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  • Why Summer Movies Flopped & Succeeded – And What This Means for Movie Trends

    July 15th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to big summer box office failures…should it be?

    Maybe they should’ve read my newsletter last month and my article on the Tenets of Tentpole Movies http://www.nobullscript.net/?p=870. Ha!

    It’s barely mid-July, but the summer has already claimed a few box office casualties. But alternatively, it’s also created a few unlikely heroes. The questions remain, however – why did they fail? Why couldn’t studios see it coming? Weren’t there obvious warning signs? And what kind of consequence could it have on movie trends in the near future?

    There have been 4 box office flops so far this summer with one still TBD and another (I predict) right around the corner. Those are; The Lone Ranger, White House Down, The Internship and After Earth. Pacific Rim is still TBD and RIPD is set to be released in a couple weeks and I believe it will join the ranks of these fine films. But if you look at each of these movies, I tend to think it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t perform to expectations. And when you compare them to a few of the movies that over-performed, you’ll see why.

    Most of the underperforming movies can be blamed on bad casting, bad timing, or bad concept. Or a combination of all three.

    The Lone Ranger – To be fair, studios saw this coming for a year. NO ONE thought this would make money, Disney was just hoping it would squeak out enough money to not see reminders of John Carter in the headlines. It didn’t. The reasons for Lone Ranger bombing are multiple and obvious. They cast the lead actor in the supporting role and then had to redesign a story so that both the lead and the sidekick were basically equal. Oh, and the lead is a Native American character played by a white guy who speaks with a fake French accent as he wears a dead bird on his head.

    I get that Johnny Depp is bankable after the Pirates movies and Alice in Wonderland, but did anyone think that maybe people went to the theaters because they like pirates and Alice in Wonderland and maybe it wasn’t all because of Depp? Depp would’ve, could’ve made a great Lone Ranger – except he won’t do any movie where he’s not in full make-up and costume.

    Lone Ranger had what studios call pre-recognition. People recognize the ‘Lone Ranger’ title. Yeah…if you’re over 50! No one under 35 has ever seen the Lone Ranger, no one under 25 has ever heard of it, and no one overseas cares about it. And no one over 50 goes to see big blockbuster Bruckheimer movies like this one. So, it never had the audience it thought it did. But even with all that, the movie COULD have made money – if it was made for $125M instead of $250M.  And by the way – remember when big summer blockbusters cost $125M and we all thought that was an insane amount of money? Independence Day was made for less than $100M! Remember that. The studio didn’t want to lose Depp, so it just kept shelling out money. Meanwhile, if you had cast 2 different actors, and kept the budget down to $125M, it could have saved Disney a $150M write-down.

    With White House Down, it sounded like a perfect movie. A no-brainer. Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx together in an action movie about defending the White House. What could be a better movie? Oh right…Olympus Has Fallen. This film suffered because those crazy kooks at Millennium Films (a company I have worked with before) decided to buy a script that was just like the White House Down script – and get it made first, and cheaper. And it did really well. If it had bombed, WHD would’ve had a shot. But it didn’t – so people had no incentive to go see the same movie twice.  When Olympus Has Fallen passed $100M, they should’ve shelved WHD for 6 months instead of releasing it now.

    Channing Tatum is a big star and people love him. Shit, I love him. But Jamie Foxx as the wise-crackin’ black president who loves his Air Jordan sneakers? Give me a break. There are plenty of Black actors I could totally see as the President – but Jamie Foxx isn’t one of them. When you’ve got a big concept, you have to cast it in a way that brings some believability to it.

