How Movies Synchronize the Brains of an Audience

September 1st, 2014 by

Reboots. Remakes. Sequels. Prequels. Franchises. And now this:

Picture a movie theater, packed for the opening night of a blockbuster film. Hundreds of strangers sit next to each other, transfixed. They tend to blink at the same time. Even their brain activity is, to a remarkable degree, synchronized.

It’s a slightly creepy thought. It’s also a testament to the captivating power of cinema, says Uri Hasson, a psychologist at Princeton University. At a recent event hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hasson presented his research into what happens inside people’s brains when they watch movies. His work got a receptive but somewhat wary reaction from several film makers, including Jon Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man, Chef) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan).

“Somewhat wary reaction”? Seems to me this could take Hollywood’s formula fetish to a whole other level:

On the second evening of the two-night event, Aronofsky and his writing partner and sometimes co-producer, Ari Handel, were on stage with the scientists as Hasson presented the results of a small study he’d done with a clip from Black Swan. It comes near the end as Nina, the main character portrayed by Natalie Portman, is unraveling. She hallucinates black feathers poking through the skin on her back. It’s an intense scene, and like that of Dog Day Afternoon, it seemed to get nearly 70 percent of the cortex firing in synch across subjects.

“They do look very similar, but it’d be more surprising if they didn’t,” said Handel, who earned a PhD in neuroscience at New York University before getting into movies. “If you’re watching a movie, that’s your entire sensorium and your feelings.” If people’s brains were out of synch during a movie, Handel suggested, that might be a bad sign that their minds were wandering. One person might be thinking about the call they need to make, while another contemplates making a popcorn run.

“It’s a scary tool for the studios to have,” Aronofsky said. “Soon they’ll do test screenings with people in MRIs.” The audience laughed, but it didn’t seem like he was joking, at least not entirely.

Here you go: Movie test screen audience of the future!

For the rest of the Wired article, go here.

Major Hollywood Studios Current Business Approach: Big Budget Franchise and Low-Budget Genre

August 27th, 2014 by

I have written about the bifurcated business approach currently in vogue with Hollywood’s major studios: Big budget franchise movies on the one end, low budget genre films on the other. This Variety article from last week — “Universal Veers From Superhero Trend for a Monster Plan” — is further proof of this business model:

While most studios in Hollywood are betting on superheroes to save the box office, Universal Pictures is doubling down on creature features.

This month, the studio acquired rights to Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” book series. In July, it announced plans to create a Marvel-like cinematic universe around Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

At the same time, the studio inked an eyebrow-raising 10-year, first-look deal with microbudget horror producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Films is behind the profitable “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister,” “Insidious” and “The Purge” franchises. Last summer, the studio lured Legendary Entertainment into the fold, and now the production firm is co-financing U’s “Jurassic World” and “Dracula Untold,” and has its own upcoming thrillers, including “As Above, So Below” and King Kong tentpole “Skull Island,” which Universal will release.

Right there in that third paragraph, we see these two strategies butted up against each other: Microbudget horror movies (Blumhouse Films); Big budget franchise movies (Legendary Entertainment).

Of course, writers well-versed in subtext will note: There’s nothing in the middle. No mid-budget movies anywhere in sight. For fans of adult dramas and thrillers, or comedies with A-list talent, by and large the fate of those type of films is in the hands of various financiers and their co-productions. Fortunately, there are a lot of those filling the void created by the major studios.

But the question is: Will this bifurcated model be able to sustain itself for the next 5-10 years? What do you think?


For the rest of the Variety article, go here.

Update: Gender in Spec Script Sales

July 23rd, 2014 by

Earlier this month, I posted this, an update on spec script sales by gender from 1991-2013. GITS reader Rich Kachold went through each of the sales from 2013 and caught a few discrepancies, so the Black List team went through everything one more time, this time including some sales posted by Jason Scoggins I had not included. Here is the revised infographic:

Gender-in-Spec-Sales 2013 Final

While the percentage of spec sales by women from 2011-2013 ticks up from 9% to 10%, that number is still remarkably low.

