A while back, I wrote an article about surprise box office hits and what we as screenwriters can learn from them. I love trying to figure out why some movies succeed and others fail, and especially how those successes and failures relate to screenwriting, so I thought it would be fun to tackle a new batch of films and see if we couldn’t gleam a few lessons from them. Now I’ll reiterate the obvious. Directing and marketing and star power are huge factors in why movies do well at the box office. But it all starts with the screenplay. Every trailer, every poster, every marketing campaign, every great acting performance – all of those things stem from the screenplay. It’s with that spirit that I bring you my second installment of five surprise hits and what we can learn from them as screenwriters.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Rough Projected Gross: 45-50 mil
Actual Gross: 95 mil
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
What We Can Learn: I’ll give you the first trick to getting your movie to overperform. Cast Jesse Eisenberg. No really. If you remember, he was in one of the films from the last list (Zombieland). But seriously, the success of The Social Network was one of the bigger surprises of 2010. I remember leading up to the film’s release a lot of nervous people close to the project wondering how a dark look at a shiny new Internet tool was going to play to the masses. Who the hell in Omaha Nebraska wants to watch a 20-year-old kid become a billionaire and whine about it? Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. But that’s the thing. That’s the exact reason why people showed up.
Don’t believe me? I want you to go to any piece of marketing material you can find for The Social Network. Find me one shot or one video clip of the main character, Mark Zuckerberg, smiling. You can’t can you? That’s because there isn’t one. The Social Network is about a young man who made 50 billion dollars and is unhappy. That doesn’t make sense. Rich people are supposed to have it all. The cars, the houses, the vacations. So when we see the richest 20 something in the world looking miserable, there’s a mystery there that we want answered. And let’s not forget that this is a man who created a network of 500 million “friends,” who’s himself friendless. So we have two high level uses of irony in play here, and in both cases, they’re used to create a compelling dynamic main character. That’s important to remember. You come to The Social Network to see the person, not to be wowed by the plot. The Social Network, as a film, actually has a funky narrative structure. It’s not always easy to follow and it doesn’t reward you in the same way a traditionally structured movie would. But you watch because the main character is so interesting. So before you go out and you write your next screenplay, try to come up with the most intriguing main character you can. Whether you use irony or not is up to you but you better find a way to make him as interesting as possible.
Rough Projected Gross: 45-55 million
Actual Gross: 167 million
Writers: Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig
What We Can Learn: Talk about a movie that came out of nowhere. I still remember when Deadline Hollywood was reporting that this thing would make 13 bucks on opening weekend. The argument was that nobody wanted to leave the safety of their homes to watch women burp and fart. They were wrong. Audiences were begging this movie to give them as many noises from as many orifices as possible. The thing is, this film just as easily could have disappeared into one of those orifices. I mean it had no real stars. It didn’t even have a hook. At least with The Hangover, there was a neat concept driving the story. This is just a bunch of bridesmaids, which last time I checked you could find every other hour on E!. So why did it work? I think I know. And it shouldn’t be that shocking. It’s the characters. But unlike The Social Network, where it was more about creating one giant captivating character, the feat in Bridesmaids was how much effort they put into all the characters. Normally, in these types of movies, the main character is pretty well defined. That’s what the screenwriting books drum into your head. Make sure your main character rocks. But most books stop there. When it comes to the secondary characters, they could care less. But what I’ve found is that you can usually separate the wheat from the chaffe by how much effort a writer puts into their secondary characters. That’s where the real work comes in. It’s so easy to just give a secondary character a minor quirk and then move on. It’s hard to sit down and spend just as much time trying to figure them out as you would a protagonist. However, by doing that extra work, your script always shines brighter. That’s what Bridesmaids got right. Every character here was extensively thought through. Kristin Wigg’s character was the unlucky in love girl who always found herself with the wrong man. Maya Rudolph’s character was the stoic steady-as-a-rock best friend. Rose Byrne’s character was the bitter sad stepmom trying to hide behind a false smile. Melissa McCarthy’s character was the crazy happy go lucky overly optimistic even when she has no reason to be character. I read tons of comedies where the drop-off after the main character is so steep, it’s as if the writer just gave up in hopes that some hilarious comedian would be cast and make the role funny. But as you know, there’s nothing uglier than a comedian in a thinly written role trying to do a song and a dance to make up for how undefined the character is. If you don’t believe me, go watch Night At The Roxbury.
