Genre: Biopic
Premise: (from Black List) The true story of Marvin Glass, brilliant, charismatic, self-loathing, paranoid, demanding – and probably the greatest toy inventor of all time.
About: Mr. Toy finished on the low end of last year’s Black List. Chai Hecht made the Black List before in 2014, with his script, “In Real Time,” about a brother’s attempt to save his suicidal’s sister’s life by recreating her high school prom. I didn’t love that script, but it’s good to see that Hecht is still churning out material. Remember, you have to keep creating content. You never know which of your ideas is going to be the one that people fall in love with. Dan Brown wrote three books (all of which sold less than 10,000 copies) before he wrote The DaVinci Code, which sold 80 million copies.
Writer: Chai Hecht
Details: 111 pages

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Jason Bateman for Marvin Glass?

Memorial Day Weekend is usually a time of reflection. Which it definitely was for two studios this weekend, Disney and Paramount, as their films, “Pirates” and “Baywatch,” drowned under the weight of their seafaring subject matter, leaving the presidents who greenlit them scratching the red, white, and blue off their heads.

Baywatch’s failure was the more obvious of the two. Don’t studios know that audiences no longer buy cheesy old shows repurposed into comedy features anymore? The oddest thing about Baywatch is whoever decided to approve its R rating. The original Baywatch was harmless fun. Why alienate millions of dollars of potential business for what I’m guessing is access to a few more swear words? Not that Baywatch was going to be a hit at PG-13, but I guarantee it would’ve made more money.

The new Pirates had a fun trailer, but this franchise has run out of peg-legs. I believe audiences are fine with studios and their money-hoarding ways AS LONG AS EVERYONE IS COMMITTED TO MAKING A GREAT FILM. The second we feel like you don’t care anymore? That’s when we don’t care anymore. And that’s what’s happened to Pirates.

Speaking of franchises, the biopic has turned into its own franchise – a never-ending train of biographies on a one-way track to Oscar Nomi-station. But with so many lives being documented, it’s become harder and harder to stand out. Let’s see if a toy-maker can locate the genre’s secret sauce.

Marvin Glass grew up in my wonderful home state of Illinois in the 1920s and had the unfortunate luck of being born to the worst father in existence, a verbally abusive man, who, when he discovered that Marvin had a talent for making toys, made it clear to him that men don’t make toys.

Perhaps that explains why, when Marvin graduated from college, he decided to become a painter. And he was pretty good at it, if not good enough to sell anything yet. Painting is where he met his wife, Dorothy, who was a model in one of his classes, and the two quickly had a child, a girl.

With the pressure to provide, Marvin was forced into the toy-making business, where he quickly built that famous wind-up “chattering teeth” toy, choosing to take a quick 400 bucks rather than hold on to the licensing rights. Marvin thought nothing of the deal. But when the item became one of the hottest selling toys ever, it would teach Marvin a valuable lesson. It’s better to play the long game than the short one.

This led to Marvin pioneering a way to sell toys that had never been done before – inventor royalties. He would sell the toy rights to the big companies then take a cut in perpetuity (I learned that word on Shark Tank!).

After someone stole one of Marvin’s idea, Marvin became obsessed with secrecy – turning into the Christopher Nolan of the toy industry. He built a fortress, blacked out the windows, and changed all the locks in his building every three weeks. He then introduced another new concept into the business – an NDA. His customers were not allowed to see his prototypes without first signing a waiver saying they wouldn’t steal his idea.

Throughout all of this, Marvin became insufferable, an asshole, and obsessed with making as much money as possible, ironic since he started out his career hating money. It was argued that Marvin hated his life so much (he’s famously quoted as saying: “I consider myself a complete and utter failure.”) because he pursued a profession he despised. Which, I guess, is the lesson of this story? Although there’s so much going on in Mr. Toy, I can’t be sure of that.

Let’s go over our “What Your Biopic Needs to Be Great” checklist.

