Hollywood Shorthand has been around for a long time (“It’s Citizen Kane meets Surf Ninjas with shades of Kangaroo Jack!”). It used to be the best way for an aspiring writer or producer to pitch his project, comparing a work people hadn’t seen before to a couple they had, in order to give them some idea of what it was about. Everyone does it, it’s a great way to simplify. As time went on, the shorthand seems to have become less about simplification, and more often a jumping off point, a guide for the whole film. “It’s Cowboys… verses Aliens! 27 Dresses! Bridesmaids’ dresses! She has 27 of them!”
Other times, people — producers, flacks, executives; people who give soundbites to trade mags — will simply throw in a comparison that has nothing to do with the story they’re telling, and everything to do with whatever hip, popular thing they want people to associate with it. Frequently-used references of the last five years include The 300, Avatar, The Dark Knight, Sin City… if someone had been able to copyright the word “gritty” in reference to a movie pitch, he’d be a billionaire. Just say “with the tone of” or “with the attitude of”, and you can compare a film to anything popular. And if it comes from a press release… well. There aren’t many things in this world as vague, silly, and nonsensical as bad PR writing. Even if the shorthand is apt, it can come off preposterous and hilarious-sounding depending on the idea, and more often than not, the shorthand is nonsensical and absurd, and comes out sounding like a poorly-translated mad lib to anyone who hasn’t been doing a lot of cocaine. For instance, if you spent too much time reading Hollywood trades, you might not realize Mitch Hurwitz was joking when he told a reporter that the story of the Arrested Development movie would be “basically Valkyrie meets Hotel for Dogs.”
Of course, we’re here to celebrate, not complain. I love absurdist, coke-fueled Mad Libs, almost as much as I love cocaine. So here they are, some the silliest, most absurd synopsis descriptions I could find.
“Adam Resurrected” is the story of a man who once was a dog who meets a dog who once was a boy.
“Cerenzie also describes the film’s script, written by Marc Gottlieb, as ‘Gladiator meets Mad Max.’ It takes place in the future, and involves a floating Las Vegas.”
-Producer Michael Cerenzie on plans to adapt the video game Joust, August 2007.
Gladiator meets Mad Max… so basically Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, then? I like the floating Vegas though.
The story, described as “Harry Potter” meets “The Bourne Identity,” follows a slacker in his 20s named Alexander Starkweather who is under an amnesia spell that renders him unaware of his magic lineage.
-The planned adaptation of the comic book “Starkweather”, Variety, November 2007.
What do you think the occurrence of amnesia is in real life vs. its occurrence in films? 100 to one? 1000 to one? A million? It’s like the opposite of obesity.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, it combines the dramatic intensity of Sophie’s Choice with the eerie mystery of a ghost story like The Others.
– Synopsis of Life Before Her Eyes, April 2008.
Sounds, uh… fun?
“Unlike other robotic action movies, ‘Voltron’ is the personification of the human spirit, a quality that will set this movie apart.”
– Producer Ted Koplar on his planned Voltron movie, July 2009.
But, uh… wouldn’t Voltron be the robotification of the human spirit? Also, did you mean robotic action movies as in the ones starring Keanu Reeves, or robotic action movies as in iRobot or Terminator? Sidenote, and this is neither here nor there, but one of Koplar’s producing partners on this project was named “Richard Suckle.” That’s right, someone out there is actually named “Dick Suckle.” Think about that next time you complain about your parents being A-holes.
“Stretch is an unconventional kind of superhero with a power that no one would want,” Grazer said. “It’s a story about a guy stretching, if you will, the limits of what is possible to become all that he can be.”
-Brian Grazer on Stretch Armstrong, June 2009.
Bryan Grazer stretching, if you will, the limits of what can be considered clever wordplay.
Described as having shades of Tombstone and Sherlock Holmes, the story is set shortly after the Civil War and follows legendary gunslingers Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. The duo team up to rescue the daughter of Sitting Bull, who has been kidnapped by a powerful Shaman with mysterious powers who is terrorizing the Western plains.
-The Hollywood Reporter on Wild Guns, a spec script bought by Warner Brothers, April 2011.
I don’t want to get hyperbolic here, but that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.
“I would describe it as ‘Kill Bill’ meets ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with the ‘team’ element of ‘Mission: Impossible.'”
-Producer Adrian Askarieh on his planned adaptation of Hack/Slash, April 2010.
Haha, cool story, bro. Apparently, Adrian Askarieh really likes comparing stuff to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here’s what he had to say about his own treatment for “Leonardo Di Vinci and the Soldiers of Forever” from a month earlier:
Producer Adrian Askarieh re-imagines Da Vinci as a member of a secret society who falls headlong into a supernatural adventure that pits the man against Biblical demons in a story involving secret codes, lost civilizations, hidden fortresses and fallen angels. Think “National Treasure” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by way of “Clash of the Titans.
That was tricky, three comparisons without mentioning the obvious choice, The Da Vinci Code.
“A thriller set in a dystopian future that’s being described as Children of Men meets Lord of the Flies.”
