The Trouble with Trailers

We all know what trailers are.  When’s the last time you saw a really good one, though?  I can’t remember.  I’m shocked when I see a trailer that doesn’t make me roll my eyes at least once.  Even movies I like have trailers that are stupid.  When I saw TERMINATOR: GENISYS, every single trailer I saw before the film either gave me too much information in the form of spoilers or stupidity, or they gave me not enough information to determine whether or not the movie would be any good at all.  Is there a solution to this problem?  Or is it just really really hard to make a good trailer?

Last things first: how trailers get it wrong with giving us too little
Horror movie trailers do this all the time.  They give us snippets of scary scenes punctuated with quick fades to black, with shots that get shorter and shorter until they climax with a long shot of silence followed by something creepy happening.  Like someone whispering something or a random scream or some other contrived thing.  But almost invariably, they will leave out any actual plot points.  In front of that TERMINATOR screening there was a trailer for INSIDIOUS 3 (or maybe it wasn’t INSIDIOUS 3–I can’t remember for sure now–isn’t that telling?) and it included clips of people running around a house being scared but didn’t bother to clue in the viewer regarding what the hell the set-up was.  I can’t think of a recent horror movie trailer that hasn’t been like this.
The trailer for INSIDIOUS 3. This is probably not the 
trailer I saw in front of TERMINATOR: GENISYS. 
Like it matters. This still pretty much fits my criticism.
Trailers for dramatic movies will show us all kinds of dramatic scenes that may or may not explain the plot to us.  The trailer for THE JUDGE painted a picture of a father and a son who’s relationship seemed so dysfunctional as to not be interesting to me.  Maybe I’ve seen too many father/son estrangement/restrangement(is that a word?) movies in my life, but that trailer simply failed at giving me a reason to see that movie. 

The trailer for THE JUDGE starring Robert Downey Jr.
and Robert Duvall. I feel like this trailer could have
been better if RDJ’s  character were actually likable. 
Or if the trailer focused on ways this film is different
from other father/son conflict movies. 
When a trailer gives too much–and insults your intelligence
I haaaaate stupid movies.  So, maybe I am biased, but when a trailer shows me scenes where people are goofy or silly without establishing some sort of context, the trailer loses me.  I need more than just silly or goofy to make me laugh.  I mean, I’m not a 5 year-old.  Sure, prat-falls and some limited silliness can still reach me, but the stuff we feed our kids is just pitiful (see: THE MINIONS trailer).  The stuff we feed ourselves can be pretty bad, too.  Did you see the trailer for the latest VACATION movie?  What the hell was that?  Why was Chris Hemsworth walking around in just his underpants with a fake penis down them?  Because it’s a “joke,” not because it actually makes any comic sense at all.  And what is funny about a hot model in a hot car getting into a car accident? It makes the original VACATION look like the CITIZEN KANE of comedy. 

The trailer for the new VACATION movie.
I must be a comedy snob or something because I 
think this movie looks incredibly stupid but clearly
someone thinks this is funny.  Do you?

Sure people will laugh, but would you see the new VACATION in the theater?  Or save $15 and wait for Netlfix? I thought the idea behind trailers was to put butts in seats.  Isn’t it?  Maybe not…
When a trailer gives too much–and ruins it for you
My favorite example of a trailer that spoils the whole damn movie for viewers takes us WAY back in time.  It’s the trailer for LORENZO’S OIL, which came out in 1992.  The trailer was made by a person who clearly thought showing every emotional beat of the movie would tug our heart strings all the way to the box office.  Instead, it told a complete story of a pair of parents who discover their child is sick, who then discover there is no cure, but that there is some sort of experimental cure, which they try, which works and THE END.
I still remember sitting in my theater seat after seeing it and thinking “well, that trailer saved me the effort of actually watching the movie!”

The trailer to LORENZO’S OIL (1992) starring Susan
Sarandon and Nick Nolte. OK, so it’s not exactly how I
remember it, but close enough to make my point.
Why would I pay full price for a ticket to see this movie
when the trailer gives me all the feelz all by itself?
Sidenote: LORENZO’S OIL was directed by GEORGE MILLER.
Yes, the same George Miller that directed HAPPY FEET and 
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (and the other MAD MAX movies)
and BABE. What kind of film CAN’T that man direct?!?


