Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cast Away: Act One Breakdown


I was once watching a film where one cop betrays another—this is the event that spurs the story into action. Afterwards we find out that these cops were best friends. I don’t recall one scene of them together before this big scene. In fact, the betrayed cop had to say out loud, “But we’re best friends.” That is very sloppy construction. The moment had no emotional impact at all.

What was missing was a first act. Act One has many functions, not the least of which is providing context that will later elicit an emotional response from the audience. 

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones looks into a pit of snakes, and how the audience responded? I saw the film when it came out and there was an audible “Uh-oh” in the theater when Indy saw those snakes. Why? Because we found out in Act One that he hates snakes. So later when the snakes showed up, the crowd had an emotional response.


Aspiring screenwriters have learned, since the release of Syd Field’s book Screenplay in 1979, that the first 25 to 30 pages comprise the first act. Knowing this has had the effect of training writers to do little more than kill time until the big event happens that gets the movie going. Or they will skip that “filler” at the beginning and cut to the chase with an action sequence.

I was even told once by a former agent not to write first acts—that they were a waste of time. But here’s the deal: writing a story that has no first act is like building a house without a foundation—it will fall apart no matter how well the rest of the house is built.

Everyone understands the importance of a first act when they are telling a joke, get to the middle, and realize that the punch line will not work because they have forgotten to give the listener vital information: “Oh, wait, I forgot to mention that the sheep is wearing a party hat!”

Although this is a clumsy way to tell a joke, you might still get a laugh if the listener has all of the information before the punch line has been reached. The joke would never work if the joke-teller got to the end, and after the unfunny punch line then explained about the missing information.

But, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, this is another thing that I see often—information given after the point when it can’t have any emotional impact.

In the old days they really understood first acts. When I say “the old days,” I mean until the mid ’80s or so. There are really great examples in classic cinema. I’m talking about films by Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, etc. Casablanca has a great first act. Recently, I blogged about the film Tootsie and its flawless first act.

Today, the first act is almost extinct, but it does show up from time to time in films made after the early ’80s. One example is the film Cast Away. I know that there are people out there who might not have responded to the film, but I am asking you to look past that to see my bigger point.

One person I know personally who did not like the film is my uncle, Dwayne. I remember the film came up because he had caught it one night on cable a few nights before and he wouldn’t stop talking about how bad it was, and how it was only about Tom Hanks stuck on an island for two hours. But how could a film about a guy stuck on an island have impacted so many other people?

So, I asked him if he had seen it from the beginning. His answer did not surprise me—he said that he’d missed the beginning. He had missed the first act.

First, the film has a great thematic opening image. Many films start with a generic image, but Cast Away starts right away with an image that matters to the story. Trust me, when people see a film or read a screenplay that knows what it is about from the very beginning, they know that they are in the hands of a pro.

The image is a vast open space. Isolation. This is a desolate landscape. This is what the film will deal with—isolation. Loneliness. Nothingness.


This same shot follows a lone FedEx truck, small in the frame, as it comes to an intersection—a crossroads. This matters. At the end of this story, Tom Hanks is at a crossroad in his life and must chose the correct path. In fact, he ends up on this very road to nail the point home.

This kind of on-the-nose precision is something amateurs run from. They would rather be clever rather than clear. Not pros—professional storytellers rejoice when they find a clear way to communicate with an audience.

When the film came out, people complained that it was a long ad for FedEx because Tom Hanks’ character works for the overnight courier service. But why did he work for an overnight courier service? Because it was very important. 

When we meet Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck, he is giving a speech about time:

“Time rules over us without mercy—not caring if we are healthy or ill, hungry or drunk, Russian, American or beings from Mars.  Time is like a fire—it can either destroy us or keep us warm. That’s why every FedEx office has a clock. Because we live or we die by the clock—we never turn our back on it. And we never ever allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time.”

