So you’re the kind of writer who rolls their eyes whenever someone mentions the Black List. You hear about middle class men needing beaver sock puppets to overcome their bi-polar disorder and upchuck in the nearest fern pot. Charlie Kaufman and Aaron Sorkin would better serve themselves washing your car than writing any more of their garbage. You like your movies dripping with 3-D CGI, not 2-D Philip Seymour Hoffman. And that’s why you got into screenwriting. You want to write these movies. You want to write the next blockbuster.
Well before we can discuss how to do that, we must agree on what a blockbuster is. A “blockbuster” (in Scriptshadow terms) would be any ultra-high budget, high concept, action or adventure film which would likely be slated for a summer or Christmas release. These are the films that allow the studios to pay their bills, and are therefore a “no expenses spared” celebration of Hollywood moviemaking.
We’re going to stay away from nontraditional blockbusters like Avengers (multiple protagonists – built off of pre-established characters) and Titanic (period piece without any traditional set-pieces). We’re also going to avoid films that, even though they did huge business, did so despite their screenplay, not because of it. Films like The Phantom Menace, Transformers, Alice in Wonderland won’t be celebrated here. I’ll instead focus on movies that built their box office on strong ideas and sound execution, as I feel there’s a lot more to learn from them. Films like Raiders of The Lost Ark, Avatar, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Star Wars, Jaws, Inception, and The Matrix.
Okay, it’s time for Obvious Oliver here. But before you write your blockbuster, TEST YOUR CONCEPT! You have to have a big exciting original high-concept idea for your 200 million dollar movie or else none of the advice I’m about to write will matter. You can have the best set-pieces in the world, but if the concept is unmarketable or boring or derivative, nobody’s going to read it. Why would they? They already know they can’t sell it. Make sure you have a cool “Blockbuster worthy” idea before you start writing. This is essential!!!
As for how to approach your blockbuster story, it’s best to stay within the confines of the traditional 3-Act structure. When a studio is spending 200 million dollars, they’re not itching to experiment. They want to stick with what works. That means a first act that a) sets up your main character and b) a central problem that needs to be fixed, a second act where a) the main character tries to fix that problem (his goal) and b) encounters plenty of conflict along the way, and a third act where he takes on the story’s big evil force and defeats it.
If you look at the above movies I mentioned, most of them follow this model. Indy, Brody, Cobb and Jake Sulley are all going after clear goals. Star Wars and The Matrix change things up by giving the mentor characters (Obi-Wan and Morpheus) the goal for the first portion of the story, before handing the reins over to the main character for the rest of the film. Pirates has the wonkiest structure of the bunch, enacting a “see-saw” approach where the goal keeps shifting between three different parties (Will, Jack Sparrow, and Captain Barbossa).
It’s no coincidence, then, that Pirates got knocked around for its complex plot when it first came out. And with that in mind, I’d use that as a lesson when writing your own blockbuster. Make the goal clear. Make the story easy to follow. It doesn’t mean you can’t complicate matters within your story, but the overall plot should be easy to understand. We should always know where we’re going. For example, Inception is a fairly complicated plot, but we always know what the goal is because it was stated up front – they have to place the thought inside Robert Fischer’s head, then get out.
Once you’ve got your three acts all figured out, it’s important to remember why audiences come to these movies. They want a rush. They’re looking for the same sort of excitement one gets from riding on a roller coaster at Six Flags. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have characters with flaws or unresolved relationships. Just that thrills take a high priority in these kinds of movies. For that reason, you’re always looking to shock an audience. You want twists and turns and surprise reveals and double-crosses. That wife who’s been with your hero for ten years? Have her turn on him. That guy who needs the data plans you have in that R-2 unit? Have his planet blow up right before we get there. You gotta keep us on edge in a blockbuster. The audience has to be taken up and down and up and down, just like a roller coaster. The second they feel safe, they’re bored.
Speaking of thrills, you’re going to want a cool villain. Big blockbusters and cool villains go hand-in-hand. So if you don’t have a memorable one, pack it in. There are lots of ways to approach villains. For example, make your villain strong where your main character is weak. But I’m not going to lie, the villains in your blockbuster are going to live or die on their originality and their flash. They have to stick out in some way. They have to be bigger than life. They have to be the kind of person that audiences are going to leave the theater excited to talk about. I read too many average, unoriginal, uninspired villains in amateur specs. Don’t be one of those writers.
But let’s get serious. When you’re talking about blockbusters, you’re talking about action. And that means great SET PIECES. These are the giant action scenes in your movie. After your concept and your main character, it can be argued that great set-pieces are the third most important thing in a blockbuster. That’s because THESE ARE THE SCENES THE STUDIO WILL USE TO MARKET THE MOVIE. If they don’t see anything new or unique in your set-pieces? If you’re not trying to push the envelope in some way? Then don’t bother writing a blockbuster, cause it will never sell.