What is a trailer really supposed to do, though?

You’d think the answer to this question would be obvious.  You’d think that the goal of a trailer would be to encourage people to see a movie.  If that’s true, then why do trailer’s suck so often?
They all look alike.  They all sound alike. 
How can a trailer sell you on a movie if it is edited almost identically to a dozen other trailers? 
I can’t help but wonder if the number of trailers that theaters run before a movie might have something to do with viewers having trouble remembering the movies they advertise.  I bet if there were two or three trailers before a movie instead of five or six, we’d have an easier time remembering them.
Fun fact: Did you know that the reason they’re called trailers is because they used to be run after movies?  It’s TRUE.
I feel like I’d have an easier time remembering movies if the trailers were still trailed the movie.  Or if the trailer was really good–that would help me remember a movie.

The trailer to TERMINATOR: GENISYS. SPOILER ALERT!
This trailer gives away a major plot twist that happens
early-ish in the film. The catch is, that twist is what got
me interested enough to see the film in theaters.
The good news is that, while one surprise was ruined,
So sad that I wrote a piece about it.
But I’m digressing.  On purpose, really.  Why? Because I’m putting off answering the inevitable question:
OK, Pete! Trailers suck–how do YOU think trailers should be cut?
I wrestled with this question before I started writing this piece.  My answer is lame:  I don’t know.
I’d like to say that making a good movie trailer is like making a good TV commercial.  However, you can’t give away the plot to laundry detergent.  I found myself considering the idea that making a good movie trailer might be harder than making a good movie.
About the best I can suggest is: cut together clips that set up the movie’s story and then STOP.  An example of a good trailer cut this way would be to cut one for STAR WARS that would show clips of Leia hiding the plans to the Death Star in R2, Darth Vader demanding to know where the plans are, then a shot of the escape pod escaping, then the empty escape pod in the desert with R2 and Threepio in the foreground, followed by Luke buying the droids from the Jawas.  Then, maybe a quick montage of gun battles, X-Wing dogfights and that’s it.
I wonder how a modern trailer editor would have cut a trailer for STAR WARS.  They’d probably give too much in the form of spoilers.

The original trailer to the original STAR WARS.
Uhmmmm… wow, this is pretty bad.
“The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.”
So, trailers have always been crap?!?
Closing thoughts on the trouble with trailers
The funny thing is, I decide if I’m going to see a movie based on its premise alone.  I avoid trailers most of the time because I feel like they’ll only turn me off of a movie.  I saw the trailer for PROMETHEUS after I saw PROMETHEUS and was like “NOW YOU TELL ME!” 
Though, I probably would have gone to see it anyway because it’s a hard scifi movie and there aren’t enough of those.

Do trailers get people into theaters?  I don’t know.  I think most of them don’t.

Saving FANTASTIC FOUR: Break the Formula

One of the big problems with Hollywood has always been its urge to make it easy for itself.  Why actually take the effort every time to write a good script when you can plug variables into a formula and BANG you have a shootable script people will put their butts in theater seats for?

Put simply: Formulas don’t work.  Not by themsleves.

Sure, they may seem to work for some films, but how likely are those “success stories” to be rewatched?  The key to a crowd-pleasing movie that is also a good movie is to have a formula guide you as a writer, but not to have it dominate your choices.  

FANTASTIC FOUR can be boiled down to an equation.

Young White Male + Problem that Needs to Be Solved + Complications + Implementing the Solution = Climax

Aside from the most basic of backstories given to two of the characters (Ben and Johnny) there is nothing of ANY interest included in this film.

No spoiler alerts for this piece: There is nothing in FANTASTIC FOUR that could be considered a spoiler

2005 > 2015

There simply isn’t anything in this movie that would spoil your enjoyment of it.  Not just because this film really isn’t enjoyable, but because there are no surprises, no twists, no plot points, even.  The things that occur are almost as simple as that formula.  The hero is picked to continue his work, his work reaches a milestone, he and his team get powers.  A threat appears (and it’s Victor Von Doom!) and they deal with him.  Did any of that spoil the movie for you?

