Have they all completely lost the plot?

Story is everything, they used to say in Hollywood. But now studios are making big bucks with big bangs and big stars alone, it's the 'eye candy' that counts, writes Tim Cornwell

Only in LA, surely, would junk mail invite you to a script-writing seminar. The brochure in question, laden with testimonials, offers a three- day course for several hundred dollars with Robert McKee, the so-called "Swami of scripts". It makes sense, of course: no one can live near Hollywood without putting pen to paper on that brilliant film idea. Everyone has a script in their closet or back pocket.

Mr McKee, who has made a healthy living off this market for a decade, specialises in "Story Structure", the title of his course. It is billed as the "world's ultimate story class". He sells the notion that "story" is the soul of a meaningful film, the key to involving the audience emotionally; that studios don't buy great ideas, they buy great stories. He quotes Michael Eisner, head of Disney: "The essence of entertainment will not change. What has always counted is the story and the skill with which it is told."

The film The Fifth Element, however, which premiered at Cannes and has become the first of the summer's big studio films, is spurring talk of a new phenomenon: the big-budget storyless movie. "Nothing made sense, but the pictures are beautiful," commented one screenwriter this week, on a film that has been described as "eye candy". "The Fifth Element may actually be a milestone in movie-making," one reviewer observed, "given how blithely it relies on the accessories of film narrative rather than the fabric."

Bruce Willis stars as a 23rd century cab driver, Koren Dallas, thrown into action when a redhead in distress crashes through his roof. Leeloo, it turns out, speaks no English, but arrives on Earth every 5,000 years to save it from a consuming cloud of lava - or something like that. The film has cleverly crafted aliens, striking minor characters and a deafening sound track, but, the critics agree, no coherent story to hang it on. A defensive Willis barked in Cannes: "The written word is going the way of the dinosaur."

If the complaint last year was that big-budget films such as Twister were simply thrill rides, it may now be that they resemble

video games, especially aimed at the late teen market.

Willis, the consummate action hero, has coincidentally agreed to star in one game, Apocalypse, due out in the autumn, in which he battles the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Mortal Kombat, meanwhile, the Nintendo game, is producing a second movie spin-off this year - Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. "We want everyone, kids and parents, to be exhausted when they walk out," its director said.

Story is still held sacred in Hollywood, and there are several stock definitions. One is that a character must go through an ordeal that changes him. "You in the dark have to be engaged, no other thoughts enter your head. You understand the passion and struggle of that character, and as that character goes through his or her ordeal, you as an audience feel better," explained Mark Shepherd, a writing professor at the University of Southern California film school. Standard film stories come in three acts: predicament, action, and wrap up.

The lure of Stephen Spielberg's work has always been a balance of story and technical wizardry. But in his latest effort, The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, the story is almost an afterthought to the spectacle. The dinosaurs are rediscovered and again eat a lot of people, while character development hardly gets a look in. The film is said to rely entirely on action to keep the drama afloat: Spielberg is constantly trying to hold the audience's attention for another scene of Mesozoic mayhem, most notably when one computer-generated giant goes walkabout in San Diego. The Fifth Element and The Lost World have led off a year that promises to be packed with studio films aiming squarely to become $100m megahits. The two threaten to continue a trend of films that are routinely panned by the critics as empty of dialogue, story, and character, but whose special effects, star names, advertising budgets and commercial tie-ins make them virtually review-proof, especially for the 18-34 crowd.

A succession of films are being rolled out this summer that will have cost $1bn in total; their success will be measured simply on their profit margin. Batman and Robin is the fourth in the series, with George Clooney as the lead and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze. The infamously expensive Titanic has been pulled back to December, though its director insists that with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, it is a story laden with characters, not just a $200m sinking cruise liner picture. "Be a part of history," urges the $40m marketing campaign for The Lost World, with the message that these are not just must-see movies, but movies that must be seen now.

The Lost World broke all box-office records for its first four days. Stephen Spielberg may well earn more than the $300m he collected on Jurassic Park; Michael Crichton, author of the original novel, could earn $20m on his share of the profits. Curiously, some of the records Spielberg was chasing were set by Mission: Impossible. The Tom Cruise vehicle was universally scorned for its stumbling storyline, but became a huge commercial success. The Fifth Element, meanwhile, took $17m on its first weekend, a more than respectable total.

A great story can still make a film: witness the Oscar-winning, no-budget Slingblade. But $100m investments dictate fail-safe movies, where story doesn't get in the way of special effects or star names.

"Good story, fine, as a bonus. But no requirement. Not necessary," said Leonard Schrader, the screenwriter nominated for an Oscar for Kiss of the Spider Woman. "Stories are unpredictable. People who want it to be a predictable business don't want a real story. They would rather merchandise a familiar actor, or Batman. A good story is hard to sell. It's easy to sell Schwarzenegger."

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