    After Earth was just Will Smith masturbating over himself and his children again, but this time he asked one of the most derisive and hated directors in town to help him with M Night Shyamalan (whose name isn’t even on the poster). And this masturbation session cost $130M plus P&A and marketing costs. Now, it’s made $200M, but $140 of that was overseas, and it has put a true damper on Will Smith’s star power. But, are Will Smith and the execs at Sony the ONLY people who don’t know that society doesn’t approve of the talent-factory Will Smith has tried to turn his family into? Add to that a twinge of scientology and you’ve got yourself the makings of a flop. Let’s be honest- Jaden Smith isn’t likable. He doesn’t have his father’s charisma or personality or acting chops (yet). If they had done a talent search and looked for some new kid to play Will Smith’s son, the movie could’ve done much better.

    The Internship failed for 1 very specific reason. It isn’t 2006 anymore and no one wanted to see Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as idiots who don’t know what GOOGLE is. I get the product placement value, but if the movie wasn’t about Google and instead was about some little startup internet company that did something amazing and these two guys had to work there, it might have made the story more believable and interesting. And if those two guys weren’t Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who at 40 should know how to work a computer, but were instead…say… Bill Murray and Billy Crystal or someone older and funnier, the concept might have made more sense. The project seemed to lack heart and Owen Wilson, after his incident a couple years ago, isn’t as believable as the light-hearted loveable funny man. In 2006, this movie would have made $150M easy. But today, it hasn’t even made its production budget back.

    Pacific Rim was on target to bomb. But good reviews and a last minute swing of the Hollywood pendulum has turned what could have been a disaster into a possible sleeper success. It remains to be seen, but it got good word of mouth this weekend and while it only made $40M and has a $200M budget, it should do very well in Asian markets and overseas. And while it’s not my cup of tea, people should root for the project as it’s the largest budgeted ORIGINAL project of the summer. Of course, I say “original” loosely as it’s basically a mash-up of Godzilla meets Transformers. Everyone has been asking for MORE ORIGINAL CONTENT – but studios apparently took that to mean more original content that looks EXACTLY like all the unoriginal content we already have.

    Speaking of which, RIPD opens soon and if you’ve seen the trailer, it couldn’t look more like Men In Black if it tried. One cranky older white guy? Check! One good looking younger sexy guy? Check. Big guns chasing down weird-looking bad guys with big visual effects? Check. An underground section of law enforcement that no one knows about? Check. They swapped Aliens for the Undead, but come on – it’s the SAME movie! Mark my words, it’s going to bomb bad.

    Original projects can work, though! And hopefully these failures won’t discourage studios from pursuing them. The thing is, they only work at a certain budget level. Horror film producers figured this out years ago – so why hasn’t everyone else? The upcoming film The Conjuring is tracking HUGE and will probably be the next InsidiousThe Purge did similar great business. Both were made for under $10M. Now You See Me was a big surprise hit for Summit, and made for about $75M – which is about the acceptable ceiling for original material unless it’s being directed by a Nolan, Fincher or Spielberg. The Great Gatsby, which had a $100M budget, was a surprise hit early in the summer but had huge international stars, a proven visionary director and pre-recognition. And The Heat took the most likable actress on the planet and added in the hottest female comedy actress of the year and with a $45M budget, created a major hit. It was a sure-fire winner.

    Man of Steel could’ve have gone so wrong. The third re-launch of a franchise? Really? But sometimes good filmmaking, a new vision and a great cast can overcome what could’ve been a train wreck.  Despicable Me 2 had perhaps the most expansive and infectious publicity and marketing campaign of the year. And in the summer, that can pay off big and it’s now one of the most successful animated movies of all time and it’s only in week 3.

    So what do these summer failures and success mean for future film trends? Hopefully it means more original content and smarter, slimmer budgets. Hopefully it means that “pre-recognition” will stop dictating green lights. Hopefully it means the same 10 stars won’t star in every movie. Hopefully different studios won’t race to make similar competing projects and will just go find other material. Hopefully there will be more movies starring women. Hopefully it means that writing and producing great genre movies is still the best way to break in and create a hit. Hopefully, it means certain bloated studio producers can spend a month languishing with the rest of us.

    But what it really means is…no one knows anything.