Not only is the plot so sparse you could build a condo development on it, the character development is at a bare minimum.

Ben’s dad runs a junk yard, his brother’s a jerk and his mom is a hag.

Johnny rejects his own brilliant genes and intelligence and is an adrenaline junkie, reliving his favorite moments from those FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies in real life.

Reed is trying to build a teleporter and he’s awkward.  That’s it.

Sue is…uh… …into music?  And like the Smart Teen Girl in TOMORROWLAND is just generically smart.  She has no specific identity beyond the role of a token smart white female.

Oh and Von Doom is… attracted to Sue.  It’s probably the closest thing we get to a character dynamic as Sue seems awkward about how he clearly is attracted to him, and he does seem a little creepy about it, but beyond that, he does zero to conflict with anyone.

Something Happens and Then They Get Their Powers

The something is that Reed gets his teleporter to work with the money and facilities provided by the Baxter Foundation.  They get drunk and teleport themselves to “another dimension”.  As a science geek, I have a huge problem with the generic use of that phrase, but I will skip it for now.  Must stay focused.

So, predictably enough, while in this other dimension, they run into trouble and need to escape in a rush.  When they get back, they all have their powers but they had to leave Von Doom behind in the other dimension.  See, cuz, the badguy isn’t all that bad if all he’s doing is creepily, but harmlessly, oggling the only woman in the movie.  I’m not being sarcastic.  He is the least threatening badguy ever which makes his random rants later on seem all the more contrived.

If plot points are utterly unnecessary and forgettable, do they count as plot points?

After they get their powers, there’s some stuff that happens, but ultimately, someone decides that the answer to curing them of their powers lies back in that other dimension (not that they tried anything else).  If only there were some scientists around who could do some science stuff and maybe find a cure.

Sigh.

So, they go back to the other dimension where Von Doom (he survived! WOW! Who saw that coming?!?) is now really angry because… um, not sure.  He decides he is going to destroy Earth and has crazy powers (think Tetsuo from AKIRA) and is basically, unstoppable. Of course, in about five seconds, our heroes manage to stop him.

Please note: I have yet to make a single comparison of FANTASTIC FOUR to the comic book it is based on (and of which, I am a fan)

That’s the really sad thing about FANTASTIC FOUR.  It’s worse than any FANTASTIC FOUR film that has come before it.  In fact, it’s way worse.  The Tim Story films were really fun movies, in general (and are underrated in my opinion), but are downright masterpieces compared to Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR.  Hell, the 1994 FANTASTIC FOUR movie Roger Corman produced was better and that was a bad b-movie that was never released.

Topical, fun, fantastical, Prince Namor, AKA the
Sub-Mariner would make a great badguy for a
FANTASTIC FOUR movie.

How to make a FANTASTIC FOUR movie that doesn’t suck

Make a god damn effort!  Sure, every super-hero film is formulaic.  Hell, every story has some good cliché in it.  But don’t just take Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT formula and leave it alone.  Throw some imagination at it!  Even if you don’t stick to the source material, don’t just poop out a series of weak plot points that you string together ling dingleberries and call it a script!

If I had no loyalty to the source material, I’d actually have a bit of trouble writing this.  See, the source material is strong.  Really strong.  After all, there is a reason FF has been around for over half-a-century.  Part of what gives it that staying power is that it has four basic springboards for truly fantastic storytelling baked right into its premise–its characters.

The reason they are called the “Fantastic Four” isn’t really because they each have these amazing super-powers.  It’s because they’re each brilliant in their chosen fields but together they are fantastic.

However, they aren’t perfect.  Reed is the classic absent-minded professor, Ben is not the brightest bulb in the lamp store, Johnny is a hot head, and Sue is, well, usually underwritten. But come on, it’s not so hard to write a female character. Just pick a discipline of science that would be of use in a story that involves fantastical feats of future-science and don’t let her do anything girly.

On the other hand, Ben is a brilliant pilot, Johnny is a really brave guy, while Sue and Reed have been known to be exploring science that is 20-50 years ahead of where actual science is.