A bit of good news is there is another great resource available to screenwriters, especially women: Chicks Who Script has just started doing a regular podcast. The three hosts: Emily Blake, Maggie F. Levin, and Lauren Schacher. Check it out and spread the word!

Note: It is impossible to track every single spec spec transaction. The numbers here are based on the best information available.

Many thanks to Susana Orozco for taking the time and effort to aggregate the data for last year, Rich Kachold and Kate Hagen for reviewing the 2013 sales to provide this year’s updated information.

UPDATE: Stephen Follows has done a bunch of research on this question: What percentage of a film crew is female? Go here to see the results.

A proposal about uncredited screenwriters

July 23rd, 2014 by

I recently posted an interview with Joss Whedon in which he talked for the first time about his work rewriting the script for the movie Speed. Here is an excerpt:

Whedon: In my whole career, I’ve never had to talk about it. I’ve never signed a copy of it, I’ve never sort of been a part of it. And I was proud of it, I worked hard on it, I had a really great time and I worked with really cool people. I thought it was good stuff. Graham has been very generous, but I did not get a credit on it. The studio gave me one, but then the Writers Guild of America took it away, and I was pretty devastated. I have the only poster with my credit on it.

A majority of movies produced in Hollywood have had multiple writers work on them, most of them uncredited. Sometimes the writer doesn’t even seek credit, generally the case with ‘script doctors’ who work strictly for hire. Other times, writers actively seek credit, but do not receive it due to the determination of the WGA arbitration process.

Which leads to an odd situation: There can be literally hundreds of people credited with working on a movie, yet one or more writers who contributed to the development of the script receive zero credit.

So why not this credit: “Additional Writing By” and list all the other writers who were hired to work on the project? Slot it in the end credits crawl which would set off the credited writers with their own title card.

You may ask, “What if a writer contributed only one scene to the final movie? Why should s/he deserve an Additional Writing By credit?” What if the one scene is an important moment or plot point? Isn’t that creative contribution worth at least some public recognition? But even if the scene isn’t all that critical, it’s still a narrative element that would not in all likelihood exist in the final cut were it not for the work of this currently uncredited writer. I’d say that writer deserves some acknowledgement for their creative input.

You may ask, “What if the writer didn’t contribute even one scene, one character, one piece of dialogue to the movie? How in the world does s/he deserve an Additional Writing By credit?”

Writing a script involves thousands of choices. Decisions made and pages written that end up being tossed aside does not mean they are without value. Indeed, if Uncredited Writer’s draft explores, let’s say, twelve narrative possibilities that end up being rejected, that is not a negative in terms of the creative process, but rather a positive. First, the filmmaking team now knows they don’t have to go that way again. Second, those choices that end up not working for the final draft will almost assuredly help subsequent writers and the creative team determine what does make sense. So even if there are zero words of Uncredited Writer appearing in the shooting script, the fact is that writer has been part of a creative process which eventually led to a final draft, a story which may never have been realized without the choices made by that very same writer.

Here’s the thing: The use of Additional Writing By will never happen for at least two reasons: (1) I believe the WGA would look at it as cheapening the contributions of the credited writers. (2) It would expose how crazy Hollywood’s approach is to script development. Like the 11 writers 20th Century Fox hired to write The A-Team. Hell, I’ve participated as a judge in a WGA arbitration in which there 18 writers involved. Does Hollywood really want the public to see a list of writers hired per each movie that approximates the length of the Gettysburg Address?

And yet, it just doesn’t seem right for a writer to slave away on a one or more script drafts, perhaps representing six months or more of their creative effort, only to receive a big fat nada in terms of official recognition for their work. You think that doesn’t hurt? Look again at what Joss Whedon said about being denied a credit on Speed: “I was pretty devastated.”

Doesn’t the idea of Additional Writing By seem like a sensible, fair idea? Tell me if I’m wrong and why. Or perhaps you have a better idea. If so, head to comments to carry on this conversation to see if we can make invisible writers become visible… and receive credit for their creative efforts.

Has “Snowpiercer” shifted the VOD / theatrical model for indie films?

