Is There a Formula for Box Office Success?

The Making of a Hollywood Script

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

Between the directors who have dropped out of Marvel movie projects and the all-around disaster that was Josh Trank's clash with 20th Century Fox during the making of Fantastic Four, even casual moviegoers can't help but be aware of how much oversight and interference there is in the creative process of making a studio film. It might seem as though franchising is to blame for this, but Bruzzese says that even original scripts will be heavily transformed as they make the journey from the desk of an eager screenwriter into the hands of actors when filming begins - and even beyond.

The concept of what C4 does - taking a raw, virginal screenplay into which the writer has poured their heart and soul, and applying market research and statistics to decide how it should be changed to please studio executives and audiences - might sound abhorrent, especially to a budding screenwriter. "When you don't know what it is, it sounds like you're trying to algorithm art," Bruzzese says, explaining that it's common for screenwriters to have an initially negative reaction.

Yet the film industry is, generally speaking, not a place where raw, virginal screenplays ever emerge intact. In fact, the chances of them emerging at all are slim. "The sad thing is that if you look at the actual process in this industry, it's ridiculous," Bruzzese says. A good script needs to fall onto the desk of the right person working in the right agency, who needs to be in a good enough mood to react positively to it. Then, if the screenwriter is lucky enough to see their script optioned, "the first thing that's going to happen is a rewrite's going to occur, so whoever options it can put their stamp on it" - a rewrite that may or may not involve the original writer at all. Once a director is hired, the director will put their own stamp on the film, and even after production is complete the changes won't stop, because that's when the film is screened for test audiences who suggest their own changes to the edit:

"That's what people are defending, is the artistic process. What we're trying to do is go to the writer at a very early stage and say, 'Look, we can provide you an early crystal ball here on what audience response is going to be based on your idea.' We know you love your baby and we know you think it's the best thing ever and it's the most wonderful story ever told... but right now you have the most control over that script that you ever will. In the future there'll be fifty people in a room - if you're lucky - who are all trying to make changes to it. We're able to tell you the kind of changes they're going to try to make and give you that information early."

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Though this might all sound rather cynical, Bruzzese maintains that this is not the kind of process that could be automated. "There is no algorithm that can predict art," he says firmly. In fact, one of the very first scripts that his team worked on was District 9, which was praised for its genre-bending take on the concept of an alien invasion. Arnold concurs, explaining that there is always an element of subjectivity when it comes to finding the best screenplays.

"In the past it's always been you start out with a script that either makes you laugh, cry, or feel some form of emotion. That was the base test for when we were reading scripts... you wanted to feel some kind of visceral, emotional connection either to the character or the storyline."

Though the oft-cited success of the critically-reviled Transformers movies may suggest that the overall quality of a film has little impact on its box office, Arnold says that, as a general rule, studios can't just "throw garbage up on the screen" and expect it to perform well, even if it does have a recognizable franchise name attached. A movie's ability to stick in its audience's mind will mark "the difference between whether they just break even or whether it explodes." With that said, some franchises can get away with a lot more than others.

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