Right away the film states what it is about. Chuck is a man ruled by time, but what the first act shows us is that he doesn’t make time for his life. He is always rushing. He doesn’t take the time to get the number of a doctor to help a friend’s wife with her cancer. Not because he’s a mean guy, but because he thinks he has all the time in the world.

Chuck barely has time for his long-time girlfriend, Kelly. And when he does have time with her, he is so tired from working that he falls asleep. Here he is committing the sin of “losing time.”

 At a family dinner with his girlfriend’s family we find that it is an ongoing joke that Chuck has taken his sweet time proposing to Kelly. He is losing track of time the closer he watches it. In fact, Chuck has even timed how long it took for the family to bring up the subject of marriage—14 minutes, by his watch.

Chuck is teased for wearing a pager all the time, always on call, but he also has a bad tooth he should have looked at—and never seems to get to.

This is followed very quickly with Chuck being called away from Christmas dinner to go to work. It is clear that Kelly is unhappy with this.

When Kelly drops Chuck off at the airport, because he must fly away for his job, Chuck gives Kelly a small box for Christmas—presumably an engagement ring. But Chuck stops short of proposing and tells Kelly to wait, that she can open it on New Year’s Eve. With that Chuck kisses Kelly, boards his plane, and turns his back on time.

It should be noted here that in some amazing precision of storycraft Kelly's gift to Chuck is a pocket watch.  Not just that, but on the inside of the watch is a picture of Kelly.  So Time and Kelly are linked together in a single image.

While in flight the plane hits a violent storm and crashes in the ocean. Chuck, the only survivor, finds himself alone on an island. One of the first things he does is pull out his pager. It is waterlogged and obviously broken. Now Chuck, who did not have enough time, has nothing but time. End Act One.

In the second act we see that what keeps Chuck alive is his love for Kelly—his desire to get back to her. It has become clear to Chuck how he should have spent the time he had.

The first act of Cast Away makes everything that follows matter. It creates emotion in the audience. I believe my uncle could not connect with the character of Chuck because he did not have a context to understand what he was seeing. All he could see was a man alone on an island, not someone learning a lesson.

But for most people who saw the film it did work. The film was a huge hit.
 The screenwriter, William Broyles, Jr., knew what he was writing about. He was saying that time is precious and fleeting and that we should spend it wisely. The story was telling us that we must never turn our backs on time. That we must never commit the sin of losing time.

Cast Away has a brilliant first act and studying its construction further would be time well spent. Get to it! Time’s wasting.

28 comments:

Anson Jew said...

Great article, Brian!

I agree, that too often in movies today, the first act is given very little attention. I think this is why so many so many sequels are such artistic failures -- they think that since they've already established the characters in the first movie, they can zip through the first act, rather than spending time telling the audience "well, where are the characters NOW?"

I went to a screenwriting conference one year and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) did a talk on writing killer endings. He said that if your ending sucks, you need to work on your beginning. Everything hangs on how well you develop that first act.

I had my own experience with this when I did a 24-Hour comic book. The idea for a 24-hour comic is to write and draw a 24-page comic book in 24-hours.

I started the comic not really knowing where I was going. I just started drawing -- no prep or outline or preconceived ending or anything--I just started scribbling away.

I had enough presence of mind to know how important character development was, so I started the story by coming up with actions to help define who the character was and (very importantly) showing the effect those actions had on other people. I also added the character's own commentary on those actions.

Once I had done that, I had basically written my first act -- and amazingly, the other two acts practically wrote themselves. Defining my character strongly in the first act helped me find what the inciting incident would be in the second act and led logically to what happens in the third. The twists and turns in the third act were connected with events that happened in the first act even though I had no idea at the time I wrote them that they would have any significance later on.

The resulting mini-comic (Vice) was favorably reviewed by Sequential Tart and is still (5 years later) one of my best selling titles at Comic-Con.

imyjimmy said...

Brian,

A good movie with a clear first act. How did that ever get past the producers?

Brian McD said...

Hey Anson,

Thanks, man. Glad you dug the post.

