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  • 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.

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