Writers (particularly screenwriters) are often told by decision makers that it is easier to get their material produced if it is based on some underlying intellectual property (IP) such as, a comic book, news story, video game, or toy. Legally defined, Intellectual property rights are the rights given to persons over the creations of their minds, so this “mandate” of what executives are looking for is often misconstrued, which I’ll come back to in a bit. First, let’s look at some examples of IP that have recently been in some discouraging news reports.
Watching LIGHTYEAR yesterday, the same day in which Warner Brothers shelved two major franchise extending projects that were both in post-production, I felt compelled to address some of the business and creative decisions that impact a project in ways that many don’t take the time to consider.
LIGHTYEAR has just become available on Disney + after what some call a box office fail “because audiences didn’t understand how it fit into the TOY STORY universe.” The film starts with the following statement over black: “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”
My immediate reaction was, “Why didn’t they say so in the marketing?” The marketer in me thought, ‘this is a huge misstep.’ I recalled how the first teaser of LIGHTYEAR left me excited to see the film, (and a twinge of heartache for David Bowie).
This teaser and the subsequent “official trailers” never once mentioned that statement at the head of the film. The statement that was most likely the initial pitch to management and from all technical perspectives, cost about five-dollars to create.
I’m going to stay on LIGHTYEAR for a minute because it is out and accessible. But immediately after, I am going to bring BATGIRL and SCOOB! HOLIDAY HAUNT into the fold. If you want to skip the LIGHTYEAR analysis, scroll to below the BATGIRL picture.
There are many homages to STAR WARS in LIGHTYEAR, from the flying battles, to his friend coming through in a hologram with a message, to Buzz essentially finding “his father” in his older evil self, but even STAR WARS knew how to inject comedic relief (even if sometimes unintentional, anyone who has ever watched it with me is smiling right now). At the end of the day, if LIGHTYEAR had not been a Pixar product and not been an IP/franchise spinoff, it would have done okay as a a bit of sci-fi with a potential following by way of such IP as BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or TRANSFORMERS and how they started as “B” properties for geeks and adolescent boys before they became Michael Bay-ified, but because LIGHTYEAR was designed to leverage a story universe that the story and marketing failed to live up to, they ended up annoying those who are loyal to the characters and Pixar brand.
The “issue” with LIGHTYEAR, is that it’s does not serve the target audience, which frankly is inexcusable for Pixar/Disney. Maybe they were thinking this was part of the evergreen populace of the their other huge IP in STAR WARS, but the marketer in me says this is a huge misstep of the famed story trust. Writers have to know their audience. One of the most common notes I give in animation scripts for family audiences is that they don’t serve the audience. This does not mean fart and underwear jokes, (although this is often unavoidable), it means not taking the audience on the ride of the roller coaster of emotions that keep younger family members engaged. It means not serving the medium to answer the question of why a film should be fully animated as opposed to live action with animated visual effects.
The addition of SOCKS the cat as a “sidekick” in LIGHTYEAR is meant to counter this issue, but falls short and comes in after almost 20 minutes of dramatic action. AKA the younger audience members are already squirming.
The montage of his friends and colleagues getting older while he is not, really makes the stakes feel never ending and not that dire. Especially when his friends and colleagues are no longer around due to old age. While we spent a lot of time with him and his partner in the first act, we never really felt the connection that would make this emotional moment the tear jerker that Pixar is known for. It’s my opinion that it’s the montage leading up to the moment that kills this.
The plot of getting off the planet also has no stakes considering they have been there over 62 years (plus another 20 some after he escapes). The big picture structure is textbook in placement, but not in emotion or theme. He takes off with the cat to escape and get home right on the mark of the first act break, but the first act is laden with story set up and little character development. They made the mistake of assuming we know Buzz, but this is not the Buzz we know. And frankly, even the little we know of Andy, we know enough to understand that this would not be his favorite movie at the age he was in 1995 when he got his Buzz action figure. The midpoint sees a showdown with Zurg. The 3rd act is the most exciting, which is good, but it feels too little too late, and ending on the Chief laughing about his laser shield leaves us without a strong theme to walk away with or any sense of accomplishment.
The suit bugged me — even when he finally gets back into a space ranger suit — it differs from that of the original “toy” that Pixar and Thinkway failed to plan for originally and did not produce enough of for TOY STORY. I was fortunate enough to be in the Florida studio at the time which meant we all had quick access to the stores in the park (and at a 35% discount) so I still have a box of all of the original toys that became immediately rare. Thank goodness he used the wings at the top of the 3rd act and the final suit that he and the team end up in does look more like the original toy Buzz in the franchise.
There was a lot blamed on not casting Tim Allen as Buzz and there is merit to that argument. If the buzz Andy got was merch based on this film these things should match (although I think Chris Evans did a good job), Tim Allen (despite his explosive tirade to me at an eatery in Toluca Lake), knew how to use his voice to push the medium of animation. And by now you see the consistent theme of issues emerging.
