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Plotting Commercially Successful Screenplays:
The Art of Gratifying Expectations
  
By R. K. Bechtel

Contents

I. Introduction

II. Moviegoer Expectations
   A. Motion Picture Production Code
   B. The Three-Act Structure
   C. Three-Act Structure in Romantic
        Comedies

   D. Audience Expectations in
       Romantic Comedies

   E. The Cost of Disappointing
       Expectations

   F. Signature Content Expectations

III. Remaking Originality
    A. Nothing New Under the Sun
    B..Flight to Fantasy and Science
        Fiction

    C. The New Originality:The Feature
        Film Serial

    D. Can there be Original
        Screenplays in the New
        Originality?

IV. Adapting Literature into
     Screenplays

      A. Bringing Literary Plots Up to
          Code—and Down

      B. The Risk of Lightening the Dark
          Side

I. INTRODUCTION

Two disparaging words often used by film critics are disappointing and predictable.  Ironically, anything disappointing fails to meet expectations. And anything that meets expectations is predictable. The critic will counter that he expected the film to be unpredictable, that is, original.  However, several classic films celebrated today for their originality—e.g., “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), “Vertigo” (1958)—were panned by critics and disappointed at the box office. They became classics thanks to profits from re-releases and television.

Plots of commercially successful films gratify moviegoers’ expectations more than their imaginations. Film is a medium that appeals instantaneously to emotions rather than reflectively to the intellect. The expectations that are gratified or disappointed are shared by moviegoers, ergo their origins are cultural and biological. I do not need to think in order to expect George Clooney get the girl or John Wayne to defeat the villain.

The genesis of these expectations is usually less important than a century of cinema that hardwired them into moviegoers. Decades of filmmakers learning what does and what does not gratify audiences has made audience expectations ever more acute and the risk of disappointing them ever more perilous. And yet, this truth is so counter intuitive that it is taboo for critics and invisible to moviegoers. Both criticize something a film does when often they are disappointed by something the film does not do.

But while visuals and dialogue create the illusion of plot originality, moviegoers are beginning to sense something is stale about the traditional two-hour feature film. We will examine here why the need to gratify expectations is responsible for this perception and how some filmmakers are trying to solve the problem. Be aware that the only measure of a successful or unsuccessful film in this analysis is its box office profitability.


II. MOVIEGOER EXPECTATIONS

Since the advent of sound, Hollywood has drawn heavily on novels for plots and plot devices. That is particularly true today given the imperative for a film to succeed its opening week and even its opening weekend. The box office of a film based on a bestseller usually benefits opening week from fans of the novel. That’s not to say this guarantees success. Sell 10,000 copies of a novel during the first week of publication and it becomes a New York Times bestseller. Sell 10,000 tickets opening week of a $20 million feature film and the film is a bomb. Adapting a novel into a screenplay that targets a general audience requires, as any successful screenplay, ensuring the plot gratifies moviegoer expectations instilled by the Motion Picture Production Code, the structure of the film’s genre, and other sources specific to cinema.

a.) The Motion Picture Production Code

In 1930, Jesuit priest Daniel Lord and Catholic parishioner Martin Quigley proposed a code that would require Hollywood films to depict “the correct standards of life.” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America approved The Code that year, but did not enforce it until 1934 when the industry feared government intervention.

The Motion Picture Production Code reflected the values of Caucasian law-abiding church-going heterosexual monogamous Americans. Its censors would reign over Hollywood until 1968, when The Code was replaced by a movie rating system overseen by the Classification and Rating Administration. Although gone, The Code is not forgotten. Most of its do’s and don’ts still govern films rated “G” (all ages admitted), “PG” (parental guidance suggested), and PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned). Moreover, there are moviegoer expectations instilled by The Code that makers of “R” and “NC-17” films dare not disappoint.

Among them: No villain shall go unpunished. By villain we do not mean any criminal or wrongdoer, such as the protagonist conmen in “Ocean's 11, 12 and 13” (2001, 2004 and 2007) or even the protagonist guilty of manslaughter in “At Any Price” (2012) (although Dean Whipple (Zac Efron) would have never escaped justice under The Code). A villain is decidedly evil relative to the protagonist or, if the villain is the protagonist, relative to his or her antagonists. Most villains kill, maim or otherwise wrong morally superior people for profit, amusement and/or ego gratification.

Rare are films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) that somehow escaped censorship under this villain rule. The film’s murderer, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), has run away to Europe with his slain wife’s fortune when his hapless accomplice, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), plunges from a mission bell tower to end the film. One senses The Code is the butt of an inside joke when Hitchcock chooses a nun to frighten Judy over the edge. In any case, Kansas girl and department-store clerk Judy takes the fall for rich sociopathic megalomaniac Gavin. As previously mentioned, “Vertigo” disappointed critics and disappointed at the box office.

Perhaps we would expect villains to be punished had there never been a Code.  It’s arguable that American mores would have eventually rewarded films that punished villains and punished films that did not.  However, the key word here is eventually. Enforcement of The Code began in the middle of the Great Depression when anti-establishment sentiment made folk heroes out of gangsters like John Dillinger and Al Capone. This sentiment was one big reason why The Code was proposed, adopted and enforced. Without The Code, who can say when moviegoers would have begun to expect villains to be punished and be disappointed when they were not?

We do know that repeal of The Code was no reprieve for villains. Quite the opposite: filmmakers discovered that punishing villains with a severity befitting their villainy translated into profits. Laying the foundation for this expectation were the bitter ends of super villains such as Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes franchise starring Basil Rathbone.  The character of Moriarty appeared in three films, was played by three different actors and was killed screaming as he fell 1) from the Tower of London [“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939)], 2) through trap door to the sewer 60 feet below [“Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon” (1942)], and 3) from a crumbling penthouse ledge [“The Woman in Green” (1945)].  But while the Holmes franchise is an example of detective genre, it would be the action crime genre that profited most from executing super villains. Leading the way was the James Bond hit “Goldfinger” (1964), in which we see the seemingly indestructible thug Oddjob fried as he  retrieves his electrified steel-brimmed bowler, then a rotund Auric Goldfinger sucked through a smashed window of his private jet at 30,000 feet. Electrocution and fatal falls would become the action genre’s favorite ways to whack super villains. Electrocution and long fatal falls would become the action genre’s favorite ways to whack super villains.

