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Is There a Formula for Box Office Success?

The 'D' Word

Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in Exodus Gods and Kings

The idea of appealing to people of varying backgrounds and life experiences is an interesting one in light of the fervent discussions surrounding diversity in the film industry - a discussion that has attracted federal attention into Hollywood's hiring practices. The imbalance of male vs. female characters in mainstream films is so great that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves didn't realize until it was pointed out to him in an interview that there was almost nothing for female characters to do in his movie (Keri Russell was the only actress who was given lines, and there weren't many of them).

Race is another prominent issue; Insurgent actor Daniel Dae Kim told Screen Rant earlier this year how hard it is to find decent roles written for Asian-American actors, and director Ridley Scott quite bluntly said that he cast Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings because, "I can’t mount a film of this budget... and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such." More recently, Roland Emmerich cast Jeremy Irvine as a fictional "straight-acting" gay man to lead the charge in Stonewall, rather than making the movie about one of the transgender women of color who were known activists at the time. Emmerich's explanation for the decision was, "When you make gay films everybody says it’s for gay people, but no it’s not. The majority is straight."

These and many other examples create the impression that there is a rule in Hollywood - whether spoken or unspoken - that white male protagonists are 'safe' and anything else is a risk. Yet this mindset didn't seem to do Scott or Emmerich much good. Exodus: Gods and Kings grossed just $268 million worldwide on a $140 million production budget, while Stonewall hasn't even managed to break the $200,000 mark.

Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 IMAX poster and clip

Despite being fairly convinced that Hollywood's habit of making characters white and male by default is more superstition than pragmatism, I still brace myself for bad news when I ask Bruzzese if he's come across any pattern in how the demographics of a movie's characters affect its box office potential. After all, if audiences are so conditioned that they'll object to a horror movie where the band of killers has a motive, have they also become so used to seeing certain kinds of leads in movies that they'll object to anything else?

"Race is difficult to speak to. There's no phenomenon of Latino movies, very much, but there is one of black-centered movies... If you cast a lot of black actors or actresses in a film, you do have the possibility of recharacterizing that film for a black audience... You can actually change the tenor of the film by doing that.

"But in terms of gender I think it is one of the most unfortunate things is that so many films have characters that could be - and, narratively, should be - cast female, but because there is a mistaken belief in Hollywood that young males in particular draw box office - which they don't - and that young males will only go out to see male lead characters - which again, they won't - it causes so many of these scripts and narratives to be disproportionately male. Even the crowd scenes are disproportionately male...

"Every time a movie with a female lead does well at the box office - you have articles out there expressing all this surprise. And why it's surprising I have no idea, because every year there are plenty of movies with female leads that do extremely well at the box office. There's just this old school reluctance to it."

This mindset seems to be one that's changing very slowly, but it's encouraging to look at the posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens - with John Boyega and Daisy Ridley as the new young leads and Oscar Isaac as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron - and see that Disney isn't afraid to take 'risks' with its biggest new franchise.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley)

The Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman famously said that, in Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work." It's one of the things that makes the film industry so exciting to observe, and which no doubt makes it a terrifying place to work.

Though there are patterns and trends and techniques, there is ultimately no formula for box office success, and even if there was one it would probably have changed before anyone had time to decode it. With a global audience that's constantly developing new interests, demands, and ways of communicating, the best that studios can do is try to make good movies and pray that they'll hit the mark.

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