Michael Arndt is correct everything hangs on that first act. It’s what Billy Wilder said too: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

And thanks for sharing your story about the creation of your 24/hour comic book.

First acts can make a huge difference in the overall quality of one’s work.

Enrique E. said...

Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge, Brian. I have learned so much reading both your blog and your books. This post has helped me decide to keep the length of the first act in a screenplay I am writting. I thought it was too long, but why I should shorten it if it is entertaing and, most of all, the story needs it. Of course, there will be plenty of changes as it is a first draft, but not in the direction of making the first act weaker. Thanks again from Spain.

Brian McD said...

Hello Enrique,

Thanks so much for taking the time to write to let me know that my books and blog have helped you.

If you feel like your first act might be long then you can find away to give the audience a tastes of what is to come. Sometimes it helps to start with an “outer boundaries” scene, as I mention in my first book Invisible Ink. The “outer boundaries” refers to the most heightened aspects of your story’s world.

Murder mysteries start with a murder. After the murder the writer can introduce the detective in his or her normal life. Starting with the outer boundary scene allows the writer time to layout the first act because the audience has been promised that there is excitement to come.

The movie JAWS starts with a shark attack and then we see Sheriff Brody in his ordinary life.

The film Raiders of the Lost Ark starts with Indiana Jones on an exciting adventure and then we see him in a normal setting.

It is a great technique because it both sucks your audience into your story and buys you time to spend on your first act.

That may help you.

Thanks again for writing and good luck with your screenplay.

-- Brian

Sprite said...

Hi Brian,

very insightful post as usual.

I need to talk to you, what is the best way to do so? email? do you still have the same office? should i visit your office?

Eliana

Paul Chadwick said...

Astute as always. I liked this film enormously, partly for the reasons you lay out so well.

It has one of the great grace note moments: that staring Sperm Whale eye checking out Tom as he drifts toward shipping lanes.

One note: the title is two words, Cast Away. Netflix customers might be confused when Nic Roeg's film Castaway shows up, though not necessarily disappointed, since Amanda Donahoe goes topless for most of the movie.

Brian McD said...

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the clarification on the title.

Thanks again for taking the time to read the blog and share your thoughts. I appreciate the kind words.

-- Brian

Kaki Flynn said...

Brian,

What are your thoughts on collaboration in this realm?

I read an Andrew Stanton comment on the value of collaboration, where he basically says it takes 10 years for one person to write a solid screenplay, five people five years, and ten people one year.

I'm not heading down the path of looking for a short cut here - I'm talking about the value of many minds interlinked working towards the same goal.

Have you heard of any kind of process like that in this world?

Thoughts?

I want you to write however you feel about the topic; but the reason I'm asking is that I'm finding the process of putting down stories alone very strange, since other areas of my life where I've had the most success have involved focused collaboration.

I'm an adventure guide; good guiding companies have my co-instructor and I go through a pretty intense process to connect days before the group we are guiding even arrives.

The result is a magic bond between us and our group.

Other companies, we just kind of chat while packing out supplies, and the connection just isn't there.

Do you ever write with a partner? Are you constantly bouncing ideas of of others, etc?

Kaki

Brian McD said...

Hello Kaki,

Collaborations can be tricky and they can be great. I have, in the past, written with partners and most of the time it was fine. Sometimes it’s great because writing is a lonely activity.

In television comedy there is often a room full of very funny people trying to make the show as funny as possible. I have heard that on the show Cheers if two writers shouted out the same joke they would throw the joke out and come up with something less predictable. In this case the collaboration pushes everyone to be better and the group becomes better than the sum of its parts.

But they all have the same goal – make the show as funny as possible.

The trick is that all collaborators have the same goal. This is not as easy as it may sound. I happen to know that at Pixar the story is the king. If you are working with people who agree that the story is what matters most than collaborations can be great.

But when people have their own agenda it can hurt both the story and the partnership.

There have been some screenwriting collaborations: Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (who hated each other) Billy Wilder and Walter Newman, Billy Wilder and fill-in-the-blank, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (they were married), Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson.

