Eric's Movie Column: Why Can't We Let Filmmakers Tell Stories on their Own Terms?


There's an ongoing battle between some of the people who make movies and some of the people who write about movies for World Wide Web sites on the Internet. It's generally a friendly rivalry with a fair amount of give and take, but tensions seem to have increased in recent months, each side growing more exasperated with the other.

The source of the conflict is this. Some writers, in the service of their ravenous readers, want to learn as many details about upcoming films as possible, whereas some filmmakers would like to keep things under wraps. J.J. Abrams' caginess about the villain's identity in "Star Trek Into Darkness" is the latest flare-up in this epic tug-of-war, but it becomes an issue with almost every movie about superheroes and/or outer space.

It isn't enough to know that there will be a new Spider-Man movie. We also have to know who the villains will be, and who will play them, and how much CGI will be involved, and whether the story will closely adhere to a particular story from the comics, and whether Peter Parker will shoot webs out of his fingers or butt. We want to know ahead of time whether there's a post-credits stinger that teases the next film, and if there is, who's in it. We want to know whether "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a remake of "Wrath of Khan." And on and on, with writers going to great lengths to obtain "scoops," which they're very proud of, and filmmakers finding creative ways to keep the secrets hidden.

I side with the filmmakers.


If I were a director -- that is to say, a storyteller -- I would be terribly frustrated by the people who have decided it's their job to uncover every detail of the story before I tell it. Whether the information is a "spoiler" or not -- it's my story! They are my details! Let me reveal them how I want to.

One of the key elements in telling a story well is choosing when and how to reveal information. Surprise twists are an extreme example of this, but even ordinary, non-shocking revelations can, in the hands of a skillful storyteller, be used to great effect.

Think of "Casablanca." What if we were told in the opening narration that Rick Blaine had come to Morocco after being jilted by his lover in Paris? Knowing this ahead of time, we'd have been conditioned to dislike Ilsa as soon as she showed up at the cafe. Instead, knowing only that she and Rick have some kind of history but being short on details, we're intrigued by her.

That's a pretty basic example. Any screenwriter who is interested in telling a story (which, I admit, is not every screenwriter) makes dozens of decisions like that. In bringing the story to life, the director either sticks with those choices or does some rearranging. Sometimes he or she has to make adjustments based on input from studio higher-ups, who are less interested in telling the story well than in telling it profitably. ("He's not sympathetic enough at first. Can we move the scene where he takes care of his sick mother from page 30 up to page 5?")

And of course there are plenty of films that are JUST commercial products, with little effort spent on crafting a story. I doubt that the people responsible for "Grown Ups 2" had any discussions about when, exactly, to let the audience know that the Adam Sandler character was once peed on by a deer.

But in general, a movie is a story, and a director is a storyteller. If the story being told isn't a very good one, or if there's no discernible reason for the details to be suppressed, that doesn't change the fact that it's not our story.

I mean no disrespect to the scoop-meisters of the online world, most of whom are fine people and good enough writers and reasonably handsome. I'm not saying we should stop looking for movie news altogether. Obviously, many elements of a movie are going to be made public before it opens, what with trailers, advertising, casting announcements, and so forth. But if the filmmaker -- or even just a studio suit -- decides they don't want to say ahead of time who (to make up a random example) the villain is, isn't that their prerogative? What business do we have messing with their strategy for how they want to tell their story?

Am I saying we should just take whatever details the filmmakers or studios give us, and leave the rest to be discovered when we see the film?

Am I saying we shouldn't try to ferret out story information that the filmmakers are reluctant to provide?

Yes. I am saying exactly that.

Writing about movies counts as journalism (assuming you adhere to the basic ethical and professional practices of journalism), but we're not usually journalists in the sense of exposing truths and serving the public's right to know. We're not Woodward and Bernstein here, informing the populace by revealing six months early whether the new Superman film uses kryptonite as a plot device. Yes, many fans want this information -- but they don't have any "right" to it. ("The fans want to know!" is a weak justification anyway. There's a market for invasive paparazzi photos and pure crystal meth, too.)

I think there's an underlying sense that if we only take what they give us, somehow "they" win. No doubt some filmmakers have come to enjoy the game of playing hard-to-get. Certainly there's no harm in asking questions about what's coming. But if the answer is "wait and see" or "we want that to be a surprise," nobody loses anything if we let it go at that. We're not being suckers when we only pass along the plot and character details the filmmakers want people to hear. On the contrary: we're fostering the medium we love so much by letting the storytelling duties stay in the hands of the storytellers. We write about the stories, critique them, discuss them, analyze them. It's not our job to tell them.