1) Fascinating subject – If you don’t have this, don’t bother writing a biopic. That means someone who’s unique or strange or fucked up or had an incredibly complex life, good or bad (preferably both). Look at the biopic about the DHL guy. After he died, they found out he’d had basically been a pedophile all his life who had impregnated numerous young girls. That’s as fucked up as it gets.

2) A great character – More than any other genre, character exploration in a biopic has to be on point. That means inner conflict. It means a clearly defined flaw. It means vices (alcohol, drugs, women). Irony is strongly rewarded (a comedian suffering from depression). These movies are about exploring the inner life as much as the outer.

3) A fresh angle – A fresh angle in the biopic department pretty much means anything besides a linear cradle-to-grave story, as that’s the most obvious route one can go. Predictability is the enemy of all great movies. And there’s nothing more predictable than going cradle-to-grave in a biopic.

4) A great story – Just like non-biopics, a biopic needs to have a great story. It can’t just be a checklist of scenes that occurred during someone’s life. You should try and add GSU. You should try and add three acts. There should be compelling revelations, unexpected developments, drama, suspense, and, overall, a story that’s interesting. For whatever reason, biopics want to be boring. Their nature is to be the script version of someone’s Wikipedia page. So you have to work against that to find your story.

How does Mr. Toy stack up in all these areas? Let’s take a look.

Mr. Toy is interesting in that he hates toys and he hates what he does, despite being so good at it. But I wouldn’t call him fascinating. His biggest career achievement seems to be pioneering royalties for toy makers. Unfortunately, numbers on a spreadsheet don’t translate well into film. Nobody’s pining for a scene where Marvin negotiates an extra percentage point on his deal.

There was a lot going on with Marvin for sure. He hated toys. He hated money. Yet he still focused on those things above his own flesh and blood, as his wife left him and his daughter despised him. However, this complexity was often more confusing than compelling. I couldn’t figure out why a man who hated money so much wanted it so badly. There was never a moment that linked those two conflicting ideologies together. By the end of the script, he’s trying to live like Hugh Hefner, yet he says numerous times he hates money and everything it represents.

This was a straight cradle to grave biopic, so no freshness involved. The great thing about a fresh angle is that it can hide a lot of a script’s imperfections. Fresh takes are becoming harder and harder to find in this genre since it’s so crowded. But you have to be inventive. Arron Sorkin built Steve Jobs around three major product launches. It can be done.

There didn’t seem to be a structure here, so the script wandered for awhile as we got to know Marvin over the early part of his career. The script picked up, however, when Hecht added a goal – Marvin needed to come up with a new toy or lose his floundering company. All of a sudden, we had a goal, we had stakes, we had urgency. But above all, we had structure. The problem? This didn’t happen until page 70. Had we introduced some sort of plot earlier, Mr. Toy would’ve been a lot more focused.

This is the thing with biopics. Since they don’t naturally fit into the 3-Act structure, writers try to wing it. Just fill up the space with the person’s life and everything else will sort itself out. But storytelling doesn’t work that way. It needs a series of destinations to keep the story on track. And I couldn’t ever figure out where this one wanted to go.

I wanted to like it. There is something deliciously ironic about adults who make toys. But Mr. Toy never got there for me.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: To find a fresh angle for your biopic, look for inspiration within the character himself. For example, if you’re documenting a cartoonist, tell the entire story inside one of his cartoons. If you’re documenting someone who died of Alzheimer’s, tell the story out of order, the way they remember things. If you’re documenting a famous silent film actor, write a silent film. Just don’t write cradle-to-grave unless the life perfectly fits into the 3-Act structure and is amazing as is. Or – OR! – do write a 3-act structure if you’re documenting a famous screenwriter. And have the screenwriter admit to the audience that he knows you hate cradle-to-grave biopics but he’s going to tell you one anyway. Have fun with it. But always, above all else, be creative.