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I had a friend who, a few years ago, pitched a project to a television network about life in a border town. It wasn’t a grim, realistic view — it wasn’t violent or complicated. 

He pitched it, in fact, as a fun, light-hearted world. The problem was, everyone he and his partner on the project — a very successful veteran television writer and producer — pitched the idea to had the same question. How do you deal with the dark side of things? How do you depict the dark complexities of a border town?

This is more like Baywatch on the Border, his partner said. A lotta dating, some chases, attractive young people, you know.

But what about the other stuff, was the question. What about the gang killings and human trafficking and desperation?

Yeah, we’re not going to write that part. Was the answer.

The project didn’t get sold — there were probably a lot of reasons for that, not just a vague and inadequate answer to that question — but there is something essential about show business that the old veteran writer understood, which is, the audience sees what we want them to see. We tell the story we want to tell and they sit in the dark and follow along, they watch the scenes in the order we put them in, they follow the characters we put front and center, and it’s been that way since the beginning and it’s going to remain that way as long as no one notices that in a lot of movie theaters these days there are virtual reality machines, little booths and areas where people can wear awkward goggles and move around a virtual space and experience being front and center themselves. 

VR is fun and cool and getting better all the time. This week, I watched a bunch of moviegoers having more fun in the lobby of a movie theater in midtown Manhattan than they probably did in their seats in the actual movie, not least because they were doing it together, and had the power to go wherever they wanted to in the story.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to write that, or show that, or tell that. What matters is what the paying customer wants to see or do. And it’s hard to imagine that viewers, who have spent the past ten years grabbing control of their screens — choosing what to watch and when, and on which device — will suddenly stop grabbing the wheel. More likely that the slow merging of television and feature films will form a shapeless and encompassing blob with video games and when a writer says to an executive, yeah, we’re not going to write that part the executive will say, “sure, we know, we just need someone else to write it, because the show you pitched will just be one part of the project we’ll make — the light part, sure, the Baywatch on the Border part — but to really make this work we’re going to need to cover all parts of the world.”

A movie or television set is a pretty formal place, with elaborate courtesies and protocols and rigid hierarchical codes. Where you sit, whom you’re allowed to talk to, who calls cut, who decides we got it, let’s move on — it all seems old fashioned —as old fashioned as the product, when you get right down to it. It makes sense that the product would reflect that kind of top-down control.

But what happens to the director or showrunner when the project is a sprawling web of stories and scenarios and characters too huge and wide for those old time job descriptions? Showrunners and directors won’t be running the show or directing — they won’t be choosing what not to write — they’ll be like product managers in a tech company, wrangling designers and engineers and writers and talent and keeping a continuously unfolding product fresh and new for the customers.

None of this is going to happen tomorrow, of course, though I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen sooner than anyone expects. Those people having fun in the movie theater lobby were really having a lot of fun, and none of us needs to be told that everything is getting smaller and faster. Even, probably, the entertainment business. 

And that’s it for this week. Next week, we will act and move well.


Rob Long

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