Over at the Black List, among the titles the super bright Terry Huang has is Director of Data, and his latest post features some interesting… well… data.
I’ve been recently providing data to a screenwriter to help her pitch her new female-driven comedy and thought it would make an interesting case study. Basically, she’s going out to financiers to ask for money to direct and wanted help to make a financial case to back the film.
Here are two interesting charts of data Terry uncovered:
We were looking specifically at female driven comedies, so I wanted to look at what someone could expect to get for financing such a film.
This chart shows male versus female comedy budgets year over year.
Female = blue, Male = red
Female led comedies get far less money for production. The median budget for female led comedy is around $20 million. For reference, the median male comedies are given about $7 million more each year.
So I sort of knew how much a female comedy was historically financed at, but how did it the return compare to male driven comedies? Did male driven comedies warrant the higher production budgets based on their theatrical grosses?
The answer was not really.
If you look at the gross for male versus female, you find that even given substantially lower budgets, female performs in line with male comedy and sometimes outperforms.
Female = blue, Male = red
When you look at the median film for female comedies, it more often than not returns higher than the median male driven comedy (7 out of 11 years shown), even though if you look at the chart above the median male comedy gets again about $7 million more in production budget (as stated previously).
So I went into it trying to figure out a way to make a case for the female driven comedy and it wasn’t that hard. It turned out that female driven comedy more often returns its budget.
It seems then that studios are probably overspending on male content and underspending on female content given the grosses. They should probably be more selective about the dollars they give out to male led movies and a little more generous to female led content.
Charlton Heston once said, “The problem with movies as art is they are commerce.” At the end of the day, someone has to pony up the cash to get a movie made. Hopefully armed with information like that which Terry has surfaced, writers and directors who are promoting a worthy female driven comedy will find more receptive financiers.
I have no idea who @MysteryExec is. All I know is it’s been a blast tracking his lifestyle via his tweets which for long stretches of time have involved providing behind the scenes snark about his work environment and anything to do with the Valley, then heading out for play time which typically translates into consuming copious amounts of Chivas 18 while chasing female companionship in the watering holes of Westwood.
But in the last few months, something happened to @MysteryExec. Yes, he still pursues carnal knowledge bathed in scotch, but in a moment of what I can only imagine was akin to achieving “total consciousness” a la Carl from Caddyshack, @MysteryExec realized something: The Hollywood filmmaking community can do better.
In fact, @MysteryExec coined a hashtag to that effect: #BeTheChange.
For all we know, @MysteryExec may be some community college dropout working as a stock boy at a pissant Radio Shack in Pacoima, but when he goes into #BeTheChange mode, it doesn’t matter: He is a prophet crying in the wilderness, proclaiming the truth from high atop Mount Twitter.
Writers, heed @MysteryExec’s call!
Dig deeply into your characters.
Make them come alive and lift off the page.
Find what is unique about them that takes them beyond cliché .
Zero in on something about your characters that generates resonance for a reader.
Don’t be afraid to break with formula whether it’s plot, genre, gender, race or a character’s country of origin.
If a character surprises you with something they say or do, chances are they will surprise a Hollywood reader, too.
As it turns out, @MysteryExec is not a studio executive. He’s also likely not a stock boy at a Radio Shack, but apparently a screenwriter along with his partner in virtual ‘crime’ @MysteryVP, also a screenwriter.
So does this implosive development undercut the message ME has been promoting via social media the last 2 years? Some reactions from folks who work in the business:
Anyway, Mystery Exec: if you're out there, I think you're a good egg. Good luck going forward.
Let me close by saying this: Hey, @MysteryExec and @MysteryVP! If you can generate the heat you did with your @MagicalMysteryTrip, I would imagine you can probably write the hell out of a script. So why not emerge from your @MysteryCocoon and join your fellow screenwriters in the bright haze of smoggy Hollywood and beyond? We welcome you both with open virtual arms, a bottle of Chivas, and whatever meds ex-@MysteryVP happens to fantasizing about at the moment.
Son, it ain’t time to be knockin’ on heaven’s door. It’s time to be rockin’ in the free world!
Definition: Trying to recapture the glory of a dormant franchise.
Definition: It’s really the same thing as a reboot.
Example(s): “Mad Max: Fury Road.” While promoting the film earlier this year, the director George Miller and the star Tom Hardy insisted it be called a revisit.
Definition: Acknowledges only the cherished entries in the franchise and ignores the others.
