Looking through the Scriptshadow 250 Contest (3 months left to sign up!) entries, I’ve noticed a surprising number of “blockbuster-type” scripts, the kind of screenplays writers hope will become the next big studio franchise. With the summer blockbuster season on our doorstep (Avengers tomorrow! Yay!), this got me thinking – what is it on the writing side that makes a good blockbuster? Because a lot of people don’t think there’s a difference when it comes to these films. When I complain about the believability or the attention to detail of these movies, I’m told, “Stop being so critical! It’s a popcorn flick! Just enjoy it!”
I can’t tell you how much I HATE IT when people say that. Just because it’s a popcorn flick does not give it permission to suck. There are good popcorn movies and bad ones and it’s important, as writers, to know the difference, lest you write the next Lone Ranger. Which is how I came up with today’s article. I want to figure out how to differentiate between the two.
Now in order to achieve this, we’ll have to make some concessions. Namely, super high-profile IP doesn’t count. Batman and Avengers movies are always going to have the most money for effects, production, and marketing. These movies couldn’t make less than a billion bucks if they tried. So, for the “good” blockbusters, I’ll be highlighting films that were surprise hits. That tells me the studio didn’t buy the box office, but rather it was generated organically.
For the “bad” blockbuster movies, I’ll do the opposite. I want to highlight movies that DESPITE the studios spending tons of money on them, they failed. That tells me that the films had to be unappealing in some way or just plain bad.
Now you’ll notice that some films look like they did okay (Battleship made 300 million dollars), but you have to remember that a film’s financial success/failure is relevant to its cost. Seeing as 300 million dollars covered Battleship’s production and marketing costs, the film actually lost a ton of money. Plus it was just a terrible film, which, for the sake of screenwriting, is what we’re focused on here.
Speaking of money, blockbusters these days can make up to 75% of their grosses internationally. For that reason, I’ll be covering WORLDWIDE grosses instead of domestic. That’s really how you judge a blockbuster’s success these days anyway. Finally, I’m going to try and keep this list recent, since trends 20 years ago aren’t as relevant today. So with that understood, here are the lists:
SURPRISE BLOCKBUSTER HITS (worldwide gross)
Guardians of the Galaxy – 775 million
The Kingsman – 401 million
Sherlock Holmes – 524 million
The Fast and Furious Franchise – 1 quatrillion dollars
The Hunger Games – 690 million
Pirates of the Caribbean – 654 million
Inception – 825 million
World War Z – 540 million
Life of Pi – 609 million
Snow White and the Huntsman – 400 million
SURPRISE (TO THE STUDIOS) BOX OFFICE FAILURES (worldwide gross)
The Lone Ranger – 260 million
Battleship – 303 million
White House Down – 205 million
Jupiter Ascending – 181 million
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – 135 million
John Carter – 284 million
After Earth – 243 million
Green Lantern – 219 million
Cowboys and Aliens – 174 million
47 Ronin – 150 million
Since many people see movies based on marketing (posters, trailers, etc.), how is screenwriting even relevant here? Well, let’s remember: writing isn’t just about what you put in between the margins. Writing is concept. Writing is character. And writing is an attractive storyline. These are all things audiences will pick up on in a poster, a two minute trailer, or a conversation with friends. If a concept is flawed to begin with, it’s a safe bet the writing’s bad.
So, first thoughts. I noticed that three of the breakout successes followed a popular creed I preach on Scriptshadow. If you want to write a blockbuster, find a fresh angle on an established genre or movie trope. Kingsman is a light-hearted cheekier version of James Bond and Jason Bourne. Sherlock Holmes is a “Rock n Roll” version of the usually buttoned up character. World War Z took the zombie trope and turned it into an action movie.
Second, don’t write blockbuster Westerns. Three films on the “bombs” list were Western-inspired (Cowboys and Aliens, John Carter, and The Lone Ranger). I remember a fourth as well, the Will Smith flick, Wild Wild West. For whatever reason, audiences don’t respond to this genre in blockbuster form. That’s the most obvious thing I see from this list.
I also noticed most of the good films are easy to grasp in concept form (and therefore easier to sell). Street racing. Zombies have taken over the world. Rock n Roll James Bond. Rock n Roll Sherlock Holmes. Rock n Roll Snow White. A kid gets stuck in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. A girl must fight against other teenagers in a battle to the death. The only two true exceptions to the rule are Guardians and Inception.
I notice a lot of writers grumbling about the fact that a film’s concept must be condensed into something that can be sold quickly, yet those same writers make judgments that way all the time. When’s the last time you saw a poster and said, “That looks stupid,” or “That looks good?” This is how people make decisions in an information-overload world so don’t knock it. Embrace it! It’ll help you become a better writer.
Case in point. Look at the bad films. What’s Battleship about? What’s 47 Ronin about? What’s Jupiter Ascending about? What’s John Carter about? What’s Green Lantern about? After Earth? In every case, the answer is quite murky and takes some explaining. A guy puts on a ring and all of a sudden he grows a green suit and travels the galaxy talking to aliens? Even a film which seems to have its conflict explained right there in the title (Cowboys and Aliens) is confusing once you start trying to explain it. It’s almost like you have to imagine yourself telling your friends about the idea. If you’re stumbling through your explanation, there may be something wrong with your concept (unless you’re Christopher Nolan, of course).
There’s also an element of “missing your window” to these entries. There are two times to hit. BEFORE anybody is doing something and WHILE they’re doing something. There’s one time to miss, and that’s when the bus has already left. So a movie like Guardians feels fresh. When’s the last time we saw a space opera with that kind of scope? A movie like Jack Ryan, however, seems like it’s coming too late on the heels of Bourne and a revived Bond. John Carter came after Avatar. Battleship after Transformers. White House Down after Olympus has Fallen.
This gives us the best peek into the differentiating factor yet. THINK DIFFERENT. You’re either trying to find a fresh angle on an old trope or you’re trying to come up with an idea Hollywood hasn’t embraced yet. This is further bolstered when you look at Inception and Life of Pi, two “out there” ideas that made huge splashes at the box office.
Of course, this can go both ways. Jupiter Ascending and Cowboys and Aliens were both “out there” ideas as well, and both bombed. We could delve into more specific reasons for why but the reality is, risk is risk. When you try something different, there’s just as much of a chance you’ll fail as a chance you’ll succeed. With that said, it seems to be the only clear-cut variable to success for these films. And I’d say this is QUADRUPLY so for spec screenwriters. Since you can’t show readers what the movie looks like on the page, giving them something different is really the only way to stand out.
I have a feeling that some of you will take the William Goldman approach to this data. “Oh, it’s all random. Nobody knows anything.” I would warn you against that. Since all screenwriters are essentially producers (investing in an idea they hope people will pay money to see), your skill-set must include market-theory. You have to have a strong feel for what works and what doesn’t. And the only data you have to help you form that opinion is past box office. So use it to your advantage.
Keen to hear your thoughts on this. Please share in the comments!