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Hollywood’s Content Crisis: Robert McKee (Part 7)

Posted on Tuesday, Oct 6th 2009

SM: Is there anything else that you want to add to this conversation? An industry which has become a large one, and which I feel would do well with stories, is the electronic gaming and virtual world industry. Do you have any thoughts on it?

RM: In the past I have gone up to Microsoft and Sierra Online and given my story lecture to people who are create video games. They have ambition to create far more complex, content-rich video games, but they always hit the wall. It is not possible because they are not art, they are games. When you have interaction between the work and the audience, you ask the audience to make decisions of their own. When it becomes interactive it stops being art; it is a game. Games, by their nature, cannot be rich, subjective, and have all the other qualities of art. The problem with games is that they have to find wonderful new variations of the same very rigid story model. I am afraid that they are stuck there.

SM: Yes, I can see that they are stuck, for sure. Not on the money-making side, but certainly on the story side.

RM: Let me end our conversation with this observation. All mass media is based on a lie. Is it a moral thing that we should encourage the lie? I say no. It is not a moral thing to create businesses that propagate the lie. Philosophically, I am opposed to what you are proposing. I teach art. I don’t think that art should be treated like a business.

SM: My answer to that is that if you accept that films like “The Reader” can be commercially successful, then you can produce great films by producing strong material and reconcile art and business.

RM: I understand, but films like “The Reader” cannot be the product of a business model. They are the exceptions.

SM: That I disagree with, and that is OK.

RM: Let me give you an anecdote to close this. Grant Tinker was before your time, but he was Mary Tyler Moore’s husband. He produced brilliant television series, many starring his wife, and he was one of the best and highly educated, sophisticated producers of television material for many years.

I was in his office one day talking to him about a project when the phone rang. It was a writer pitching him an idea for a TV series. The title was “Two Fours”. The premise was that each week there would be a 30-minute story starring two actors. Every week the show would have different actors and stories, but the premise of the series is that there would always be 30-minute comedies or dramas involving two people.

Tinker listened to the pitch. He thought it was an interesting premise and asked who will write it? The caller said, “We will get writers,” and Tinker said, “There is not that much talent in Hollywood. You would have to have an original story every week, and short forms are very difficult. That would be an original story 22 times a year. That is not possible.”

SM: To me that does not suffice as a business idea.

RM: If you think that the writers of stories like “The Reader” are growing on trees . . . then OK. I will also point out that “The Reader” cannibalized a novel.

SM: A lot of great films are based on novels.

RM: Your business model would depened upon independent novelists writing quality novels adaptable to the screen. I hope you understand what that entails.

SM: One of the business ideas that I have looked at is taking a lot of the great Indian literature and turning some of it into film. That has not been done for the Western audience. I give that example because I am familiar with the body of stories. I don’t have a bias against working with other people’s novels.

RM: What I am saying is that your business model depends upon independent novelists. You are not going to hire novelists as part of the R&D department. You are going to wait for novelists, or you are going to cannibalize from the past. You are dependent on a quality story that originates in another medium.

SM: Potentially.

RM: If you want to hear another lecture about the incredible difficulties in adapting novels to screens . . .

Novels, when they are great, take place in the minds of their characters. You cannot photograph thought.

SM: Some cannot be adapted. But “The Reader” was a great film, and it was successfully adapted from a novel. So was “Brokeback Mountain”, from a great short story. “The Da Vinci Code” was not a screenplay-friendly novel. It was a disaster as a film.

RM: Yes, but it got made.

SM: Thank you for your time.

RM: Thank you for stimulating conversation.

This segment is part 7 in the series : Hollywood's Content Crisis: Robert McKee
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I loved this series of discussions with Robert McKee. This was completely tangent to what I expect from this blog but very refreshing. And his insights about story telling art form are really beautiful.

I wonder can there be a business created for what can be called at long tail audience of such stories. How can such art form be sustained where quality stories with dark side be presented in cinematic format?

Thanks for taking this interview.


Siddharth Chawla Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 12:42 AM PT

Interesting interview. I got the impression from Robert McKee that the examples you were bringing up (Slumdog Millionare, The Reader) were exceptions to the rule, ie. critically lauded movies that were successful. You can look at the ROI for these movies and yes they are very impressive. But that’s like looking at the ROI for a person who won the lottery, a lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time and being very lucky. There is a reason why there are so many re-makes coming out right now, it’s because they make money. Take a look at the film Boy A (2007), a critically lauded film that flopped at the box office, domestic take 113K and it most likely cost a few million to make. To me that’s more in line with the reality of the ROI for most films.

Joe Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 10:10 PM PT

Robert Mckee is still learning on how to conceptualize in words the creation of content that can only be attributed to God.

Beauty is based on ideals, morals. virtues and wisdom, and only an idealist who desires to impart lessons and wisdom into his audience can succeed in producing anything that is valuable or substantial in the infinite course of beauty that is life.

To summarize it, here are the common divine themes of any perfect work of art:

– teaching
– ideals / idealism / virtues / morals / fulfillment
– conflict, challenge, perseverance
– overall beauty, elegance, music

Robert McKee is thus wrong on games not being able to be categorized as works of art. A fitting example are the Pokemon games released on the Nintendo handheld devices (especially Firered, HeartGold, and Emerald) – they might seem simplistic and childish at first, but anyone who is able to decipher the underlying beauty in a game such as that will have uncovered fortune. System Shock 2 (, a PC game released in 1999, is another perfect example of this. Who can ever forget, for example, when the Many, the main antagonist of the game, said through telepathy this: “Babies must sleep, babies must rest, wise is the one who does not waken them”. Or this: “You have wounded Xerxes, but we will not allow him to be destroyed. See if the Machine Mother… treats her servant with such devotion.” ;

Here is an underappreciated work of art that has never been appreciated fully:

The first season of the Pokemon tv series, which ends once the protagonists head to Johto. Don’t watch the english dub, watch it in its original japanese language and with english subtitles. Even better, watch it in italian, whose flow of language is elegantly divine. Speaking of which, the music of the first season was truly perfect. Too bad the rest of the series didn’t live up to its first season.

Tabris Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 7:30 AM PT


Tabris Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 7:34 AM PT

[…] Robert McKee stupidly said that video games cannot be art. […]

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