Examples: According to David Ellison, the producer of the recent “Terminator: Genisys,” it “is not a remake, it’s not a reboot, it’s not a sequel — it’s really a reimagining based on the Cameron source material.” Best that we all forget “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) and “Terminator Salvation” (2009).
“Jurassic World” also falls in this category. Even as early as the fall of 2013, the director Colin Trevorrow hesitated to use the word “reboot” while also saying goodbye to continuity from “The Lost World” (1997) and “Jurassic Park III (2001).”
Definition: New cast, same origin story. Needed when the previous entry is perceived to have failed creatively or financially. Skating by on brand recognition.
Examples: “Fantastic Four” (due in August) and “The Transporter Refueled” (set for September).
Definition: Altering the continuity order of a franchise, to the edge of all logical sense.
Examples: The “Fast and the Furious” films. “Fast & Furious” (2009), “Fast Five” (2011) and “Fast & Furious 6” (2013) all take place before the events in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (which came out in 2006 and was the third film in the series). But “Furious 7,” which came out in April, takes places afterward. Not confusing at all.
Of course, all of these owe their origin to the Big Daddy of all the “re”-terms in Hollywood: Recycling.
Any of you happy with Hollywood’s “re”-whatever obsession?
Some of you probably saw this Den of Geek article from last week, but even if you did, I think it’s worth the time to consider the way the spec script market used to be, back in the Go Go days of the early to mid-90s. To wit, this article: The fate of the $26m scripts Joe Eszterhas sold in the 90s.
That’s right. $26M. That figure alone should give you some sense of what the hell was going on two decades ago. Studio money was plentiful. Hype was king. And spec scripts were a hot commodity. How hot? Consider this list of deals Eszterhas set up in a few short years as detailed in the article cited above. I have divided them into movies which got made and movies which didn’t get produced:
One Night Stand: $4M
Basic Instinct: $3M
Reliable Sources: $2M
Male Pattern Baldness: $2M
Original Sin: $600K
Sacred Cows: $500K
There was a point where Eszterhas was literally making multimillion dollar deals based on story ideas he had scratched onto a napkin over a lunch meeting. He was that hot. How did he get there? This:
Produced in 1992, Basic Instinct generated an astonishing $353M in worldwide box office revenues. I remember when the spec script went out. Here is P.1:
INT. A BEDROOM - NIGHT
It is dark; we don't see clearly.
A man and woman make love on a brass bed. There are
mirrors on the walls and ceiling. On a side table, atop
a small mirror, lines of cocaine. A tape deck PLAYS the
Stones "Sympathy for the Devil."
Atop him... she straddles his chest... her breasts in his
face. He cups her breasts. She leans down, kisses him...
JOHNNY BOZ is in his late 40's, slim, good-looking. We don't
see the woman's face. She has long blonde hair. The CAMERA
STAYS BEHIND and to the side of them.
She leans close over his face, her tongue in his mouth... she
kisses him... she moves her hands up, holds both of his arms
above his head.
She moves higher atop him... she reaches to the side of the
bed... a white silk scarf is in her hand... her hips above his
face now, moving... slightly, oh-so slightly... his face strains
The scarf in her hand... she ties his hands with it...
gently... to the brass bed... his eyes are closed... tighter...
lowering hips into his face... lower... over his chest... his
navel. The SONG plays.
He is inside her... his head arches back... his throat white.
She arches her back... her hips grind... her breasts are high...
Her back arches back... back... her head tilts back... she
extends her arms... the right arm comes down suddenly... the
steel flashes... his throat is white...
He bucks, writhes, bucks, convulses...
It flashes up... it flashes down... and up... and down... and
EXT. A BROWNSTONE IN PACIFIC HEIGHTS - MORNING
Winter in San Francisco cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere.
The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives
get out of the car, walk into the house.
An attention-grabber right off the bat. Here is how Den of Geek describes the way the Basic Instinct script deal went down:
Originally entitled Love Hurts, it became Basic Instinct on the morning its auction effectively began, as the screenplay was sent to every production outlet in Hollywood. The plan was to try and get them to outbid each other, to drive the price up. The plan worked.
The auction started at 10 one morning. “By noon”, as Eszterhas tells in his book, “we had offers up to $2 million.” The eventual winning bid? Carolco’s. It paid $3m to Eszterhas, and as part of the deal, it paid a further $1m to Irwin Winkler to produce the movie. “A New Era Dawns In Hollywood” read the subsequent Varietyheadline. And it wasn’t kidding.