July 22nd, 2014 by

If you are interesting in the business of movies, especially in emerging trends, this is a must-read from Indiewire by Anne Thompson and Tom Brueggemann because it suggests we are witnessing a paradigm shift happening before our very eyes that could have enormous implications in the indie film world.

Thirty years in, Harvey Weinstein knows the distribution business. While he’s a wily theatrical animal who knows when to spend big on a wide release and when to dump a movie, he took a radical route with Bong Joon-ho’s action adventure “Snowpiercer,” starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, seizing the chance to try something new. Weinstein’s decision to open an action picture with major movie stars via autonomous subsidiary RADiUS with a video-on-demand release two weeks after its theatrical opening is rippling through the film community.

As the Hollywood studios struggle with a depressed summer box office, losing the fickle young male demo and locked into a standoff with theater chains on release windows, they’re watching the independents experiment with video-on-demand release models. “Snowpiercer” marks a tipping point in the movie industry’s shift from analog to digital. Why? It marks the most commercial movie to ever open in theaters and quickly go to VOD.

According to Weinstein, following two weeks in theaters, “Snowpiercer”‘s first week on VOD earned $2 million, a company record.


Recognizing the shifts in the market, Weinstein banked on the VOD future three years ago by starting an autonomous division at The Weinstein Co., RADiUS, headed by two presidents, Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, who had pioneered theatrical/VOD releasing at Magnolia under president Eamonn Bowles. Believing passionately that there’s a bigger audience to be found on VOD, the duo have been experimenting with different models for multi-platform releases, from premium video-on-demand, which makes a film available at a high premium price-point ahead of theatrical, to theatrical with a much shorter VOD window.

The traditional model is at least a 90 day window between theatrical and VOD release. From an exhibitor’s perspective, this makes sense because it gives theaters an exclusivity period which “incentivizes” people to get out of their homes and into the local bijou. That model still stands for major studio releases, but things are changing rapidly in the indie world.

The Indiewire article goes into great length about how Weinstein determined not to go the traditional wide theatrical release route for Snowpiercer [bottom line, he didn't think the movie was mainstream enough to warrant those P&A costs], but rather opted to do two weeks in limited theaters, then to VOD — to generate revenue and build buzz — and then to increased theatrical exposure.

What’s really informative about the article is this:

Here’s TOH box office analyst Tom Brueggemann’s financial projected breakdown based on a 2500-screen theatrical release reaching a projected $50 million, based on sources inside and outside TWC and RADiUS.

The theatrical breakdown:

  • Marketing expense of $25 million
  • Film rental (45%) of $22.5 million
  • Weinstein has an ongoing deal with Netflix (RADiUS as an autonomous company owned by Weinstein doesn’t fall under this). Sources familiar with gross-based Netflix deals suggest that the payout to TWC could have been around $10 million.
  • Blu-Ray/DVD would have grossed around $6 million (split revenue, with around $3 million net to TWC).
  • Cable, depreciated somewhat by Netflix exposure, perhaps $6 million more.

Using those figures (again, all of this comes from discussions with multiple players who have worked on specialized films that have grossed in this range, but these could vary widely) show that at $50 million gross TWC would end up netting around $18 million after marketing is deducted when all initial platform revenues came in.

The VOD breakdown: VOD earnings are harder to calculate and project, but here’s a stab after discussing details with multiple industry sources:

  • The first week’s reported total earnings on VOD and iTunes was $2 million, ranking #1 on the latter. Industry estimates on the distributor return — RADiUS would not confirm any specific deals — ranges from 60 to 80%, much more than theatrical.
  • Theatrical gross is up to $3.5 million, with $5 million or higher possible. That would mean film rental of between $2-2.5 million. Marketing of about $5 million is a fraction of what TWC’s would have been (increasing VOD sales), but likely could equal the film’s theater gross.
  • Radius cites 85 million potential customers (multiple people can view the same purchase). 1-2% of these potential buyers actually purchasing the film — a high number for a first-run or shortly thereafter VOD title — would mean somewhere between 850,000 and 1.7 million buyers.
  •  Cable VOD and iTunes costs vary — different cable markets have different price points (it’s $6.99 on Time-Warner LA right now — this often decreases in later weeks). ITunes started at $14.99 to buy the film. Let’s estimate that between the two, the average price ultimately will be $9.
  • A 2% customer purchase level would mean, at a $9 average price, $15.3 million in revenue. RADiUS’ share estimated at 65% would be about $10 million. Based on the first weekend of $2 million in purchases, this could be a high, but again, the holds for VOD are much better than for theaters.
  •  Blu-Ray/DVD and cable would still bring in revenue, but with the lower theatrical gross and the early VOD, at a lower level than with a pure theatrical release. Figure an additional $5 million return to RADiUS.