You really have a lot to work with.

Then consider the 50+ years of stories you can pull from. Doctor Doom, Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Skrull (aliens), and one character that would be particularly timely right now, the Sub-Mariner.  What better time to use ol’ Prince Namor? We surface dwellers are poisoning every part of our planet–the most of which is the sea.

In fact, the Sub-Mariner could ultimately have the same goal as Von Doom in FANTASTIC FOUR (destroy the human world before humans destroy his world), only in this story, it would make sense.

OK, Namor having a thing for Sue (and vice versa)
 is a little cliche but, let’s be honest–wouldn’t you?!
Why can’t a married woman be portrayed in a
movie being attracted to another man? Especially,
when that man is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. 

OK, so that’s what I would do for my basic story.  I’d basically do the original story pretty close to how it appeared in the comic with a few minor changes to make it more modern.  Essentially, Namor would scout out the defenses of the human world, in the process meet Sue and fall for her due to her beauty, brilliant mind, and willingness to be outspoken.  Atlantis is still a very sexist culture.  He returns home and is reminded that Atlantians are in no state to wage a war.  Global Warming has caused so many of his people to die off that he must turn to terrorist attacks on the surface world to change things.  The FF is then tasked with finding some way to kill Namor.  Of course, Reed doesn’t want to kill him and neither does Sue.  Thing and Johnny are down with it, and after some fights with Namor and his lackeys, realize that this is not going to end without a mess.  Seeing his people dying at home, he is driven to bring a bomb into Manhattan to blow up, not only the FF, but the entire city.  But since he’s in love with Sue, he tries to kidnap her and in the process she discovers the plot and turns on Namor.    In the end, the FF works together to find the bomb–they can’t shut it down in time, they dump it out, in the ocean where it explodes, killing even more sea life.  Reed pledges the FF to coming up with scientific solutions to Global Warming and to helping save those that still live in Atlantis.

Yep, that’s right–I did not mention anything about an origin story. Why? Well, read my piece from last week on how NOT to write a pilot (http://petesaves.nichollspete.com/2015/08/the-problem-with-pilots-and-how-solving.html) for a detailed explanation, but the nutshell version is this: you don’t need one. If you really think your audience is too thick to follow a story without knowing its absolute beginning, do a montage in the title sequence or add a quick flashback or two.  Any writer worth their salt can fill in blanks as the story goes.  Like I said in my post last week, there’s a reason George Lucas started shooting STAR WARS movies with episode four.

There is one other thing I’d do out of respect for the source material. I’d ask a question.

What is the core idea behind the source material?

Sure, the world of the Fantastic Four has it’s cheesy
moments, but there are also moments like this.
There are reasons good super villains do what they
do–it’s not just because they’re crazy or want to see
the world burn. It’s because they’ve suffered at the
hands of others who think of themselves as
righteous.  How can ANYONE think Namor
wouldn’t be a perfect parable to modern terrorism?!

This is the hardest thing for any mainstream writer to accept when sitting down to write a genre film based on a pre-existing property: you must respect the original idea at the core of the source material.  It’s doubly hard to accept that about making a FANTASTIC FOUR movie since, let’s be honest, the comic has it’s fair share of cheesy moments.  That’s not to say there aren’t some really wonderful dramatic moments, too.

The thing is, the whole point of making a movie or TV show or even a comic book or a novel, based on a property from another medium is to capitalize off of that property’s pre-existing audience. If you don’t honor the reason they like the propery, you’ll lose the most vocal fans of that source material.  Without them, you might as well just make a movie that isn’t based on something else at that point.

However, in the case of movies like FANTASTIC FOUR, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven that if you honor that original core, you won’t just please the fans, but you will also make good movies.

With FANTASTIC FOUR, the core is all about science allowing us to experience the truly fantastic.  The lab in which Reed perfects his teleporter in Josh Tranks FF movie was the opposite of fantastic science.  It was boring, drab, uninteresting science that looked a lot like your average cube farm with three refrigerators in the middle of everything.  The computers had keyboards and small displays.  The computers on the AGENTS OF SHIELD TV show look cooler than this. And there’s nothing particularly fantastic about SHIELD’s computers.  So, the ante needs to be upped seriously in a FANTASTIC FOUR film.  Then there’s the feeling of wonder this fantastic science should bring the audience.  This isn’t science class–this is science adventure.