Examples include: 

  • “Where Eagles Dare” (1968), in which exposed traitor Col. Turner (Patrick Wymark) commits suicide by stepping off an airplane high above the Alps;
  • “Die Hard” (1988), in which terrorist-robber Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) plunges 40 stories from an office building;
  • “Under Siege” (1992), in which Wiliam Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) has his eyes gouged by Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) before Ryback thrusts Strannix’s head into a live computer monitor;
  • “Under Siege 2” (1995), in which terrorist-extortionist Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) has his fingers cut off by a closing helicopter door sending him plunging into the inferno of a wrecked train;
  • “Taken” (2008), in which Byan Mills (Liam Neeson) straps  human trafficker Marko Hoxha (Arben Bajraktara) into a chair, interrogates him with electric shocks to his testicles, then turns on the juice and leaves;
  • “The Equalizer” (2014), in which Russian mafia kingpin Vladmir Pushkin {Vladimir Kulich) electrocuted in his bedroom bathroom by a floor electrified by Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). 

The rule is audiences tolerate displays of super villainy with the expectation of catharsis at the climax. In “Silver Streak” (1976), we see mass murderer Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan) shot, lying on his side and extended from a locomotive as he watches a passing locomotive about to smash his face. Audience reaction: Sweet!  In the box office underachiever “Firewall", (2006)  the leader of kidnappers holding the family of Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford) hostage, Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) dies instantly and without much of a struggle when Stanfield swings a pick back over his shoulder and by fluke strikes Cox in the back. Audience reaction: Gyp!

b.) The Three-Act Structure

Anyone aspiring to plot a successful screenplay is wise to learn the specific audience expectations for its genre. This includes screenwriters adapting literature for the screen. The three acts consist of set-up, conflict and resolution, a formula that dates back to the theater of ancient Greece. A spinoff of this formula was dialectic—thesis, antithesis and synthesis—which, according to philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, is the process by which history progresses. History’s final synthesis, like the final act of most Hollywood films, is a happy ending.  

Below is a basic outline of cinema’s generic three-act structure:

Act 1 (Set-Up)

  1. Introduction of the Protagonist: We see the protagonist(s) before the event (First Plot Point) that launches the storyline. Act I can include a teaser that foreshadows action in the future, e.g., Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) plundering a golden idol and escaping South American natives led by rival archaeologist René Belloq (Paul Freeman) in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). It can include a scene that foreshadows action in the past, e.g., Joe Gillis’ (William Holden’s) voice over in a scene showing his drown corpse in a swimming pool in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).

  2. Time and Place: Without a reason to think otherwise, an audience assumes the action of a film is contemporary with its release. A reason to think otherwise should be communicated by dialogue or caption. If the time is contemporary, place can be communicated solely by an establishing shot if its subject is iconic worldwide, e.g., the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Ben, the Eifel Tower, etc. However, even then, place is usually also communicated by dialogue or caption unless the locale is negligible to the plot. If the locale is an invention of science fiction or fantasy, establish how action can break the laws of physics.

  3. Chance: An instance of chance that will impact the plot should occur in Act 1, e.g., Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) gesturing to a waiter paging “George Kaplan” causes thugs to mistake him as George Kaplan [“North by Northwest” (1959)].  An exception to this rule is the disaster in films that combine the disaster genre with another genre to make the disaster the Second Plot Point, e.g., the romance/disaster film “Titanic” (1997).

  4. First Plot Point: This ends Act 1. It is an event that compels the protagonist to act and initiates the storyline. .

Act 2 (Conflict)

  1. Protagonist Character Arc(s): Every protagonist is on a journey of innocence to experience. This journey is called the character arc and spans Act 2.

  2. Subplot(s): Most subplots begin in Act 2 and some conclude in Act 3. A subplot is subsidiary to the plot. However, it is distinct from the plot because,  if removed, the film’s ending could remain the same, e.g., Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) romances waitress Loretta Salino (Dimitra Arliss) only to discover after she is shot that Salino was an assassin hired to kill him [“The Sting” (1974)].

  3. Second Plot Point:  Commonly known as the climax, this plot point concludes the character arc(s).  It is the point when the protagonist knows all he must to try to resolve the conflict and acts to resolve it.

Act 3 (Resolution)

  1. Resolution of Conflict:  The protagonist resolves the conflict or is defeated by forces opposing him. Forces can range from villains of every sort, law enforcement, disdain of a love interest, social inequity, social competitors, etc. The general rule, once enforced by the Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, is that happy endings come to good protagonists and bad endings come to bad protagonists. Bad protagonists are largely found in the gangster, film noir and horror genres.

  2. Status of Main Characters: Moviegoers should not leave the theater wondering: “What happened to (a main character)?” These loose ends need to be tied up if they have not already. This is particularly true of a villain if only his fate (that is, his punishment, consistent with the audience’s expectation) is communicated by a sentence or two of dialogue, e.g., as an old woman, Rose (Gloria Stuart) remarks that villain Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) was financially ruined in the stock market crash of 1929.

  3. Conclude Remaining Subplots: Every subplot should conclude with the audience understanding how the subplot related to the plot.

c.) Three-act Structure in Romantic Comedies

Below we break down the three-act structures of seven commercially successful films in the romantic comedy genre. Please note that audience expectations of this genre differ from the romance drama. For instance, in romantic comedies, conflict arises between boy and girl. In romance dramas, conflict arises from an outside force pitted against boy and girl, e.g., the Nazis in “Casablanca” (1942); an elitist fiancé and sinking ship in “Titanic” (1990); the Adjustment Bureau in “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011).  