By this model, RADiUS gets an after-marketing initial return of $13 million including theatrical gross and subtracting marketing. Again, this is calculating at the high end of possible performance from this multi-platform pattern. The theatrical-driven alternative model was calculated at a slightly less optimistic ($50 million) estimate and again looks like it might have shown a profit of $18 million.

In context though, and as a test of an unproven model, this is more than a respectable showing. It’s a strong enough result to suggest RADiUS and others will continue to experiment with this.

As a writer, I have a choice: Learn about all this business stuff or not. Personally, I prefer knowledge to ignorance on these matters, although I certainly respect writers who find the more they know, the less creative they are. That said, if you’re ever in an admittedly rare situation where you write an indie feature that is so low-budget and does really well at the box office, you could actually see net profit returns, it’s wise to know the lay of the land how the revenue streams break down on the VOD side of things — hence the value of this breakdown above.

Meanwhile as a consumer, I am thrilled about this approach to VOD. On a personal level, it meant I was able to see Snowpiercer weeks before it opened at a local theater. Granted it’s a movie I will have to see again on a big screen (which I will gladly do) because of the mind-blowing visuals, but knowing I can watch movies the same day or close to when they are released in NY and LA is a major plus. In addition, as a fan of indie films, the more VOD penetrates into the consciousness of consumers living outside major urban areas, I have to think that will grow the overall revenue stream for this market segment which in turn will mean more product for us fans.

Finally, another plug for Snowpiercer. It’s an amazing accomplishment with a story that works on all levels: emotional, intellectual and visceral.

For the rest of the Indiewire article, go here.

UPDATE: Here is a featurette on Snowpiercer:

See Snowpiercer!

“Box-Office Woes: Age and Gender Gap Helping Fuel Summer Decline”

July 18th, 2014 by

Summer 2014 is very likely to go down as a memorable one, but for the wrong reasons. From Flavorwire this:



Going into the summer season, domestic box office was up nine percent over last year. Now, it’s down an astonishing 19 percent. A full four percent of that was just from the Fourth of July weekend, when the junkie didn’t get its hit. The junkie needs its hit. “Thank goodness we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy coming, because we need it,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, told Variety, uncomfortably aping the language of the industry’s beloved street-corner crackhead archetype. “Boy, do we need it.”

Down 19%. So the inevitable question: Why? The Hollywood Reporter weighs in with this analysis:

For years, Hollywood studios have catered to young males in building their summer slates. But as the demo takes fewer trips to the multiplex, distributors are scrambling amid a 20 percent decline in summer revenue in North America. It’s one of the worst year-over-year drops to date, putting increased pressure on global returns.

According to the MPAA, frequent moviegoers between the ages of 18 and 25 plunged 17 percent in 2013, the largest drop of any age bracket, while those between 12 and 17 fell by 15 percent. Some blame video games, YouTube or a disconnect between studio tastes and what today’s kids like. Regardless, in 2007, nearly 65 percent of opening-weekend ticket buyers for Spider-Man 3 were under 25. This summer, only 51 percent of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s initial audience was 25 and under.

Young males down 20% from 2014 to 2013. So if young guys aren’t going to movies as much, where can Hollywood turn? How about women:

Adding to the problem, many male-skewing summer tentpoles are luring fewer females. That’s an issue because the women demo is wielding more influence. Moms and girls helped turn Frozen into one of the biggest successes of all time ($1.27 billion), and they have powered Disney’s Maleficent to nearly $670 million, including $222 million in North America — more than any other summer film aside from X-Men: Days of Future Past. Fox’s The Fault in Our Stars also mobilized younger girls (82 percent of the opening audience was female; 79 percent was under 25).