-The Hollywood Reporter on Age of Rage, a Fox Searchlight project then set to be directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, the upcoming Spider-Man reboot), December 2008.
Children of Men is of course a film about a world with no children, while Lord of the Flies is about an island where there aren’t any adults. Put them together and you get… I’m not sure, actually. It’s hard to say whether this was a real synopsis, or some kind of existential thought experiment.
“Justin Bieber is like the white Tupac. Compared to a lot of people.”
-Mark Wahlberg on Justin Bieber, in reference to their planned basketball movie, April 2011.
Deadline went on to say, “The tone of the project is described as The Color of Money meets The Karate Kid.”
“Zorro will be less a caped crusader for justice than a one-man vigilante force bent on revenge, in a western story that has echoes of both Sergio Leone and ‘No Country for Old Men.'”
-Description of Zorro Reborn, LA Times, April 2011.
We could make an entire, separate feature just on classic stories being “reimagined” or “reborn.” Something about re-birthing something seems to make it more gritty. I wonder if this is medically accurate.
A man who travels accidentally back to the past and meets himself there. A naked girl in the midst of the forest. A weird guy with his face covered by a pink bandage. A disquieting mansion on the top of a hill. All of them pieces of an unpredictable jigsaw puzzle where terror, drama and suspense will lead to an unthinkable sort of crime. Who’s the murderer? Who’s the victim?
-Synopsis of Spanish film “Timecrimes,” October 2008.
Where am I? Where’d this computer come from? Why am I still typing? This one doesn’t follow the normal format, but I included it for being one of the least reductive synopses I’ve ever posted. I think it actually makes the story more complicated. “There’s a guy with a brick. An old man staring at his feet. A wino screaming at a mailbox. I stand on my head, the alphabet, dogs mating on a bed. But who do they work for? How are they connected? Maybe they’re NOT…”
“The concept is described as ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ meets ‘The Matrix.'”
-The Hollywood Reporter on a spec script picked up by Warner Bros called Ctrl Alt Delete, November 2008.
I suppose that shorthand could make sense, but it’s still funny. I interpret it as involving a lot of people saying “Whoa.”
“If she accepts the role, Britney [Spears] will reportedly play the main role of Sophia LaMont, who creates a time machine and travels back to World War II where she meets a Jewish man called Eton at a concentration camp. They then fall in love and travel back to the present day with the intention of getting married but they are both killed by Nazis. “
-National Ledger on The Yellow Star of Sophia and Eton, a movie in which Britney Spears had reportedly been offered a role. June 2009.
Not exactly Hollywood Shorthand, but no way I was going to deprive you of that synopsis. It sounds to me like a real LOLocaust.
“In a movie filled with these mechanical warriors, at its core ‘Real Steel’ is an incredibly human story.”
-Shawn Levy on Real Steel, September 2009.
“Lord of the Rings meets The Matrix meets Batman Begins.”
-Unattributed quote describing Justin Marks’ He-Man script from a few years ago.
Everyone picked up the quote, which made Justin Marks a hot commodity for a while, and eventually got him the job writing that “he walks through the raindrops” line for Chris Klein in Street Fighter. I don’t know who it was that originally made the above grandiose Hollywood Shorthand proclamation, but I like to imagine they later added “GLAYVIN!”
The Hangover meets The Sweetest Thing, but in a good way.
-Description of Desperados, a script from the 2009 Black List, December 2009
I guess I can understand wanting to clarify.
“We’ve approached the movie like a John Hughes movie with dogs,” Director Tom Dey says. “Marmaduke is a teenager, and he’s trying to find his way in the world,” Dey says. “It’s a boy-meets-girl story, a coming-of-age and cautionary tale.”
-Director Tom Dey on Marmaduke, 2009.
Jesus, all those things? Silly me, I hadn’t realized a film like Marmaduke had so many layers. My God, it’s like peeling an onion. Maybe that’s why the dog’s wearing sunglasses. To keep from tearing up.
Like Mean Girls meets Miss Congeniality.
-Miley Cyrus to star in I’m Like Sooo Undercover, November 2010.
In this case, the shorthand is actually the least ridiculous part of the story:
“It’s a teen action comedy about a young, female private eye who goes undercover at a Florida college sorority in order to protect the daughter of a mob accountant.”
Tom Vaughan (”What Happens in Vegas”) will direct from a script by Allan Loeb and Steven Pearl. “There will be a touch of real danger too when she goes undercover. We have a sharp, funny, accessible and commercial script from Allan and Steven that is a perfect match for her comic talents. We are also thrilled to have Tom Vaughan at the helm,” [Producer Nigel] Sinclair said.
Yes, he referred to Miley Cyrus’ comedic talents, presumably with a straight face. Also, I would’ve gone with “Like Big Momma’s House meets Larry the Cable Guy.”
SO THAT’S WHAT I WAS ABLE TO DIG UP. But I know there are more. If you’ve got more examples of ridiculous Hollywood Shorthand, please send them our way.