Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What We Can Learn From Five Box Office Surprises

Back before the internet, film studios used to spend untold millions on predicting the box office. The closer they could get to predicting a movie’s opening weekend, the more accurately they could plug the numbers into their “hit-maker” equation for the next round of summer tentpoles. Of course studios still spend a ton of money playing Nostradamus, but let’s face it - These days, anyone with a love for film and a few key movie blogs bookmarked can predict a film’s opening weekend within three million dollars. We know the hits before they hit us. We know the duds before they’re dumped on us. It’s not like the mid-nineties, where guessing a movie’s opening gross made you some sort of internet rock star.

However, even with all their tools and their stat-charts and their polling and their surveys and their test-screenings. And even with our Playlists and our Slash-Films and our First Showings and our Colliders…every once in awhile a film comes along that bucks the predictions. You would think this would be cause for celebration. But oh how it is not. It is a cause for fear. If a movie ends up being way bigger than the professional trackers thought it would be, that means they didn’t do their jobs. So everyone scrambles to try and figure out: What the hell went wrong?

Their answers quickly turn into a list of excuses. And most of those excuses revolve around two words: “Middle America.” Middle America can pretty much be used as an excuse for any miscalculation ANYWHERE. I’m not just talking about movies. You accidentally put too much ketchup on your hot dog? Middle America’s fault. Your boss is pissing you off? Middle America. Celebrity Trump? Middle America. Okay, maybe that last one is true. But come on, let’s be serious for a second. We can’t pin all our bad predictions on the that pudgy central section of the country. Sometimes, we have to take responsibility for our actions (the key word here is "sometimes" - not always).

So it's with this spirit that I want to take a look at five surprise hits and see what we can learn from them as screenwriters. I do not claim to have all the answers here. I merely want to figure out what I believe we can learn from each film, and open up a discussion for you guys to add your thoughts.

Now I know a lot of people are going to point out that marketing and casting and directing had a much bigger effect on these box office successes than anything a screenwriter did. While I won’t discount that there are many variables involved in a film’s success, I will say that it all starts with the writer, and he/she has a much bigger impact on that final number than he/she’s often given credit for. The writer (assuming the idea is theirs) is responsible for two things: A great concept – something that can be easily presented and marketed in posters, TV spots, and trailers. And secondly, of course, a great story – something that moves audiences, something that titillates, excites, and entertains them. The former brings them into the theater, the latter brings them and their friends back. Except for adapted material, writers are responsible for both of these things. So keeping that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from these surprise hits.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 12-15 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 24 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 35-42 mil
Actual Total Gross: 75 mil
Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

What we can learn: People kept trying to get me to read this before it came out but as his been my M.O., I wasn’t exactly thrilled by another zombie clone. Then I saw the trailer and I realized this was anything but the newest boxcar on the stock zombie train. This was a film that took the zombie premise and turned it into something fun. That fun is what brought so many people into the theater. But where Zombieland excels, is in how it keeps you in the theater. The script does something rare for a film aimed at a young audience - it put its characters first. In a world where we’re used to zombie films birthing cardboard cutouts whose depth is measured by how many three-syllable words they can use, Zombieland dares to go deeper. And in a straight comedy no less. Each of these characters is trying to overcome a lifelong series of walls they’ve put up to guard against the world. Each of these characters is trying to learn how to connect with other human beings. In other words, they're going through the same types of things that a lot of us are. Columbus has led his entire existence shutting himself off from the world. Tallahasse hides behind his anger. Wichita refuses to trust anyone besides her sister. These clearly defined characters are what separates Zombieland from so many other horror films out there. Now you may be saying, “Carson, do you really believe that character development has anything to do with why this film did well at the box office?” Hell yes I do. Giving us characters with depth in a genre known for its lack of depth is exactly what gave this film such a fresh feel. When you don’t do that right in a horror comedy, you get Jennifer’s Body, a movie that by all accounts should’ve left Zombieland in the dust at the box office. It co-starred two of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood for Christ’s sake. And yet still it bombed. So never underestimate the power of character depth, particularly in genres where it’s usually ignored.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 20-23 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 37 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 60-70 mil
Actual Total Gross: 116 mil
Writers: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

