End of One Era, Start of Another

While doing my research this week, I stumbled across an interesting tidbit: Paramount Pictures has become the first major film studio to announce that it will no longer be distributing movies on film, and is going exclusively to digital distribution.

Only 8 percent of theaters in the U.S. have held back on converting to digital, so this will put some added pressure on them. Paramount says Anchorman 2 will be the last of its features to be available to theaters on 35mm film stock. Other studios are expected to quickly follow suit.

Following the Biz

I once had planned to be a scriptwriter. When I was 5 years old, my dad’s best friend had moved to Los Angeles, where we lived, to become a movie producer. My first inclination was to sit right down and write a script for him: I started on it without having any idea what a movie script looked like, but I somehow knew that a script was the first step in the movie-making process.

Even at that age, “being a writer” was clearly part of my being. I went to journalism school not because I wanted to be a reporter, but because I wanted to learn how to research, and to write fast.

Screenwriting came back in a serious way in the late 1980s when, during a lull in my job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I wrote a couple of spec scripts for Star Trek: the Next Generation, which was produced by Paramount. I had managed to secure an agent, even though agents hate spec scripts, and aren’t at all interested in untested TV writers. But he humored me, and duly submitted the first script to the “Star Trek Office” at Paramount.

It was rejected without comment — I had forgotten that a previous episode had used a Monster of the Week that was very similar to what I had come up with, so it was clearly too derivative for them to even think about making it (but it had an if-I-may-say-so fantastic subplot that looked into the past of Guinan, Whoopi Goldberg’s bartender character, that I’m sure she would have loved doing).

Come On Down

Star Trek title cardBut by then the second script was ready to go, and it was much better received by the show. It was an exploration into the nature of a person’s very soul, and even though they liked it, they didn’t want to make the story because it didn’t feature any of the series’ main characters. But it couldn’t be done without using a guest star, because the character necessarily had to die in the end — his soul had been destroyed. Still, they were intrigued enough by it that I was invited to Paramount to pitch story ideas directly to ST:TNG executive producer Michael Piller.

Wait… This Isn’t a Class M Planet!

When I arrived at the Star Trek Office, though, I had a sense of foreboding: I could only describe the atmosphere there as “anti-creative,” and I decided almost immediately upon arrival that I didn’t want to work on the show. The feeling was mutual: I still went ahead with my pitches, but not surprisingly they bombed, and I wasn’t invited back.

By then my agent was impressed enough by their interest that he again suggested I concentrate on writing feature films — that’s where the opportunities were, he said — and, still being in the Star Trek mindset, I came up with what I thought was a fantastic idea for the next film in the series: how about a Vulcan who embraced his emotions, rather than rejecting them, so that he could live the most fulfilling life possible?

As I pondered how to develop that, fleshing out story ideas in my mind, Paramount announced Star Trek V: The Final Frontier — featuring Sybok, Spock’s very emotional (sigh!) half brother who figured he had discovered the secret to finding God. As with everyone else who thinks that, he was wrong — and I threw up my hands and gave up on Star Trek, rededicating myself to my JPL work …until I came up with the idea for This is True.

Almost 20 years into True’s run, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and it was possible to do it because I didn’t want to work for a creativity-sucking media giant. But at least they are innovative enough to lead the way out of film, and who knows what that will start? It may be the end of an era, but that sometimes begets a new, even more exciting era, just like the end of one dream might allow you to dream up something entirely new.

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9 Comments on “End of One Era, Start of Another

  1. We’ve seen this first hand in our area, the local drive-in’s film supplier was going digital and the drive-in couldn’t afford to make the change over. Fortunately for them Honda had a contest where they awarded 20 drive-in theaters a digital upgrade and our theater was one of those selected.

    Honda?! Huh. In any case, they were fortunate indeed. In our area, theaters could get a grant to pay for all or most of the upgrade. One turned up their nose at the no-strings-attached offer …and later begged audiences for “contributions” for the upgrade because they had been “left behind.” Behind …by choice. They are, surprisingly, still in business. -rc

  2. Don’t stop writing — ever. Your style and diction are near-perfect. I rarely have to reread anything you write in a “What did I miss, here?” moment.

