Everyone does it when they start out. You come up with an idea for a movie, toil and sweat (mostly in your own head) over the script, and painstakingly make the film come to life. Then…nobody cares. No applause, laughter, or pregnant sighs of reflection. What went wrong? Maybe the audience or script reader just doesn’t get it. Maybe the culture can’t handle your groundbreaking art. Or, you were never told or should have listened when you heard “Your movie idea sucks.”
There are so many worn-out trends in small potatoes filmmaking because there’s no real repercussion for making something bad anymore. Films don’t cost anything but time now. Point your smart phone, download DaVinci Resolve for free, and presto – instant malformed movie project.
People’s early film work is often exploratory. It’s more about skill sharpening and finding your voice than producing a quality product. You can practice to your heart’s content! However, now your immature works are in danger of being put on display for the entire Internet before you, or the project, are truly ready.
Lest you think I ride on a high horse, I am no exception. Many of these film types I’ve made, so I speak from experience. I stand proudly in my position of never showing them the light of day again. Because they suck.
But you’re going to make it anyway, aren’t you? So to help control the train wreck, see if any of these 10 titles would fit your movie, and you’ll know for sure that it probably sucks:
1. People Wander Around and Philosophize – The Movie
Indie filmmakers often mix up the terms artist and auteur. An artist creates a product using the technical skills of art. An auteur is more about being a control freak. If you’re both, great. But lots of first-time filmmakers don’t realize they have the control freak part down pat, but haven’t really figured out the skilled artistic part enough to justify their authority.
They also don’t have very much money, if any at all. What happens when you put these two elements together to birth a screenplay? Characters wander around, often in the filmmaker’s home town, and talk about….nothing. No plot, no conflict, no growth arcs…merely the musings of under-baked characters on unconnected ideas.
You shouldn’t make a philosophy film, although maybe you need to – it’s just that nobody needs or wants to watch it. These navel-gazing “stories” are often touted as raw, experimental, or insightful, when really they’re just self-serving and droll. Indie filmmakers (especially first time director-writers) are rarely as clever as they think. The idea just sucks. A coherent plot with clear conflict is always better than “deep” observations. Movies can be made inexpensively without being cheap. Don’t sacrifice capital in the story department.
See also this film’s direct-to-DVD spin-off: People Smoke Weed and Philosophize – The Movie.
2. People Commit Suicide – The Movie
Search “sad short film” in YouTube and you are bound to find many of these types of projects. The story goes like this: a depressed/isolated/shunned person decides to end their life. Then…they do. This is not a movie! A single event a story does not make. It’s as if the movie skipped the actual movie and went straight to the end – without time to learn and love the character, we don’t care if they kill themselves. These type of projects instill the same feelings in me as a bloated PowerPoint meeting or “hamburger” made from soy; they all suck and make me want to kill myself.
I believe these projects come about as a sort of emotional exercise for the filmmaker to work out inner demons or what have you. We artists are a touchy, strange bunch. The problem is that an enjoyable, successful film isn’t a counseling session. The only similarity between making a film and attending therapy is that they likely cost the same. Also the tears – but from boredom.
3. Someone is Gay – You Won’t Believe The Twist
Today is June 29th, 2021. A character with unconventional sexuality is one of the oldest character traits out there. There isn’t anything mechanically wrong with using sexuality as a character trait, but that’s just what it is: a character trait. NOT A MOVIE. Not only is this “plot” rehashed for the billionth time once you write it, it isn’t even controversial or shocking any longer. Which means your movie just sucks.
For whatever reason first-time filmmakers use this as a go-to for their maiden voyage into published works when they aren’t using the first two choices on this list. Compare the countless parodies of Michael Bay flicks: just adding explosions does not make a good story. Just adding any element for wow factor does nothing if it doesn’t support a strong core narrative. And again, this one isn’t even really a wow factor and hasn’t been for decades. A character is not a story. A character trait is not a story.
4. A Hitman Has Feelings – An Introspective
A character’s internal goal is not a story!
This one is the action-movie equivalent of number 1. Except instead of random people it’s a hitman, or a cop, or a serial killer, or someone who could be doing many exciting visual things but instead muses on the meaning of life and how they wish it could be different for them given their solitary, cold profession. Maybe they shoot someone or do something visual. Probably not though.
Do you see a pattern yet? Indie filmmakers try to be deep and evocative by mere presence of subject matter or archetypes because we can’t afford expensive scenes or good actors. But we don’t realize why the subject matter is deep in the first place and how it can be represented with external visual story. Craft an external story that mirrors or supports the internal struggle, and you’re on your way. Focus on internal struggle only and you guarantee your movie idea sucks.
5. Twitter – The Motion Picture
Similar to the Philosophize film, this one is equally pretentious but instead reads like a personal blog, captured the moment the screenplay was written. Written as pseudo-documentaries (because a real documentary would require actual research), these films are basically editorial pieces on whatever current event holds public attention at the time. These are the get-rich-quick schemes of movie making: find a popular topic and your film will be popular, right?