Final Thoughts on Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR and the Action Movie Formula

1994 > 2015
(way cheesier, but still better)

Before starting this piece, I hadn’t heard anything about the on-set strife between director Josh Trank and the producers.  I’ve read that the studio had huge problems with his final cut.  I’ve also heard that he and the lead actor did not get along in the least.  This is unfortunate–but ultimately, the sign of a good director is someone who knows when to put up a fight and when to compromise.  Not all compromise is bad.  I can’t imagine that there wasn’t a middle ground that could be found with the producers.  But who knows?  I think it’s a shame, regardless of what the truth is.  Though, I think, it is the responsibility of the director to do the work the producers want him or her to do.  Voice your opinion, do what you can to convince them, but ultimately back down because, they are your bosses.  Get yourself locked out of the editing suite and you can’t have any say in how the film ends up looking.

Ultimately, this film and too many others rely on this basic formula for making an action movie.  I get it–life is easier with instructions.  Life is also more boring when all you do is follow the instructions (Come on, you’ve see THE LEGO MOVIE, haven’t you?).  So, use the formula but break it into pieces and then glue it back together with imagination–character development, plot points and devices that are rarely used or are, at least, unexpected.  I don’t know if Josh Trank did this only to have the producers and/or studio come in and edit all of his film’s good moments out.  All I can do is judge the film as it was released.

So, maybe this is yet another example of Fox execs screwing up a movie.  Personally, I think Fox should do what Sony did with Spider-Man and do a deal with Marvel Studios to fold the FF into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Clearly, Marvel knows what they are doing with super-hero movies and pretty much everyone else has little to no clue.

Was Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR entertaining?  No.  Would it have been better if it was done my way?  Hell, it would have been better if it had been done anyone else’s way.

The Problem with Pilots and How Solving it Will Make All TV Shows Better

Unlike a lot of pilots, the first episode and the first season of
BEING HUMAN did not suffer from Not Enough Planning
Syndrome.  Sadly, later seasons did. 🙁

There is a general understanding in Hollywood that TV pilots just aren’t very good.  There’s a saying in screenwriting circles that says “always start your script as deep into the story as you can.”

In Hollywood, today, the former is embraced while the latter is ignored.  At least, that’s how it seems to me. I’ve seen several first episodes of series that seem to have no idea what they’re doing.  When ever I mention this to other writers, what I usually hear back is the excuse: “Well, pilots always suck because they haven’t figured out what the story is or who the characters are.”

I wish so many of us writers weren’t so eager to defend half-ass writing.  I get that all that really matters is if people watch, but aren’t your story and characters things you should work out before you hand in your “finished” script?  And if you have a clear plan for them in mind, don’t you think that will make your pilot and any episodes that follow stronger and more likely to get an episode order?

Seriously: how can you defend the idea that it’s OK to flesh out your story and characters further into the series?  Too many shows suffer from Not Enough Planning Syndrome.  It’s so easy (though it’s also time consuming) to just sit down and answer questions about your story and about your characters.  Just make choices.  Your bosses/fellow writers will let you know if they don’t work or if they are just horrible directions to go in.  Figure out where your plot is going beyond the first episode and even beyond the first season.  The question to ask yourself is this: what is the long arc of both my story and my characters?

When Not Enough Planning Syndrome Strikes, We Are All the Victims!

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (the remake) started off really
strong but ultimately left this viewer unsatisfied. It’s safe to
assume that most viewers felt the same as the BSG spin-off
series, CAPRICA, only lasted one season.  q

A BBC show I fell in love with years ago was BEING HUMAN.  The first season was incredibly well written.  It seemed like the writer(s) had a clear plan and really had a  sense of who these characters were and where they were headed.  If the series had never gotten another season, I’d have been disappointed, but satisfied.  Well, the show did get a second season and, sadly, it was nowhere near as good as the first.  This isn’t Bad Sequel Syndrome–this is Not Enough Planning Syndrome.  I’m just guessing here, but the creator of BEING HUMAN was probably a little surprised that he got another season ordered and didn’t want to keep the Beeb waiting.  I don’t blame him, but his second season suffered for it.  And because he didn’t sit down and work out a long arc to span the next two or three seasons right then, the rest of the show’s run really suffered for it.  It suffered so much that by the final season, they’d cycled out all the original characters.  That’s right, none of the original characters were on the show by the end of the show’s run.  That is a sign of a serious lack of planning.