I suspect that Wilder could have written screenplays on his own, but had little confidence with his mastery of English. I wish I was as good with English as he was.

But, here’s the thing all of these writers could have written a good screenplay on their own. It’s two or more good writers coming together that allow them to do something great.

You say that you are looking for a shortcut but if you want to be good at this don’t be afraid of the time and effort that it takes to get there.

A writing partnership is like any other kind of relationship, if you are both looking for someone to fix your problems it will never work out. But if you are both complete on your own you have a chance at making it work.

Clint said...

I'll agree with you about the first act for the most part. It's been a long time since I've seen the film, but for me it was plotted to the point of being too contrived. Everything fit a bit too well, which made me too aware of the bones underneath. But it didn't prevent me from enjoying the first act.

What I missed was the second act. That is, the second act I was expecting. Instead of an exploration of how a man adapts to the singular truth of a solitary, unconnected life, a la Robinson Crusoe, the movie literally skips right over that part. I still remember how stunned I was by the four-year jump. (That said, I was almost as disappointed by Defoe's equally abrupt end to Crusoe. Cast Away was better in that regard.)

To be clear, I don't think it's a bad film. What's in it is quite well done. It was just unsatisfying for me for leaving out what was for me the most interesting part of the story.

Brian McD said...

Hey Clint,

Thanks again for continuing to read the blog.

When I teach classes people say that things like the things I pointed out in Cast Away are too obvious. But that’s only after I have pointed them out. If I ask people to point out structural elements before hand I am always met with blank stares.

Some people have a taste preference and well-structured work always feels a little fake to them. These things feel too polished to them. But often they are having a problem with the stylistic approach of the film itself. Structure is often completely invisible to people if the filmic style looks rough and hand-held and the acting feels improvised.

Your problem with act-two is interesting because you have not separated what YOU wanted to see versus what the story was actually about. The first act of the film did not promise that it would be “an exploration of how a man adapts to the singular truth of a solitary, unconnected life”.

To become that film would have been poor structure. What you wanted to see is a personal interest, but not a misstep.

The film did not skip over his loneliness. More importantly, it took everything away from the character and left him to become aware of the things that were important to him and how he had turned his back on time.

If a storyteller any storyteller promises of thing and promises another it’s bad structure. Here’s an example:

Once when I was a kid I drank poison. I was playing with a puppy one day and he bit me in the nose and I had to go to the hospital to get shots. But it turned out okay.

What’s wrong with that story? I promised in my set-up it would be about me drinking poison and then my next sentence had nothing to do with that. That’s just plan bad storytelling -- even if the puppy story had been fascinating.

And what if my reasons for not telling the poison story is that it would be an obvious follow-up? People would know where the story was going if I just told a conventional story so a mixed it up. Guess what? If you told stories like this in real life you would have many friends because no one could follow what the hell you were talking about.

My point is that in order to say that the second act of the film was wrong you would have to lay out a case by showing point by point how act-one had promised something it did not delver. And I guess I don’t see that.

Clint said...

Hey, Brian. Yes, I still heart the blog. I think I've read all the posts now, back to numero uno, even if I haven't commented on them all. It's a measure of how eerily our tastes track that simply not embracing a film as much as you felt somewhat heretical.

And that's the point I have to make: I did think Cast Away was well done, and took care, or tried at least, to make it clear I didn't think the structure was "wrong," only not what I was expecting. As I said, it's been a very long time since I've seen the film—probably since it was in theaters, in fact—so my memory of the first act is sketchy. Just certain scenes. I do know *something* led me to expect the second act I had in mind—hence my shock while watching it—but at this distance I certainly can't argue that it was definitely the first act, rather than merely the expectations I brought in to the theater with me. Based on your track record with films I love and admire, I defer to your judgment on this one. If and when I watch the film again, I'll come back to confirm or deny.

Clint said...