What we can learn: There are two ways to approach spec screenplays. Two ways to write a screenplay that sells. The first is to take a known formula, and execute it perfectly. Think the heist flick Inside Man, the buddy cop film 48 Hours, or the romantic comedy Notting Hill. None of those movies rewrote the book on screenwriting, but they were all expertly executed for what they were. The reason I don’t favor this approach is that it’s really hard to execute anything perfectly. Of course it *seems* easy – but once you start writing, you realize it isn’t easy in the least. It’s much smarter (and easier) to do it the way District 9 did. Take a well-known story and find a new angle to it. I just talked about this yesterday in my review of “The Resident.” We’ve seen “Fatal Attraction”-type thrillers a hundred times. But we hadn’t seen it with shifting points of view. Same thing happens here with District 9. We’ve seen the “aliens invade earth” plot a thousand times. Aliens come down, aliens try to wipe out or enslave humans, humans fight back. So director Neill Blomkamp said, “Well what if aliens came down, and instead of them trying to enslave us, we tried to enslave them?” Every single thing you knew about the genre was flipped on its head. Every area you explored was going to be unique because it’d never been done before! This is why District 9 feels so fresh and new. And fresh and new is what brings people into the theater. So when you get an idea, you need to challenge yourself. You need to ask yourself if it’s been done before. And if it has? You need to pick at it and pry at it and flip it and redesign it until it’s unique. I’ll give you a scary fact. The number 1 reason a screenplay fails is that its concept isn’t interesting enough to be made into a movie. So stop worrying so much about what’s happening IN your story, and make sure it’s a story worth telling in the first place.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 10-12 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 25 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 50-60 mil
Actual Total Gross: 145 mil
Written by: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

What we can learn: Taken explores one of the most powerful dramatic situations there is, the kidnapping. The genre itself is pretty simple. All you have to do is: a) Make us fall in love with a character. b) Have that character get kidnapped. c) Have our protagonist try to find him/her before it’s too late. But while most writers enjoy focusing on "b" and "c," they forget that the key to making the genre work is "a." WE - MUST - LOVE - THE - CHARACTER WHO GETS KIDNAPPED. Period. Surprisingly, writers don't spend enough time introducing us to this character. As a result, we don’t care if our hero finds them. And if we don’t care about the chase in a chase movie, honey child, you don’t have a movie. HOW much time you should take introducing the character is up to you. But the less time you give us with them, the more impactful those scenes must become. Great writers can make us fall in love with a character in a single scene. But for most of us, it takes longer. Taken actually takes a big chance– spending a full 25 minutes with the daughter before she’s kidnapped. In my opinion, this was the big risk that made Taken work. The first act definitely dragged in places, but because we were around this daughter so much, because we were allowed to see the love our protagonist had for her, it solidified our understanding of their relationship, and sent our desire to see them reunited through the roof. – A side note to all this is that the “kidnapped” genre is very similar to the “revenge” genre. In both cases, our protagonist is going after the bad guy. There’s one key difference though. In the kidnapped genre, there’s the benefit of the character being found alive. This not only gives us the hope of a happy ending (translates into: more marketable) but it includes a natural ticking time bomb. Every second that our protagonist doesn’t get to our bad guys is an extra second where the kidnapped character could be killed. In that vein, it’s a smarter genre script to write than revenge, because in the revenge script, there is no urgency or ticking time bomb (they’re already dead) and there’s no hope for a possible happy ending (did I mention they were dead). I liked “Edge of Darkness,” but it was clear as soon as the daughter died that the script was going to end very darkly. Unfortunately, as great as this formula is, the market’s been saturated with Taken-like scripts for the better part of a year. So you’ll have to wait awhile to write yours. The only way to make it work now is to put another spin on it (read “District 9” above). Set it in the Old West. Show both points-of-view. But please, don’t write another staright-forward Taken clone.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 14-18 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 34 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 50 mil
Actual Total Gross: 245 mil
Writer: John Lee Hancock (based on the book written by Michael Lewis)