  • The Tenets of Tentpole Movies

    July 15th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    It’s summertime at the box office, which means big effects, big budgets, and even bigger stakes for the studios. Because it’s tentpole movie season.

    You’ve probably heard the terms four-quadrant and tentpole movie, but what do they mean exactly? Should you be writing one? And what makes them work?

    A four-quadrant movie is one that will attract all four of the general quadrants of movie goers – male, female, old and young (or over 35 and under 35 more specifically).

    A tentpole movie is called such for two reasons; One, because everyone can fit under the tent – it attracts all four quadrants. And two, because it’s these huge money makers that basically fund and allow all their other, smaller movies to be made throughout the year. It’s the big flagship movies, franchises, remakes, sequels, and blockbusters that bring in a billion+ dollars that give the studios the ability to take chances on other projects.

    And when a tentpole fails, the whole tent comes caving in and everyone inside goes running for safer grounds… aka other studios.

    These days, not every tentpole movie has to be four-quadrant, especially if you’re writing a comedy. Look at Hangover 3 and the upcoming movies The Heat and This is The End.   But Hangover of course is a three-quel and a proven entity, and the other two star some of Hollywood’s biggest and most popular stars, so they were no brainers.  Almost every other big blockbuster film this summer, however, is rated PG-13 to maximize possible viewership. If animation, it needs to be PG.

    So what makes for a successful tentpole film? How do you know it’s going to hit it big?

    Well, on a business/studio level it’s really all about tracking and data and marketing and promotion and publicity and word of mouth and great reviews and having a great trailer and poster and huge stars making the rounds. It has almost ZERO to do with story.

    But on a story level, there are many things that a great tentpole needs to include or be in order to work.

    1. The SINGLE biggest thing that a tentpole movie must be – is sellable overseas. Doing well domestically is nice frosting on the cake, but studios make their money overseas. If it’s not a story with big visuals (whether it be action, visual effects, scares, etc.) and big name stars (with the exception of animation), it won’t work in other territories. If it isn’t a story with a universal premise and universal themes that EVERYONE can understand and connect with, it won’t work. Aliens, Robots, Vampires, Superheroes – these are universal things.
    2. It must be super high concept and have a visual hook. You need a BIG idea. If you can’t pitch a tentpole project in one sentence and make us see the poster, trailer, what’s new about it, why people will get it, and its opportunity for success – it’s dead in the water.
    3. A Hero and Villain that people will love, and that huge name actors that sell overseas will love to play. Tentpoles cannot work with no-name actors, unless the writers and directors are huge names (like Nolan, Spielberg, Michael Bay, etc.) Don’t believe me? Look at John Carter and Jack the Giant Slayer.
    4. A big tentpole movie requires a larger cast. An ensemble. A team. A group.  There may be one main protagonist, but there are almost always 2-5 OTHER very castable team members on the journey. Transformers, Star Trek, X-Men, The Avengers, Armageddon, etc.  The exception for this is if it’s a solo superhero movie with a titular character we all know and love already like Wolverine, Spider-Man or Iron Man.
    5. Every tentpole movie – in fact EVERY movie – needs an Iconic Image. It’s that one thing – that one moment, scene, visual, etc. – that you will always have in your head when you think of that movie. What is YOUR script’s iconic image?
    6. If you have big action and big effects, make them friggin’ HUGE. Not every movie needs big explosions and VFX to work, but if you’re making a big VFX movie, it needs to have action sequences and moments we’ve never seen before on film.
    7. An already established and proven audience. It’s easier to fund a project when you know there’s at least an already-proven core audience that will go see the project. This is why most tentpole movies these days are based on popular books, comics, graphic novels, remakes, TV shows, video games, sequels, etc. It lessens the risk. And when you’re writing a check for $150 Million dollars, less risk is a good thing.

    Now the big question for you as a screenwriter – should you be writing these movies?