And at TheWrap suggests — Hispanics:

Hispanics have accounted for at least 20 percent of opening weekend ticket sales for every hit this summer, Nielsen research shows

Hollywood experts love to fret about the future of the movie business, but the industry has begun to embrace one group that is indisputably on the rise: the Hispanic audience.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, and their passion for movies is unsurpassed. The group bought 25 percent of the tickets sold in 2013 though they comprise just 17 percent of the population, according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s year-end study.

According to figures from the U.S. Census and a Nielsen report on movie audiences, Hispanics make up 15 percent of the population over the age of 12, and 19 percent of tickets sold for teens and older.

The expanding potential of women and Hispanics versus the same old same old obsession with young adult males who for whatever reasons are not as reliable as before.

What will the studios do? What should screenwriters do?

For rest of the TheWrap article, go here.

For the rest of the Hollywood Reporter article, go here.

For the rest of the Flavorwire article, go here.


‘Transformers’: The Anatomy of a Cross-Platform Money Maker

July 10th, 2014 by

This Variety article is a few weeks old, but now that Transformers: Age of Extinction has generated a whopping $597M in box office revenues worldwide in just 11 days and in the process become the highest-grossing movie ever in China, let’s take a gander at this particular cinematic phenomenon:

Transformers: Age of Extinction” barrels into multiplexes June 27, hell-bent on global domination. With a pricetag north of $210 million after rebates, it’s one of the summer’s most expensive titles. But the action franchise is a cash cow for Paramount Pictures and Hasbro, with its armies of Decepticons and Autobots selling billions of dollars’ worth of movie tickets, DVDs, toys and videogames. The franchise’s worldwide success also demonstrates the increasingly global nature of the movie business. For “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” the most recent installment, China contributed a whopping $168.2 million to the bottom line. Philippe Dauman, head of Paramount parent Viacom, has already predicted part four will smash box office records. The new film keeps Michael Bay behind the camera, but trades up in star power, replacing Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg, with the hopes of kick-starting a new trilogy. Here’s a breakdown of all the ways money is being minted off of Optimus Prime and pals.

Here are some numbers for the four Transformers movies and their ancillary revenue:

Merchandising: $7B

Movies: $2.6B

Home Entertainment: $740M

Theme Parks: 50K riders per day

Actually it’s kind of a joke to refer to merchandising, home entertainment and theme park rides as “ancillary” revenue when combined, they amount to 3-4 times more income than what the movies generate at the box office.

And that explains why Hollywood is so obsessed with these type of franchise movies. If they work, they work really well, if not with critics, then in a big way with consumers and their dollars. Plus unless the filmmakers completely screw up, each sequel is virtually guaranteed to earn back at least 75%  and often more than 100% of what the previous movie earned. And then there is this fact: 10 years down the road, the studio can reboot the entire franchise, or as with Sony remaking Spider-Man a mere 5 years after the original series ended.

So the next time you wander by the local multiplex theater and see that long line of young people waiting to see Transformers 6: Rage of Regurgitation, the numbers above will help you to understand why.

For the rest of the Variety article, go here.

Note: I’m pondering a post about whether the success of the Transformers franchise along with other big VFX-laden franchise movies is actually having an effect on the way screenwriters are approaching storytelling.

Christopher Nolan: Films of the Future Will Still Draw People to Theaters

July 9th, 2014 by

Christopher Nolan wrote a Wall Street Journal column published this week, focusing on the impact of technological changes, specifically the shift from film to digital:

Hungry for savings, studios are ditching film prints (under $600 each), while already bridling at the mere $80 per screen for digital drives. They want satellite distribution up and running within 10 years. Quentin Tarantino’s recent observation that digital projection is the “death of cinema” identifies this fork in the road: For a century, movies have been defined by the physical medium (even Dogme 95 insisted on 35mm film as the presentation format).

Savings will be trivial. The real prize the corporations see is the flexibility of a nonphysical medium.