Successful Romantic Comedies & Protagonists

  • “It Happen One Night” (1934)
  • “Pillow Talk” (1959)
  • “Manhattan” (1979)
  • “Pretty Woman” (1990)
  • “Wedding Crashers” (2005)  
  • “27 Dresses” (2008)
  • “Trainwreck” (2015)

Peter (Clark Gable) Ellie (Claudette Colbert)
Brad (Rock Hudson) Jan (Doris Day)
Isaac (Woody Allen) Tracy (Muriel Hemingway)
Edward (Richard Gere) Vivian (Julia Roberts) 
John (Owen Wilson), Claire (Rachel McAdams)
Jane (Katherine Heigl), Kevin (James Marsden)
Amy (Amy Schumer) Aaron (Bill Hader)

Act 1:

The romantic comedy is a very urban-oriented genre. The vast majority of romantic comedies, good and bad, are set in New York City.

Time & Place

  • “It Happened One Night”: Present 1934, U.S. East Coast, New York City
  • “Pillow Talk”: Present 1959, New York City
  • “Manhattan”: Present 1979, New York City
  • “Pretty Woman”: Present 1990, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills
  • “27 Dresses”: Present 2008, New York City
  • “Trainwreck”: Present 2015, New York City

First Plot Point

First Plot Point: The urban setting is one where lovers-to-be often meet as strangers. In romantic comedies, we expect to see the start of the relationship. The genre became a Hollywood staple in the late 1950s and early 1960s coinciding with young women en masse leaving home to attend college or join an urban work force rather than live with their parents until married.

As we will also see from the representative films below, audiences expect this first meeting to be cute if not “meet cute,” a term defined as a first meeting that is not only cute but by chance.

  • “It Happened One Night”: Boy finds girl in meet cute. Peter, a newspaper reporter, and Ellie, a runaway heiress, quarrel over sharing a bus seat. He soon recognizes Ellie and promises to reunite her with fiancé in exchange for an exclusive.
  • "Pillow Talk": Boy finds girl in meet cute. Chance sits Brad and one of his girl friend next Jan and drunken companion. Eavesdropping, Brad discovers that Jan is the woman on his party line. He escorts Jan from a nightclub carrying her drunken date (Nick Adams) on his shoulder.

  • "Manhattan": Boy already dating girl. Not taking his relationship with high school student Tracy seriously, Isaac encounters Mary (Diane Keaton), mistress of his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), at fundraiser and the two become attracted to each other.
  • "Pretty Woman" Boy finds girl in meet cute. Having difficulty driving his lawyer's Lotus and lost in Hollywood, Edward encounters hooker Vivian and asks directions to Beverly Hills. She drives him there herself proving to be a far better driver of the sports car than he.

  • "The Wedding Crashers": Boy finds girl. John targets bridesmaid Claire at her sister’s wedding reception and introduces himself by amusing her with his predictions of the contents of wedding presents.   

  • "27 Dresses": Boy finds girl in meet cute. Kevin revives Jane who is knocked unconscious in a scramble for a bridal bouquet.

  • "Trainwreck" Boy finds girl. Amy is a writer for a men's magazine who is assigned to interview Aaron, a sports medicine doctor. During the interview she receives a text from her sister insisting their father be moved to a cheaper care facility. She hyperventilates, but is calmed by Aaron who suggests they dine together.

Subplots

  • "It Happened One Night": Ellie has run away from her father because he objects to her wanting to marry fortune hunter King Westley.
  • "Pillow Talk": NA

  • "Manhattan": Yale is having an affair with Mary. Meanwhile, Isaac’s ex-wife (Meryl Streep), now a professed lesbian, is writing a book about her failed marriage to Isaac.  

  • "Pretty Woman": Edward is a New York corporate raider in Los Angeles to spin off the assets of a targeted company. .

  • "The Wedding Crashers": John’s wedding crashing accomplice, Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) has sex with Claire’s sister Gloria (Isla Fisher). Gloria convinces her father, William (Christopher Walken) to invite David and Jeremy to their estate for the weekend.

  • "27 Dresses": Believing she is in love with her boss (Edward Burns), Jane watches helplessly as her boss becomes romantically involved with her sister (Malin Akerman).

  • "Trainwreck": NA

Act 2 (Conflict)

Character Arcs

In romantic comedies, Act 2 includes character arcs for both boy and girl.

  • "It Happened One Night" Peter's prejudice against Ellie as one of the privileged rich dissipates with familiarity and finally love. Ellie's sense of superiority to a street-smart unemployed newsman dissipates with familiarity and finally love.
  • "Pillow Talk":Brad is a womanizer who jumps at the challenge of seducing a wholesome woman only to fall in love with her. Jan’s contempt for a playboy composer she knows only from a telephone party line unwittingly turns to love for a man she thinks a wholesome Texan.
  • "Manhattan": Isaac's inability to commit to Tracy turns to a longing to get her back. Tracy idolizing Isaac succumbs to the realization that she needs to move on, although possibly temporarily only. 

  • "Pretty Woman": Edward evolves from an obfuscating and manipulative corporate raider to Vivian’s image of a knight on a white horse. Vivian’s arc is a version of Cinderella—i.e., hooker to princess. 
  • "The Wedding Crashers": John crashes a wedding targeting bridesmaid Claire for a one-night stand only to find himself spending the weekend competing for her affection with her fiancé, Sack (Bradley Cooper). Claire’s misgivings about her fiancé come to the fore when she quickly becomes attracted to John.  
  • "27 Dresses":Jane is a serial bridesmaid who dreams of marrying her entrepreneur boss (Edward Burns) but, in spite of herself, is attracted to a reporter covering her boss’ wedding to Jane’s sister (Malin Ackerman). Kevin’s disdain for marriage, occasioned by having been left at the altar and reporting for a newspaper’s “Commitments” beat. This attitude dissipates as he falls for Jane.
  • "Trainwreck" :Amy is a promiscuous party girl who resists whose growing affection for Aaron conflicts with her conviction, instilled at childhood by her father, that monogamy at childhood that monogamy is unrealistic. Aaron has not dated for six years before he dates and falls for Amy.