Agents sending out a spec at an appointed hour. Agents hand carrying scripts to buyers, then insisting they read the script while supervised by an agency rep. Specs sent out with kitschy items to generate heat, like ticking clocks for the script “Ticking Man” which ended up selling for $1M… and never getting produced.
Yep, it was a whole bunch of fun there for a few years with spec scripts as the hot commodity in Hollywood. And no one reigned over that domain more than Joe Eszterhas.
The $26 Million Dollar Man Himself
Today? For sure, it ain’t like that. The studios, each of whom has been acquired by ginormous multinational corporations, have bent their business practices to the bean counters. Their obsession is more with franchises and repurposing preexisting intellectual property.
However the spec market, while not nearly at the level it was when Eszterhas was stomping around the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire, yelling invectives at CAA — he didn’t actually do that, just wrote an infamous letter which was faxed around town — is still a thing. Every year, a significant number of writers sell or option spec scripts, many of them outsiders using it as a way to break into the business. Even if a spec doesn’t sell, it can act as a writing sample which gets the writer representation, meetings, and possibly open writing assignments.
Plus there’s this: There are a lot more buyers around today than there were in the early to mid-90s. And many more platforms for scripted entertainment including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and the like.
So while we can’t expect to jot down “Boy meets girl” on a napkin over lunch with a studio exec and have them whip out the corporate checkbook, inking in seven figures before we’ve had a chance to digest our kale and quinoa… but a spec script still is a powerful tool.
If you need a reminder of that fact, you need look no further than Joe Eszterhas.
What’s remarkable is how much this approach parallels Disney’s philosophy today. Swap out Disney Radio for Disney Magazine, add ancillary revenue sources such as video games and Broadway musicals, and basically what you see in this sketch represents how Disney, expert at repurposing content, goes about their business. And at the root of it all: IP. Intellectual Property.
That’s where writers come in. If you create content a studio like Disney believes they can exploit for profit, you put yourself in a position to reap some benefit from your inspiration.
Produced by PBS Idea Channel and hosted by Mike Rugnetta, this video explores a question that vexes many movie fans today: Why are there so many remakes? Yes, there’s the revenues. And it’s proven to be safer for the studios. But this video makes the argument there’s something else going on about Gen Xers and Millennials which makes remakes particularly resonant to those demo groups.
Industrial technological duplication as a cultural touchstone. What do you think of that theory?
Terry Huang is part of the Black List crew and one of his specialties is analytics. For example back in April, he took on the idea that has floated around Hollywood for several years — the highest budgeted movies are the ones which translate into the most reliable profits — and broke down some actual numbers in a Black List blog post to basically support that thesis.
Afterward I emailed Terry to see what he could dig up about mid-budget movies which have taken it on the chin relative to major Hollywood studios – the rise of behemoth blockbuster franchises has led to a precipitous drop in films in the $25-75M range.
So Terry went at it and came up with a post that provides what I believe analysts officially call a “shit-ton” of invaluable information. Here are some excerpts:
Why do we care about these mid-budget movies? Well, increasingly, studios have gravitated toward spending more money on fewer projects. These giant projects are largely, if not entirely, based on things like comic books, YA novels, or previous films. The mid/low budget space is pretty much the only place where original movies are being made. And this means that it’s the only space where original material is being bought.
Take a look at this graph that shows the breakdown of spend by different budget brackets over time:
As you can see, spend on $100 million plus movies has increased quite a bit over the last ten years. This has been particularly driven by $200 million plus movies, which has come to represent about 25% of total production spend.
It’s most noticeably the under $50 million space that has been declining over the past decade. This means that dollars are tighter and that there are fewer movies to split that cash. This also means to get a movie made in this space, it has to be a compelling proposition, even more so nowadays that a decade ago. A script needs to stand out in this space.
And this is just tip of the proverbial information iceberg Terry dug up like “Attributes of Very Successful Mid-Budget Films” including most common keywords in their loglines.
Here are three takeaways Terry came away with from his research:
These are scripts that are more likely to sell in this ultra-competitive space.
* Horror, comedy, romance, and sci-fi tend to do better
*Ignore MPAA rating. There’s little influence in return. And use of the F word is actually an attribute of successful movies.
*Women led movies will have a higher likelihood of financial return. Female protagonist is also a keyword that shows up in successful movies.
My takeaway: If you are writing a spec script for a mid-budget movie, you need to be smart. Really smart. Start with a strong story concept, one that has an undeniably evocative and compelling hook. Next, a roster of distinctive and fascinating characters, ones name actors would love to play. Also make choices in your plotting choices that put you more toward the $20-25M range rather than $70-75M. The more expensive your project’s budget, the less likely it gets bought or even repped.
