Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick

Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy

I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick

Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy

Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick

Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy

You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick

The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick

I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following.

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

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Plot vs. Story

The difference between plot and story can be hard to figure out for a beginning writer. Often confused for the same thing, the two really couldn’t be more different, or more dependent on each other. After writing for a while, you do start to differentiate them. Knowing the difference can help you gain a greater appreciation for the stories you love, and help you improve your work in ways you never thought possible.

There is one project that has been giving me such trouble, a thriller that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a good deal shorter. Everything seemed in place with a setting I loved and a topic I was passionate about. When I tried writing it though, I had to stop 15 pages in because it was clear it wasn’t working. Reading my characters, I just didn’t care. They were only going through a sequence of events, no significant changes to be had by the end. I had a plot, but there was nothing inside that put magic in it.

That’s the best way to tell the difference between plot and story. You take a look at a story you love, and at first glance it look’s pretty easy to say what it’s about. Take Star Wars for example. That’s pretty simple, a group of rebels try to take down an oppressive empire in a galaxy far, far away. It is a fun western style space adventure. But stopping there is a mistake, because that’s not what makes Star Wars special.

Ultimately, Star Wars is the story of two characters, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Vader has sided with the Empire and seeks to destroy the things his son holds dear, while Luke tries to find a way to convince his father that his views are worth fighting for. In the end, Vader choses his son over his old viewpoints and sacrifices his life to save him, paving the way for a better, more peaceful galaxy. That’s the story of Star Wars. All the space battles and lightsaber duels are just dressing for what lies underneath.

How about To Kill a Mockingbird? The plot is a lawyer risks his reputation by defending an African American man falsely accused of rape. What’s the story though? The story is about his children. Witnessing bigotry in all its ugliness, their childhood innocence is shattered, but they get it back due to an act of random kindness from a neighbor they once feared.

A story keeps your reader or viewer from asking that question ‘Why should I care?’ In all of the above listed examples, the viewer has a good reason to care. Plenty of science fiction stories came out with aspirations to be the next Star Wars, but none of them achieved the same level of success because they were nothing but lasers and space fights. Many books and films came out dealing with racism and hatred after To Kill a Mockingbird, but none had the gut punch of showing how those evils destroy children.

This is not to say that plot isn’t important. Plot is what gives a story its character, providing a unique finish that creates something completely new. You can make a quest about destroying an evil ring or killing a giant shark. You can set a tale of reconciliation in a suburban neighborhood or a high rise overrun by terrorists. You can put a tale of lost innocence on a set of railroad tracks in Oregon or on a river in Vietnam’s jungles.

Plots are the little differences between stories that allow us to tell them apart. They are ways to customize stories for any type of viewer with a variety of genres like horror, fantasy, science fiction, and action, allowing you to reach people that were otherwise uninterested. Someone might not be too interested in the tale of a working woman overcoming her past demons, but if that woman is Sigourney Weaver and those demons are acid bleeding monsters, you will turn a few more heads.

The plot is great, but sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in it and lose sight of what gives a narrative its power. It’s not hard to see why, especially in genres that rely on creative worlds, frightening imagery and spectacular set pieces, but those things can’t sustain a narrative on its own. You look something like the recent flop, Gods of Egypt. It has a simple straightforward plot and is jam packed with creative and beautiful creatures and set pieces. Underneath it though, there’s nothing. Having plot with no story is like coming to a party with the most delicious icing in the world, but forgetting the cake to put it on.

It seems my thriller fell into that same trap, with an over reliance on its premise and no real care or attention given to the characters to go through it. I asked myself why the journey was important, and realized by page 15 that it wasn’t important. That was a hard realization for me when I reached page 15. It isn’t important enough for a reader, and it’s not important enough for me to waste my time on, at least not yet. I am off to a decent start with a delicious icing of creative imagery, pretty spooky sequences, and a nice serving of tension and dread. Now it’s time for the hard part, baking the cake to put it on.

But oh, so many flavors to chose from.