It's halfway through the summer movie season, and there's a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the Tentpole Film — yes, in spite of Avengers. This year has seen some huge high-profile flops, plus some massive films that underperformed Stateside. And meanwhile, some of the biggest films in the pipeline are having well-publicized troubles, from Lone Ranger to World War Z.
The thing is, Hollywood already knows how to make blockbuster movies that make money — they've just forgotten some of the fundamentals in the rush to claim dates in the crowded summer schedules. Here are 10 rules that Hollywood knew, but has forgotten.
1) If your kid hasn't heard of it, don't spend $200 million on it.
If you don't have a kid of your own, borrow your neighbor's. Case in point: The average 12-year-old has heard of Battleship, right? The kids love that game, it's all the rage among the tween set. Or, maybe not. Seriously, if nobody under the age of 35 has heard of something, then it either justifies a much smaller budget — or a vehicle that's designed to introduce it to new people. Likewise, maybe they should have done the Green Lantern and Tron cartoons first, and then the movies. Don't assume that audiences will be familiar with a character who was popular decades ago.
2) Genre mashups only work if both genres are popular.
Case in point: Neither "historical biopic" nor "vampire movie" is a particularly popular genre right now. Sure, Twilight is popular — but most other vampire movies in the past few years have bombed, horribly. I get the impression people look at Twilight and think any vampire movie will do equally well. Similarly, there are all the attempts to mash up Westerns with Martians (John Carter), superheroes (Jonah Hex) and of course alien invasions (Cowboys and Aliens.)
3) Spend less on the first movie in a series, then more on sequels.
This used to seem like a set-in-stone rule. Batman Begins, Iron Man and the first Transformers were all around $150 million, and then their sequels went way up in cost. It's only fairly recently that the idea of spending sequel money on the first movie in a series seems to have become standard. Things that aspire to be the first movie in a series have been getting production budgets of $200 million and up. There's actually something to be said for having the first movie in a series spend more time developing the characters, and less time on extra bombastic set pieces.
4) When dealing with a hero who's been retconned to death, try to get back to the original concept.
This is closer to a rule for making good stories — but it's also probably a good rule for making popular big-budget adaptations, too. Think about it this way. You have a hero who's been around for decades, in another medium. And for the first two decades, the hero's set-up was pretty simple: He has a magic ring that can make anything, but it needs recharging every 24 hours, and it doesn't work on anything yellow. But over time, the fans of the character get bored with those same old stories, and so the creators experiment with shaking things up. What if the hero has a fear parasite that takes him over? What if it's not the color yellow, but fear, that's his weakness? What if the fear parasite becomes his arch-nemesis? And so on. Usually, with any character who's been around for decades, the interesting stuff is what was introduced in the first few years, not what was created after everybody was already bored with the character in another medium.
5) Pay attention to the structure of the original.
Structure is everything when it comes to a dumb summer movie, even if the overly rigid "three act" structure does get kind of old sometimes. There's a reason why a lot of the best movie adaptations come from airport novels, which already have a ready-made "arc" structure, or from self-contained graphic novels. On the other hand, when you're adapting a heavily serialized narrative, like a TV soap opera or a series of adventure novels, in which there's no single tidy storyline, there are obviously much greater challenges when it comes to creating a neatly wrapped up story. So either pay attention to the structure of something when optioning it, or be prepared to take greater liberties.
6) You have to play well overseas
We already mentioned that some of the year's most hyped movies have had disappointing, or tepid, box office in the United States. Good thing overseas box office is becoming way more important — just like with Terminator Salvation and The Last Airbender, some recent films are only going to be profitable because of overseas markets. Especially China. The upcoming films Looper and Iron Man 3 feature Chinese funding and actors, because Chinese audiences can make or break a film now. As the makers of Men in Black 3 learned — the movie included a lengthy sequence in a Chinese restaurant, where the workers were all aliens and part of the joke was that Chinese food was weird. Somewhere between three minutes and 13 minutes of MIB3 had to be cut out before the film could be shown in China. (By contrast, Looper will have a few extra minutes of scenes showing that China is the world's main superpower in the future, which will only be shown in China.)
7) Things that sound funny should be funny.
This is sort of a marketing problem, but also sort of a storytelling problem. We can't count how many times lately we've heard film-makers say stuff like, "Sure, the movie is called Cowboys & Aliens, but it's not a comedy." Ditto for Battleship and Abe Lincoln. We also heard a lot about how John Carter was trying not to be too comical. There seems to be a trend towards tackling goofy concepts in a dead-serious way, while still keeping a goofy title. Whereas if Battleship had tacked a bit more towards the silly — possibly even including the famous line "You sank my battleship!" in the trailers — it would at least have seemed more like a fun ride. It's possible that for some concepts, the alternative to "comical" isn't "serious," but rather "dull."
8) There should be a ratio of CG stuff on screen to emotion.
Sometimes you see a trailer, and you can just tell that the human element is going to get totally lost in a soup of computer artifacts. This can happen so easily, especially when actors are standing around in a greenscreen environment, interacting with tennis balls all day. Audiences love huge special effects sequences, but they may be starting to get sick of oceans of CG with no personality. So there ought to be a rule: for every minute of greenscreen mo-cap CG stuff, there has to be at least a minute where someone is actually having thoughts and feelings. (These can be the same minute.) There's a reason why Andy Serkis is becoming such an MVP of mo-cap — he brings acting and character development into the process.
9) Practical effects still rule.
There's just something to be said for practical visual effects and makeup — Rick Baker's alien designs were the coolest thing about Men in Black 3, and they were probably one of the main things saving it from feeling completely sterile and dull. There's just something awesomely tactile about having real surfaces and real substances on screen with actors, which it's hard to fake. And these days, well-done practical effects can actually make your movie stand out, amongst an ocean of computer crap.
10) A passionate fanbase is a double-edged sword.
San Diego Comic Con is coming up! It's the time of year when studios try to seduce the hardcore fans of old toys, cartoons, comics and novels into getting excited about the latest movie versions. Every year, this process backfires for some properties, or just fails to pay off adequately. A large group of enthusiastic fans probably cannot make or break a movie — see Serenity for a perfect example — but fans can create buzz and word of mouth that percolates into wider audiences. But fans can also create bad buzz, that spreads equally well. And fan apathy can translate into more widespread shrugging, especially among the mainstream press, who keep one ear to the fan community. But pandering to the fans can often backfire, especially if they know they're being pandered to. My sense is that fans will generate more buzz for something they think their non-fan friends and family members will also like, rather than something they see as aimed only at themselves. So job #1 is to convince the fans that a movie will be good, rather than just true to the original in some way.