Writing A Biopic: The Social Network vs Steve Jobs

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Writing A Biopic: The Social Network vs Steve Jobs

Let’s look at the following logline: a technical titan’s efforts to build a perfect product forces him to examine his most personal flaws. This logline fits both The Social Network AND Steve Jobs.

Let’s look at the following logline: a technical titan’s efforts to build a perfect product forces him to examine his most personal flaws. This logline fits both The Social Network AND Steve Jobs. Given the critical and commercial success of 2010’s The Social Network, it’s little wonder that movie fans were excited by the news that writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher might be re-teaming for a follow-up portrait of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. While Fincher was eventually replaced by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs released to good reviews and the year’s best per screen average in its opening weekend. Then the movie faced its wide release. Overnight, industry perception of the movie transformed from indie hit to mass market bomb.

Aaron Sorkin revealed that Amy Pascal praised the screenplay for Steve Jobs as among the best she’d ever read, but nonetheless did not believe the resulting film would be profitable. How could Pascal predict that Steve Jobs would flop? She was right of course, the film grossed only $34 million off a $30 million production budget against The Social Network’s $225 million off a $50 million budget. Using Scriptonomics’ tools, let’s examine how Steve Jobs was doomed to live in The Social Network’s shadow.

Even without the benefit of box office-backed hindsight, something seems off about Steve Jobs as soon as the “General” analysis page loads. While nearly every other feature screenplay run through Scriptonomics generates four significant scene ranges, Steve Jobs has only three.

Scenes 81-102 come up as most significant. In these scenes, Jobs must find personal inner peace and mend his fractured relationships. The audience learns new information about Jobs through intercut past and present scenes. Jobs was abandoned by the first set of parents that adopted him, prompting a need for control. He also learns he did not lose the title of Man of the Year due to a news story about him abandoning his daughter, the title had already been awarded to “The Computer” by the time the story broke. And, for the first time, Jobs verbally acknowledges that Lisa is his daughter.

Scenes 58-65 flash between the present and past during a confrontation between Jobs and former Apple CEO John Sculley. In the present, Sculley speaks to the harm Jobs has caused by fueling the narrative that Sculley fired Jobs. In the flashbacks, it is revealed that Jobs tried to have Sculley fired and was only ousted after forcing the board to choose between the two. The scene is a critical midpoint in Jobs’ arc, it underscores that Jobs is the master of his own destiny.

Scenes 69-73 reveal that Jobs plans to use his failing NeXT computer company to be re-hired at Apple. The story then flashes forward several years, to the point where Jobs has successfully executed his plan, returning to Apple as CEO. In the wake of the iMac’s launch, rehearsal for a product reveal is, for the first time in the script, going smoothly. Jobs thus has no more external obstacles and must turn to his inner demons.

Compare these Significant Scenes to the ranges identified for The Social Network:

In Scenes 151-161, prospective interns compete to join Facebook in California through an alcohol-fueled programming challenge, Eduardo travels to New York to seek advertisers, and Sean Parker runs into Mark-- it turns out the Facebook and Napster CEOs had been unknowingly residing across from one another. Sean tells Mark about a businessman who killed him himself after he sold ownership of his company for only a fraction of the value he could have built it to. This sets the stage for Mark to turn on his more business-savvy partner Eduardo. The Winklevoss twins learn that Facebook now has a thriving userbase overseas, convincing them to file a lawsuit against Mark.

Scenes 30-36 features an intense montage as Mark’s “Facemash” website spreads through campus like a wildfire. And scenes 16-20 set up the aforementioned sequence. Eduardo arrives at Mark’s dorm to console him after his break-up and Mark convinces him to provide an algorithm critical to the Facemash website. As Mark works on the site the film intercuts a fraternity party where females are being sexually objectified, underscoring the similarities between physical misogyny and their digital counterparts. Scenes 118-122 show Eduardo’s deposition and a flashback to their first meeting with Napster CEO Sean Parker.

Each of these scenes contains story scenarios that tie into the themes of the work. In a tightly written screenplay, theoretically every scene contributes to the larger whole. So, why is Steve Jobs returning only three significant ranges when it does feature many other moments of narrative and tonal significance? In every single scene identified for Steve Jobs and The Social Network, a dramatic shift in time and location occurs. Steve Jobs is primarily told in real time, the action is continuous, interrupted only occasionally. When Sorkin chooses to break this pattern and intercut between different periods in Jobs’ life, these sequences are identified as significant. The Social Network also achieves a heightened sense of speed and import through intercutting. But there is another reason that the scenes in The Social Network are more easily identified as significant.

The action-dialogue ratio between The Social Network and Steve Jobs seems roughly similar at first glance. The Social Network achieves a near 70:30 split in favor of dialogue whereas Steve Jobs is at an even higher 75:25 split.

While Steve Jobs and The Social Network may have approximately the same amount of
action lines written on the page, look back at just a few of the events that transpire in The Social Network’s significant scenes. Even Sean’s entrance at the restaurant is filled with more flair and dramatic tension than Steve Jobs and John Sculley’s dinner conversation. Even though Jobs is interacting with his estranged biological father and the father figure he builds at Apple, the scene feels weightless.

Even when scenes in Steve Jobs intercut, they mostly oscillate between people in two periods of time talking. The action lines in The Social Network juxtapose scenes of thematic relevance or reveal the rift between Mark and Eduardo’s leadership styles, in turn revealing character.

When it comes to character, Steve Jobs and The Social Network take somewhat different approaches. Steve Jobs is a character study. The history of Apple and NeXT are referenced, but that is not the primary focus. Consequently, Jobs accounts for an enormous portion of the dialogue in the screenplay, 49.4%.

The staggering size of this number only becomes clearer when looking at Character Appearances. Jobs’ noted appearances account for only 33.9% of the script. This means that Jobs’ dialogue is not just voluminous, it’s disproportional.

Compare these numbers to The Social Network. It’s partially a character study of Mark Zuckerberg but above all a story about the destruction of a friendship. Mark’s Character Appearances account for 20.7% of the script and his dialogue is a far more balanced 25.6%.

While Jobs’ disproportionate amount of dialogue can be seen as Sorkin reflecting his control-oriented personality. This amount of dialogue would be more comfortable in a play than a feature film, perhaps explaining why this movie was difficult to back.

Furthermore, it may also be worth considering whether this approach is necessarily the best for audience engagement. The supporting characters in The Social Network are far more resonant than those in Steve Jobs. The character with the next most dialogue after Jobs [49.4%] is Joanna [13.8%], while The Social Network’s Eduardo [18.1%] more closely stacks up to Mark [25.6%]. With more screen time and dialogue, the characters feel closer to the audience. We know what the supporting cast of The Social Network wants but we can’t get inside the heads of the cast of Steve Jobs. The reasons characters carry out their actions aren’t clear. They seem to exist more in service to the study of Jobs’ character and his needs, rather than as organic presences that happen to reveal Jobs’ character deficiencies.

The Social Network and Steve Jobs both have several scenes repeated in somewhat bland location (a deposition room and a dressing room respectively). But The Social Network does its best to offset this fact by cutting away to a wider variety of spaces, thus offsetting visual monotony.

When a story takes place in continuous time where the scenery rarely changes, and when dynamics shift more through turn of phrase than action, we come closer to experiencing a play than a film. A brilliant screenplay does not inherently transfer into a traditionally viable motion picture. It’s what Amy Pascal knew when she read the script and it’s something that writers may want to keep in mind as they work. After all you’re writing a screenplay, not a stage play.

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