Monday, October 16, 2017

Why Some Films Tank While Others Fly: Learning From Hollywood

Has anyone else noticed how many Hollywood films have tanked lately? I'd say the vast majority. There's a specific reason for that, and we writers can learn a lot from it.
Disclaimer: While I am going to mention the political clime in a very general way, this is not a political post. Not bipartisan. My own political beliefs will not be mentioned. This is simply about good story-telling.
The political climate, both in the U.S. and around the world, is highly charged at the moment, and has been all year. Probably won't calm down anytime soon either.
Unfortunately, many people continually try to force their beliefs on others. One way this is done is through film. (Also through books, songs, commericals, social media, and many other ways, but I'm just going to focus on films for this post.)
If you aren't aware, the Hollywood film that's done the best in past months is IT, adapted from Stephen King's horror classic.
That may seem counter-intuitive to those who refuse to see the film.
(If clowns traumatize you, I'm NOT going to recommend that you see this film. If you liked the book, I think you'll enjoy the movie. I thought they did an excellent job with it. They stayed away from gratuitous gore and some of the weirder (not in a good way) aspects of the novel. Truly it was more creepy than violent, which is how I prefer my horror.)
Even if you have no plans to see the film, check out these facts below:
  • IT has been at the top of the box office for longer than almost any other film of 2017.
  • It's made over $300 million domestically.
  • It's also popping all kinds of records internationally. (Source)
  • It's being hailed as the Highest-Grossing R-Rated Horror Film of all Time (Source)

So why is it doing so well? There are several possibilities.
1. They did such a great job making it. They really did! I know lots of people who love the 80s mini-series. If you do, more power to ya. I, personally, was not a fan. It's probably because I only watched it a couple of years ago, and it's really old. I didn't feel like it did the book justice. As with anything, now that we have better technology and movie magic at our fingertips, an update is just plain cooler.
On the other hand, MOST films are pretty well-made these days. Audiences demand it. There are plenty of other films out that also did a great job, and didn't hit nearly the same box office level as IT. So I don't think we can attribute it's success only to a well-made film.
2. It's a Stephen King Classic. Very true. Even if pee-your-pants horror isn't your thing, or King's content is too over-the-top for you, IT is one of the most well-written stories I've ever read, which is the main reason I like it.
On the other hand, many of Stephen King's books have been made into films, and many of them have flopped at the box office. So his name or stories alone don't guarantee box office cha-ching, you know?
So what I am getting at here? What does this have to do with the political clime I mentioned earlier?
The fact of the matter is that many attempts have been made to cram various agendas down the public's throats using film. No matter which way you lean politically, it simply doesn't make for great story-telling. These types of things (film or otherwise) almost always flop because they have an obvious agenda.
It's the first rule of writing: tell a story. Don't preach to your audience.
I find it super-interesting that of all the films put out this summer (and summer is usually a time for blockbusters) the film that's blowing all others out of the water is story about children fighting monsters.
(It makes me smile.)
  • There are no well-known, A-List actors in it. Not a single one. 
  • While there is some great clown makeup happening, there aren't any massive, stuff-blowing-up, StarTrekkian special effects involved. 
  • The score is great. Very appropriate for the story. But no songs by the biggest pop or rock'n'roll band on the market right now.
It's simply a great story, with a premise people can get behind. It's about flawed kids dealing with real problems (abuse, bullying, peer pressure, hormones) that don't have particularly great adult role models. So they create a group of friends, Band-of-Brothers-style, to fight a monster that's haunting their hometown.
It's simple, human, and compelling.
No matter what a person's political beliefs, when they want to be entertained (by film, books, music, sports, anything else) they aren't looking for an agenda. They're looking for a great story that will entertain them and cause an emotional catharsis.
In many ways, it's simply good business. It has nothing to do with belief or agendas. Give the customer what they want. And when they want to be entertained, they want great entertainment.
It's the first rule of writing, so most writers already know this (we hope!) but we have proof of it playing out around this film.
Give your readers the emotion, not the agenda. And your story, too, will fly.



  1. Amen! And we know how much Hollywood like to promote an agenda. It did not. Like you said, a great human interest story.