Note to Hollywood: Air ducts are built to hold air, not people


I was watching TV the other night, and a couple characters were sneaking around a building by crawling through the air ducts.

This doesn’t happen a lot in real life because AIR DUCTS AREN’T BUILT TO HOLD PEOPLE. Air ducts are built to hold air. Air, for purposes of this discussion, at least, doesn’t weigh anything.

In real life, if you tried to crawl through an air duct, it would collapse under your weight.

Also, in the movie, the guys in the air duct were arguing, and no one heard them. In reality, air ducts have decent-sized openings every few feet called “vents.” These are basically unobstructed holes in the side of the duct designed to allow air to blow from the vent into the room. Air vents aren’t soundproof. Also, air ducts in movies and TV shows are metal, a material that has a tendency to amplify sound rather than dampen it.


When I see a movie or TV show where someone’s crawling through the ducts, I assume the writers and director didn’t put a lot of thought into it, so it’s probably a waste of time.

Any movie clichés that are deal-breakers for you?

Drive-in movies turn 80, but their days may be numbered

CIMG0121The world’s first drive-in movie theater opened 80 years ago on Thursday. According to, Park-In Theaters opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey.

Drive-in theaters boomed after World War II, and by the late 1950s, there were about 5,000 of them across the country.

Two years ago, the last time the National Association of Theatre Owners counted, there were 366. This summer, there are surely fewer.

Our closest drive-in, the Hi-Way 50 Drive-In in Lewisburg, Tenn., closed after last season. We found out when we went online a couple of weeks ago to see what was playing. The website was gone, but we found a message from the owners on the theater’s Facebook page. It says they’ve retired but they’re hoping someone will buy it and reopen it.

I hope so, too, but I know it’s unlikely.

Drive-in theaters are a risky business. They’re at the mercy of the weather. No one goes to the drive-in when it’s raining, and no one goes if it’s sticky hot, either, but the owners have to pay a fee to the movie studios either way.

Hard-top theaters make money by overcharging for popcorn and Cokes, but it’s easy to bring snacks and pizzas and a cooler to the drive-in, so they don’t make a lot of money on concessions.

Drive-ins used to make money by showing second-run movies (which don’t cost nearly as much to rent as new movies on opening weekend), but VCRs and then DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming services such as Netflix have pretty much killed the demand for second-run movies. The movies in theaters today will probably be at Redbox by the time school starts in the fall.

The latest threat to the drive-in, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times, is the shift toward digital projection. This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The paper says Hollywood may stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints by year’s end. Hard-top theaters have already converted, but a lot of drive-in theaters probably can’t afford the cost of a new projector. The Times puts the cost of conversion at about $70,000 per screen.

So, this summer, find the closest drive-in theater and go, and take the kids. Take a Frisbee or a ball and play in the field between the screen and the first row of cars while you wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. Walk to the concession stand and listen to the sound of the movie echoing from car radios and boom boxes. Take pictures.

Because this might be the last summer you have the chance.

Wreck-It Ralph follows Hollywood’s 17-minute storytelling rule

Thing 2 watched Wreck-It Ralph three or four times this weekend, meaning I watched it three or four times, too. Thing 2 doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when he did, he picked Wreck-It Ralph.

Sunday, when it was time for lunch, I made him pause it once the movie reached a good stopping place.  I picked the scene where Ralph, sneaks away from his game, where he’s the villain, to become a hero in a first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty. I hit “pause” right as Ralph crossed the threshold from Game Central Station into the other game, and I noticed the time:

Ralph enters Hero’s Duty right around the 17-minute mark.

I learned about the 17-minute rule a few years ago when I was reading a book about screenwriting. The idea is that the first act of pretty much any Hollywood movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, which usually translates to 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).

In terms of storytelling, Act I is the setup. It’s where we meet the characters, find out when and where we are and what motivates the hero, and then something happens that changes the status quo and starts story gets rolling:

  • H.I. climbs the ladder a second time to finally kidnap one of the Arizona quints (“They got more’n they can handle”) at around the 17-minute mark of Raising Arizona.
  • Luke’s takes possession of the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find is real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes into Jaws. It’s the movie’s second attack, but it’s what forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • Kevin Costner is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

Of course, the 17-minute rule isn’t set in stone.

In the book I was reading, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 424, the chairman emeritus of UCLA’s film school calls it the “floating page 17″ rule, meaning the scene setting up the rest of the movie should come around page 17. There are plenty of examples of where that scene comes sooner or later — but only a little sooner or later.

How come?

Hunter says, basically, that 17 pages (about 17 minutes of screen time) is about how long it takes to set up the story and pull people in. Sooner, and we don’t know enough about the characters to care about what happens. Later, we just get bored.

Ever since I read Hunter’s book, I can’t help but notice when Act I ends and Act II begins. It’s usually around the 17-minute mark.