Second Plot Point

  • "It Happened One Night": Boy loses girl." As Ellie sleeps, Peter drives to New York to ask editor for an advance to marry Ellie. Seeing Peter’s car gone, motel owners eject Ellie, who believes Peter has deserted her to collect her father’s reward money.

  • "Pillow Talk": Boy loses girl. Jan discovers Brad is not a Texas oilman but instead the playboy composer who is sharing her party line.

  • "Manhattan": Boy loses girl. Tracy decides she will attend university in England.

  • "Pretty Woman": Boy loses girl. Edward asks Vivian to spend one more night with him, not because he is paying her, but because she wants to. She refuses.
  • "The Wedding Crashers": Boy loses girl. Claire discovers through Sack that John has lied to her about who he is.

  • "27 Dresses" Boy loses girl: Jane discovers that the published article Kevin has been researching is a Sunday feature not about her sister's nuptials but about Jane having been a bridesmaid 27 times.

  • "Trainwreck": Girl loses boy. Amy is Aaron's date at a banquet when Aaron receives a prestigious award. As Aaron gives his acceptance speech, Amy leaves the room to take a call from her boss.

Act 3 (Resolution)

The Happy Ending
  • "It Happened One Night": Boy gets girl. Peter meets with Ellie’s father and, refusing to take any reward, demands only $39.60 in expenses. Ellie deserts groom King Westley at wedding to elope with Peter.
  • "Pillow Talk" Boy gets girl. Brad abducts Jan from her bed and carries her through the street to his apartment, which Jan has tackily redecorated. Brad fumes that he wanted a redecoration because he no longer intended to be a bachelor. The two makeup and marry.
  • "Manhattan": Future of boy and girl uncertain. Trying to dissuade Tracy from leaving New York for London, Isaac tells her he fears she will change. She responds not everyone becomes corrupted, suggesting someday they might get back together.

  • "Pretty Woman": Boy gets girl. Edward is enroute to the airport when he orders the hotel chauffeur to drive to Vivian's apartment building, where he leaps from the white limousine's sun roof and "rescues her."

  • "The Wedding Crashers":Boy gets girl. At the wedding of Jeremy and Gloria, John publicly declares his  love for Claire. When Sack tries to interrupt, Jeremy sucker punches him unconscious.

  • "27 Dresses": Boy gets girl. Jane finally kisses boss (Edward Burns) and discovers that she does not love him.  She goes to a wedding being covered by Kevin and professes her love. The two marry.

  • "Trainwreck": Boy gets girl. Fired by the men's magazine, Amy sells her article about Aaron to Vanity Fair and sends Aaron a copy. The two reunite at a basketball game, where they declare their love and kiss.

Subplots & Main Characters
  • "It Happened One Night": Opposed from the get-go to King Westley becoming his son in-law, Ellie's father bribes Westley to forget being left at the altar.

  • "Pillow Talk": Brad has apparently made up with Jonathan (Tony Randal) because the film ends with Brad en route to Jonathan’s office to tell him he is about to be a father.

  • "Manhattan": Emily confronts her husband Yale about Mary, who decides to leave Emily for his lover. Mary dumps Isaac to reunite with Yale, causing Isaac to appreciate Tracy.

  • "Pretty Woman": N.A..

  • "The Wedding Crashers": Jeremy falls in love with Gloria and the two marry, their wedding bringing Claire and John together. At the wedding, Jeremy sucker punches Sack, paying him back for unnecessary roughness during a touch football game.

  • "27 Dresses": Having been dumped by George, Jane’s sister Tess makes up with Jane. Tess and George cordially meet again at the wedding of Jane and Kevin.
  • "Trainwreck": NA

d.) Audience Expectations in Romantic Comedies

Based on the films above, three-act structure of the romantic comedy is boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. (Please note that boy and girl are interchangeable in this formula.) This is the structure Hollywood delivers and, more important, the structure that moviegoers expect. The one exception above to this structure is Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” whose box office success suggests two possibilities. The first is that Allen gives the audience an alternative to the happy ending that moviegoers found equally or more gratifying. This, however, seems unlikely. Leaving in limbo the relationship of middle-aged man with a 17-year-old high school student is an outcome fans of romantic comedies would appreciate only insofar as the girl escapes a homely cradle robber.

The other possibility is that moviegoers did not expect “Manhattan” to be a romantic comedy. After all, who would go to a Woody Allen film expecting a romance in which Woody gets the girl? While Bill Hader is no Clark Gable and Owen Wilson is no Rock Hudson, these actors are far more suited to being romantic leads than Woody Allen. Compared to Allen, Wilson and Hader are endearing not only in looks, but in personality.

Satisfying the expectations of female moviegoers is the key to success in this genre. The leading man should be someone with whom the female moviegoer, a.k.a. the chick in “chick flick,” can vicariously become romantically involved. On the other hand, the sex appeal of the female protagonist is less important than that she be someone with whom female moviegoers can identify. Satisfying the expectations of female moviegoers is the key to success in this genre. The leading man should be someone with whom the female moviegoer, a.k.a. the chick in “chick flick,” can vicariously become involved. On the other hand, the sex appeal of the female protagonist is less important than that she be someone with whom female moviegoers can identify.  

Excluding “Manhattan,” the films above indicate the following expectations should be satisfied to ensure a successful romantic comedy:

  1. Attractive Male Protagonist:  For the screenwriter, this means giving the male lead situations to express a personality endearing to the female moviegoer

  2. Empathetic Female Protagonist: The female protagonist must be someone with whom the female moviegoer can identify.

  3. Cute First-Time Meeting: Protagonists meet as strangers or at least for the first time after a long time. The meeting should be the stuff that makes for a humorous and charming anecdote.

  4. Worldly vs Idealistic: One protagonist is worldly and somewhat cynical in contrast to the other protagonist who is idealistic and/or naive.

  5. Character Driven Plot: Character arcs, once commenced, must drive the plot. The essence of a romantic comedy plot is that two strangers meet and interact until their character arcs merge in true love. Love engineered is not true.