I can't not add: The only other book on story and screenwriting I recommend these days along with Invisible Ink is So Your Mama Loves It, by Sheila Gallien.

Who is Sheila Gallien? She was sole assistant for six years to Bill Broyles, Jr. She was in the trenches with him—brainstorming, writing, studio notes, development meetings, revisions, the works—from Apollo 13 through Unfaithful and a couple of unfinished scripts of his. He wrote a glowing foreword for her book. (It's now available only as an e-book.)

Considering who she learned from, I suppose it's no wonder your books complement each other so well.

LissBirds said...

I disagree. Castaway was a disappointment in my eyes. I saw it in the theater, beginning to end. When I first read this post, I thought you were going to say Castaway failed because it had no first act.

Tom Hanks's character was so generic that I couldn't identify him. So what if he was obsessed with time? That's such a minor, superficial flaw it can't be considered an aspect of his character. Also, his character had no desire, no great need to grow, no forward motion. So he learns the importance of patience...not the most dramatic epiphany out there. He delivers a package at the end in one of the most heavy-handed symbolic sequences of modern cinema. To me, there was no plot, and the movie's "success" rode solely upon Hanks's performance.

I frankly didn't care if Hanks got off the island or not because I didn't care about him as a character. I can't even remember his character's name, so that really speaks to how memorable he was. It's a classic case of a story that suffers from being plot-driven rather than character-driven, and all the visual symbols in the world can't save a movie with no soul.

Brian McD said...

Sorry it didn't work for you. Not everything works for everyone.

Brian McD said...

Just a note. You said that the film had no plot, but was plot-driven rather than character driven. Can it be both?

LissBirds said...

Good point. :) I meant "no plot" meaning whatever plot it possessed was poor and uninteresting. Really what the movie lacks is story, not plot. It ultimately feels to me as though it isn't about anything because it involves a character I can't empathize with who doesn't achieve any meaningful character growth.

Brian McD said...

Like I said, not all films are going to work for all people. I’m going to address some of what you said in you comments, but first I want to say that I try to keep these back and fourth exchanges to a minimum because they can be endless and no one changes their position. I also understand that it is unfair of me to have the last word with these things. So if you want to respond to this comment you can, but I will not respond further. That way you get the last word. I hope that is fair.

I respect that you did not like the film, but respectfully disagree with the points you made.

You said that you didn’t even know the character’s name. How do we know character's names in film? People call them by their names. But Tom Hanks spends most of the film on an island all alone. Names are not character actions are character. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp has no name at all.

You may feel that Tom Hank’s character was generic, but you did not say that his character was flawed in a way that did not serve the story. The character did fulfill the needs of the story. Making him standout in some way that did not serve the story would be superfluous.

He was a man obsessed with time, but a man who made no time for his life. You said that he learned ‘importance of patience’. I never said that and it isn’t on the film.

He learns that he needs to make time for his life, that it could be over before he knows it. He doesn’t take the time to be with the woman he loves and losses her. When he is alone on the island it is the desire to see her again that keeps him going. He would do anything to have his time with her again.

At one point in the first act Hanks promises a friend, whose wife has cancer, that he will help him find a good doctor for her. In act-three when Hanks is rescued he is reunited with his friend ho tells him that his wife has died. Tom Hanks’ response is that he should have been there for his friend. It is clear what Tom Hanks was meant to learn.

To learn that life is short and that one should appreciate the ones you love does not seem to be a small lesson. I had to say goodbye to my best friend before he was unplugged from life support. I never thought I would have to do that. A certainly thought there would be more time.

The lesson in Cast Away is one of the most important we can learn.

You may have hated the film and it may not work for you, but this is no reflection on the construction of the film. To say that there is no first act is inaccurate. You may not like it but it is there. What is established in that first act is clearly what the rest of the piece explores.

Your personal dislike of the film is not proof that it has a weak structure.

You use the word “I” a lot in your arguments which leads me to believe that your observation are personal and subjective rather than objective facts about how the contraction is off.