That said, I honestly believe over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to see a renaissance of movies in the $20-25M budget range. Big enough to draw A list talent and have the sheen of a major motion picture, yet low enough in terms of cost so studios will have a decent chance to make a profit. Why do I think this? Three reasons.
* Audiences will grow weary of $200M franchise movies, especially superhero stories where the plot repeats ad nauseam the same damn threat: The potential end of the world. How many times can they keep dipping into that well? At some point, moviegoers will stop caring.
* There is a huge audience out there that yearns for mid-budget movies, namely Baby Boomers and Senior Citizens. I would argue even the 30+ crowd, depending on the specifics of the project. Movies that engage our hearts and minds, not just CGI eye candy.
* People want good stories. Shared universes, sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and the like, they don’t lend themselves to quality storytelling. It’s more about servicing franchises. Moviegoers are smart enough to sniff that out. Over time, the wearying preponderance of those franchise films will feed the desire for original movies with great stories.
Five years ago, I started blogging that the cross genre Action Comedy would make a comeback… and it has. Now my crystal ball says mid-budget movies are primed to return to the stage.
Writers, if this is your area of interest, just be smart in your creative choices. You can start that education by reading Terry’s latest post in its entirety by going here.
Hollywood’s mini-wave of short proof-of-concept videos continues with “Controller”. From Deadline:
Fox has acquired Controller, a project that Alev Aydin will write based on a concept written by Saman Kesh based on his short film… Pic is a sci-fi rescue film that turns the damsel-in-distress trope upside down. It is set in the homogenized future of New-Taipei, where an imprisoned young woman who has enormous psychic powers perpetrates her own rescue by taking physical control of her boyfriend, turning him into a helmeted Terminator. The film is a modern love story draped in blood, and Kesh went to Taiwan and shot the short film to demonstrate a potential third act for the feature.
Here is the video:
Movies are primarily a visual medium, so it makes sense to some degree that visual representations of stories have a certain cache now that digital technologies have made these type of short films possible for filmmakers. The key seems to be immersing the viewer in the atmosphere and feel of a unique story universe, conveying the story’s central conceit, and lots of eye-popping action.
The courses I teach and workshops I run through Screenwriting Master Class never cease to amaze me in terms of the quality discussions that emerge in our 24/7 forums. Case in point, a recent conversation in the Pages II: Rewriting Your Script course, something initiated by Michael W:
Has anyone else noticed the new Batman v Superman trailer and how theme heavy it is?
False Gods, The dangers of Supreme Power (man v authority), The undercurrent of revolution.
Since action shots are often plot spoilers in trailers theme-trailers seem like a good way to set up conflict (especially if you already know the characters like Batman and Superman).
Have you noticed any other trailers that use theme in them?
Picked up by Avi G:
I wonder if an interesting exercise to help fine tune or crystalize a scripts theme in one’s mind would be to imagine what the theme-based trailer of a script would look like? I’m definitely going to ponder that.
Here is the trailer in question:
Which led me to this:
Interesting subject and I think an apt one. Some types of movies may be able to work on the marketing front by focusing strictly on the action, but by and large, even spectacle / special effects movies have to have to some sort of emotional grounding to connect deeply with a wide audience.
Aristotle discusses spectacle in Poetics and puts it at the bottom of the list of a story’s narrative elements, focusing his attention on plot grounded in character.
So it would make sense that trailer shops and studio marketing divisions would zero in on the emotional meaning / themes of any given story they are trying to sell to the public in order to elicit a connection on that level.
Per the B v S trailer, here is a breakdown of it beat for beat:
“Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world is a figure of controversy?”
[Image of city skyline at night with big statue in the center]
“We as a population on this planet have been looking for a savior.”
[cut to image of Superman]
“We are talking about a being…” / [creepy cross talk voice] “alien” / “…whose very existence…” / [woman’s voice] “they are not telling us the truth” / “…challenges our own sense of priority…” / [screaming background voice] “this is our place” / “…in the universe.”
[image of Superman holding up what looks to be some sort of massive rocket component]
[closing in on city skyline and statue]
“Human beings have a horrible track record…” / [woman’s voice] “tragedy” / “…of following people of great…” / [another woman’s voice] “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” / [other woman’s voice] “chaos”
[Superman surrounded by four kneeling uniformed military / police officials]
“Maybe he’s just a guy trying to do the right thing” / [another man’s voice] “we know better now, don’t we” / [screaming background voice] “he’s out of control”
[closing in on statue]
“Devils don’t come from Hell beneath us…” / [scared man’s voice] “they brought their warrior” / “…they come from the sky.”
