Tuesday, December 18, 2007

300 year old Tequila

Had dinner with a friend in the liquor business. He's a true epicurean around wine and liquor. Good wine matters to him. He can sip a scotch and know where it was made. He's been in the business for years -- and the history of the Californian wine industry opens up for him like a brilliant novel. There aren't a lot of people like him anywhere.. real professionals who take true joy in their profession. And no -- this is not a sly way of saying he's a drunk. He's just a smart guy.

Ten years ago most liquor was produced by individual companies -- often family-owned -- that produced something that they really cared about. But the business has been 'consolidating'. Large conglomerates are buying it up, finding economies of scale, rebranding for the yuppie market.. and so on. They're buying the right to slap a name on a bottle, basically, and marketing to a much broader audience than the old company could have dreamed of.

A few years ago it was scotch. Now it's tequila. And suddenly a bottle of the stuff is going for an ungodly sum of money -- $300 or more. How do they do that?

Well, they started selling aged tequila. As my friend is quick to point out, the older tequila gets, the more it's likely to lose exactly what makes tequila good. If you know about tequila, you don't want to drink a ten-year-old tequila. If you're in the liquor business, you know very well that aging tequila is a good way to sell at a huge margin, but makes for a lousy margarita.

So why do they do it? This is something every screenwriter should understand. Very few produced scripts fail to consciously incorporate a winning strategy from a previous script. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's not a sell out. In fact, it's important to build an audience strategy on what you know about your audience. The strategy doesn't always fail. And just because old tequila makes a crappy, expensive margarita doesn't mean you should disregard what the audience is looking for.

But the strategy often does fail -- and that's why buying an overpriced drink feels a lot like watching Hollywood dreck. Some fancy director is hired to direct Blade II because, well, he's a fancy director. But it's still going to be Blade II. Or Jaws 3. Or whatever else they're convinced will sell.

It happens in screenwriting when characters in your script start looking more and more like characters in successful movies. Or when you start making your structure look a little too slavishly like Die Hard's. It's happening when your script starts to have so many bells and whistles that the story can barely hold itself up.

It happens when you read one too many screenwriting books about 'can't miss' tips to take your script to the top, but you haven't actually read your script through recently.

When does this approach NOT fail? If you know your conceit, you can build it up with almost any tool -- and knowledge of your audience is a great tool. This isn't a really deep thought, but it is a common problem. If you're making a great scotch -- make a great scotch. If you're trying to make tequila, make tequila. You won't make tequila better by trying to turn it into scotch. And if you'd like to sell tequila as scotch, well, then you probably don't really care about how it's written.

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