  6. Break Up: The protagonists split because of a lie, misunderstanding or miscue for which the worldly protagonist is responsible.

  7. Happy Ending: The protagonists reunite after trust is restored and love is professe

e.) The Cost of Disappointing Expectations

The importance of gratifying these expectations is evidenced by the many box office failures that disappointed them.  Conversely, short is the list of films that ignored expectations but nonetheless succeeded.  

Examples of each are two films directed by Rob Reiner: the very successful “When Sally Met Harry” (1989) and the bomb “And So It Goes” (2014).

When Harry Met Sally” (1989)

While Meg Ryan fits the bill as a leading lady, Billy Crystal is midway between Woody Allen and Rock Hudson as a leading man. In looks anyway. Unlike Woody, Billy has a warm personality allowed to be all the warmer because the film’s conflict arises not from dishonesty, misunderstanding or miscue, but from the protagonists debating whether sex prevents men and women from being friends. Crystal‘s character believes it does, Ryan’s character believes it does not. The issue is the common denominator of character arcs that span more than a decade of periodic encounters. The resolution is that true friendship between a man and a woman is achievable only through marriage. The issue of friendship succeeds in replacing the standard source of conflict because it was certain to engage a female-dominated romantic comedy audience. And to work, the male protagonist could not be too sexy. What woman would just want to be friends with Rock Hudson?

Rob Reiner wouldn’t be so lucky 15 years later:

"And So It Goes" (2014):

Protagonists Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton do not meet cute, although there is nothing cute about Douglas to meet. While he is hard and worldly compared to the soft and sentimental Keaton, he is also self-absorbed and misanthropic. Some critics have compared him to Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets” (1997), a successful romantic comedy in which Diane Keaton was also the co-protagonist. But unlike Nicholson, Douglas offers female moviegoers nothing to love unless their hearts throb to his 70-year-old scowling face. Keaton, who was 17 years younger when starring in “As Good As It Gets,” is also a little too long in the tooth for many men to want and women to want to be. It’s a small audience indeed that is interested in the love lives of senior citizens.

Attempts by "Simply Irresistible" (1999) and "Accidental Love" (2015) to be different led to box offices very much alike for the same reason.

"Simply Irresistible" (1999): Expectation

Cute as cute can be are protagonists Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean Patrick Flanery, both restaurateurs. Meet cute they do when a live and magical crab that Gellar is pursuing scrambles up Flanery’s leg. However, the character arcs of the protagonists are shaped largely by magic that leads to girl losing boy because he thinks she has bewitched him. The film’s actual sorcerer is the crab, who has taken up residence in Gellar’s kitchen. The few moviegoers who liked this film thought magic turned the trick. Those who disliked it saw crab finds boy, crab loses boy, crab gets boy.

"Accidental Love" (2015)

The crab in the kitchen of “Simply Irresistible” becomes a nail in the skull of Jessica Biel in “Accidental Love.” The nail is embedded accidentally by a workman firing a nail gun just as our protagonist is proposed to by James Marsden. The nail, which Jessica cannot afford to have removed, causes her behavior to change for better and for worse, the latter causing Marsden to dump her. More than once are we told words from Jessica’s mouth are “the nail talking.” It’s never clear whether Jessica or the nail wins the heart of co-protagonist Jake Gyllenhaal.

What's in a name? Nothing romantic comedy fans care to see if the name is “Mr. Wrong.“

“Mr. Wrong” (1996)

Some loved this film. Some hated it. Important to us are those who didn’t see it at all. Don’t blame stars Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Pullman for this movie flopping. “Mr. Wrong” didn’t need word of mouth and critic reviews to tank its opening weekend. The title alone told chicks this flick won’t click, to wit:  moviegoers don’t need Hollywood to let them experience losing in love. And absent female coercion, most men avoid a movie whose poster pictures a bride. It’s been said “Mr. Wong” is also a black comedy. Maybe so, but the fans that made hits of “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Fargo” (1996) didn’t think “Mr. Wrong” made a right.

Comedy in romantic comedies had better be very, very good if it comes at the expense of the audience’s romantic expectations.

“All About Steve” (2009)

Stars Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper are veteran romantic leads. Cooper’s character is a worldly network television cameraman and Bullock’s is a cloistered and naïve creator of newspaper crosswords. The two meet on a blind date. However, rather than being cute, Bullock is nuts—nuttiness underscored by the red disco boots she wears everywhere. The result is girl finds boy and girl loses boy in the same scene. This leads to the longest Act 3 in memory. What passes for a happy ending is summarized by Bullock: "If you love someone, set him free; if you have to stalk him, he probably wasn't yours in the first place."

E. Signature Content Expectations

Signature content is specific action and/or dialogue expected from a genre, franchise or filmmaker. In the movie “Scream” (1996), characters joke about signature content of slasher films, each joke followed by the very action joked about. Rose McGowan’s character, for instance, tells partying friends she’ll “be right back,” a signal, her friends say, that she is about to be murdered, which she is fetching beer alone in a garage.

The Forged Signature in "Scream"

“Scream” fans claim its originality lies in the film’s unforgettable beginning. That beginning consists of a leading female star, Drew Barrymore, being indoors alone in an isolate locale where she is stalked by a maniac in disguise and finally stabbed to death with a butcher knife. This scene became signature content for three “Scream” sequels. But was it original? In our description of the scene above, replace Drew Barrymore’s name with that of Janet Leigh and you have the shower scene in “Psycho” (1960).

Plot originality in Hollywood is rare; successful plot originality very rare. The risk of originality forced Alfred Hitchcock to film “Psycho” in black and white, use Universal’s television crews and finance the film himself for $807,000. Psycho’s budget would have amounted to $4.2 million in 1996 when “Scream” was produced for $15 million.

Signature Endings

Classic private detective franchises usually end films with a distinct format that fans expect. Below we describe the signature endings of three successful detective genre franchises. Fans of the genre should quickly identify which ending represents which franchise.

