Sunday 23 November 2014

What makes a screenplay "work"

Gordy Hoffman published an interesting article on the Bluecat Screenplay Competition website recently. The thrust of the article is that every successful movie is successful because it taps into some key element of what the mass of people have on their mind at a point in time.
   I'm not sure I agree with all the analysis, but this makes interesting reading nonetheless. The conclusions are all fresh reminders of what we, deep down, already know.

  • Don’t be afraid to give the audience what they want.
  • Have stakes that make the conflict in your story matter.
  • Theme is an essential element to conveying an even tone throughout. 
  • Meet and exceed your audience’s expectations of what a movie can be.

What do the 10 Highest-Earning Original Screenplays have in common?

Of the top thirty-seven highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation), only ten are original screenplays that aren’t sequels, prequels, or Fantasia. Read on to see what they have in common.

10. Independence Day (1996)
box office $564,541,300

What made it work?
Cultural zeitgeist.

Writers will forget sometimes that they products of their environment. With only four years until the new millennium, Independence Day was the doomsday movie that no one realized they wanted. Sure it’s hokey and the science is silly, but at the end of the day that’s how most of the world was in 1996. Don’t be afraid to give the audience what they want. 

9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969 )
box office $575,046,500

What made it work?
Likable Characters.

The characters of Butch and Sundance are altogether iconic, relatable, and nuanced. When you’re writing your characters, don’t neglect to give each the attention they deserve. Every character should feel like a real person.

8. Ghostbusters (1984)
box office $579,957,500

What made it work?
Genre transcendence.

On its surface, Ghostbusters could be an action movie. Or horror. Or comedy? Sci-fi? Instead Ghostbusters transcended genre completely, telling an original story with clever world building and amazing characters. Without Ghostbusters, who knows if we’d have films like Galaxy Quest or Shawn of The Dead.

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
box office $721,493,300

What made it work?
Reverence for the classics.

Raiders of the Lost Ark takes the best of classic films like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and combines them with the pulp action of the 1930′s serials. The result is a film that is often lauded as the finest ever made. When writing your original spec, be prepared to borrow from the best.

6. The Sting (1973)
box office $726,514,300

What made it work?
Reveals that are surprising yet inevitable.

This is the second George Roy Hill directed film to make this list with Paul Newman and Robert Redford starring. The advice there is to stick with what works. Storywise, The Sting is best known for its complicated yet engaging plot. Following the exploits of two confidence men and their vendetta against a gangster played by Robert Shaw, every scene leaves the audience guessing and wanting more.

5. The Lion King (1994)
box office $726,543,300

What made it work?
Emotional range.

The Lion King would be a completely different movie if it was only a story of animals getting along and singing about the food chain. Thankfully the writers pushed a more ambitious story. With Mufasa’s death, Timon and Pumba’s antics, Nala and Simba’s love story, this little animated movie about lions touched upon very human emotions. Don’t be afraid to use a range of emotions to further your story.

4. Avatar (2009)
box office $792,630,400

What made it work?
A fully realized world the audience has never seen before.

Most great films are a classic story set in a wholly original world (Lord of The Rings). Others are original stories set in a classical world (The Artist). Other films are neither, pushing an incoherent mess (The Room), or a tired by-the-numbers formula (Home Alone 3). People go to movies to be entertained, and in the film making process the screenwriter is the first “at bat.”

3. Titanic (1997)
box office $1,104,116,900

What made it work?
High stakes.

All stories have conflict. What separates good storytelling from bad storytelling are the motivations of the characters. It’s one thing to write a movie about the sinking of the Titanic, it’s a far greater thing to write “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” as James Cameron once pitched his movie. Each of the movies on this list have stakes that make the conflict in their story matter. This is a good reason why poorly written action movies can feel boring. If there’s no reason to care about the characters’ wants/needs, what’s the point?

2. E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
box office $1,156,112,800

What made it work?
Universal themes.

E.T. isn’t just a story about an alien trying to get home. It’s also about a boy coping with his parent’s divorce and the inherent loneliness of being a child. Nearly everyone can relate to the fear of being lost and alone as a child, and while many films have tried to emulate E.T., no film has done it better. Theme is an oft-overlooked element of screenwriting, yet essential to conveying an even tone throughout. The more universal your theme is, the more likely your screenplay will have mass appeal.

1. Star Wars (1977)
box office $1,451,674,700

What made it work?
Epic storytelling.

Everything about Star Wars is epic. From the costumes to the periphery characters, the movie makes no apologies for being larger than life. The same can be said for all the movies in this list. They met and exceeded their audience’s expectations of what a movie could be and as a result, became cultural phenomenons.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think it is a mistake to analyse a chopped-down list of the most financially successful movies and ascribe their success to the screenplay.