Let’s talk about Paulie’s robot. Rocky was a film series that began with a very human story, about things we could all relate to. It had heart. It had truth. By film 4, it was nations versus nations, montage after montage and Paulie had a robot for some reason. It seems quite far from where Rocky started.
Now a lot of people liked Rocky 4. Rewatching it now, it has almost no movie there in between the fights. But people really liked it. Paulie’s robot, however, was what would later become known as ‘jumping the shark’. Named after an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie actually jumped over a shark, the term has come to mean the decline of a show or movie series that can be marked by a moment of writing desperation to try to retain any sort of interest.
Rocky 5 attempted to undo the robot and take Rocky back to his roots by having him lose all his money and allowing the focus to stay with a more human story. It’s a lot closer to the original in most ways and yet isn’t all that popular among the Rocky movies. Rocky Balboa, the movie that eventually followed, would be better received. And yet Rocky Balboa couldn’t have been the movie it was without Rocky 5 trying to pull the series backwards. Rocky Balboa is a natural progression from where we left Rocky in Rocky 5. It moved forwards. It would have been a far harder movie to make if it had to follow Rocky 4 instead, if it had to build on a world that contained Paulie’s robot.
So what’s happening here? Why were we okay with Paulie’s robot in a series that began so grounded and yet not so keen on the next movie that tried to bring the series back to its roots?
There are a lot of factors but one huge one, in my view, is that a story or series must progress. It must move forwards. It is very difficult to successfully go backwards. Rocky 2 built on Rocky (barely, but just enough). Rocky 3 built on Rocky 2 and was already beginning to morph into something else. Rocky 4 built on Rocky 3. It’s a ridiculous movie and, put side by side with the original, it’s hard to see them existing in the same universe and yet it is a result of a move forwards. It built each time and we accepted that, robot and all.
Rocky 5 attempted a rewind. Now that’s not the only issue with that movie but Rocky 5 is incredibly jarring following Rocky 4. It feels like something broke Rocky.
Generally, you have to move forwards. You have to progress. If you don’t, you will very quickly find you are churning out more of the same, and the audience will drop away. Had Rocky not progressed, even while risking the ridiculous, I’m not sure it would even have made it to five movies. At a certain point, your audience will think, I’ve seen this already. This series has nothing more to offer. And when that happens, you will have a very hard time getting them back.
You move forwards and offer what the audiences expect plus something extra. Something new. Something that retains interest. And yes, sooner or later, maybe you’re going to jump that shark. You’ll give Paulie a robot. That’s a risk. But if you hadn’t progressed along the way, you may not have lasted long enough to write your wonderful shark-jumping moment.
Here is one thing to watch out for in your story when you move on to draft 2 and draft 3 and beyond. You, and likely most other people involved, know what happened in draft 1. The audience doesn’t.
Very often, remnants of draft 1 get left behind. Things that once had meaning now no longer have meaning. Setups that once paid off now don’t. Or worse, pay offs remain where the setup has been removed. A scene that demonstrated why a character is taking a particular course of action is now gone and the action no longer makes sense. Very often, it is the opening that needs the most tightening in a story and it is very easy to cut a crucial piece of information and forget to get it across some other way.
Thing is, they are like typos. Story typos, in a way – because they are often small and really hard to spot. As we go through our drafts, our brain fills in the gaps. Our minds tells us, yeah, I know why that’s there, just carry on. So you don’t even spot the hole. To you, there is no hole because you remember what happened in draft 1.
So you have to actively look for the connections yourself. Go through the story and ask yourself: does each setup have a payoff? Does each payoff have a setup? Do the details still matter? Are you missing an important detail?
And one of the best ways to catch these is to make sure someone new reads each draft, without the prior knowledge of what happened in the earlier drafts. With every revision, it becomes harder and harder for everyone involved to retain any kind of objectivity. Find fresh eyes.
Every single time I work on a project, I have one goal in mind: this will be the best thing I’ve ever made. This is true whether it is the start of a whole new concept or just one more episode of a continuing series.
Does it always turn out to be the best thing I’ve actually ever made? Not always. But having that as the goal always pushes me to make something better, try something different and give the audience something a little bit special. It prevents me from being overwhelmed by deadlines and letting something go that just isn’t ready yet.
This goal is its own quality control.
And really, why would you possibly want to do anything less?
So whatever you’re doing, whether you’re mid-production or coming up with something new, set a high goal. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made. Simply keeping that as your core goal will vastly increase the chances that it is.
90% of getting by in this business is doing the work – sitting down and writing that script or making that short or whatever it is you need to actually make stuff happen. The other 90% is selling your work or yourself. The remaining 12.5% is a basic grasp of mathematics.
I remember being told decades ago that there is no point in creating something and having it sit in your desk drawer. I listened to that. And I created stuff. I put in that first 90%. Then I chucked it into my desk drawer and wondered why nobody ever came calling.
So I spent many important years putting in the work and getting better at what I do, trying to improve in different areas. Actually being okay with telling people about my work was a very slow process. Learning to pitch was hellish… until it eventually became fun. And it would be many more years before I would overcome the even greater challenge: pitching not just my work, but myself.
Even now, I love to let my work speak for itself. But the reason for that is down to me having a hard time saying to someone: I am really great at what I do and you need to know that. I don’t know if that’s me as a person or a cultural thing but it’s a hard thing to do and I realise that there were times in my career that I could have let people know about skills I had… but I didn’t.
On the few occasions I did, good things happened. And so I’m a bit better about that now.
But I still know people who do the work and leave it sitting in their desk drawer (or computer folder) where it will do no good. You have to let people know what you can do. You have to tell them about your work. And yourself. And you have to keep doing it. That’s the second 90%. And in the end, it counts for more than the first 90%. So it’s more like 97%.
Actually, let’s just forget the percentages. Just go out there and tell people about your work and what you can do.