Back to Film Talk...
Seven Rules for Making Profitable Movies? (No replies)
The following piece is based on figures taken from Perl & Dean, ComScore, IMDb, the UK Office of National Statistics and Rotton Tomatoes. It is not meant as a scientific economic analysis of the movie market but as a common-sense approach to identifying some aspects of those movies that 'work' - i.e. those that actually earn money!
And if we don't make a profit, we don't get to make many movies!
I spent many years watching other people make movies and do other silly things. On the outside, looking in - you might say. That is after all the role of the journalist and I spent about 12 years doing just that.
Originally, I studied economics, so when it comes to most subjects, I tend to analyse the numbers and correlate them to other factors. In film, it means asking what earns money. What is the difference between Fargo (profitable) and Hudsucker (trousered)? What is the difference between Burn After Reading (profitable) and Barton Fink (trousered)? What is the difference between No Country for Old Men (profitable) and The Man Who Wasn't There (trousered)? Six rather similar movies by the Coens: three earned money, three lost money.
Jack Warner said "Nobody knows nothing!" But is that true?
Are there key elements in a movie that can predict a hit? Are there key elements in a movie that predict a movie that trousers? Are there boxes we must tick and others that we must avoid at all costs?
And I'm talking here about movies and not film - an artificial demarcation, I grant you, but necessary. I see movies as being a very strict discipline - three acts, 15 story-points (or 'beats') and the bad guys always seem to win at the end of act two when all hope is lost. Act three is new hope and the fight-back, followed by an uplifting victory for the good guys and then comes the epilogue.
Film is (just for the purposes of this piece!) all the rest! At its best, film is to make a beautiful visual poem about something. It may have a beginning, a middle and an end - and then again, it may not.
I'll start with the structure of the team that makes the movie -
Film researcher Stephan Follows studied 3,578 movies from the past 20 years and found a linear correlation between the number of producers and the chances of making a profit. If you invested money in ALL the one-producer movies of the past 20 years, you would have got 108% return on investment so an 8% profit but only 39% on all films with four or more producers, so a 61% loss!
So my arbitrary 'Rule Number One' - One person in charge.
Once Upon a Time in the West - it cost $5m to make and got $5m in domestic (i.e. US) box-office. That means less than a million went back to the investors in the project. Ouch!
But in Germany alone, it made about $40m box office and about the same again in France. Rince, repeat around the World. In those territories where it played with the original soundtrack and carried the original title, it didn't do well. In those territories where it got a new soundtrack and a decent title, it was a huge success.
Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod! (Play me the Song of Death!) sounds a shed-load funkier than the rather enigmatic title 'Once Upon a Time in the West'. In fact, I can assure you as a German speaker - that is one of the best titles for a movie ever! It tells us something about the movie - The Song of Death. It's about death, so say so!
So my Rule Number Two - A Funky Title that tells us what it is really about!
But that movie had another huge problem - a totally awful soundtrack. The music was good, that whole harmonica theme was a killer but whole sections of the film had no Folies and the ADR was dreadful. Horses galloped in total silence and every voice sounded as if it was done in a cheap vocal booth - which of course it was! In Germany and France, the whole sound was totally redone from the bottom up and dubbed into German and French.
So Rule Number Three - Good sound design and a great score.
For the past ten years, younger movie-goer numbers have halved, especially in the US and the UK. This tendency has been stemmed by movies clearly targeted at a young audience. Today 50% of your movie-going audience is under the age of 25. Almost 70% is under the age of 35. Only 20% are over 45 and as for people my age - don't bother! They are still at home, trying to work out how to set-up the VCR and wondering why Howard Cosell isn't on television anymore!
Now look at the US top ten this week - nearly all are targeting the under-25s. Fast & Furious, Toy Story, Lion King, Spider-Man, Yesterday - the youth bias is obvious, as are the profits! Even 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is hardly an old person's movie. Lots of gratuitous violence, a funky sound-track and the good guys win!
So Rule Number Four - Target the young!
I am very thick-skinned, but even I don't like feeling uncomfortable. I don't want to see things on screen that should not be there for moral reasons. A female audience is not very thick-skinned and therefore do not want to be exposed to footage such as a brutal rape scene or scenes that induce vertigo or fear for extended periods.
The Tin Drum won an Oscar and prizes at Cannes, but because it showed little Oscar having sex with a 24-year-old, it got banned in many territories. It was fairly tastefully done, but it only really earned money in Germany, where such images are allowed.
There have been several movies that are either extremely sexually explicit or gruesome (or both!) and just get banned outright or so heavily censored that they no longer work as a movie. Someone somewhere may want to watch acts of pedophilia or necrophilia, but I'm not one of them and I don't want to meet any of them either!
Another 'Yuck!' inducer is the entire genre of gritty urban dramas. You know the ones I mean - the ones with such lines as "Look out! he's gotta knife!" and "Dad, I'm pregnant!" Life is miserable enough as it is, without rubbing people's noses in it. Society gets one gritty urban drama (Cathy Come Home, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo) and these are successful as they wake us up. But then we seldom want to see another one, certainly not those that are not as good as those two.
If you absolutely must make a gritty urban drama, make it a feel-good riotous comedy.
So my Rule Number Five - Don't make the audience feel bad!
And now I shall probably annoy the purists with my take on who the main protagonist is and how the movie ends. These are two issues that are closely intertwined and relate almost directly to critical and audience reaction. And critical acclaim and a great audience reaction have a close-to-linear relationship with profits.
Study after study tells us that a feel-good ending equals better IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes ratings. If at the end of the movie, order is restored and the good guys win, the ratings will be better. Similar studies tell us repeatedly that we must develop empathy for the main character - 'emotional proximity' as marketing people call it. In surveys, it is usually called 'a positive role model', someone who instigates the action and causes things to happen.
And that brings me neatly to those six Coen Brothers films. The ones with likable protagonists and where order was restored made a profit. The ones where order was not restored and had strange and enigmatic endings lost money. We care about Marge in Fargo and she restores order. We don't care about Barton Fink. His arc of development is upside-down. He starts a sort-of winner and ends up as a loser. Charlie Meadows is, in reality, the real main protagonist (IMO of course!) mainly because of Goodman's brilliantly 'meaty' portrayal of the role.
(A fun ending might have been for Meadows to behead Fink, steal his scripts and start a successful career as a scriptwriter of 'slasher' movies!)
Therefore my Rule Number Six is - A positive role model and a feel-good ending!
So now we come to the 'look' of the film. I am not a particular fan of Kaminski's imagery (apart from Saving Private Ryan, which is just brilliant) as he tends to make everything look very 'pretty'. War Horse makes one want to serve in World War One trenches - they look so good. I just saw his portrayal of East Berlin in the 50s last night (Bridge of Spies) and it just looks so nice - I lived in East Berlin in the 70s for a short while and it was grey, drab and miserable, but Spielberg and Kaminski got together to make it look like Narnia with barbed wire!
But that's just my opinion - and there's no denying that Kaminski knows what he's doing and he really knows how to create a great image. I just prefer Vittorio Storaro, Roger Deakins and Conrad Hall and the way they reference the great painters of the past, sometimes possibly without realising it!
Apocalypse Now! referenced the chiaroscuro style in Rembrandt and Vermeer, The Road to Perdition deliberately used the style of Hopper and Jesse James reminds me of Grant Wood and John Curry and their warm and vibrant use of colours and reddish-brown shadows.
So my last arbitrary rule, Rule Number Seven - Make it look good!
You may have other rules and possibly disagree with some of mine!