I saw a script two years ago sell due to a SINGLE SET PIECE. Some of you may remember it. The opening scene had the core of the earth ripped off by a mega-nuclear bomb and our heroes flung into space. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened after that opening because the rest of the script sucked. But I’d NEVER read anything like that set piece before, and neither did the studio who bought it. Which is why they bought it.
In the typical blockbuster, you’ll have 3 or 4 “true” set-pieces. And the first thing you’re going to want to do is make sure they’re ORIGINAL. If they’re a rehash or a copy of something you’ve already seen, delete and start over. It HAS to be different. That’s imperative. Because that’s what studio executives are looking for. They’re looking for that thrill that nobody has seen before. Look at Terminator 2. James Cameron set his car chase set-piece in the Los Angeles viaduct. Ever seen that before? Nope. But he went one step further. This wasn’t one car chasing another. It was a SEMI rig chasing a DIRT BIKE! How fun is that??? Add on two indestructible robots and you had one of the most exciting original never-before-seen set-pieces in movie history. If you can pull this off 4 times in your script, chances are you’re going to get a reader’s attention.
Now where do you put these set-pieces? Well, you probably want one every 30 pages. That means 3 or 4 set pieces total. Where you place these is up to you and is typically dictated by the story itself. The Bond films, for example, like to put a set-piece right up front in the opener. The Empire Strikes Back, however, saves its first major set-piece, the Hoth battle, for 40 minutes in. In general, you’ll have one big set piece in your first act to get everybody all jazzed up. You’re obviously going to have one for your climax. That leaves two set pieces for your second act, whose placement, again, should be dictated by the story.
Another thing you have to remember about blockbusters is that they’re almost always rated PG or PG-13. The studios want to lure in the largest audience possible, so besides a few exceptions (i.e. The Matrix) they’ll stay away from R rated material. This also means the films will typically be light-hearted. Blockbusters (unless they’re directed by Christopher Nolan) should put people in a good mood. They should be fun and exciting (like a roller coaster!). For this reason, you’re going to want humor. And the best place to find that humor is in a “comedic sidekick.”
Now the “comedic sidekick” has gotten a bad rap over the years. That’s because it used to mean a side character who was actually funny. Then someone decided to turn it into a “thing” (the COMEDIC SIDEKICK!) and everyone started taking it literally. The result was a bunch of empty characters whose only job was to spew out cheesy one-liners. Avoid that “comedic sidekick” if possible. Instead, remember that there are different kinds of funny, that you don’t have to follow the traditional definition of a comedic character. Jack Sparrow is funny for being clueless. Han Solo is funny for being an asshole. The comedic sidekick in the The Dark Knight was the villain, The Joker, who definitely has his own sense of funny. Regardless, it’s a good idea to have funny in your blockbuster. Studios want people to laugh during their blockbuster trailers. They want them to feel good. People who feel good go see those movies.
Some final things you want to keep in mind. Don’t go TOO thin on the story. Despite the emphasis on things like thrills and villains, you still gotta keep us invested. I see too many blockbuster writers depending on their action scenes, essentially writing a bunch of fluff in between them. Ask yourself if your story is interesting without the action. There’s gotta be SOMETHING dramatically going on to keep us interested for 2 hours. So even though story isn’t AS important in the blockbuster genre, the better yours is, the more likely it is your script will sell.
Also, make sure your blockbuster BUILDS. In general, you want the feeling like we’re climbing stairs during your story. With each step, we get higher, and the further up we get, the further we can fall. This means fights get bigger, stakes get bigger, battles get bigger, chase scenes get bigger. During each stage of the script, make sure what’s happening is bigger than what happened before. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course. The Hoth Battle in Empire is the biggest set-piece in the film. But in a traditional blockbuster, we should feel the story building , with the final climax being the biggest moment of all, where everything for everyone is on the line.
Blockbusters are made to entertain, which means many of the superficial elements I typically rail against on the site become important in this world. I’ve struggled with this notion because the idealist in me has always believed that the better the story, the better a chance your script has at selling. But there’s no doubt that in the blockbuster world, if you come up with a kick ass concept, a memorable main character, and three amazing set pieces, you can sell your script to the right buyer. So make sure those elements are in place. Still, keep in mind that readers want to be taken away by a story. So if you can add a great story to all this, your chances of selling your blockbuster spec go up exponentially. There just aren’t that many writers who are good at both of these things. So if you’re one of the few who are, you can go a long way in this business.