THE KING’S SPEECH
Rough Projected Gross: 25-45 million
Actual Gross: 135 million
Writer: David Seidler
What We Can Learn: Raise your hand if you predicted before The King’s Speech came out that the movie would gross over 100 million dollars. Anyone? Anyone? To be honest, I’m surprised that all of these movies did so well. But a stuffy British costume drama rocking the box office was particularly surprising. People say the adult drama is dead, but you wouldn’t know it if you counted the box office receipts from 2010. So then what is it that made this film such a surprise success? Well, I’ve talked about it before. The King’s Speech utilizes two of the most time-tested and well-worn story devices out there. The first is the underdog. Stories always work when they have a good underdog in the lead role. You can sell an underdog story to anybody – doesn’t matter if they’re 7 or 77, especially if it’s true. Seeing and enjoying people overcome adversity is in our moviegoing DNA. The other device is the crazy mentor. I use the word “crazy” loosely, but people are just really familiar with that kind of character and love seeing them operate. But I think The King’s Speech took it one step further and added – yes, there’s that word again – irony. In this case, the situation allowed a nobody to stand up and demand things from the King of England. There’s just something funny and ironic about a peasant ordering around a King. Anyway, the combination of these two well tested tools are what made a stuffy period piece one of the sexier box office hits of the year. Yes I just used the word “sexy” in conjunction with The King’s Speech.
Rough Projected Gross: 20-30 million
Actual Gross: 110 million
Writer: Mark Heyman
What We Can Learn: This is a great movie to study for today’s purposes because every movie Darren Aronofsky had made up until this point had been a box office dud. His biggest film, The Wrestler, made only $26 million. So there was really no reason to believe Black Swan would do any better. In fact, with our subject matter dressed snugly in a leotard, it can be argued that this movie would’ve been lucky to hit the $10 million mark. So then what was the difference? Why did this one succeed when all the others failed? You’re lucky you tuned in into Scriptshadow today because I’m going to tell you. Whereas before, Aronofsky chose stories with broad unclear narratives (Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, even The Wrestler had a bumpy throughline), Black Swan had one of the cleanest narratives of the year. The main character has the crystal clear goal of maintaining the lead actress role in her play until opening-night. Nipping at her scuffed heels is her evil understudy. How do you get cleaner than “Get to the end of the maze before the villain defeats you.” That doesn’t mean there weren’t complex aspects to the story. We still got some trippy dream sequences and plenty of hallucinations. However, the objective was never in question. The stakes were never in question. We understood every story point clearly. And that’s something Aronofsky didn’t do in the past. So I think this is a great lesson. Remember that when you’re writing independent fare, you’re fighting an uphill appeal battle. It’s in your interest to make elements of your story clean and easy to understand. If you can nudge your narrative closer to a popular genre, like Aronofsky did here by making Black Swan a thriller, you can stay true to your indie roots yet still draw in a big audience. Oh, and it also doesn’t hurt to add a sex scene between your two lead female characters.
Rough Projected Gross: 90-120 million
Actual Gross: 292 million
Writer: Christopher Nolan
What We Can Learn: I remember reading an article about this last month. In it, a reporter noted that Inception was a box office shock of epic proportions. Warner Bros. had made the movie to keep Christopher Nolan happy between Batman films. They had no idea it would become as big as it did. So the writer of the article was interested in how the success of the film was going to change the moviegoing landscape. What was Hollywood going to do about this? The answer? Nothing. They just watched a sleeper film become a $300 million behemoth and had no idea what to do with it. Now I’ve made my feelings clear about this film. I think it’s really flawed. Regardless of that, I believe the box office for Inception is trying to tell Hollywood something. People want more challenging big budget fare. This may sound contradictory to what I just said about Black Swan. But actually I think the statement is complementary. Independent films need more audience friendly storylines. Big-budget films need more challenging storylines. Hollywood is confused by this because it thinks audiences only want one or the other. I believe audiences are getting sick of the comic book movies and the mash up movies and the movies based on rides and the movies based on toys. They go to these films and feel empty afterwards. At least when you left Inception, you thought about something. You talked about it with your friends. And those are the kinds of conversations that get people back into the theater a second and third time. I think Hollywood is really missing out on the bigger picture here. The thing that the Internet has done is it’s allowed conversations about movies to be had by millions. But Hollywood keeps giving these people movies that aren’t worth talking about. Now I know that Disney VP just came out with a statement proclaiming that story doesn’t matter when you’re making a tentpole flick, and pointed to the terribly written billion-dollar earner Alice In Wonderland as an example. I think there will always be a market for high concept well marketed family fare. But I also think that there’s an appetite from the more serious moviegoers for big budget tentpole films that also make you think. The thing is, those movies aren’t being written. And the truth is there just isn’t a lot of material out there that teaches writers how to successfully write these kinds of movies. You have to balance the challenging aspects of your screenplay with the high concept marketability of a big-budget picture. If you get too esoteric or “out there” than the movie no longer becomes thoughtful. It just becomes confusing. Using our previous director as an example, Aronofsky wanted to make The Fountain for 100 million bucks. There’s a good chance the box office for that film would’ve topped out at $10 million. So really, it’s up to you guys to figure this out. It’s up to you guys to come up with these concepts that balance the two extremes. As always, it begins with the screenwriter. So get the fuck off Scriptshadow and start writing.