As streams of data, movies would be thrown in with other endeavors under the reductive term “content,” jargon that pretends to elevate the creative, but actually trivializes differences of form that have been important to creators and audiences alike. “Content” can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these “platforms,” albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.

Depressing, right? But Nolan sees a larger, brighter picture:

This bleak future is the direction the industry is pointed in, but even if it arrives it will not last. Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives. We moan about intrusive moviegoers, but most of us feel a pang of disappointment when we find ourselves in an empty theater.

The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake. The experience must distinguish itself in other ways. And it will. The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels.

You should read the whole article because Nolan goes on about the future of cinema depending “not just on grander presentation, but on the emergence of filmmakers inventive enough to command the focused attention of a crowd for hours.” Thus ultimately the presumed rise of the theatrical movie experience will emerge from the synthesis of technology and creativity.

Interestingly, Nolan never once mentions the word “story,” however he does talk about “powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives.”

Which leads to a fundamental question about technological ‘progress’: Will storytelling itself change? Or will the longstanding practices of storytellers, narrative principles and instincts seemingly rooted in the universal human experience, continue pretty much as they have throughout the centuries? Should storytelling change? If so, how?

Right now, one could say with safety that at the studio level, Story is largely in service to Technology, particularly when expensive blockbusters filled with eye-candy and “quasi-experimental” narratives which are more “like writing a Cirque du Soleil show” generate record revenues. But there are filmmakers, Nolan among them, who do bring an affection for and interest in what one may call ‘traditional storytelling’ to big budget projects replete with technological requirements.

This is one reason why I find the Pixar phenomenon so fascinating because the technological advances they themselves have helped to usher in on the 3D animation side of things have almost always been in service to Story, and that has proved to be one major key to their success: Every single one of their movies has debuted at #1 and gone on to make money while most garner tremendous critical praise. Why? In large part, good stories.

As I sit here pondering these thoughts, I know this: Sitting in a dark movie theater accompanied by a group of strangers, the collective experience of a Story unfolding on screen, as I have done literally thousands of times in my life, is akin to a religious experience. Scoff if you will, but some of the most powerful moments in my life have occurred losing myself in a movie, its characters, its story universe. I can only hope Nolan is right and that what we will see in the future is an opportunity for deeper, richer emotional and intellectual immersions in the most unique form of storytelling I know: Cinema.

Final thought: As writers, we can’t control technology. We can’t control studios and their business decisions. But we can control what we write… and equally important, what we choose to write. That’s how we can participate in the emergence of what movies will become.

For the rest of the WSJ article, go here.

What are your thoughts about Nolan’s column? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of movies? How important are movies to you?

Update: Gender as represented in spec script sales

July 8th, 2014 by

Last year, I posted this:

Recently we have seen quite a few studies and analysis pointing out gender inequity in the entertainment business including independent films, television, even the theater. Now we can add spec scripts to the mix.

The post included an infographic of spec script sales by gender from 1991-2012, based on the database of deals aggregated and archived on this site here.

The numbers showed that during the last two decades, only 1 out of 8 spec scripts that sold were written by a woman. We updated the numbers to include 2013 results and here is that infographic:

Gender-in-Spec-Sales 2013

Just 12 of 132 spec scripts sales involved women writers in 2013, continuing a trend for the last three years whereby only 9% of spec scripts that sold were written by females.

Thus the questions persist: What is the deal here? Does this mean there are fewer women interested in screenwriting? For example, only 28.6% of applicants for the 2013 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting were women, but women writers involved in only one out of eight spec script sales translates to 13%. And if the trend noted above is correct, the numbers are actually going down.

Is this situation systemic? If so, what can be done about it? What are your thoughts on the matter?

Many thanks to Susana Orozco for taking the time and effort to aggregate the data for last year, and Kate Hagen for reviewing the 2013 sales to provide this year’s updated information.

Note: It is impossible to track every single spec spec transaction. The numbers here are based on the best information available.

