor shakes. They want to feel dramatic tension screwing into them when the hero is losing against the baddies. They want to feel elation when the hero achieves their final goal (usually saving the world).

The thing is, dramatic tension only works when the audience KNOWS the characters on screen have some control over the outcome.

Whether or not it’s Luke flying down the trench and blowing up the Death Star, Michael Corleone wiping out his family’s enemies or Harry winning Sally Albright’s heart, the audience must know that the protagonist has the potential to succeed or fail.

Image of Harry from When Harry Met Sally

Assassin’s Creed’s story concept cancels out its own dramatic tension and renders its hero, Callum, passive.  

This is the primary reason why the film has failed.

In fact, it was never going to succeed. However flashy or cool a movie looks — 

No one in their right mind pays to see a movie where the protagonist is a spectator in their own story!

Final thoughts

I’ve been informed by gamer friends that in the Assassin’s Creed games, the protagonist lays down on a bed to “experience” their ancestors’ memories.

The movie has changed this. Instead of laying down on a bed — 

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed video game

— Michael Fassbender’s Callum, is picked up by the Animus’ special harness. In the harness, he physically mimes Aguilar’s actions from the past.

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed

I have a sneaking suspicion the lead creatives knew the Animus may be an issue for the film and changed it, not only to create visual excitement for the big screen but as a strategy to distract the audience from the fact the concept renders the hero passive and the story dramatically tensionless.

The contrivance of the game and the film are the same, but when gamers play, the concept of “reliving” the past is thrown to the wind as they mash their Xbox and Playstation joysticks — to control the outcome of their adventures directly.

Now, if you want to get your mind in a twist, think about how Avatar and X-Men: Days of Future Past worked…and how The Lego Movie almost didn’t work.

Does your story’s concept lend itself to dramatic tension? 

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Shaun Of The Dead [So, What’s The Plan?]

I totally love Shaun Of The Dead (2004). It’s not just a great horror spoof; it’s a bloody great movie. And its clarity has much to do with it.

Zombies have long formed their own, important sub-genre in movies. The genre started with White Zombie back in 1932, and it keeps going strong.

Today, it seems that the undead have a higher survival rate at the box office than many other genres. One of my recent favourites was the Korean master piece Train To Busan (2016).

Remove The Head, Destroy The Brain

Zombie pictures rarely cross over into mainstream territory, and this is what made Shaun Of The Dead special. It was produced in the year my son was born, and 12 years later we watched it together. We had a ball. The ultimate father/son bonding movie.

Shaun Of The Dead - Ed an ShaunShaun is a classic that defies pigeonholing, and it transcends style. It satisfies the staunchest fan of the genre, as well as those who have never seen any of Shaun’s zombie predecessors.

Among others, it pays homage to the movies of George A. Romero, easily the most revered zombie writer/director in cinema history.

Apparently Romero was so impressed with Shaun that he asked filmmakers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to appear for zombie cameos in Land of the Dead (2005), the fourth part in Romero’s Dead series.

How To Make Zombies Go Viral

For reasons other than a recent zombie outbreak, super slacker Shaun is pushed out of his comfort zone. He has to get his girlfriend back, kill his mum’s boyfriend, and make it to the pub alive. Or, as the IMDB logline states in a rare example of clarity:

A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.

It gives us the goals, the circumstances/stakes, and the theme.

When a logline works, it often promises a well-structured, easily-remembered story, and this is exactly what Shaun Of The Dead delivers.

Filmmakers tend to underestimate the value of a simple logline, reflecting a clear structure. They think it makes the film feel predictable, or it dumbs things down. You know why a short, crystal-clear logline is so important?

It makes word of mouth a piece of cake.

After seeing the movie, my 12-year old could summarise the essence of the story in once sentence. That’s how successful movie marketing works.

Don’t get me wrong: you still need to deliver a brilliant movie. But the masses will do the viral campaigning for you.

shaun of the dead - liz and friends

Avoiding Death By Slackers

Shaun impersonates the perfect transformational character, forced to go on a mission that would be impossible for his normal self.

Early in the story, his girlfriend Liz paints the picture of where he is going with his life: “Look, if I don’t do something, I’m gonna end up in that pub every night for the rest of my life like those other sad old fuckers, drinking myself to death wondering what the hell happened.”

Shaun needs to grow up, let go of the friend who enables his immaturity, and settle with Liz… if he doesn’t want to lose her.

In a mythological sense, he will also need to kill his father, so he can enter the realm of masculine adulthood. And all the while, he is metaphorically surrounded by the threat of death by slackers.

The first act runs for about 35 minutes, yet it doesn’t drag. The zombie outbreak gives it tension, and the Wright/Pegg dialogue and editing gives it pace. As a result, the shortish second act feels nice and tight, too.

shaun of the dead - the gang

Shaun Of The Dead – Break Into 2

In the scene/sequence that concludes Act One, Shaun gives us an exact rundown of what he needs to achieve in the movie. It could be a rehearsal for the movie’s pitch, edited in the signature snappy Edgar Wright style.

But before we get to this sequence, Ed calls into the phone: “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

The irony is that George A. Romero, who was given a private viewing of the film, was oblivious to the fact that this line was copied literally from his own film Night of the Living Dead (1968). He only found out later after a phone conversation with Wright.

What follows is fabulous storytelling. We first see the events as they should happen, but with each next version, Shaun shows an increasingly flawed response to the various calls to adventure.

On the last shot of the sequence, we know where the story really should not, but might well end: the Winchester.

-Karel Segers

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High Concept Movie Ideas [How To Identify And Improve Them]

The greatest movie ideas are high concept. That’s what they say. Then, they waffle a definition of what high concept means. The discussion ends soon thereafter.