  1. The police assemble the suspects at the detective’s request. The detective recounts events and how he believes they relate to the suspects. How can he say such things about these people? his sidekick asks. “It’s the only way it makes sense,” he responds. The detective continues bantering with the suspects, then declares: “I’ve been waiting for someone to make a slip. Well, someone has.” He names the killer and discloses proof of the suspect’s guilt. Police arrest the killer.

  2. The detective’s sidekick makes a seemingly insignificant remark which causes the detective to exclaim, “Say that again!” When the sidekick repeats the remark, the detective responds, “That’s it!” In the next scene, the detective confronts the villain alone and describes in detail the clues pointing to his guilt. The villain tries to escape but is subdued or killed as the police arrive.

  3. The detective asks all the suspects to assemble to hear his solution to the murder. If he does have a sidekick, it is usually an official who authorizes the detective to investigate the crime(s) in lieu of the police. The detective recounts all clues and explains how they combine to point to one suspect. The other suspects combine to detain the murderer until the police can be summoned. Often the locale is one that would make escape difficult if not impossible.

The franchises are 1) The Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, 2) Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and 3) Hercule Poirot starring Peter Ustinov.

Signature Character

By signature character we do not mean the screen persona of an iconic actor, particularly stars of Classic Hollywood whose screen images were crafted, nurtured and maintained by studios. It’s true that leading actors forge a personas or types that moviegoers come to expect. Suffice it to say playing against type can be very risky business no matter how popular the star, e.g., John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn in the bomb "The Conqueror" (1956). However, type is an issue for casting not screenwriters. By signature character we mean a specific kind of character played by different actors that becomes expected in the work of a specific filmmaker. 

A leading example is the “Hawksian woman,” a term that refers to a female character found in the films of director-producer Howard Hawks over the course of three decades. The Hawksian woman was an independent and self-assertive woman before the modern feminist movement. She was capable of teasing John Wayne until he blushed and Humphrey Bogart until he whistled. She becomes one of the good guys earning her own nickname, e.g., Rosalind Russell is “Hildy” in “His Girl Friday” (1940), Lauren Bacall is “Slim” in “To Have or Have Not” (1944), Margaret Sheridan is “Nikki” in “The Thing From Another World” (1951),  Angie Dickinson is “Feathers” in “Rio Bravo”(1959),  Elsa Martinelli is “Dallas” in “Hatari!” (1962), Michele Carey is Joey in "El Dorado" (1967). The Hawksian woman made Hawks' films a favorite of early feminists who came to expect this character and made it a term of art.

III. REMAKING ORIGINALITY

Every element of the human experience that can be plotted has been plotted, most several times, by filmmakers over the last century. This conclusion is evidenced by 1) the burgeoning number of movie remakes and hommages, 2) the profitability of serial movies, and 3) the success of films in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Originality is best left to actor personas, clever dialogue, camera blocking, special effects and locale—not plot. 

a.) Nothing New Under This Sun

The wave of remakes began at the turn of the millennium and continues to surge. The number is so extensive that our sampling below consists of a different genre for each year from 2001-2018. (Note that all of our examples bear the name of the original film, something often not the case with remakes.)

  • Heist Drama: “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960, 2001)
  • Science Fiction Drama: “Solaris” (1972, 2002)
  • Fantasy Comedy: “Freaky Friday” (1976, 2003)
  • Romantic Comedy-Drama: “Alfie” (1966, 2004)
  • Disaster: “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972, 2005)
  • Heist Comedy: “The Pink Panther” (1963, 2006)
  • Romantic Comedy: “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972, 2007)
  • Science Fiction Horror: “Day of the Dead” (1985, 2008)
  • Musical Drama: “Fame” (1980, 2009)
  • Action Fantasy: “Clash of the Titans” (1981, 2010)
  • Psychological Thriller: “Straw Dogs” (1971, 2011)
  • Comedy-Drama: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947, 2013)
  • Science Fiction Superhero: “RoboCop” (1987, 2014)
  • Action Thriller: “Point Break” (1991, 2015)
  • Western: “The Magnificent Seven” (1960, 2016)
  • Romantic Musical Fantasy: “Beauty and the Beast” (1991, 2017)
  • Musical Drama: “A Star is Born” (1976, 2018)

b.) Flight to Fantasy and Science Fiction

Challenged to devise original plots that reflect actual human experience, Hollywood has turned to super human experience and fantasy. Make no mistake—audience plot expectations remain largely the same and must be gratified for films to succeed. Whether an audience is taken to hunger games; domains of vampires and zombies; or a galaxy far, far away, it brings with it the same expectations about romance, villainy, heroism, etc. These genres do, however, rejuvenate old plot formulas by packaging them in make-believe worlds where every type of person--man, woman and child—can be a “kick ass” protagonist.

Of the 20 top grossing films in history, the genres of 16 were either science fiction or fantasy. (The total is 17 if you believe Batman is too fantastic to actually exist.)

1. “Avatar” (2009):

2. “Titanic” (1998)

3. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015)

4. “Jurassic World” (2015)

5. “Marvel’s: The Avengers” (2012)

6. “Furious 7” (2015)

7. “Avengers: The Age of Ultron”

8. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (2011)

9. “Frozen” (2013)

10. “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

11. “The Fate of the Furious” (2017)

12. “Iron Man 3” (2013)

13. “Minions” (2016)

14. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

15. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011)

16. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

17. “Skyfall” (2012)

18. “Transformers: The Age of Extinction” (2014)

19. “The Dark Knight Rises”(2012)

20. “Toy Story 3” (2010)