Story themes are another misstep in LIGHTYEAR. There’s mentions of, “it’s okay to make mistakes,” and the “how to live up to your family legacy” which are clear as a bell, but what’s not clear to me is what mistake Izzy made that is supposed to be so monumental. More importantly, they could have used some lessons from George Bailey or Marty McFly in SHOWING the audience the effects of time travel (or time alteration), hearing it described from Buzz’s future self as an old man is a really shocking device from Pixar’s story trust and perhaps it’s an indication that the original story trust is what worked — not the plug and play story trust. Or maybe it’s the result of a story trust that works remotely, and not under the same roof with the camaraderie of sharing endless emotions together in person and in sidebars — there is nothing like the family effect of a team of creative contributors allowed to speak freely and afforded the ability to fail fast so that they can regroup to live better and produce a product that has the heart that they found among their colleagues.
Anyone who has been in this business of show for any length of time, knows that projects get shelved all the time, for a variety of reasons. It’s a grim reality that is cushioned ever so slightly by the fact that when they do, at least some pay for the work put in has been acquired. But as anyone who has been on the receiving end of this kind of news will tell you, they do this for a living in order for their work to be seen by the public, not collect dust on shelves or be relegated to a line item write off in a fiscal year report. So, imagine the shock when the cast and crews or two Warner/HBO films (BATGIRL and SCOOB! HOLIDAY HAUNT) had their projects shelved.
Is there a benefit to writing a story that is based on intellectual property that has public awareness? Of course. But at the end of the day the reason that decision makers are looking for IP is to make their job easier; it’s supposed to make the marketing department’s job easier, it’s supposed to make their job easier to pitch it to their upper echelon executives. However, as we all know and have seen with LIGHTYEAR, the marketing department misses quite often and frankly why is it the Screenwriter’s job to make those jobs easier?
A BATGIRL $90 MM tax write off is more attractive to executives than pleasing audiences, driving subscribers, or even extending a franchise. The marketer in me says, if BATGIRL created a buzz (which it surely would have with the cast and talented directors). There is no reason the NEXT one couldn’t have been designated for theatrical, which is new regime flavor of the week at WB/HBO. Although at $90MM and a slim pickings at the cineplexes, I cannot imagine why they couldn’t put this day and date on screens of all sizes without spending another dollar.
SCOOB! 2 is really just a bad decision. I know voice actors who were recording lines LAST WEEK! Just like BATGIRL it was close to wrapping and all animation was complete, crew have stated that it was 95% complete! But more to the point, this is a sequel to SCOOB! (which was actually a nice extension of the franchise property) and whose only real downside was the pandemic which screwed its release. The character assets for SCOOB 2 exist — meaning they didn’t have to recreate the wheel in pre-production and character design, and even voice talent. There is also no reason this should have a budget of $40MM (which by feature animation standards is less than most, it’s still egregious with today’s technology). A smarter budget would give them an extension of the IP that goes far beyond HBO Max subscribers in DVD and ancillary (plus it’s a holiday film — which means a long life). To can this is an even stupider choice than canning BATGIRL. The first SCOOB! Grossed over $28MM in the midst of a pandemic so how much of tax write off do they need?
WB Animation has had an identity crisis for decades, and it’s really a testament to how great the core IP of LOONEY TUNES is that the brand has managed to stay alive despite no clear steering of that company ship. To be fair, even Disney doesn’t utilize its core IP of Mickey and the gang outside of content for the preschool set, but come on — Bugs and the gang are so much more entertaining and appealing to older audiences when they aren’t forced onto a basketball court of live action personas.
It’s hard to see Batgirl’s cancellation as anything other than wasted money, wasted time of the cast and crew, a wasted opportunity for minority voices in this space, and wasted goodwill from fans. In short order, Warner Bros.’ merger with Discovery has created an environment that may give creators pause before signing on to be another tax write-down. They deserve better. The cast and crew of Batgirl and Scoob: Holiday Haunt deserve better. Audiences deserve better.https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/batgirl-cancellation-dc-movies-1235192230/
As you can probably tell, I completely agree with the one Hollywood Reporter reporter quoted here. It’s worth reading the full article linked underneath.
LIGHTYEAR grossed $222,515,690 worldwide, and is said to have had a budget of $200MM, but I can’t believe that that includes P/A given what looks like some pretty high production value, so I’m sure there is also a tax write off, but it’s one that doesn’t alienate the very people you need to put their heart and soul into the products you sell (at least not to the extent that BATGIRL and SCOOB! 2 have).
In today’s meta state of entertainment, I am willing to bet heavily that there are Comic Con attendees debating that BATGIRL and SCOOB are somehow not worthy of the original IP or that LIGHTYEAR is not supposed to be the same Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, but the real persona that the toy is based on, as a sort of cosplay action figure, (they would have a mind bender when someone from Pixar told them that Buzz the toy’s persona, is the embodiment of the film character) — but the point is, who cares? I certainly don’t care about the meta-ness of it all, what I care about are stories with characters that are engaging enough for me to care to watch, and what the creators of those stories care about, what they put their blood, heart, tears and soul into, is sharing their stories with the world.
Be kind, (rewind) and next time a decision maker pulls the IP card, point out that story and characters beat IP every time, and when in the hands of a savvy production partner — they become IP.