    Well, you should definitely NOT write something you don’t own the rights to. That means, do not adapt a bok series just because you love it. Do not write a sequel to a movie, or a reunion movie for a TV show, just because you love it and have an idea. This is a horrible waste of time.

    Studios like proven track records – which is why they don’t buy huge epic blockbusters from new writers. They just don’t. Unless that writer has an amazing agent at a major agency that can package the hell out of the project and there’s already an A-List producer attached, studios will not buy tentpole big budget movies from new writers. So, should you write it? Sure, if you want. But just know that you’re going to have to write something ELSE that gets made first before anyone will think about making your tentpole movie. But if you follow and include most of the points above in your script, at least it will have a better shot when the time comes.

  • The Tenants of Tentpole Movies

    June 11th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    It’s summertime at the box office, which means big effects, big budgets, and even bigger stakes for the studios. Because it’s tentpole movie season.

    You’ve probably heard the terms four-quadrant and tentpole movie, but what do they mean exactly? Should you be writing one? And what makes them work?

    A four-quadrant movie is one that will attract all four of the general quadrants of movie goers – male, female, old and young (or over 35 and under 35 more specifically).

    A tentpole movie is called such for two reasons; One, because everyone can fit under the tent – it attracts all four quadrants. And two, because it’s these huge money makers that basically fund and allow all their other, smaller movies to be made throughout the year. It’s the big flagship movies, franchises, remakes, sequels, and blockbusters that bring in a billion+ dollars that give the studios the ability to take chances on other projects.

    And when a tentpole fails, the whole tent comes caving in and everyone inside goes running for safer grounds… aka other studios.

    These days, not every tentpole movie has to be four-quadrant, especially if you’re writing a comedy. Look at Hangover 3 and the upcoming movies The Heat and This is The End.   But Hangover of course is a three-quel and a proven entity, and the other two star some of Hollywood’s biggest and most popular stars, so they were no brainers.  Almost every other big blockbuster film this summer, however, is rated PG-13 to maximize possible viewership. If animation, it needs to be PG.

    So what makes for a successful tentpole film? How do you know it’s going to hit it big?

    Well, on a business/studio level it’s really all about tracking and data and marketing and promotion and publicity and word of mouth and great reviews and having a great trailer and poster and huge stars making the rounds. It has almost ZERO to do with story.

    But on a story level, there are many things that a great tentpole needs to include or be in order to work.

    1. The SINGLE biggest thing that a tentpole movie must be – is sellable overseas. Doing well domestically is nice frosting on the cake, but studios make their money overseas. If it’s not a story with big visuals (whether it be action, visual effects, scares, etc.) and big name stars (with the exception of animation), it won’t work in other territories. If it isn’t a story with a universal premise and universal themes that EVERYONE can understand and connect with, it won’t work. Aliens, Robots, Vampires, Superheroes – these are universal things.
    2. It must be super high concept and have a visual hook. You need a BIG idea. If you can’t pitch a tentpole project in one sentence and make us see the poster, trailer, what’s new about it, why people will get it, and its opportunity for success – it’s dead in the water.
    3. A Hero and Villain that people will love, and that huge name actors that sell overseas will love to play. Tentpoles cannot work with no-name actors, unless the writers and directors are huge names (like Nolan, Spielberg, Michael Bay, etc.) Don’t believe me? Look at John Carter and Jack the Giant Slayer.
    4. A big tentpole movie requires a larger cast. An ensemble. A team. A group.  There may be one main protagonist, but there are almost always 2-5 OTHER very castable team members on the journey. Transformers, Star Trek, X-Men, The Avengers, Armageddon, etc.  The exception for this is if it’s a solo superhero movie with a titular character we all know and love already like Wolverine, Spider-Man or Iron Man.
    5. Every tentpole movie – in fact EVERY movie – needs an Iconic Image. It’s that one thing – that one moment, scene, visual, etc. – that you will always have in your head when you think of that movie. What is YOUR script’s iconic image?
    6. If you have big action and big effects, make them friggin’ HUGE. Not every movie needs big explosions and VFX to work, but if you’re making a big VFX movie, it needs to have action sequences and moments we’ve never seen before on film.
    7. An already established and proven audience. It’s easier to fund a project when you know there’s at least an already-proven core audience that will go see the project. This is why most tentpole movies these days are based on popular books, comics, graphic novels, remakes, TV shows, video games, sequels, etc. It lessens the risk. And when you’re writing a check for $150 Million dollars, less risk is a good thing.