LissBirds said...

That sounds fair, though I will miss this discussion.

And every film does work differently, but I believe if a story is crafted strongly enough, 90% of people will at least appreciate it, even if they don't like it. While I reacted to Hanks's wonderful acting, I do not appreciate the structure of this story, and all the symbols and great acting in the world can't save a poorly-crafted story.

But I see major flaws in the structure of Cast Away, especially in the first act. He was a man obsessed with time, okay. But is that really a flaw? Isn't it more of a bad habit? Was it really causing him that much pain in his life? I guess you could argue yes. But where did this obsession with time come from?

Here's the real flaw of this story: there is no backstory for Tom Hanks's character. Why did he become obsessed with time? Did something happen to him in his past? We are told to accept this as the case without being given a reason why.

We know that Rick from Casablanca won't stick his neck out for anybody because he was jilted by Ilsa. (We don't learn that in the first act, but in the first act there are clues dropped that suggest he wasn't always this way, and this mystery whets the audience's appetite to learn why he is like this.) To give a more straight-forward example, Marlin from Finding Nemo is a nervous father because all of his eggs, except one, and his wife, were killed off.

These incidents in these main character's lives develop into a dysfunctional way of dealing with the world and therefore drive their actions. Nemo's getting lost is a direct result of Marlin's overprotecting attitude.

Did Tom Hanks's obsession with time cause the plane to crash? I don't think so. It was an accident. A coincidence. Oh, wow, what a coincidence: a man obessesed with time now has all the time in the world. How ironic. As many writers have said: coincidence has no place in fiction.

A character can learn life is short in so many other meaningful ways. I'm sorry to hear about your best friend, and I find that anecdote 100x more emotionally powerful than any of the events in Castaway. It doesn't take a desert island to learn that lesson--that lesson can be learned in everyday life. Maybe there are lessons in life that you can't learn in everyday life that you would need a gigantic event like being on a desert island to learn. But what are they? Alas, the film didn't go in that direction, thus undercutting the power of setting: if the same story can be told elsewhere, then this particular setting really doesn't matter, and either the setting or the plot should be changed so that something fits.

Going back to character arc and the necessity of the character's flaws and actions to be the cause of events: did his friend's wife really die because of Tom Hanks's flaw? The link is tenuous at best. Did he lose his fiancé because of his actions?

And what does the character learn as a result of his addressing his character flaw? He learns to slow down because he was forced to by being on an island for years. There was no moment of realization where he chose to change his viewpoint. (The moment of realization being not to end his life, but that is a different story beat altogether.) At the end of the story, there is no result to Hanks's character learning his lesson. In fact, he is punished at the end of the story by learning that while he was away, his fiancé married another man. This is an event out of his control, not a direct result of his flaw, and therefore, "plot-driven," not "character-driven."

LissBirds said...

There is no changed man who has accomplished something by changing his attitude: he was acted upon, not acting on the world. This is what I meant by "plot-driven" and not "character-driven." The island didn't even matter in the end, because this same event (fiancé abandoning him) couldnt've happened if his plane never crashed and he stayed a member of society. If a great guy with no flaws was marooned on an island for four years, probably any woman would assume he was dead an move on and marry someone else. Therefore, Hanks's "flaw" doesn't play in to her decision, thus weakening the impact of his flaw even further.

What would have been more interesting to me personally (and yes I use "I" because I am the one watching the film, and I am judging the story) is if less time was spent on the island and the bulk of the film took place after the island. If the island became the backstory, more story questions can be asked: How do you adjust to everyday life after an event like that? What demons haunt you that no one else can even begin to understand? How will this affect him in relationships? To me, personally, these are more interesting story questions. The only story question to be asked with the story the way it is now is "Will he get off the island or won't he?" Also, the movie could've shown us how Tom Hanks decides to change his life now the has learned to appreciate time and life itself, but instead the film leaves us with a cryptic symbol of him delivering a package. How is this relevant?