    I’m guessing you were a writer at JPL. Technical writing is very demanding. I left a few tech manuals in my wake and I never really got very good at the task.

    Never a technical writer. I was hired at JPL as a technical publisher for the Systems Analysis section, leveraging (a little!) previous experience as a science writer. I also did a little software engineering, among other stuff. -rc

  3. Just a FYI drive in movie theaters are disappearing and a loss of an era. There are 442 open drive-ins that some sources say are operating around the world. There are 350 in the United States and 53 in Canada. At their peak in 1958, there were between 4000 and 5000 drive-ins operating in the United States. That is quite a drop in number in 56 years.

  4. First, please continue writing “This Is True” and your other work for your web site.

    But may I suggest you’re being a bit too harsh on screenwriters and the TV and movie production industry in general? While no one would argue there isn’t too much schlock out there, screenwriters and directors and producers and their crews work very hard to bring us deeply moving and compelling stories, intelligent comedies and, yes, even good popcorn-flick action pictures to excite us. These movies are getting so expensive to make and market that it seems as though only the biggest studios can afford to bring us the really “moving” (no pun intended) pictures. Even the indies find it hard to break through without the support of the “creativity-sucking media giants.”

    If screenwriting wasn’t a good fit for you, that’s fine. We like what you’re doing with “True”! But please don’t make it seem like the big studios and the industry in general is a black hole for creativity. Judging from the annual awards shows, it obviously isn’t. Good things do come back out!

    Oh, I definitely agree. That a good portion of Star Trek was excellent despite coming from an “anti-creative” environment is a vivid testament to the people working there. It just wasn’t right for me. I’m just glad I recognized that immediately and moved on. -rc

  5. Movie theaters can get a no-strings grant to upgrade to digital? I wonder why our local theater didn’t do that. They did just have a successful Kickstarter fundraiser (after a previously unsuccessful Kickstarter attempt). In any case I’m glad they will be in business a while longer. It’s tough to imagine life without a local movie theater.

    That was then, and it was here. There? Now? Probably not. Maybe even never. It depends on who, what, when, where, and why. I can only speak to what I saw, not what was or is reality anywhere else. -rc

  6. Star Trek TNG is one of my all-time favorite shows. Did you know that here in India they telecast TOS in the 1980s and TNG in the 1990s? The TOS was on our nationalized (and only) TV channel. Commercial cable TV started in India in the 1990s.

    Even in 1980s I (as a teenager) thought that TOS was very advanced. Then in the 1990s when TNG came I started watching it just out of nostalgia (loved TOS too), but was then hooked. I briefly fantasized about being on the creative team of TNG, but your piece made me doubt if I’d have liked it.

    Thanks for posting this piece, Randy.

  7. You’re surprised Honda did something cool?

    See what Honda did here, as part of their “Honda Loves You Back” series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Y7AzNj2s28

    Here’s the band’s original video that got Honda’s attention: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBjfiTGu1jk

    (The band has since changed their name from “Monsters Calling Home” to “Run River North”.)

    And here’s their new ‘official’ music video of the same song (this video’s content was unexpected!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Y7AzNj2s28

    No, I’m surprised Honda did something cool for theaters. -rc

  8. Your impression of the atmosphere in the production area of early Star Trek is in line with an article which Harlan Ellison published in Writer’s Digest about the same time. Unfortunately, I lost my copy many years ago.

    The mention of drive-ins is interesting. There is a plan to set up a new drive-in theater at the local showgrounds here which seems to be getting great support. If it happens it will be the only drive-in in the State!

  9. I enjoy This is True and your blog. Keep up the good work.

    I was with NASA Langley. Started out in high speed flight research and transferred into Project Mercury. I have done some writing — flight manuals, weapons manuals, procedures manuals and pilot training programs. Those were great days.

    We definitely got to work on some extra-interesting stuff! -rc

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