    Now the big question for you as a screenwriter – should you be writing these movies?

    Well, you should definitely NOT write something you don’t own the rights to. That means, do not adapt a book series just because you love it. Do not write a sequel to a movie, or a reunion movie for a TV show, just because you love it and have an idea. This is a horrible waste of time.

    Studios like proven track records – which is why they don’t buy huge epic blockbusters from new writers. They just don’t. Unless that writer has an amazing agent at a major agency that can package the hell out of the project and there’s already an A-List producer attached, studios will not buy tentpole big budget movies from new writers. So, should you write it? Sure, if you want. But just know that you’re going to have to write something ELSE that gets made first before anyone will think about making your tentpole movie. But if you follow and include most of the points above in your script, at least it will have a better shot when the time comes.

  • The Real Deal with Sequels & Why You Shouldn’t Write Them!

    April 16th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    Sequels mean big money for Hollywood, and they’ve become more than a trend – it’s almost a necessity these days. In 2011, there were 28 sequel films released including the 12 highest grossing films of the year. And it doesn’t look like the sequel train is stopping anytime soon.

    There are already 25 sequels planned for release in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and there will be more! And that’s not counting re-releases, remakes or reboots like the new OZ films or Alien prequel Prometheus or superhero combo film The Avengers.

    There are anywhere between 70-100 sequel projects currently in development, production or awaiting release including sequels to; 300, Spider-Man, Captain America, Avatar, Bourne, Dark Knight, Twilight, Die Hard, Expendables, Fast and Furious, Paranormal Activity, Ghostbusters, GI Joe, How to Train Your Dragon, Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Ice Age, Madagascar, Iron Man, James Bond, Major League, Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Piranha, Percy Jackson, Bad Santa, Red, Resident Evil, Salt, Scream, Star Trek, Transformers, Strangers, Taken, Terminator, Thor, X-Men, Wolverine, Zombieland, Zoolander, Grown Ups, Tron, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, The Hangover, Saw, Pirates of the Carribbean, Smurfs, Despicable Me, and many more!

    Already this year, there have been at least 4 projects released that did so well, sequels were immediately put into the works – Hunger Games (obviously), Project X, 21 Jump Street and Woman in Black.

    And with American Pie Reunion being released this weekend, MIB 3 coming in the next couple weeks, and the recent announcement of the Anchorman sequel, I think it’s a perfect time for writers to know the real deal with sequels – and why the word SHOULD NOT exist in your vocabulary.

    THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A SEQUEL UNTIL SOMEONE ELSE TELLS YOU THERE IS!   PERIOD.

    It is one of my biggest pet peeves and one of the biggest amateur writer mistakes I come across constantly! If you have not sold, set up, optioned or even PITCHED your script, and you are a first time (unproduced) writer – then DO NOT write the sequel to your script. What an unbelievably pointless waste of time and energy!

    NONE of the sequels of the films listed above were written before the first film was released! Not ONE! Even if a sequel was planned beforehand, there was still no script yet. And that is because – there is NO such thing as a sequel until someone else tells you there is. It’s NOT UP TO YOU! It’s not even up to the studio – it’s up to the audience who either makes the first film a big enough success to warrant a sequel, or doesn’t.

    The only bigger waste of time and energy would be if you wrote a sequel for a project that you don’t own the rights to. If you think you have a great idea for the next Star Trek movie – well, no one cares. Unless you have a great agent who can get you a meeting with the film’s producers or you are connected to them in some way, this is a colossal waste of time.