The state of Hollywood comedies

July 8th, 2014 by

A trio of news articles in the last few days that present a seemingly confusing portrait of the state of comedy movies in Hollywood nowadays. However if we drill down into the news, things start to clear up. First, this from The Street:

Laughter may be the best medicine and once upon a time, comedies were the cure for everything.

With an innate ability to provide happiness and tears in seconds, the comedic film was an affordable and effective remedy that could cure even the surliest of moods. But unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Major Hollywood studios, i.e. Paramount (VIAB_) and Warner Bro. Entertainment (TWX_) have been turning their backs on comedies in pursuit of the genre’s more lucrative siblings.

According to data compiled by Nomura, the rate at which Hollywood’s biggest studios have been churning out comedies has been on a steady decline since 2010.

The article goes on to note: “Nomura declares ‘animated films have been the most profitable genre since 2004, making a global average of $235 million per film’”. The fact that most animated movies are comedies muddies the waters. But the numbers don’t lie. Here is a chart based on that Nomura data:

A recent Quartz article suggests the following:

Blame it on (or thank, if you prefer) the globalization of box office returns.

While fewer Americans are going to the movies, it is a totally different story in many other parts of the world, where cinema is booming. Non-US moviegoers accounted for about 70% of global box office receipts last year (which hit $35.9 billion) compared to about 63% in 2007. Emerging economies are responsible for most of that growth, and there is plenty of room for more, because there are significantly fewer cinema screens per capita and lower ticket prices in these countries than in the US.

But the emerging world enthusiasm for Hollywood films does not extend to comedies, or at least not relative to its love of action movies and animated films. In China, for example, US comedies account for only 10% of box office spending, compared to 25% in the US, Nomura says. By contrast, Hollywood action films are 44% of the box office in China (the latest Transformers release has broken just about every box office record in the country) as against 36% in the US.

And yet, people do like to laugh. So the studios are responding as one would expect them to: Cutting comedy budgets. From TheWrap:

The cost of a laugh is declining in Hollywood.

Movie studios have been making comedies on the cheap this summer, a strategy that has paid off with hits like “Neighbors,” “Ride Along” and most recently “Tammy.” Each of those cost less than $30 million to produce and paid off. The first two more than quintupled their budget at the box office.

As for the third, “Tammy” did not win its opening weekend or receive strong reviews, but its $33 million haul over the July 4 holiday was more than enough for New Line, which produced the film for $20 million, to see its way to profit.

Two things. I’ve been pushing the idea for some time that budget should be one consideration when choosing a story concept for a spec script, not only comedies, but all genres. If you’re writing a script that will cost $75M or $100M+, there are only a handful of potential buyers – the major studios. And as we have seen, they have little interest in mid-range budget movies [$50M] nowadays. But if you write a $20M and under movie, there are a bunch of financiers and production companies to whom your reps can send your script. This means not only more chances for a sale, but also greater exposure for you as a writer.

The second thing is also something I’ve been promoting for several years: Now is a great time for the Action-Comedy cross-genre. Dialogue-driven comedy may not translate as well in the international market, but visually-driven humor can transcend cultural confines. Let’s face it: Somebody slipping on a banana peel and falling on their ass is pretty much funny around the world. Consider the worldwide B.O. success of 22 Jump Street [$228M] and The Heat [$229M]. I’d even include Neighbors [$248M] and This is the End [$126M], not action-comedies per se, but lots of physical humor. Each of these four movies was produced on the cheap ranging from $18M (This is the End) to $50M (22 Jump Street), the latter a bump up from the original’s $41M budget, the extra dollars justified for a sequel to a hit movie.

So what is the state of comedy movies in Hollywood today? We saw the downturn in numbers a few years back when Comedy, which for decades was #1 in terms of spec script sales, was dethroned by Action and Thriller. The slowdown in theaters today for the genre is a reflection of studio decisions from two-three years ago. Given the continuing growth and importance of the international market, this trend will likely continue. However strong high concept comedies… lower budget… with lots of visual humor… especially action-comedies… well-written and, of course, funny… my guess is Hollywood will always be in the market for that kind of spec script.

For the Quartz article, go here.

For The Street article, go here.

For TheWrap article, go here.