[closing in on statue]
[man in f.g. reaching up to sky where Superman is floating]
“The world has been so caught up in what he can do…”
[closing quicker on statue]
“…that no one has asked what he should do.”
[super close on statue in darkness as crowd chants]
“Go home! Go home! Go home! Go home!”
[statue illuminated revealing it’s one of Superman, his “S” logo covered with graffiti: “False God”]
This is the 1:00 minute mark.
“That’s how it starts…”
[CU – Bruce Wayne]
“…the fever… the rage… the feeling of powerlessness.”
[CU – Batman suit in storage]
“…that turns good men… cruel.”
[Lots of images of Batman, spectacle, destruction, then… image of Batman staring into the night sky where Superman is hovering in the rain]
“Tell me, do you bleed?”
[Superman lands, squaring off against Batman]
[Superman logo / Batman logo superimposed over it, the two merging]
[Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice]
Trafficking in themes in trailers allows the marketing to focus more on the psychology, tone and atmosphere of the story rather than plot. But believe me, as we get closer to the release date, there will be additional trailers that do get more plot specific. This trailer is just cutting trail for the rest of the marketing onslaught. But it’s important in creating images and a feel in the minds of potential viewers, establishing central themes.
So given this trailer script, what themes do you see at work? Some of them literally spelled out in dialogue.
BTW I’ll sometimes ask a writer with whom I’m working to conjure up images and V.O. for their story’s movie trailer. What are your story’s trailer moments?Set pieces and key emotional plot points.Do you have them? Do you know them? An important consideration given how much time and money studios spend in marketing movies nowadays and to spur the writer to brainstorm / generate movie-worthy moments in their script.
A good exercise for each of you to do with your current stories, yes?
Have you ever imagined what a trailer for your movie would look like? What themes would it emphasize? Does your story lend itself to ‘trailer moments’?
And for you DC Comics fans, what’s your take on the B v S trailer?
That’s what attorney, producer and founder of Cinetic Media John Sloss said yesterday during the keynote address for the 7th annual TV and Film Finance Forum. And Sloss, whose producing credits include Boys Don’t Cry, Before Sunset, and Boyhood, thinks all that change represents an “incredible, exciting time of opportunity” for storytellers. From Indiewire:
Everything is changing. The form of the content, the way it’s being financed, the way it’s being delivered, the way it’s being consumed.
We come from a place where the two-hour narrative was king. It was the aspiration of everyone who created narratives…it was a beginning to end story… hen what came along was the 11-hour narrative that used to exist an hour a week at a certain time slot and is now being put up for view all at once occasionally…
From a creator’s standpoint, it creates an irresistible opportunity to tell a more involved dynamic, complex narrative story than the previous state of art of a two to three-hour narrative… And what’s happening is it’s causing the greatest creators to leap-frog the public viewing creation and jump straight to the small screen and it becomes a question of whether 11-hour viewing will make its way to public viewing.
Sloss, who is one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive figures on the front lines of indie filmmaking, had interesting comments about VOD, day-and-date release strategies, and other issues related to film financing. However I thought his observations about crowdfunding were especially noteworthy:
If you look at crowdfunding as not getting money for nothing or putting your hand out to people to support your pet project but as first and foremost community building around these affinity communities of the content you’re trying to produce and you go from there, you basically focus on bringing the core fans in from the inception and make part of the actual production process… Then you create a loyalty and support that is much more than just relying on fans to show up at a sneak preview.
While Sloss was delivering his keynote address, I was simultaneously giving my final lecture of the semester in my History of American Screenwriting class, then discussing the future of storytelling and new media with my 25 university students. It was a wide-ranging conversation touching on movies, TV, web series, video games, virtual reality, and more. When comparing today to the 1890s, where we began the semester, it’s clear that change is a constant throughout the history of filmmaking, whether that change is technologically, culturally, or aesthetically based. However over the decades, one thing remains the same: Content creators always have a central role in the process of producing entertainment. With the explosion of new media platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, the value of content creators may never be greater than it is today.
A final thought which I stressed with my students yesterday: Think of the internet as a distribution network. Create content, put it online, and see what happens. The right set of eyeballs can change your life.
For the rest of the Indiewire feature on John Sloss, go here.