Sunday, 8 May 2011

Repeat Readings

I’ve got a friend who knows pretty much all there is to know about cinema. For the purposes of this post, we’ll call him Argyle. He’s not the same Argyle that features in the post 'How to Spot a Really Bad Idea' though; he’s a different Argyle. (The two Argyles, by the way, have never met each other. Always keep your Argyles apart is my motto.)
This Argyle was telling me about the distribution deals struck between major studios and exhibitors when a movie is released.
Now; pay attention everybody. Typically, Argyle said, in the first week of release, the takings are split 90/10 in favour of the studios. The exhibitors get next to nothing, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why pick and mix sweets cost, ounce-for-ounce, about the same as gold bullion whenever you go to the flicks.
After the opening week, the proportions adjust speedily in favour of the exhibitors. So there are two opposing imperatives here. The exhibitors want movie-goers to be just too damn busy to catch a film in its opening few weeks, and instead see it three or four weeks into its run. Perhaps go back and watch it a second time. The studios on the other hand, want people to flock to the cinema in week one, never return, and then buy the DVD at some later date.
Thus, Argyle argued, the preponderance of vacuous and repetitive tat aimed at the teenage market. We’re on to 'Saw 6' or 7 or 8 or whatever the hell it is now, because those movies hit number one for one week, then drop like a stone. The last thing the studios want is a slow-burning word-of-mouth success that hits its peak five weeks through its run.
After Argyle had gone, leaving nothing but a faint scent of gardenia and regret in the air, I pondered his polemic.
And there’s an argument I think, that says the changing taste for certain narrative structures might be the direct result of distribution deals such as this one. That audiences are becoming attuned to explosive, vapid, action-driven narratives that satisfy only as long as they are being experienced. Narratives with a deliberate in-built obsolescence that positively discourage a second viewing.
No wonder, therefore, that some young readers find it tough to battle through a 60,000 word YA novel, or that many swap reading for more immediate and visual media when they get to high school.
Check out any writers’ guides – the kind of books I regularly read and refer to here; the ones that advise would-be novelists on how to get published – and you’ll see them preach the crucial importance of beginning your story in media res. As if, nowadays, there really is no other choice. And perhaps there isn’t. If there’s an i-pad, a TV and a Playstation in the same room as the book, then the book’s going to have to be bloody good from word one of line one of page one.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t satisfy on a much richer and deeper level than 'Saw 10'. YA writers will need to compete by offering something different rather than imitating the tired structures and cliches of cinema narrative – by crafting a tale which rewards repeat readings, rather than punishing them.


  1. I love your posts, Mr Moss. Great blend of humour and serious points.

    Yes, it can be a mite depressing and discouraging when advised to treat our writing like fastfood rather than fine dining.

    I suppose, at best, there's room for both sorts of literature and film and we must hope that folks will choose a mixed diet.

    At worst - well I don't want to go there...

    Thanks for another must-read post. :)

  2. I learned something from this post. No wonder I pass on more movies than I see. Someone should punish all the bean counters (er..excuse me - accountants) by making them sit through the one-week wonders over and over and over...