Finally, for the heck of it, I looked up John Truby's review just to see if I'm way off-base with analyzing Castaway. Turns out I'm not, and Truby points out many of the reasons why I don't like this movie, much more eloquently than I can:

http://www.truby.com/im_ca.html

Interesting to note is that he says the set-up is flawed. i.e., the first act. More importantly he says the middle act is lacking conflict, with conflict being the very the engine of story. I guess this is what you could say I meant when the story had "no plot."

If you want a better-crafted story about a castaway on a beach, watch The Black Stallion.

ERIK said...

Hi Liss,

I want to respond to a few of the points in the comments of yours that Brian refrained from addressing. I don't want to do a point-by-point attack however, so I'm just going to address what I see as a few key points you make. One last note, before I begin: I recently read a draft of the script and re-watched the film, so I am speaking from a place of familiarity, for what it's worth.

With that said:

1) DOES CAST AWAY WORK FOR AN AUDIENCE?
You say that 90% of people should at least appreciate a well-crafted film, even if they don't "like" it. If you refer to Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB's aggregate scoring systems, you’ll see that they all rate CAST AWAY fairly highly.

Of about 4,000 votes on Box Office Mojo, 35.9% of users rate it an "A", with 47.7% of users rating it a "B". 83.6% positive is pretty close to your 90% figure. On IMDB, 124,000 users have rated CAST AWAY an average of 7.4/10, with 82% rating it 7 or higher. And on Rotten Tomatoes, 90% of critics rate it "fresh", while 650,000 users rate it an average of 80/100.
Those are pretty consistent figures for a film you say is poorly constructed, and that less than 90% of viewers like or appreciate (80% is close enough, may we all be so fortunate to hit even that).

However, I understand that some of these sites' users may be a thin spread of the movie-going populace at large -- and what the hell do critics know, anyway? -- so let's look at the box office as a sampling of general opinion upon release: CAST AWAY grossed $233 million dollars in the US, with a total global gross of over $400 million. That's a pretty big sum for a movie that has a poorly structured first act and no conflict. This gross was even more significant ten years ago when there was no Imax or 3D to jack up ticket prices.

If we look closer at the B.O., the most important indicator of popular opinion is the week-to-week drop in box office, a.k.a. the "word of mouth effect". If a movie is bad, for example, it should have a steep % drop from one week to the next in terms of gross. The better a movie is, in theory, the lower the drop from week-to-week and the higher the second weekend grosses are. According to IMDB, CAST AWAY's second weekend grosses were actually HIGHER than its first weekend grosses, which were themselves pretty good.

So CAST AWAY not only avoided a sharp drop-off typical of large openings, but it went up in revenue. This indicates a rare kind of word-of-mouth: the "you-gotta-see-this-now" variety that was more common in the 70s and early 80s than in the last 25 years.

For what it’s worth, CAST AWAY was also nominated for two Oscars -- but so was The Phantom Menace, so fuck that as a barometer for quality.

Even more important than all these abstract numbers, however persuasive, is what average movie-goers think of CAST AWAY today, a time when many are liable to forget a movie they disliked 10 years ago.

I'm not about to go do a man-on-the-street, but just in talking with, say, my mother, I can tell you that she remembers CAST AWAY very well. Usually when I ask my mother about a movie she saw a while ago, I only get a response after I’ve given her an extensive breakdown of its plot, and after I've given her a rundown of all its stars and the other movies they've acted in. In short, she is not a cinephile, filmmaker, or storyteller of any kind. But when I ask her about CAST AWAY, she has an emotional reaction to just the mention of the film's title. It is a movie that rides high in her consciousness, a space reserved only for movies like SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, CASABLANCA, and HOUSE BUNNY.

But who cares about some lady's opinion, when we're talking about Art, right?
(CONTINUED)

ERIK said...
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ERIK said...
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ERIK said...
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ERIK said...
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ERIK said...

