Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Look Back at 10 Scripts and How They Performed At The Box Office

Back in the day, only a chosen few – those employed by the studio or those who worked on the film – had the privilege of reading a script before the movie came out. As such, only a few people were able to boast about their dead-on assessment of a great script or dribble out excuses for why the amazing screenplay they found turned into a giant piece of komodo dragon dung. However now, with the proliferation of screenplays on the web, anybody can do it! As you know, I haven’t shied away from giving my opinion on a few screenplays, and since the site’s been up, a lot of those projects have since made it into theaters. So I thought, why not go back and compare my original take to the eventual result. I’m not trying to make some grand statement here, but it’s time to own up to where I was wrong and gloat about where I was right. So I give you…ten screenplays I reviewed on Scriptshadow, their critical and box office fate, and why they either succeeded or failed. My box office assessment for each film is relative to that film’s production budget, marketing budget, and star power. Obviously, a little movie like 500 Days of Summer doing 30 million is different than, say, Mission Impossible 4 doing 30 million.

Original Rating: Impressive (#8 on Top 25 list)
Box Office: N/A (no wide release)
Critical Reaction: N/A (no known reviews)
What happened: This one hurts because I really loved this script. But I know a lot of you didn’t – often questioning why I placed it so highly in my Top 25. A lot of it had to do with me going to a liberal arts college and therefore relating to these characters. But Tenure died on the festival circuit, never gaining that critical buzz required to get it a limited release, and in the end went straight to DVD. When I finally saw it, I thought it was a decent little movie, but not as good as I remembered the script being. Part of this is due to Mike Million, the writer/director, still finding his way as a director, and part of it is due, I believe, to the heavy Wes Anderson influence. Anderson has a very specific vision, so anything trying to emulate him comes off as a not-nearly-as-good version of Wes Anderson. I still love this script and I still look forward to future Mike Million endeavors, but maybe you guys had a better feel for this script's chances at success than I did.

THE HANGOVER (not reviewed)
Original Rating: Impressive (#13 on Top 25 list)
Box Office: (Great) 277 million
Critical Reaction: (Very good) 78% RT
What happened: Although I never got a chance to review The Hangover on the site, it was part of my original Top 25 (I think it was number 13). The script read about as well as a comedy script can read, which captured the imagination of Todd Phillips, and he’s the man who took this from hot script, which there are plenty of in LA at any given moment, to iconic film which will be considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. I’ve said this before but The Hangover is the perfect marriage of concept and execution, and it goes to show what can happen when you nail those two holy grails of screenwriting.

Original Rating: What The Hell Did I Just Read?
Box Office: (okay) 67 million
Critical Reaction: (abysmal) 7%
What happened: I count this as one of my bigger on-target calls. This script was awful. And I mean awful. Every part of every scene in every act in the entire screenplay felt like it was conceived of by a retarded studio monkey who’d never told a single story in his life. No realism. No emotion. No originality. No inkling or desire to build characters that actually exist in real life. If you told me I had to either watch this movie five times or inject myself with a bottle of bleach, I’d be bleeding white for a month. And while yes, 67 million is more than I thought it would make, not even the international b.o. and dvd sales argument is going to convince me that this movie made money. It did exactly what the star power of Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler should do coupled with a 40 million dollar marketing campaign and not a penny more. Once you come up with a concept, start building a believable framework for your story to exist in. Your characters should not be aware that they’re in a movie and can therefore make up their own rules and do whatever the hell they want because no realism applies. You follow that advice and you’ll never end up with a movie that gets 7% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Original Rating: Impressive (#19 on Top 25 list)
Box Office: (Okay) 73 million
Critical Reaction: (Poor) 29% RT
What Happened: Law-Abiding Citizen was one of the fastest reads of the year. With two of the best screenwriters in the business, Frank Darabont and Kurt Wimmer, contributing, it was like being whisked through Scriptopia on a magical flying carpet made of brads. But I made a critical error in judging this screenplay. The ending fucking sucked. And I gave it a pass, which I shouldn’t have. The reason being that all of the great twists and turns in the movie were dependent on the final reveal. When the final reveal turned out to be a cheat, it meant that everything in the script was built on a house of cards. The story was one giant lie. Adding insult to injury, when Gerard Butler and Jaime Foxx came on and decided to stretch their acting muscles instead of play the roles they were best suited for, I knew the film was dead. Gerard Butler cannot play a crazy psychopath. Jaime Foxx as a straight guy is a waste of his talents. Add in a vanilla director in F. Gary Gray, and the film all of a sudden looked like a bad B action movie from the 80s. But I think in the end this came down to the script, which had major problems which were not addressed. I was so high on the first two acts that I didn't realize nobody wrote a third.

Original Rating: Wasn’t For Me
Box Office: (Okay) 48 million
Critical Reaction: (Strong to Very Good) 76% RT
What Happened: The more I go back to this script, the more I don’t like it. I rented the movie the other week to see how it compared to the read and sure enough, my mind started wandering at the exact same moment it did in the script, right after the “figure out my powers” first act. There IS – NO – PLOT in Kickass. After he becomes a superhero, I have no idea what the movie is about, what his goal is, what the purpose is, what the plot is. Eventually Generic Bad Guy A is thrown at us to give the film a finale, but we don’t know this guy and we don’t care about this guy so we don’t care. I know my assessment is killing Roger, since he loves this movie, but I’m not surprised the film didn’t break out. You could’ve included all of the cool stuff you already had, and just built an actual story around it that would’ve entertained non-comic book geeks AS WELL as comic book fans. Instead, this movie tries to be too exclusive, putting way too much emphasis on unimportant things, like a 12 year old girl saying “cunt,” and that killed its chances at mainstream success.

