We’re entering a new age of moviemaking. Or, rather, an extension of one in which we’ve already been living; as the New York Times notes in this illuminating new piece, only one of last year’s top 20 grossing movies was based on a wholly original screenplay. Contrast that to 1996, when nine of them were live-action movies with original scripts. The times have already changed, but they’re now they’re beginning to contort. Because what happens when you’re working with existing content is that you begin to run out of it—once you’re rebooting CHiPS as a gay panic comedy, you know you’re running out of content. This breeds desperation.
One of the prime subjects of Alex French’s “How to Make a Movie Out Of Anything— Even A Mindless Phone Game” is Tripp Vinson, a Hollywood producer that’s worked on some of the most forgettable movies ever made (“What’s Your Number,” “The Number 23,” and “After the Sunset” among them). Vinson admits that, in this curious era, he’s “forced to look at everything as though it could be I.P.” French notes that this includes “nonnarrative IP: stuff with big followings but no stories, or even characters, already cooked in.”
While this is the thinking behind the universally scorned Emoji Movie, it’s not a brand new concept. The success of The Lego Movie really got things moving, and then a movie about an Ouija board was successful enough to spawn a sequel. Now, Hasbro, the company behind Ouija, is said to be developing everything from Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering to Hungry Hungry Hippos and Play-Doh for film adaptations.
While this may all sound cynical and depressing, the biggest takeaway here is that by building films out of popular IP with no stories attached, what we’re ending up with are original screenplays. Stories, characters, settings, and mythologies have to be drawn up whole cloth. Vinson, for example, hired two screenwriters—J. P. Lavin and Chad Damiani—to write a script for Fruit Ninja, a mobile game where a ninja slices up pineapples.
French writes of their process:
Early on, Lavin and Damiani struggled to find a narrative entry point. They started with the premise that there was a magic book and an evil fruit overlord. Vinson rejected that idea. Their next concept involved scientific experiments on fruit gone wrong. Vinson didn’t like that either. Eventually, a working narrative emerged: Every couple of hundred years, a comet flies by Earth, leaving in its wake a parasite that descends on a farm and infects the fruit. The infected fruit then search for a human host. The only thing keeping humanity from certain doom is a secret society of ninjas who kill the fruit and rescue the hosts by administering the ‘‘anti-fruit.’’ The produce-slaying saviors are recruited from the population based on their skill with the Fruit Ninja game. With civilization in imminent danger, a cadre of unlikely heroes materializes — a little boy, a college-age girl, two average guys. The action starts after each of the story’s heroes returns home after a horrible day and plays Fruit Ninja to relieve some stress. Damiani told me this aligns with the Fruit Ninja brand: ‘‘Anybody can play. Anybody can be a master.’’
At least it’s original?
There truly is an opportunity with stuff like Fruit Ninja and The Emoji Movie to allow a writers’ imagination to go wild, but unfortunately, as we recently saw with The Emoji Movie—read our blistering review here—any stabs at originality are undercut by capitalistic necessities of working with IP. And it doesn’t look like Fruit Ninja will be any better, not when its writers known for failed, weird reality shows and its producer is someone who will tell you with a straight face that “people all the time on airplanes tell me that Battleship is one of their favorite action movies.” That he didn’t even work on Battleship makes this bizarre assertion that much weirder.
Things are looking dim, people.