What Is High Concept?

True high concept ideas make a ton of money at the box office. So you want to know how to come up with that high concept, right? Well let’s start with the definition of the thing.

A high concept idea is an idea that is high concept.

We didn’t get very far, clearly.

It sounds like the guy who tells you to just tell a good story.

Some will claim that a particular idea is high concept, while others dispute it. A look at the box office results of so-called high concept movies will only add to the confusion.

Being John Malkovich was really high concept, right?

A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of movie star John Malkovich.

Truly original! Don’t you want to see that? Well, it only did $22m worldwide.

A title like Mars Needs Moms may smell like high concept, but despite its $150m production budget, it is known as one of the biggest flops. Oh, and speaking of Mars… Remember John Carter? 

People have written about high concept that it has mass audience appeal, and that you immediately see the potential.

Most filmmakers looking for production money will try to tell you that their movie has mass appeal. Every writer sees the potential in their script. Then, how do you set the benchmark? Go out on the street and ask everyone?

Another problem with high concept is that it dates easily. Bruce Almighty worked fine, but Evan Almighty bombed. In their time, Top GunJaws and Die Hard were big high concept movies. Today, they’re still solid movies, but … high concept??

I think we should put the high concept discussion aside for a moment. It’s not getting us anywhere.

Let’s take a more tangible approach.

The Holy Trinity

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-12-38-37-pm

Successful concepts start from a clear, simple and original event, something we had never seen in movies before. Next follows a clear action to be taken by the character(s) in response to this event.

You may be able to sell such a concept with just this event and action to an audience, without focusing on the character too much. However, it is impossible to properly assess, let alone develop your idea without having a razor sharp idea of your central character.

After all, before you can distinguish between events (what happens to a character) and actions (what a character does), you need to establish who exactly the character is through whose eyes we look at the story (the POV).

I want you to read that sentence again, because it is at the core of what I’m trying to say.

Done? Okay, let’s look at the other two key components.

Event: In Groundhog Day, Phil gets stuck in a time loop, Back To The Future teleports Marty back to the time when his parents were his age, and Snakes On A Plane … you get it.

The educated will have noticed that the Event is in fact the story’s Inciting Incident, or Call To Adventure.

Action: In Finding Nemo, Marlin has to cross an ocean to save his son, and the heroes in Jurassic Park have to fight a T-Rex. These actions constitute most of the movie’s runtime, or all of what we call Act Two (and some of Act Three).

Character, Event, Action

You need both a major event and a clear action for your concept to work. Getting stuck in the same day (Groundhog Day) is a cool event, but the character needs a goal for the story to move forward. And because we don’t know how the spell can be broken, a new clear goal is introduced: to get the girl.

Back To The Future has both a highly original event (being transported to 1955), and two solid actions/goals for Marty: to get his parents together, and return to 1985. Snakes On A Plane IS the Event, or more specifically: the discovery of the snakes. The action/goal couldn’t be clearer: to survive and contain/kill them.

The story of Finding Nemo really starts when Nemo is taken by the divers (the event), and the movie’s action is in the title. Again, it can’t be any clearer. In Jurassic Park, once the T-Rex gets out (the event), we know the movie will only be over when our heroes make it off the island alive (the action/goal).

Let’s divert for a second before getting to our conclusion.

Snakes and stakes

You may have learned that there need to be high stakes. True. However, in the strongest concepts the stakes are implied. Snakes on a plane means all passengers could die, as there’s nowhere to run.

In Gravity, there’s no need to explain that Ryan (Bullock) will face a horrible fate if she keeps falling to earth. We don’t need to clarify that Thelma and Louise will spend life in jail if they’re caught, or that Don Cobb in Inception will be miserable if he never gets to see his kids again – or spend eternity in limbo.

Often you will have both positive and negative stakes. In other words, the main character will gain something from achieving the goal (Cobb will see his kids) or they will lose something if they don’t (his freedom: he’ll be stuck in limbo).

And don’t be mistaken: a positive stake is only positive if they didn’t have it at the start of the movie.

The Third Element

When you come up with an idea, it is rarely fully shaped, containing all three elements. So even before you launch into development of the story, let alone the script, you need to lock in character, event and action.

Some people prefer diving into a draft, and figuring it out as they go along, but this approach may take a lot longer than is necessary.

Let’s see if you get the point. Look at the following random ideas, and figure out what they are lacking.

  1. a girl wakes up with a third eye that allows her to see 5 seconds into the future
  2. a firefighter must contain all patients in a hospital, or a deadly virus will end the world
  3. new science shows that mankind has only 60 days to turn around global warming

Here is how these ideas rate in terms of the three required elements:

  1. There is a character and an event, but no action. What will the heroine DO with her gift? That’s the Action.
  2. We have a character and an action, but we don’t know how the situation originated. What is the Event?
  3. There’s a major event, and a (somewhat vague) action, but there is no Character.

Needless to say that the characters in example 1 and 2, are fairly nondescript. By brainstorming these characters in further detail, you may find the missing third element. Or vice versa: once you have found the missing third part, this may help you build a meatier character.

You Must Remember This

The bottom line is that none of the three ideas above qualify as valid movie concepts, let alone high concept. This is exactly why Being John Malkovich failed. The only strong part of that concept was the event. I have seen the movie twice, and I can’t even remember what the main action was, if any… I remember that the POV shifted a few times.

Not every idea with these 3 components is necessarily high concept, but you’ll find that every high concept does have them. So this allows you to eliminate – or improve what you have.

Different writers have different approaches, but I recommend that before you consider a concept for development, your first job would be to make sure your idea contains all three elements: character, event and action.

Once you pass this test, let the discussion begin about how great your idea really is.

-Karel Segers