Original Rating: Impressive (#21 on Top 25)
Box Office: (Good) 110 million as of August 14
Critical Reaction: (Okay) 58% RT
What Happened: Salt was to the action spec read what The Hangover was to the comedy spec read. Darn near perfect. There were some who suggested that this read well as a spec, but wouldn’t translate onscreen. So it was nice to see it plopped down in a summer full of franchises and sequels and hold its own. My only real qualm here is changing the lead character to a woman. I’m not against the main character being female of course but it was originally written for a male character and that bizarre switcheroo where they changed everything around to suit a female lead stripped something away from the story. Also, Angelina Jolie and her family and her weirdness and her lips and boobs have completed her transformation into a parody of herself. She doesn’t feel real anymore and I think the film suffers as a result. But either way, this is a huge victory for the spec sale market, as rarely do we find our creations smack dab in the middle of the summer season doing well.

Original Rating: Impressive (#15 on Top 25)
Box Office: (Very Good) 32 Million
Critical Reaction: (Very Good) 87% RT
What Happened: The power of doing something DIFFERENT. 500 Days is what happens when a writer asks, “How can I approach this genre in a way that it’s never been approached before?” That simple but magical question can give you a huge advantage over your writing competition. Of course, you still have to go out and execute it, and I don’t think the movie is nearly as good as the script, but critics and independent cinema lovers saw something cool about an anti-romantic comedy and flocked to arthouses as a result. If anything, this is a prime example that high concept can work even in independent “serious” cinema. So always favor a logline that’s going to “pop” over one that sits there, no matter how independent a movie you want to write.

Original Rating: Impressive
Box Office: (Poor) 19 million
Critical Reaction: (Poor) 27% RT
What Happened: If I’m going to suck it up and admit I was dead wrong on anything, it would be this script. Here’s the thing, the first 95% of this script sucked. I realize that now. It was the worst kind of film-school writing. An angsty protagonist who gets in fights for no reason then reluctantly gets involved with a girlfriend who he has a “difficult” relationship with because he can’t open up, kind of like Good Will Hunting minus compelling characters, sharp dialogue and a good story. The relationship scenes, in retrospect, were some of the most boring and tedious I’ve ever read. Having said that, in the script, I still believe the twist ending worked. But in the film, they eliminated some key setup details so that a “shocking” ending turned into one that just pissed off and offended people. After thinking it over, I realized that my “what I learned” from this review was wrong. I said something to the effect of “If you wow them with an ending, it doesn’t matter what you wrote before it, because the ending is the last thing they leave with.” Well, the truth is that nobody cares about your ending if you’ve lulled them to sleep with a nonexistent plot and boring-as-hell characters for two hours. And that was the case with Memoirs.

Original Rating: Double “worth the read”
Box Office: (Good) 16 million through August 14
Critical Reaction: (Great) 95% RT
What Happened: The only regret I have about reviewing The Kids Are All Right is not rating it higher. This script was awesome. It’s smart, it’s funny, it has great characters, great dialogue. Basically the opposite of Memoirs. And it makes you feel good after reading/seeing it. There are some pretty intense emotional issues here but unlike a lot of these ultra-depressing indies, The Kids Are All Right wants you to leave the theater thinking and smiling. It’s also one of the best screenplays to read if you want to write three-dimensional characters. It really puts an emphasis on making every character in your story important. With the way the festival circuit has become in recent years, where not even name actors guarantee a limited release, The Kids Are All Right breaking through and becoming a small indie hit reignites my belief that a great screenplay is the starting point for a great movie.

Original Pick: Wasn’t For Me
Box Office: (poor) 4.2 million
Critical Reaction: (good to very good) 74%
What Happened: Oh boy. I’m going to try and not let my personal feelings get in the way of assessing this flick but I really really hate Noah Baumbach’s work. In Baumbach’s world, everybody hates each other, everybody thinks the world is pointless, people shit on each other for no reason. The world sucks. You suck. I suck. He sucks. We all suck and nobody knows anything. We’re all idiots. And we all suck. Margot’s Wedding was about the closest movie I’ve seen to cinematic nails on a chalkboard. You can see why I’m not surprised, then, that this movie failed even by toned down independent film standards. If you write depressed characters with no goals in life and who nobody would ever root for and throw them into a story with no point, and deluge your script with long meaningless dialogue scenes that masquerade as poignant takes on life, your movie is going to fail. I’d like to personally invite all 74% of the people who gave this film a passing grade to my place so I can ask them what the hell they were smoking when they watched it.

And that, my friends, is it. While I see a few scripts on the list that I rated too highly, I’m still waiting for the first shitty script I reviewed to became both a critical and box office success. Obviously, Hollywood can pump enough marketing muscle into a movie like G.I. Joe to make it successful, but everyone above the age of 12 knows it sucks, which only reestablishes my faith that if you write a great screenplay, people will take notice. Your movie will get made. Audiences will go see it. But considering only about 1/10 of the scripts I review are impressive, writing a bonafied “great” script is still very difficult. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how Top 25 mainstays like The Social Network, Everything Must Go, Buried, and Source Code, do when they’re released. All four are gambles in their own right, so we’ll see if their scripts give them a long shelf life. Until next time, keep writing. :)