Hi Liss,

I want to respond to a few of the points in the comments of yours that Brian refrained from addressing. I don't want to do a point-by-point attack however, so I'm just going to address what I see as a few key points you make. One last note, before I begin: I recently read a draft of the script and re-watched the film, so I am speaking from a place of familiarity, for what it's worth.

With that said:

1) DOES CAST AWAY WORK FOR AN AUDIENCE?
You say that 90% of people should at least appreciate a well-crafted film, even if they don't "like" it. If you refer to Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB's aggregate scoring systems, you’ll see that they all rate CAST AWAY fairly highly.

Of about 4,000 votes on Box Office Mojo, 35.9% of users rate it an "A", with 47.7% of users rating it a "B". 83.6% positive is pretty close to your 90% figure. On IMDB, 124,000 users have rated CAST AWAY an average of 7.4/10, with 82% rating it 7 or higher. And on Rotten Tomatoes, 90% of critics rate it "fresh", while 650,000 users rate it an average of 80/100.
Those are pretty consistent figures for a film you say is poorly constructed, and that less than 90% of viewers like or appreciate (80% is close enough, may we all be so fortunate to hit even that).

However, I understand that some of these sites' users may be a thin spread of the movie-going populace at large -- and what the hell do critics know, anyway? -- so let's look at the box office as a sampling of general opinion upon release: CAST AWAY grossed $233 million dollars in the US, with a total global gross of over $400 million. That's a pretty big sum for a movie that has a poorly structured first act and no conflict. This gross was even more significant ten years ago when there was no Imax or 3D to jack up ticket prices.

If we look closer at the B.O., the most important indicator of popular opinion is the week-to-week drop in box office, a.k.a. the "word of mouth effect". If a movie is bad, for example, it should have a steep % drop from one week to the next in terms of gross. The better a movie is, in theory, the lower the drop from week-to-week and the higher the second weekend grosses are. According to IMDB, CAST AWAY's second weekend grosses were actually HIGHER than its first weekend grosses, which were themselves pretty good.

So CAST AWAY not only avoided a sharp drop-off typical of large openings, but it went up in revenue. This indicates a rare kind of word-of-mouth: the "you-gotta-see-this-now" variety that was more common in the 70s and early 80s than in the last 25 years.

For what it’s worth, CAST AWAY was also nominated for two Oscars -- but so was The Phantom Menace, so fuck that as a barometer for quality.

Even more important than all these abstract numbers, however persuasive, is what average movie-goers think of CAST AWAY today, a time when many are liable to forget a movie they disliked 10 years ago.

I'm not about to go do a man-on-the-street, but just in talking with, say, my mother, I can tell you that she remembers CAST AWAY very well. Usually when I ask my mother about a movie she saw a while ago, I only get a response after I’ve given her an extensive breakdown of its plot, and after I've given her a rundown of all its stars and the other movies they've acted in. In short, she is not a cinephile, filmmaker, or storyteller of any kind. But when I ask her about CAST AWAY, she has an emotional reaction to just the mention of the film's title. It is a movie that rides high in her consciousness, a space reserved only for movies like SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, CASABLANCA, and HOUSE BUNNY.

But who cares about some lady's opinion, when we're talking about Art, right?

(CONTINUED)

ERIK said...

Sorry for all the deleted comments Brian and friends, my response to Ms. LissBirds essentially BROKE blogger.

I have posted my response in full at my own blog here:


http://cinemediasres.blogspot.com/2011/07/cast-away-response.html


If you have responses, please put them back in Brian's comments section here, and not on my blog. I will not address comments put there. This is Brian's discussion and I am not trying to steer his readers to my blog. It is simply a matter of practicality.

My response begins:

"Hi LissBirds,

I want to respond to a few of the points in the comments of yours that Brian refrained from addressing. I don't want to do a point-by-point attack however, so I'm just going to address what I see as a few key points you make. One last note, before I begin: I recently read a draft of the script and re-watched the film, so I am speaking from a place of familiarity, for what it's worth..."

Please read my blog for the FULL response.

Thanks, Erik