$2.78 billion

$2.18 billion

$2.06 billion

$1.67 billion

$1.51 billion

$1.51 billion

$1.40 billion

$1.34 billion

$1.27 billion

$1.26 billion

$1.23 billion

$1.21 billion

$1.15 billion

$1.15 billion

$1.12 billion

$1.11 billion

$1.10 billion

$1.10 billion

1.08 billion

$1.06 billion

Fantasy

Romance

Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi

Action

Sci-Fi

Fantasy

Fantasy

Fantasy

Action

Sci-Fi

Fantasy

Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi

Fantasy

Action

Sci-Fi

Action

Fantasy

It’s true that the biggest surprise and moneymaker of 2013, the animated musical-fantasy “Frozen,” dared disappoint an expectation instilled in many moviegoers by another Disney film, “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). In “Frozen,” a troll tells Princess Anna she will freeze solid unless “an act of true love” reverses a spell. Kristoff, who loves Anna, rushes to the castle where the princess is held captive. In the nick of time is Anna rescued, but not by a kiss from Kristoff, but by a hug from Anna’s sister, Elsa. Some commentators credited the success of this ending and the movie itself to the feminist empowerment movement. What is certain is that the secret of “Frozen’s” success lies with the little people who made it possible. Chances are, having not been exposed to fairytales and Disney movies based on them, these pre-schoolers to second-graders—both boys and girls—had no expectation to disappoint and identified more with sibling love than romantic love.

c.) The New Originality: The Feature Film Serial

“The Godfather Part II” (1974) is often described as the best sequel ever filmed. We argue that “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” are better regarded as one six-hour film that had two episodes separated by a two-year intermission. That same decade, George Lucas plotted the Star Wars trilogy presaging the two characteristics that have come to define most modern blockbusters—scientific/fantasy genre plotted as part of a two-, three- or more part serial. By serial, we mean a series of films that are episodes in an overarching plot, as opposed to a series of sequels with unrelated plots.  Lucas, who said he was inspired by B-film serials of the 1930s, conceived the plots of “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi (1983)—known also as Episodes IV, V and VI—before the first film “Star Wars” was produced.  These plots and the films’ overarching plot were indeed B movie. But every film in the trilogy proved to be a blockbuster because 1) their fantasy/science fiction genre enabled creation of an original physical reality, and 2) each film is a subplot to an overarching plot which allowed for multiple plot points, character arcs and subplots within subplots.  Since then, many of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers have been serials largely plotted before film production—e.g., “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “The Twilight Saga,” “The Hunger Games,” etc. The one difference: the plots of all came from novels.

The feature film serial enables a plot and even subplots to span multiple films. It also permits the development of multiple and more detailed character arcs in different genres to commence in one film and conclude in another. It’s true that structures of two and even three genres—e.g., action romance drama—can be found in traditional feature films. However, only so many three-act structures can successfully be accommodated by a two-hour film. While audience expectations remain largely the same for feature serials, different genre structures can coexist and climax at different points. To wit: only an episode in a serial would dare end with co-protagonist Han Solo embedded in carbonite as a prisoner of Jabba the Hut. Rather than disappoint expectations, this ending in “The Empire Strikes Back,” whets the audience’s appetite for the serial’s next episode, “Return of the Jedi!”

Countless combinations restore to plotting the potential for originality otherwise delivered only by visuals and entertaining dialogue. Uncertain is whether 1) a successful feature series can be in a genre other than science fiction or fantasy and 2) whether future feature series can join the Star Wars franchise as one based on original screenplays.

d.) Can there be Original Screenplays in the New Originality?

With the extinction of B movies, original serials have been the province of television. The most successful serials produced by cable networks—particularly HBO and AMC—have approached the production value of medium budget feature films. Of course, success for cable networks is largely measured in new and retained subscribers, many of whom regard as must-see serials like “Sex and the City” (1998-2004), “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), “Entourage” (2004-2011), “Mad Men” (2007-2015), “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013), “The Walking Dead” (2010-) and “Game of Thrones” (2011- ).  Two of these serials—“Sex and the City” and “Entourage”—Inspired feature films after their television runs. The film “Entourage” (2015) flopped, but “Sex and the City: The Movie” (2008) grossed $450 million on a budget of $65 million, and its sequel, “Sex and the City 2” (2010), grossed $294 million on a budget of $95 million. Interestingly a number of critics dismissed “Sex and the City: The Movie” as an extended episode of the cable serial. We would argue this was the very reason it succeeded so well.

However, this offers no insight into whether an original movie serial can be greenlit. The Sex and the City franchise is not only based on an HBO serial, but the HBO serial is based on a book authored by Candace Bushnell. Moreover, the most recent cable serials listed above are also derivative—“The Walking Dead,” based on Marvel comic books, and “The Game of Thrones,” based on novels by George Martin. The fact both serials are in the fantasy genre suggests cable networks are imitating the motion picture industry, not the other way around.

Even so, cable networks are far better suited to producing original serials than are feature filmmakers. Acquiring financing for any original screenplay is a hard sell unless an A-List director and one or more A-List actors have committed to the project. Most films today are remakes of old films or are based on history, novels, graphic novels, comic books, plays, television shows, video games and even a Disney World attraction. Plots are commodities whose value is ideally proven in another medium. Absent that, the task of financing a movie is daunting, let alone financing a serial. To extend plot lines from one film to another means the first film will not gratify all moviegoer expectations. For a serial to be successful, the moviegoer must leave the theater not disappointed that some of his expectations must wait two or more years to be gratified.

Finally and most important, cable networks own and control the means of their films’ distribution. In this sense they resemble the studios of Classic Hollywood, which owned and controlled the theaters that screened their films. That luxury was lost in 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that owning the means of both film production and film distribution violated antitrust law. Because they control when and how often their productions are broadcast, cable networks can afford to give their productions time to build an audience. Motion picture producers, on the other hand, are at the mercy of theater owners. If a film does not succeed its first week—or weekend—or even opening day—the number of screens showing the film will quickly be reduced to none.

IV. ADAPTING LITERATURE INTO SCREENPLAYS

A must-see novel does not necessarily translate into a must-see movie. Film is a visual medium that appeals most to emotions as opposed to literature, which appeals most to the intellect. Reading about the slaughter of children in the novel “The Hunger Games” is one thing; watching children slaughtered in a film would be another. The challenge of the screenwriter is to tell a novel’s story as best possible with visuals and dialogue while gratifying moviegoer expectations.

