Good ol’ Christopher Pendegraft at Scriptshadow has hit on it again.
First, he takes a very clinical approach to teasing apart blockbuster successes and failures. For the successes, he rules out existing intellectual properties (“Batman and Avengers … couldn’t make less than a billion bucks if they tried.”) and stuck to the surprise hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Life of Pi. For the failures, he looks at those that surprised the studios by flopping despite the money poured into them, like Lone Ranger and Battleship.
Then he digs into why those that worked worked and why the others didn’t.
I disagree with him on a few points, but I’ll cover that after the quote (which comes after the jump).
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 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 …
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 …
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.
I’m on board as far as finding a fresh angle on an established trope and having an easy-to-grasp concept. Also, timing certainly makes a huge difference.
But, I feel that The Lone Ranger and Cowboys and Aliens crumpled under the weight of just-plain-awful stories, likely due to hubris from casting Jack Sparrow and Han Solo, the world’s two favorite Roughs.
John Carter, on the other hand, failed from inept presentation. This is a movie about “cowboy goes to Mars” (can’t get any more easy-to-grasp than that) yet the title sounds like a dry biopic about some obscure politician or athlete. When the buzz began, I knew who John Carter was, and maybe a hardcore fringe among sci-fi fans also did, but the average movie-goer must have been scratching their heads and thinking: “Who is John Carter and why is he bouncing around with four-armed orcs in the Old West?”
I would have titled the film John Carter and the Princess of Mars. This construction—regular name + sci-fi/fantasy element—satisfies Pendegraft’s easy-to-grasp concept standard. It says: “a guy we can all relate to goes on a crazy adventure!” This also would have set up a title tag on which to hang future John Carter movies.
The rest of Pendegraft’s piece? Solid. You should go read the rest of it here.