Here’s the rub: if the film ever gets made (as an indie project, unlikely), by the time the production goes to camera the subject matter is already stale. Twitter trends have a lifespan of what, a week? Hot controversies last maybe four months before the public’s attention shifts elsewhere? Whatever the timeframe, let’s just say it’s a lot shorter than it takes to make and market your film. Your movie idea sucks before you even start! Do something you genuinely care about, not what everyone else does.
Don’t make Opinion: The Movie either. Just write a solid story that makes a point as a by-product. Make a true documentary with legitimate sources if you need to use your journalism chops.
6. Copyright Infringement – The Fan Film
Why write your own story when you can steal it? This one should be obvious. But you’d be surprised how often filmmakers seriously think they should write a script or even produce an entire movie based on an intellectual property that isn’t theirs. A core concept is tragically overlooked on these ventures: someone else already made it, and likely better. Yours just sucks.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s great utility in writing or even making a movie based on a property you don’t own the rights to. But after you sharpen your skills and play in the sandbox for a while, wouldn’t you like to make some money and establish credibility? Won’t happen with material you don’t control. Often the project can’t even be on the Internet after a DMCA violation notice is issued by the rights holder. So what’s the point?
Might as well write your own story that’s good enough for others to rip off.
7. Delusion – A $200M idea made for $20
I’ve got everything lined up, all I need is the money.
Every filmmaker thinks or says this at least once in their career. Somehow, some way, we just know our film is perfect and a surefire success. All we need to figure out is that pesky budget thing. Thing is, if your idea (i.e. the entire production) were so good, you’d be bankrolled. The reality is that the production organization, and your movie idea, sucks.
Welcome to the club. Every filmmaker has to scrape together the budget to pull their movie off. Those who refuse to budget or re-write to fit the budget shall suffer. Even high-profile films have issues finding money. Lawrence Truman (producer of American History X, The Thing, and The Graduate, among many others) says to “cut your garment to fit the cloth”. In other words, if you have $700, make a $700 film. That’s the difference between professionalism and day-dreaming.
But no, that makes too much sense. Instead of fundraising or budgeting at all, we write big action scenes and fantastic locations, then film them without stunt people in the woods behind our house. Now I am the world’s biggest advocate for creative and inexpensive special effects. I’m not the only one – all of the greats (before computer animation) did the same thing. Inexpensive is not the same thing as cheap.
8. Your Life – A True Story
No. Just no. You shouldn’t make this story, let alone movie.
Most famous people in the world have biopics made about them, not by them. The reason being that you lose all objectivity very easily on the project. During the development of a Your Life story, phrases such as “we can’t cut that out, that’s how it really happened!” emerge. Pedantic obsession and ego take front seat to story and compelling drama. All in the name of making a “true story”. By then, you guessed it: your movie idea sucks.
If Your Life is so exciting that it deserves to be a movie, somebody will option the rights. Which means you won’t be the one making it, anyways.
9. Witty Dialogue – The Stage Play
Your film isn’t the milk scene from Inglourious Basterds. Your script has too much dialogue and therefore feels like I’m watching the evening news talking heads instead of cinema. Your movie idea sucks because all it does is mimic style without knowing why. You’re not Tennessee Williams, you’re not Martin McDonagh, and you’re not keeping people’s attention because nothing’s happening in your story!
Because of his early success as a scrappy “outsider” type of indie filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the single most copied filmmaker in low-budget circles. This is not a good thing because newsflash: nobody is Tarantino except Tarantino. His dialogue is much more complex, witty, and relevant than a casual examination reveals. Even if this is obvious to a filmmaker, usually the next point isn’t: Tarantino wrote it, therefore only Tarantino could have written it that specific way. This is the same for every screenplay ever written, but the point here is to not copy something just because it worked. We don’t need any more films where people do nothing but talk!
By the way, Tarantino hasn’t made a low-budget film in almost 20 years. Not exactly the template I’d follow today.
10. A Slice of Life – An evening listening to your elderly neighbor forget a story half-way through telling it but you keep listening in order to be polite
Slice of life. More like slice my wrists.
This is the single most abused term in filmmaking history, bar none. Once again, anything that professes to be a Slice of Life story must, indeed, contain a story. These types of movies are often a watered-down blend of Witty Dialogue, Your Life, and Philosophize films, without really being any of them. You want to show the audience an “authentic” experience? Why not invite them to your house to watch you do the dishes, go to the bank, and fall asleep in front of the TV? Because real life is BORING. You aren’t Richard Linklater, and your movie idea sucks.
Does anybody remember Alfred Hitchcock? “I’d rather have a slice of chocolate cake,” was what he famously said regarding this exact subject. Slice of Life pictures are some sort of weird, soft voyueristic look into something that nobody gets excited over. Imagine if you peeped into your neighbor’s bedroom at night but all you saw was somebody folding socks. That’s what a Slice of Life movie is – folding socks. Don’t make a movie about folding socks.
Your movie idea sucks. Now what?
Write something else! Make another project! Filmmaking is an iterative process, from the macro to the micro. Every time you go through the motions of making a movie, you sharpen your skills and pick up new ones. When there aren’t millions of dollars on the line, you can afford to get messy and learn through the school of Hard Knox. So don’t be ashamed, go make your sucky movie! But don’t be surprised if nobody loves it but you.