You may not like it. But box office is still the main criteria for determining whether people like a movie or not. WITH TWO CAVEATS.
RELATIVITY and EXPECTATION.
Each film’s success is based on the box office receipts relative to the production and marketing budgets. Also, each movie’s success is the final box office number contrasted against what the studio was expecting. This is why Star Wars: The Last Jedi has become the single most difficult movie to pinpoint as a success or failure in film history.
Upon first glance, the film is a juggernaut, taking in $575 million dollars domestically and 1.2 billion worldwide. But is that a success IN DISNEY’S EYES? Before the movie came out, I looked at The Force Awakens 930 million dollar domestic box office and Rogue One’s 530 million dollar domestic box office and said that Disney was probably hoping to AT LEAST split the difference between the two and hit 730 million. The Last Jedi isn’t going to make it that far and will be lucky to hit 630 million. Is that a success or is it a letdown? A cynicist would say it only made 100 million more than a Star Wars movie without a single known Star Wars character in it. An optimist would say that The Force Awakens was an outlier, an impossible to reach milestone, and that The Last Jedi held its own.
Something Disney wasn’t expecting was the out-of-nowhere success of Jumanji. And the reason that Jumanji being a hit, in particular, was a problem for Disney, was that it was aiming for the exact same demo Star Wars was. The reason Jumanji took such a big bite out of The Last Jedi’s numbers was one the pompous mouse house never could’ve predicted. Whereas The Last Jedi aimed to be a crowd pleaser, Jumanji ACTUALLY WAS a crowd-pleaser. And it used a little Scriptshadow trick to get there. What have I always told you guys? Write something that allows actors to play something that they never get to play and good actors will flock to your project. Once you’ve got good actors, you’ve got a shot at making something good. And the team up of The Rock, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black, all playing characters who are NOTHING like themselves, was too irresistible.
Jumanji has another thing going for it that some are arguing has reclaimed the trophy as the the premiere weapon in the battle for box office – word-of-mouth. If you get into a conversation with any random group of people who have seen these movies, you’ll find that both generate conversation. However, The Last Jedi conversation is more volatile. The people who hate it REALLY HATE IT. And so if you’re someone who was thinking about seeing the film, you’re probably leaving those conversations thinking, “Ehh, maybe I’ll wait for digital.” But everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen Jumanji has said, “I was surprised but it’s really good. It’s really funny.” You get nothing but good vibes leaving those conversations, which is why the film’s staying power is so high for a big performer (it’s racing towards $300 million at the moment). I LOVE the fact that word-of-mouth actually means something again because that means studios HAVE TO WRITE GOOD SCRIPTS. They can’t fake it. Anything that gives more power to the screenwriters in Hollywood, I’m all about.
Another film that embodies the power of word-of-mouth is The Greatest Showman. The film had the unfortunate challenge of marketing itself against the juggernaut that is Star Wars. A 250 million dollar marketing machine vs. a puny 40 million dollar campaign. Gee, I wonder who’s going to win the awareness battle there. When the film opened up on Christmas weekend, it made a paltry 8 million dollars and was immediately branded a bomb. Except something funny happened. People liked it. And they told other people that they liked it. And the following weekend, the film saw a 76% jump in ticket sales. And then this most recent weekend, it fell a paltry 11.3%. Usually when there’s blood in the water, a film dies out quickly. This one has not only survived, but thrived, and is currently up to 80 million bucks, off an 8 million dollar opening weekend! It was so off my radar that I didn’t even watch the trailer until I saw all this good box office news. And I loved it. It’s a very strong trailer and looks to be an awesome movie. It also follows two other Scriptshadow tips. First, write about an underdog. There’s nothing like a great underdog story. P.T. Barnum was a poor tailor’s boy before turning into a name everyone around the world still recognizes today. Also, whatever the trend is, find a fresh angle. These biopics have become a dime a dozen. So The Greatest Showman turned its biopic into a musical.
As we move into this new era where audience response is tracked via specific numerical data (as opposed to asking 20 first-weekend once-a-year moviegoers right after they see a film what grade they would give it), it will become more and more important for studios to GET THE SCREENPLAY RIGHT. And that doesn’t mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean that studios will try to further course-correct their “blockbuster movie” mathematical formula. Quite the opposite actually. What they’ll find is that risk is a key component in driving audience reaction. And you see that with all three of the movies highlighted in today’s article. I don’t know anyone who was asking for a P.T. Barnum musical. That was a huge risk. I don’t know anybody who’d seen the original Jumanji and said, “Yeah, the reboot needs to be turned into a video game.” If anything, on the surface, that sounds like a horrible idea. And for all the crap I’ve given The Last Jedi, that film embodied storytelling risk. They were risks that failed. But you need studios willing to take those chances if you’re going to get those big surprise hits that get audience word-of-mouth going. And that’s great news for screenwriters and creativity in general.