Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Why Are Successful Television Writers Rarely Successful Movie Writers?"

The Simple Answer:  “Proactive Debilitation.”

The Explanation Of That Simple Answer:  If you learn specific “Task A” and then try to learn specific “Task B”, your successfully mastering of specific  “Task A” will forwardly (“proactively”) inhibit (“debilitate”) your ability to successfully master specific “Task B.”

Example:  If you learn to play badminton, which is a wrist-dominated activity, you will have greater difficulty mastering tennis, which is “all arm”.  (You “wrist” a tennis ball rocketing at you and your tennis racket flies backwards.)  Just one of many examples, the others eluding me at the moment but I know they are out there.  My unawareness does not mean that it doesn’t exist.  I do not know the capital of Djibouti but I am pretty sure they have one.

There are three accompanying concepts to “Proactive Debilitation”:  “Proactive Facilitation”, “Retroactive Debilitation” and “Retroactive Facilitation”, but I will not waste your time explaining those now.  Consider my explanation of “Proactive Debilitation” the Rosetta Stone, where you employ your understanding of one concept to “crack the code” of the others.

I know you can do it.  If you know Greek, you can decipher hieroglyphics and cuneiform.  This is the same thing, without the Schliemann.  (The man who discovered the Rosetta Stone.  You see what you’re learning today?  Okay, I am not revealing the secret to making a flaky piecrust like you can discover on ““  but look what you’re getting.  I bet those “flaky piecrust” people are all green with envy.  Not to mention covered in flour.)

Now where was I?  Oh yeah – TV writers who don’t make it in movies.

Dispensing quickly with the “Usual Suspects” crossover exceptions – Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, James L. Brooks – hm, was there anyone born after 1940?  Seth MacFarlane, I suppose, but what has he done that wasn’t drawn or animatronic?  Hosted the Oscars.  But I am not talking about successful television writers who later hosted the Oscars, or successful television writers who later hosted the Oscars and the majority of the audience wish that he hadn’t.  (Final Tally on Those Aforementioned Categories:  Both “one”.)

Considerably more representative are the likes of Diane English, the comedic mastermind behind television’s Murphy Brown whose successful film credits include… I don’t think she has any successful film credits.  Wait, I’ll look it up… nope, I was right.  (And I actually knew that already and I could have come out and said so but I didn’t because I’m weak.)

My longtime colleagues, the Charles Brothers, responsible for television juggernauts like Cheers and Frasier – in the movies, “One and Done” – that’s not the name of their movie, that’s their cinematic track-record trajectory.  Their movie, Pushing Tin, was a commercial disappointment, and that was that.  A quintessential example:  Excellent in television.  (Glen and) Les(s) so in movies.  (A lot of brackets to minimal effect.)

Who else can I think of who never successfully made the move from TV to movies? Oh, yeah, me.  I did pretty well in TV.  But f I had instead put my aspirational eggs in the “screenwriting basket”, I’d have been back in Toronto, thinking “I should have done television.”

The thing is… for me, at least, unlike other TV writers I know, although certainly not all of them, movies was never my passion, with television, just an advancing steppingstone.  For me, it was always about television.  Growing up, I may have regularly attended movies, but my TV viewing was virtually “wall-to-wall.”  Eating, sleeping, school, homework, attending to personal bodily functions… the rest was entirely television.  (Which, if you were wondering, did not adversely affect my eyesight.  My eyes were terrible with radio.)

Although I wrote a handful of screenplays, all of which ultimately went nowhere, which I attempted because… you know what?  I don’t remember why I attempted them.  I may have simply believed that that’s what accomplished television writers were supposed to do next.  Plus, everything was bigger in movies, and I figured if I worked in them, I would be bigger too.  Bottom Line:  It was there and I tried it and it didn’t work out… is what it finally comes down to.  And that was okay.  I was a devoted “TV Guy”, and I did fine in TV. 

To some degree, I believe I was influenced by a former employer, nine-time Emmy-winning TV writer Ed. Weinberger, who once proclaimed, “I’ll work in movies when I can have a career in movies.” 

Since nobody promised him one – or me either – we remained gainfully remunerated in television.  Maybe it was timidity.  Maybe it was familiarity.  Or maybe it was that, deep down, we knew we were already where we generically belonged.  Or more likely still, it was the idea that I meant to get to today but I annoyingly I ran out of time.

Covering all the bases…

Screenwriters who abandon the “Big Screen” to work exclusively in television?  I imagine there are the same number of those as there are successful tennis players who switch exclusively to badminton.

And with a similar explanation.  (Beyond “There is no money in badminton.”)

Tomorrow: How “Proactive Debilitation” keeps good TV writers from becoming successful screenwriters.  And this time, I promise.

1 comment:

Nancy White said...

Hi Earl, I was visiting our mutual friend Don Cullen today, and we were talking about you, and "Everything Goes" (come on - you can cast your mind back that far ... that was when you invented the phrase "unique talent" ).. and he said he would so love to see you, or chat with you. He just had a Job experience - a house fire, in which his cousin Wally died (died!), then a fall in the temporary place he was staying in, which put him in the hospital with two broken vertebrae. So he's not in great physical shape but he is as hilarious as ever, and he remembers stuff - even names. He's 84 now, he can probably still do every Beyond the Fringe sketch. I think he'll be out of hospital in a couple of days and going to live in one of those smart condo all the best, Nancy White (singer, topical songs? unique talent? that one)