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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 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.

  • …But I Thought Of It First!

    April 16th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    There are no original ideas in Hollywood. How many times have you heard or said that?

    And generally, it’s kinda true.

    Case in point – the newly announced thriller project “The Tomb” starring Schwarzenegger and Stallone about a man who is imprisoned in the very prison he created and must seek help from a guard to escape – is pretty close in basic concept to the project I was hired to write a few months ago, which was registered and copyrighted and all that good stuff.

    Did this make me think twice? Maybe.
    Does it mean I stop writing it? No.
    Did they steal our idea? Not at all. This shit just happens.

    But it means once it’s done, my plan of attack for how I try to sell it will be different and the timing of how to sell it may change. Plus, it means I will have to come up with ways to make our script different and even more original.

    Another example – when I was still an executive at Clifford Werber Productions, we developed a project for a couple years called “Family Bond,” a family action film about a father/spy whose kid gets kidnapped and whose arch-enemy moves in next door in their suburb town. The SAME week we decided to go out with it to the town, another project was also sent out by a different producer called “Family Bonds” (with an S). Guess what it was about. Yup – almost the same exact fucking story.

    And there was nothing we could do. Yes, I looked into the chance that the idea was stolen from us after mentioning it in some meeting to someone, somewhere. But we’ll never know and it pretty much killed our project.

    Clifford and I sold a Wizard of Oz project to United Artists before two of the other Oz projects sold. Now there are FOUR other Wizard of Oz projects out there and ours is in turnaround because the others got going first (through no real fault of our own).

    There are TWO Snow White projects about to be released within a couple months of each other. Last year, No Strings Attached came out just months before Friends with Benefits.  And this is nothing new.

    Deep Impact and Armageddon came out in the same year. Volcano and Dante’s Peak.
    Antz and A Bug’s Life. Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Capote and Infamous. The Prestige and The Illusionist. The Score and Heist. Chasing Liberty and First Daughter. And The Back-Up Plan and The Switch, which funny enough also killed a sperm donor comedy Clifford and I were developing.

    They ALL came out within months of each other, which means they were all developed and green-lit around the same time as well. Did the writers of all of those movies scream and yell and wonder if someone stole their idea? Probably. But it didn’t stop them from going forward and making their movie.

    If anything, it should tell you that at least you’re thinking commercially – you’re just thinking commercially 3 months too late.

    And I can’t tell you how many times at a pitchfest I have been pitched the SAME exact idea 2, 3, 4 times in a day. If it DIDN’T happen, I’d be shocked.

    So for all you writers out there scared of pitching or sending out your project because you’re worried about it getting stolen – don’t be. Because it’s probably already been written by someone else. In fact, if you’re truly writing something that has never – in any way – been done before – there’s probably a reason for that.

    That’s also part of the reason studios like intellectual property – because they KNOW it’s not original material. They know that when they get the rights to a book, there isn’t some other writer trying to adapt it. They don’t have to worry about random writers suing them.

    This is not supposed to depress you – it’s supposed to make you realize that some things are out of your control. All you can do is write your story as originally as you can and study the market to see where you can and can’t sell it to and when the best time to do so might be. That’s the business, baby!

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