Sure, the show stayed on the air for 5 seasons (5 BBC seasons, which, for this show, were no more than 8 episodes per) but who is going to want to watch it again?  Or buy the DVD or download the show from iTunes?

I see shows making this same mistake in the US.  The BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot series insisted in the opening titles of every episode that the enemy robots had a plan.  Well, that plan was never really explained on the series and I have a feeling, the writers never actually had that plan.  Why else were the last couple seasons so mediocre and the finale so contrived and heavy-handed?  Like BEING HUMAN, BATTLESTAR started off really strong.  But, like BEING HUMAN, they just didn’t plan well enough, or far enough, ahead.

This is why we can’t have nice things

Like BLINDSPOT, the show builds in male dominance in the first episode,
further eroding the whole point of being a super-hero and thus making
viewers less likely to stick around.  Why would anyone want to watch a show
about a super-powered alien who has to ask permission from a human man
before she kicks some ass? You can have this dynamic in the past of the
character, but in the present, it’s just stifling for the writing and the viewers
who just want SUPER-HEROES, ACTION and FUN!

This year, I’ve seen a number of pilots that made it to series despite seeming to be, very clearly, still in their development stages.  One pilot seemed to excuse it’s own lack of planning by giving all of its characters amnesia, which is weird, since the show is based on a comic book.  Maybe they’re ignoring the comic’s plot?  In several pilots I’ve seen in 2015, we’re stuck, sitting through origin stories that 1) aren’t all that original and 2) violate that second thing I mentioned above, in my first paragraph: start your script as far into the story as you can.

Can someone tell me why the pilot to the new SUPERGIRL series starts before Kara actually decides to be a super-hero?  Why is she a bumbling goofball?  Why is she still in Superman’s shadow?   Everyone watching knows who Supergirl is, there is no reason to waste time showing how or even why she decided to be a super-hero.  Better to save origin stories like hers for when the writers run out of ideas.  Besides, the origin story they give Kara establishes that she’s been directionless for years, since she’s been on Earth.  Why not have her be a competent hero from the start?  Won’t that be more likely to inspire viewers to stick around?

In BLINDSPOT the lead female character
literally has the male love-interest’s name
written on her. Talk about a lame origin
story! Let me know when she has her free
will back!  Insult is added to injury with the
casting of her love interest. This guy is a
boringly handsome tough-guy (#cliché)
with two expressions: squint and non-squint. 

I knew I was addicted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when I saw Steve Rogers be incredibly competent within minutes of getting his super powers.  He still grows as a person, but not from a level of incompetence.  Sure, in the beginning he’s a runt, but from frame one, his heart and mind are already Captain America.  His arc then becomes about how he deals with his powers and his role as a hero.

Meanwhile, the pilot for BLINDSPOT  begins with another amnesiac.  This one wakes up in Times Square, naked, covered in tattoos and relies on FBI agents to help her, despite her quickly discovering she is, in fact, Jason Bourne.  Oh, now that’s inspiring!  I can’t wait to see her ask her FBI handler for permission to be her bad-ass self in every episode.

Watching our heroes bumble through beginner mistakes is generally depressing and un-fun.  Waiting for the story to get to the event or idea mentioned in its title can be frustrating and perplexing (why is DARK MATTER called DARK MATTER, exactly???).  There is a reason George Lucas started with episode 4 when he started making STAR WARS movies. It was because, as we now know, episodes 1-3 just weren’t very good (not that I could not have written them so they were, but I digress).

Even if you have one of those great premises that is so wide-open that it would allow for an infinite supply of episode outlines, it still pays to plan.