What we can learn: Whoa. Just give me a second here. Whoa. This is the one movie surprise that I still haven’t wrapped my brain around. And for that reason, I’m very tempted to blame Middle America. But being the good soldier and screenwriting-warrior-in-search-of-truth that I am, I will look to find another reason why The Blind Side became the most shocking surprise hit of the year. Maybe I should explain why I'm shocked first. It's quite simple really. The screenplay for The Blind Side wasn't very good. The story, as far as I could tell, is about a well-off family who takes a homeless kid in who ends up parlaying the opportunity into an eventual career in the NFL. Despite this, there isn’t a single down of football played until page 60! The first 59 pages are dedicated to the family getting to know the kid. Sixty! Pages! To make matters worse, despite all that extra time, the character development outside of Sandra Bullock and the boy is paper thin. But alas, as I dug further into this scrap pile for meaning, there IS something I realized we could can learn from it. It doesn’t exactly explain why the film made 245 million dollars. But it does help that struggling screenwriter looking for an advantage over his competition: Write a screenplay with a compelling female lead character. Remember, the majority of writers out there write screenplays with male protagonists. This leaves virtually no options out there for A-list actresses in search of a great lead role. This forces them to search out meaty parts on the risky independent circuit (i.e. Charlize Theron in “Monster”). And the problem with that is, that world is extremely hit or miss. So when a Super Femme A-Lister finds a great leading role AND that role is in a film that will actually be seen? They’re going to fight over that can of meat like a pack of rabid wolves. Once you have an A-Lister like Bullock attached to your project, you're going to get your big payday, and your shot to become next year's surprise shocker being debated on a tiny screenwriting blog. Like The Blind Side.

Rough Projected First Weekend Gross: 30-33 mil
Actual First Weekend Gross: 45 mil
Rough Projected Total Gross: 90-100 mil
Actual Total Gross: 277 mil
Written By: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

What we can learn: Let’s get something out of the way quick. The Hangover gained a lot of momentum coming up to its release. So it wasn’t a total shocker like a few of these others. But nobody, and I mean nobody, expected it to make 277 million dollars and finish as the 6th highest grossing movie of the year! With that said, let’s get into it. -- If there’s any film on this list that owes its success to its screenplay, it’s this one. The script was widely accepted as one of the funnier scripts around town before it was made (It was in my Top 25 before it came out), it didn’t have any stars to guarantee an opening weekend, it went up against the best of the best – the 150-200 million dollar behemoths studios put out in the summer, its word-of-mouth was the best of the summer. If you are a comedy screenwriter and you are looking for your next idea, The Hangover is your bible. But what is it you're specifically supposed to take away from this film's success? Well, it reinforces one of the oldest and most important rules of screenwriting: Concept Concept Concept. The Hangover did 90% of its work before it was ever written: It came up with a high concept highly marketable idea that inspired an endless supply of comedic scenarios. I remember reading an earlier version of the script, and there were 3 or 4 main sequences that were different from the final film. And they were all just as funny. Legendary producer Lynda Obst once said about the film “Flashdance,” which was famously developed for over 10 years and had dozens of different incarnations, that in the end it didn’t matter. It was the concept of a female dancer who was a steel worker that ensured the movie would succeed. Same thing holds true with The Hangover. So before you do any writing, you need to make sure you have that great concept. But how do you know whether you have that great concept? Well, you gotta do something that not a lot of writers are comfortable doing and it’s something that Blake Snyder used to publish entire books about. You have to pitch your ideas to people and you have to force them to be honest with you. Preferably, do it to their face or on the phone. It’s so easy to tell if your idea is good just by the look on someone’s face. Do they look confused? Is there a long pause? Are their eyes dead as you explain it to them? Are they drifting? These clues tell you everything you need to know about your concept. You know your idea’s good when people immediately get excited about it. When their eyes come alive, when they’re offering suggestions or actively engaging you as you explain it to them. Another approach I’ve learned is effective is to mix in your idea with a few other ideas you have, and then include some other movie ideas as well (good ideas of films in development that the general public doesn’t know about). Send that list out to 20 of your best friends and ask them what their top 3 favorite ideas are. If your idea isn’t consistently finishing 1 or 2, I’ve got bad news for you, it’s probably not good enough.

To summarize, right now you should be thinking of a high concept idea that flips a typical plot on its head, where someone gets kidnapped, the lead role is played by a woman, and all of the characters are well-developed. Anyone care to pitch their new concept in the comments section?