Is There a Formula for Box Office Success?

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens seemingly poised for box office domination, we take an in-depth look at the making of a hit movie.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Empire cover

As we move towards the end of 2015, the tidal wave that is Star Wars: The Force Awakens is looming ever closer and waiting to crash upon the shores. As the first theatrical release to come out of Disney's $4.05 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm, there is a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the movie, not to mention a slate of sequels and spinoffs - one of which is already filming. If there ever was a movie that was immune to box office failure, The Force Awakens might be it.

Although there was initial doubt that it would ever be a success, in hindsight it's easy to see why the original Star Wars managed to capture the imaginations (and wallets) of hardcore sci-fi fans and casual moviegoers alike when it was released in 1977. The film hits so many of the notes that have become mainstays of Hollywood blockbusters: it has a likeable everyman hero with humble origins and a great destiny; a beautiful and capable princess; a roguish bad boy; a struggle between the forces of good and evil; a story of underdogs taking on a mighty empire - all coupled with revolutionary (for the time) special effects.

As explained by economics expert Virginia Postrel, Hollywood operates according to the Pareto principle: the majority of profit comes from a minority of movies that do massively well at the box office, so there is no such thing as an 'average' movie. Because each of these explosive hits is unique and finds its own path into the hearts of audiences, it's impossible to look at them all as one big group and reverse-engineer a foolproof plan for success.

Even after a century of gathering knowledge about what audiences want, Hollywood is still prone to box office disasters that make the magic solution seem as elusive as ever. Why did John Carter hit the ground hard and Guardians of the Galaxy soar above expectations? Why did Jack the Giant Slayer sink like a stone, while Maleficent's success broke open the floodgates of live-action Disney remakes? Is DC's cinematic universe destined for the same success as Marvel's? Will the new Star Wars trilogy be everything that Disney hoped for?

One person whose job it is to answer such questions is Vincent Bruzzese, a veteran of entertainment market research whose company, C4, offers clients a breakdown of their scripts based on over a decade of research into what audiences want to see. He and his colleagues have provided feedback for scripts of over 50 films that have been released over the past few years. Bruzzese posits that during the century in which Hollywood has been trying to perfect the art of making money, audiences have become used to certain "micro-trends" in their movies. They've come to expect them and - crucially - to object when a movie strays from established patterns.

The Rules

The Strangers horror movie

"If you have a horror film with multiple killers, the multiple killers have to be completely insane or else the audience objects," Bruzzese offers as an example. "By insane I mean they can't have any motive whatsoever... It has to be kind of like The Strangers, where their only motive is to kill the protagonist."

Movie enthusiasts and film critics alike may bristle at the suggestion that years of watching the latest studio fodder has conditioned them with a Pavlovian response - expecting a treat to follow a bell ring and protesting if something unexpected happens. After all, "predictable" is widely used as a pejorative term in reviews. Yet Bruzzese isn't the only industry expert who has come to the conclusion that successful movies need to follow tried-and-tested patterns.

Kathryn Arnold is a consultant and expert witness specializing in cases involving the film and entertainment industry, whose expertise stems from years of developing and producing feature films. Though her current day-to-day work no longer involves reading through screenplays, Arnold is still easily able to rattle off the rules for writing a Hollywood script:

"You're supposed to know who your characters are and what the main plot of the story is within the first ten pages [of the script]. And then... by the end of the act break, around page 30, that's where the story twists... By the end of those 30 pages you know exactly what the rest of the story's going to be. And then there's usually some kind of twist in the middle of the second act, and then of course at the end of the second act everything falls apart and you have to put it back together in Act 3."

Hearing it laid out like that, it's easy to see this pattern in a plethora of blockbuster films. Even just looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the one-two punch of everything falling apart at the end of Act 2 and being rebuilt in Act 3 can be seen over and over again: Thor failing to lift Mjolnir, learning humility, and then reuniting with the Warriors Three to defeat the Destroyer; the Avengers being blown apart during the attack in the helicarrier and then teaming up to avenge Phil Coulson's death; the Guardians of the Galaxy being crushed in a battle with Ronan the Destroyer, then finally settling their differences and launching into a lock-and-load montage. Even if they're not consciously aware of it, any regular consumer of Hollywood movies will know these narrative 'rules', and may feel unsettled if they're not followed.

Guardians of the Galaxy full team

So what about movies that deliberately subvert audience expectations, and are praised for it? The Cabin in the Woods is one such example, with a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 72% rating on Metacritic. Yet as Bruzzese points out, The Cabin in the Woods was a box office flop, with a worldwide gross of just $66.5 million.

"The reason it didn't do well is because it crossed over three different horror genres, where you had a horror spoof element to it... then cross into this horror haunting or supernatural idea, and then you also have this element where it is a pure killer - not supernatural - source of evil. And then you go to this apocalyptic ending. All of these give marketing difficulty in terms of how and who to market the movie to, and it hurts word of mouth in terms of how you describe the movie to others. And it does not hold up narratively. So you have a movie that they spent a great deal of money on, and there's a great deal of anticipation for, but because it was narratively flawed it does well below the expected box office of the genre."

A lot of people loved The Cabin in the Woods, but it's easy to see how its unconventional structure made it difficult to market. At the time when it was in theaters, word of mouth often took the form of, 'I don't want to tell you too much about it, and you shouldn't read anything about it - just go and see it,' which wasn't the most compelling sell. Comparatively, Wes Craven's Scream spoofed the slasher genre while structurally being a very traditional slasher film. Perhaps that's why Scream performed so much better at the box office.

Next: The Making of a Hollywood Script

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