I was looking through the top 10 movies of the year so far and realized that almost all of them had great screenwriting lessons embedded in them. So don’t write your next script until you go through these breakdowns!
1) THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE ($160 million so far) – Animated films from major studios always make at least 150 million dollars, so I’m not sure if any lessons can be learned from Lego Batman. I will say this though – this film would never have existed without the original LEGO movie doing so well. And that movie did well because it took chances – such as breaking the fourth wall, so to speak, and ending in the real world. You have to take some chances in your writing or your scripts won’t stand out.
2) LOGAN ($160 million so far) – Logan contains the biggest lesson on this list because we live in a box office world of spectacle. Industry types have been predicting the downfall of the comic book film for a decade now and they’ve only grown stronger. What Logan teaches us, like Deadpool before it, is that audiences are looking for new ways to enjoy a flooded genre. Aging a well-known superhero and making his story more personal and character-driven ended up being exactly what audiences wanted. For some perspective, Logan is predicted to make 100 million more domestically than the last Wolverine film, and some 250 million more globally. Find the fresh take in a superhero premise and you can cash in.
3) SPLIT ($120 million so far) – This movie proves that not only is horror still the best bang-for-your-buck genre out there. It also reminds us of the importance of the “strange attractor,” that sizzle component that makes your idea stand out. The “standard” version of this concept is a normal kidnapper who kidnaps three women and holds them hostage. Night’s “strange attractor” was giving that kidnapper multiple personalities. I have to give it to Night. I thought he went too far here (too many personalities). It goes to show that taking chances (see Lego Batman) is necessary to get that big payout.
4) GET OUT ($115 million so far) – I don’t think people realize how big of a surprise this movie’s success is. This is NOT a traditional horror picture by any means. And it teaches us a couple of screenwriting lessons. First, take a premise from another genre and see if you can add a horror spin to it. “Get Out” is “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” with a horror twist. Go ahead, do it now. Think of some of your favorite non-horror films. What would they look like with a horror spin? Get Out also reminds us of the power of triggering. If you can trigger your potential audience, you can get them to come see your film. Racism is click-bait. And this whole concept is built on top of it. There are lots of things that trigger people these days. Ask yourself, is there a movie idea that can take advantage of them?
5) FIFTY SHADES DARKER ($113 million so far) – The only lesson I can take from this is that the bored middle-aged housewife is underserved in their box office options. Remember, this is the demographic that used to have a romantic comedy thrown at them every other month but doesn’t anymore. So they’re desperately looking for something to rally behind. Anyone have ideas?
6) JOHN WICK: CHAPTER TWO ($88 million so far) – This is the most exciting entry on the list for me because it proves that if you write a spec script inside a well-known genre (in this case, “Action”) you can create an entire franchise out of nothing. As a nobody writer! Also, this is THE spec script to be writing at the moment. Guy-or-Girl-With-A-Gun action specs. Make sure you find a new angle though! I don’t even think changing the lead to a woman is enough anymore as half-a-dozen of those have already sold in the past 2 years. We’re getting our first with Charlize Theron’s “Atomic Blonde,” directed by… the same director of John Wick! (bonus lesson: Write and shoot a short film focused on something you’re an expert in. What made John Wick such a success were its bad-ass stunts. Who directed the movie? Two stuntmen. Whatever you’re good at, write and direct a short film that features that).
7) KONG: SKULL ISLAND ($88 million so far) – While it’s not a definitive failure, Kong did way lower numbers than WB had hoped. Remember, they were using Jurassic World as their comp, which made $208 million its opening weekend. Kong made $61 million. The truth is nobody was clamoring for this movie, yet I can’t put my finger on why. My lesson here would be “check the temperature in the room.” When they announced this as a teaser two years ago at Comic-Con, people were like, “Eh.” When you tell your friends your idea for your next script, what’s their buying temperature? If they react with, “Eh,” you probably shouldn’t write it.
8) A DOG’S PURPOSE ($62 million) – Man’s best friend ensures that any dog-centered script will make a decent return on its investment. If all I cared about was money, I’d write a Benji-Lassie team-up film. Or maybe Benji vs. Lassie. Hmmm, that could be a funny short film.
9) XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE ($44 million) – I don’t think it’s a good idea to highlight the return of someone when nobody noticed that he left. Xander Cage is the result of a studio that’s so out-of-touch with the mainstream (Paramount) they’d greenlight a Steven Seagall sequel. They have zero clue what people want to see. Which is probably why they’re getting a new head of production. With that said, XXX is doing pretty well overseas and there isn’t a studio in town who doesn’t want to get their hands on a fresh new big-budget action franchise (for the very reason that you can suck balls here in the U.S. and still come out in the black). So you’d do well to write in this genre. Just try to be a little more original than this piece of garbage.
10) THE GREAT WALL ($44 million) – Thank God this maiden China-U.S. major co-production voyage bombed. I’ve been terrified that major U.S.-China collaborations were coming where even more artistic compromises had to be made and the movies became even more homogezined and vision-less. The truth is, while China is open to mainstream American films, China’s sensibilities don’t work over here. We’re too different. Hollywood will paint this as a bad thing since it shrinks potential revenue streams. But for us moviegoers who care about, you know, enjoying films, it’s a very good thing. Screenwriting lesson? This may be the best example ever of when you try to please everyone, you please no one.