    And by the way, even IF you are lucky enough to get your film made and it makes a boffo amount of money and the studio wants to make a sequel – you’re probably not going to be the writer anyway. You will get an executive producer and “based on characters created by” credit and a bunch of money and they will hire other fresher writers who can look at the material in a new way to continue the story.

    Looking at the list of films that have had sequels made or where sequels are now in the works, there are three major trends that should jump out at you.

    First is that most films that get sequels, trilogies or franchises are based on SUCCESSFUL INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY that already existed and garnered a huge fan base before the first film was ever released.  Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, LOTR, Hobbit, GI Joe, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Transformers, Mission Impossible, Resident Evil, and ALL of the superhero movies from Iron Man to X-Men to Dark Knight Rises fall under this trend.

    Do you really think a studio would have made Harry Potter if there wasn’t a ridiculously successful book series and IP to base it on first? Or what if there was only 1 book? Do you think they would have made 7 films? No, probably not. Studios make franchises and sequels when they know there is enough intellectual property and material to warrant it, they can read (or see) exactly what the world is and where it is going before investing millions of dollars and when they know that there is an already proven fan base that will keep turning out for each film.

    The second trend is that the every single theatrically-released sequel film is either a huge tentpole film (which studios don’t buy from first time writers anyway), or they are in action, horror, fantasy or high concept comedy genres. There are no dramas, no thrillers (unless based on a book series like Dragon Tattoo), no low concept comedies, no biopics, no teen movies (Mean Girls 2 and Cinderella Story 2 went straight to DVD).

    So especially if you are not writing one of the trending sequel genres, don’t waste your time.

    The third trend is animation. Almost every animated film gets a sequel these days and that’s because once the first one is done, each subsequent film is easier to make and they are constant cash cows domestically and overseas especially in ancillary products.

    And for you writers out there who love the idea of sequels, just remember – studios still have the same number of slots to release movies throughout the year. So if 50% of their slots are now taken by sequels, remakes, reboots and re-releases, that means that there’s only half as many spots available for original material.

    People want to know why more original material isn’t sold and made in Hollywood – THIS is why! Because studios only get X amount of release slots per year and the top 12 grossing films in 2011 were sequels. Where would you put YOUR money?

    Putting the business reasons aside, there are also a number of important creative reasons why you should STOP writing sequels to your projects or even planning on a second or third film.

    I find all-too often that writers that think their film will get a sequel or trilogy save ALL their best material and the real meat of their story for the second script/film. When this happens, it usually means that the first script is 75% BACKSTORY leading up to the great stuff – which we will never read.

    If ALL of your best material isn’t in your first script, then you are wasting your time and pages. There is no point to a second script because no one will ever get through the first. There is no sequel until someone else tells you there is.

    You need to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. That is not to say your last scene can’t leave open the possibility of a sequel or that you can’t leave one small piece of the story unresolved to leave the audience wondering. But your story needs to END, your plotlines and conflict need to resolve themselves by the last page.

    If you are planning a second script for your story before you fully complete and polish your first script, then you will subconsciously be holding back in your writing and you will be FORCING the story to go in an unnatural direction to make sure there is no resolution, and that will ruin your script. Stories WANT to end.

    You don’t have to be worried about running out of material and ideas in case a company does want a sequel – because they are going to ask other writers to come up with it anyway.

    Leaving an audience (or a reader) unsatisfied in your climax or ending and not actually completing your story or giving us the big showdown because you want to save it for the sequel will guarantee that you never get your first script made.

    Yes, sequels are a hot trend right now and they are what’s getting made and making money. But that’s for A-List studio writers with A-list agents to worry about. If you write a successful big, high concept action film or a low budget horror and someone wants to make a second movie – don’t worry – they’ll figure it out! 

    In the meantime, STOP writing, pitching, or even thinking about sequels!

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