Take PERSON OF INTEREST.  This is a show that has a very simple premise: guy builds a magic computer that feeds him the social security number of someone who is statistically likely to kill or be killed–it’s then our heroes’ job to save them or get them arrested.  Sounds perfect for a series, doesn’t it?  It could just be a bad/good guy of-the-week show.  But it isn’t.  It’s got a really tight story arc that has driven itself through several seasons of really good TV.  That long arc isn’t even evident in the pilot, but it is clear that they had a lot in mind in that first episode.  What’s great about that pilot is that it isn’t an origin story.  It covers how one of the show regulars comes to join the guy with the computer, but he has had a life before the pilot (a life that does come back to haunt him) and, as we eventually discover much later on in the series, he is replacing someone else.  So, the writers on PERSON OF INTEREST clearly understand that you don’t start your story at the very beginning.

I know–it seems counterintuitive, but it really does make a lot of sense.

I ignored PERSON OF INTEREST for a long time. I wrote it
off as a typical cop show with two white males with savior
complexes as the leads.  Which is what it is.  What I didn’t
know was how it would grow and evolve into a pretty well-
written show with a pretty diverse supporting cast. This
is most likely thanks to, you guessed it, planning well and
planning ahead. 

Remember THE X-FILES?  It’s first episode is an origin story, in a sense, but only in that it shows how Mulder and Scully met.  Scully was an active FBI agent before the episode begins and Mulder had been working on the X-Files for at least some amount of time.  From there, we get right into the grit of investigating unexplained phenomena.  Like PERSON OF INTEREST, the horizon seems wide open, but already, the show is laying the groundwork for the eventual long story arc that will carry us through several seasons of the show.

More recently, the folks behind ARROW have done really interesting stuff with structure.  The pilot starts with the rich guy putting on a vigilante costume and at the beginning of the story.

So, in the first episode of ARROW, the lead character is just returning from spending 5 years on an island where he mastered his abilities as an expert archer.  However, before the story gets too far in that first episode, we cut to five years earlier and see the much more immature character, before he became this stoic bad-ass he is in the present day of the story.  This isn’t so much a flashback as it is a deliberate narrative structure that manages to show us how Arrow came to be, and also gives us a more skilled version of the character so we can have fulfilled the promise of the show–quality vigilante violence.  Beyond that, the structure allows the more skilled version of the character to continue growing.  It’s really an impressive structure and I don’t know how they keep it going from episode to episode.  I’m glad more shows don’t copy it because I don’t think most shows could pull it off.  I know I’d have a hard time.

It took me a while to recognize what ARROW was doing,
structurally, but once I figured it out, I was hooked. It’s like
watching season 1 and season 6 at the same time because
half the show takes place 5 years before the other half.
Name one other show that does this.  I can’t think of any.

One thing though, the fact that the writers of ARROW can make it work and have for four seasons, pretty much guarantees that they have a plan and have pulled their point-of-view way back so they can really see that long arc.  Based on their choice to spin-off a FLASH series, a LEGENDS OF TOMORROW series, and a VIXEN animated series, I think those guys really did think things through.

Either that or they’re the most amazing story improvisers to ever work in TV.

The moral of the story is…

Plan.  Don’t think of a pilot script as just something you’ll bang out with the assumption that it will get changed a bunch before it gets shot.  You might as well make it good now.  Or, if you subscribe to the idea that you have to leave it imperfect so those asshole producers out there can “make it better,” fine.  Do what you need to in order to sell the thing, but have a plan in your head or on your hard drive, just in case.  There’s another rule in Hollywood: always have something else ready.  If you have a pilot ready, why not have that long arc ready, too?

What’s even better is that planning ahead lets you see where the best place to start your show is.  Maybe it is with the catalyst.  Maybe it’s down the road when the lead character has a new person enter their life that allows them to look at said life in a new way.  Maybe it’s even later when that person is killed in a car accident.  Regardless, a plan is a road map for your show.  It not only shows your destination, but gives you options as to the best places to depart.

Do some series end up being really good after their pilot sucked?  Sure.  But I don’t think anyone has counted the number of pilots that never made it to series.  After all, wouldn’t you be more likely to sell the show in the first place if you actually had a plan?