I know I said I didn’t intend to post until after Labor Day, but there is an opening in my schedule today and inspiration in my mind, so you get this one “for free”.
If you were born in the last half century, chances are you’re familiar with the various permutations of the cartoon character Scooby Doo and his friends. It’s evolved into numerous revisions, reboots, two feature films, has devolved into self-parody (and a brilliant but creepy send-up in the Venture Bros season 1 episode “Viva Los Muertos”), and added “Daphne or Velma” to rude conversations involving “Ginger or Mary Ann”. Since the original Scooby Doo Where Are You? first aired in 1969, the franchise has existed in some form or another to the present day. It is one of the most popular of pop culture themes, rivaling Batman (who was on at least a couple of episodes of Scooby Doo), and it’s continuing multi-generational success comes down to one significant fact:
It’s always a guy in a mask.
And he’d have gotten away with it, too. If it weren’t for those meddling kids and their dog.
And occasionally Dick Van Dyke, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Addams Family, and, of course, Batman.
The core of Scooby Doo Where Are You? was a formula so simple, and yet so effective that adults still watch re-runs to this day:
Scooby and the Gang© arrive somewhere in the Mystery Machine(Patent Pending) for a fun-loving weekend of vaguely counter-culture activities to discover unusual happenings attributed to a ghost or monster. Sure enough, they’ve soon “got a mystery on their hands”®.
Thus, they immediately start the search for clues which invariably involves them splitting up and Shaggy and Scooby discovering, and then running from the “ghost”.
Velma makes some declarative “ah ha” statement and they soon proceed to “trap” the monster using a device of such lethal cunning that Rube Goldberg and Wile E. Coyote can be seen simultaneously wincing in pain. Said trap, of course, fails, backfires, catches Shaggy and Scooby (who are always the bait for the trap, provided there are available Scooby Snacks®) and yet, inexplicably, sets about a chain of events that actually catches the ghost for the unmasking…at which point everyone expresses surprise at the actual culprit.
Despite this, Velma articulates a convoluted tale of how the clues were followed and leave no doubt as to the identity of the villain…who would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their dog…
And maybe Batman.
So, when “creatives” and “artists” start lamenting the vast wasteland of modern cinema, television, and popular media in general, I am forced to point out that this damned dog has been an amazing cash cow for the last 50 years. Yes, it’s formulaic. Yes, it’s transparently so. But it still works.
So when we seek to point the blame for our lack of imagination and innovation in the industry; before we blame timid studio management, dull-witted audiences, and the general devolution of society in general, we need to talk about cookies.
We’ve all been walking through a market at some point and run across a kiosk offering samples. Let’s suppose you’re being asked to try a new cookie. Everyone (almost?) likes cookies. But not everyone likes the same kinds of cookies. So the first thing we all do is ask “what kind of cookie is this?” We are told it’s chocolate chip. We like chocolate chip cookies. We’ve had them before. We know what to expect. That’s a formula. We pre-judge an untried experience by comparing it to a familiar prototype. And we decide whether we want to try that experience based on that. Or at least we decide whether we actually want to find out more.
Are there nuts in the cookie? (some people don’t like nuts in their chocolate chip cookies, and some people are deathly allergic to them.) What kind of nuts are they? I like pecans but not walnuts. Are they low carb? Are they gluten-free? Are they made with real Girl Scouts?
All of these criteria, by the way, are viable alterations to the formula for a chocolate chip cookie (and chocolate chip, is itself an alteration to the formula for a cookie). So creative artists can employ formulas creatively and come up with unique imaginative and innovative content, which still has the benefits of the formula, namely that it is easily communicated to the audience what they should expect.
It all depends on the ingredients you use and how you mix them together. Add a pinch of this and a dash of that and you come up with properties as variable as Excalibur, Stars Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV A New Hope), The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, et. al.
“Orphaned Hero, Without Knowledge of his True Birthright, receives Magic Talisman from Wise Advisor, Meets True Companion and Damsel-In-Distress on Quest to defeat Black Knight and slay Evil Dragon”.
Insert Arthur, Luke, Frodo, Harry.
Insert Excalibur, Lightsaber, One Ring, Letter from Hogwart’s.
Insert Merlin, Obi-Wan, Gandalf, Dumbledore.
Insert Lancelot, Han Solo, Samwise, Ron Weasley.
You see where this is going. There’s also usually a sub-plot where the Hero loses the Damsel to the Companion. If you think it’s missing in LOTR, bear in mind that Sam got the “happily ever after” and Frodo went into the West, a metaphor for the afterlife. In this story, the “damsel” is actually Middle Earth.
By the way, this is also the Biblical story of Moses. And probably some of the Greek dramas too, but it’s hard to say since all those guys were wearing masks.
It’s okay to work from a formula.
If you walk away from the formula approach completely you quite likely will find yourself with a property no one will support, because no one will know what to do with it. The studio can’t figure out how to fund, produce or market it. The audience won’t know whether they like the taste of the cookie, because they won’t know it even is a cookie.
What you’ve done may be brilliant. It may be the most wonderful idea to come along in ages, but getting it sold and getting it seen are going to be very,very difficult.
You may have to go it alone, trodding the boards and backwaters of social media and crowdfunding until you build the audience that wants your brilliant innovation. It may take your whole life and you must be ready to fail and be unfulfilled because that’s a very real and even likely possibility.
But that’s your choice.
And if you’re okay with that, and you know in your heart of hearts you will never be happy until you realize your unique and untainted and thoroughly original vision, then go for it.
But then again, maybe it was that guy in the mask after all.