A. Bringing Literary Plots Up to Code—and Down

For good reason was author James Elroy giddy over Hollywood buying the rights to his crime novel “L.A. Confidential.” Describing the novel set in 1950s Los Angeles, one critic wrote: “Elroy's disdain for Hollywood tinsel is evident at every turn; even the most noble of the characters here are relentlessly sleazy.” Those characters are mainly LAPD detectives, including the novel’s three protagonists. The film ends happily for one protagonist, an ambitious Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), whose career benefited from, among other things, cornering and shooting three armed black men suspected of murdering nine people at the Nite Owl café. In fact, the men were unarmed and offered solid alibis to Exley, who nevertheless shot them in cold blood.

Such sleaziness would have been nixed by The Code, earned an “R” if not “NC” rating by the MPAA and, regardless of rating, disappointed if not incensed too many moviegoers. In their screenplay for “LA Confidential” (1997), Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland dialed down the protagonists’ sleaziness from felonious to anti hero. In the film, for instance, three black men are arrested for the Nite Owl killings, but soon escape from jail. When confronted in an apartment by Exley and another detective, the armed fugitives provoke a gunfight that ends with a heroic Exley left standing.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Troy” (2004), a film based on Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” whose plot was modified to vilify protagonists. Despite being popular since the Bronze Age, the plot of “The Iliad” posed a structural problem for film, i.e., Homer portrays every combatant, both Greek and Trojan, as a hero. Considered the Bible of ancient Greece, “The Iliad” embodies the belief that immortality consists of society remembering a man’s life after his death.

Audiences of war films, on the other hand, expect to root for one side over the other. To not confine all the protagonists to one side invites emotional ambivalence, a response that moviegoers usually attribute to a confusing plot. However, vilifying the Trojans was impractical because their leaders, King Priam and his eldest son Hector, are the noblest of Homer’s characters. Vilifying the Greeks was a nonstarter because this would vilify the founders of Western Civilization.

Screenwriter David Benioff instead vilifies the two Greeks most responsible for the war—Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) is portrayed as a boor who deserves to be deserted by his wife Helen, who flees Sparta with house guest Paris of Troy. Moviegoers would not share the perception of ancient Greeks that Paris’ worst and unforgivable sin was violating Menelaus’ hospitality. Agamemnon (Brian Cox) meanwhile seizes upon Helen’s desertion as an excuse to organize Greek forces and plunder Troy. The profitability of his idea benefits from the screenplay ignoring Homer’s storyline in which the events set in Troy were the conclusion of a 10 -year war. Agamemnon also defiles a woman intimate with the Greeks’ foremost hero, Achilles (Brad Pitt).

True to The Code, both Menelaus and Agamemnon die in the film. This contradicts not only “The Iliad,” but its sequel “The Odyssey,” in which Menelaus and Helen are together again in Sparta. It also ignores mythical history that inspired Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” a play in which the king returns home only to be is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra.

B. The Risk of Lightening the Dark Side

When John Huston adapted The Maltese Falcon into the 1941 film that he would also direct, two movie versions of the Dashiell Hammett novel had already been released—“The Maltese Falcon” (1931) starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels; and “Satan Met a Lady” (1936) starring Warren William and Bette Davis. Huston’s film would eclipse both of its predecessors thanks partly to performances by Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, but more importantly because Huston seized an opportunity rarely available to screenwriters: he scripted a film meticulously faithful to the novel. By contrast, the 1931 pre-Code version emphasized sexual themes that would become taboo in 1934. The 1936 version written by Brown Holmes emphasized comedic scenes à la the box office hit “The Thin Man” (1934), also based on a Dashiell Hammett novel. Huston’s film, however, introduced a new genre—or subgenre, to be precise—to Hollywood detective films: film noir. Quickly Hollywood produced a string of film noir detective films, including classics such as “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), “The Big Sleep” (1945) and “Out of the Past” (1947).

The pattern which doomed the 1936 comedic film was repeated as recently as 2015 in the making of “Victor Frankenstein” starring Daniel Radcliff and James McAvoy. Here screenwriter Max Landis wanted to imitate the films “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and its sequel “Sherlock and the Game of Shadows” (2011). Specifically, he wanted to bring to the horror genre modern repartee and quirkiness displayed by Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) and other characters in these detective films. Like screenwriter Brown Holmes, who thought detective films required no further classification, Max Landis believed a horror film is a horror film. Compounding his mistake was the title “Victor Frankenstein,” a name synonymous with a subgenre introduced in literature a century before it became a movie subgenre in the 1920s—Gothic horror.

This is the subgenre that gave us Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, Ligeia, the Phantom of the Opera, Princess Asa Vajda, Hugh Crain, etc. The title “Victor Frankenstein” would draw Gothic horror fans expecting a German baron, a grunting hunchback, grave robbing, a mob with torches and pitchforks and, above all, a monster terrorizing the countryside. What they got is mainly a bromance between Victor Frankenstein and Igor that blossoms with Victor removing a cyst that is the cause of Igor’s hunchback. Igor is a circus clown who has, when not clowning, devoted his time to studying medical textbooks (yes, Igor). So impressive is Igor’s expertise (in anatomy not clowning) that Victor adopts him as his protégé. The two men conduct experiments on animal parts at Victor’s university until Victor is expelled, then travel to Scotland and resume their work at the estate of a rich friend of Victor. In the meantime, Igor becomes romantically involved (yes, Igor) with an attractive trapeze performer named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) who causes a rift between the two protagonists. And so it goes until the film’s closing minutes when we finally see the monster. So disappointing is (it? he?) to Victor and Igor that they mortally stab each of the monster’s two hearts. The film’s bottom line was a box office of $34.2 million from a budget of $40 million.

Like detective film noir, Gothic horror is a subgenre that can be spoofed {e.g., “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) and “Young Frankenstein” (1974)} but not lightened. Of course, spoofs belong to the comedy genre, not horror. Some critics categorize the film’s genre (or subgenre) horror neo-noir. Suffice it to say that, if true, the lesson here is that makers of horror neo-noir films should not use the name Frankenstein.

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The author can be contacted at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com.
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