IO9: Ten Rules of Blockbuster Movies That Hollywood Forgot

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Via I09  It’s halfway through the summer movie season, and there’s a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the Tentpole Film — yes, in spite of Avengers. This year has seen some huge high-profile flops, plus some massive films that underperformed Stateside. And meanwhile, some of the biggest films in the pipeline are having well-publicized troubles, from Lone Ranger to World War Z.

The thing is, Hollywood already knows how to make blockbuster movies that make money — they’ve just forgotten some of the fundamentals in the rush to claim dates in the crowded summer schedules. Here are 10 rules that Hollywood knew, but has forgotten.

1) If your kid hasn’t heard of it, don’t spend $200 million on it.
If you don’t have a kid of your own, borrow your neighbor’s. Case in point: The average 12-year-old has heard of Battleship, right? The kids love that game, it’s all the rage among the tween set. Or, maybe not. Seriously, if nobody under the age of 35 has heard of something, then it either justifies a much smaller budget — or a vehicle that’s designed to introduce it to new people. Likewise, maybe they should have done the Green Lantern and Tron cartoons first, and then the movies. Don’t assume that audiences will be familiar with a character who was popular decades ago.

2) Genre mashups only work if both genres are popular.
Case in point: Neither “historical biopic” nor “vampire movie” is a particularly popular genre right now. Sure, Twilight is popular — but most other vampire movies in the past few years have bombed, horribly. I get the impression people look at Twilight and think any vampire movie will do equally well. Similarly, there are all the attempts to mash up Westerns with Martians (John Carter), superheroes (Jonah Hex) and of course alien invasions (Cowboys and Aliens.)

Read the full article at I09


  • HRH, the escape from the Tharks happens at pg. 90 out of 145 in my Del Rey paperback copy. That’s closer to the 2/3 mark. I am aware that ERB initially submitted a partial manuscript and later delivered it in finished novel-length. If the initial manuscript went up through the escape from the Tharks, and then ERB wrote the rest to rush to a finish, that only provides one bifurcation. That hardly qualifies as a “serialized narrative that suffers from an episodic quality and over-dependence on cliff-hangers”. One clunky transition in the narrative doesn’t make the novel a serialized narrative. It just means ERB somewhat awkwardly shifted gears into his third act and hit the afterburner.

    That being said, the storyline of the novel does not need a complete overhaul, and the elements of the story need not be considered as mere “tools in a toolbox” to be used and rearranged however the screenwriter sees fit. Nor should the narrative be left just as it is in the book. The balance to be struck is to take cues from ERB’s third act and incorporate lead-ins to that material earlier in the story. Stanton did this in his film, though perhaps in a way that diverged from the novel in a way that some might consider too liberal, and accompanied that approach with a significantly restructured third act.

    I see the “serialized” label being applied frequently to the book, as though it was originally written according to the segments that appeared in All-Story, when in fact ERB wrote it in only two pieces. The question of whether he changed anything he was planning for the third act of the book due to impending publication remains up for debate. The book is not a collection of “train cars” – it’s a just a somewhat awkwardly structured novel by a first-time author. And since the minutiae of the structuring isn’t what people fall in love with (they fall in love with the characters and the world of Barsoom), the story can and should get some doctoring in preparation for the movie screen, though it does not need full reconstructive plastic surgery.

  • H.R.H. The Rider wrote:
    “So, the remainder of the novel was written at white heat. A carefully crafted first third followed by a back-loaded finish. Thus the bifurcated feeling to the novel and the great problem in adapting this to movie form.”

    And Stanton’s solution was basically what you described-a not exactly carefully crafted first third followed by a back-loaded finish. With Matai Shang’s “let me do Dr. Evil” explanation, John’s escape, the arena sequence, the rally the Tharks speech, the pointless ride to Zodanga (which again served no purpose. Don’t have a moving city and have it do nothing in the big finale), the final fight, the wedding, Shang’s sequel setup scene, John’s 10 year-despite only really needing 5 since all he needed was that piece of Thern junk jewerly, tricking the Thern and making poor Edgar probably paranoid for the rest of his life….And yet somehow ERB’s back-loaded finish was less crowded and easier to keep up with than this.

  • Abraham Sherman wrote:

    “The book certainly needs structural changes, but I wouldn’t say that’s because it’s overly reliant on cliffhangers or feels serially scattered. APOM was originally written as one piece, in the regular format of a novel (albeit ERB’s first novel), and only later was it broken into sections for serialization in All-Story Magazine. ”

    Actually, no. ERB wrote approximately the first third of the novel (up through the escape from the Tharks). Having proven to himelf that he was able to write a novel-length narrative, he submitted that to the Munsey magazines. Thomas Metcalfe responded that if ERB could bring it up to novel length (60,000 words) then he’d buy it.

    So, the remainder of the novel was written at white heat. A carefully crafted first third followed by a back-loaded finish. Thus the bifurcated feeling to the novel and the great problem in adapting this to movie form.

  • There is A LOT in that article that resonates with John Carter.

    Some favorite quotes:

    “Usually, with any character who’s been around for decades, the interesting stuff is what was introduced in the first few years, not what was created after everybody was already bored with the character in another medium.”

    Having only read the novels, I can’t speak to whether or not there are competing “versions” of the John Carter character out there in the comics, etc. But just with the Disney movie, and the variety of opinion being expressed about the “reluctant hero” approach to John Carter, one wonders how a more book-centric John Carter might have been received. Or perhaps John Carter is a character that needs more meat put on his bones, no matter what, to really work in a movie.

    “…when you’re adapting a heavily serialized narrative, like a TV soap opera or a series of adventure novels, in which there’s no single tidy storyline, there are obviously much greater challenges when it comes to creating a neatly wrapped up story. So either pay attention to the structure of something when optioning it, or be prepared to take greater liberties.”

    This reminds me of some comments that have been made about the story structure of “A Princess of Mars”. When I hear the phrase “serialized narrative”, that makes me think of a series of episodes strung together, almost like a collection of inter-related short stories, rather than a continuous narrative. With that description in mind, I’ve never really bought into characterizing “A Princess of Mars” as a serialized narrative. That description of its structure, offered by Andrew Stanton in several interviews, always sounded to me like a bit of an exaggeration of what was really just the uneven pacing of the novel. There are cliffhangers, for sure, and the pace changes 2/3 of the way through, but does that mean it has a scattered “serialized” structure?

    Perhaps Stanton intentionally overstated the serialized quality to preempt the objections of book fans whom he anticipated would be upset by the structural changes in the movie. Or maybe Stanton is right, and the format can be accurately described as serialized and I just don’t apply that label in the way he means it. To me, APOM seems consistent with ERB’s other works, where he likes to leave hooks at the end of chapters as much as he can. And it was ERB’s first book, so it’s pacing is lumpy. But, in my reading of it, I’ve never been distracted by a “segmented” feeling that warranted drastic restructuring for that reason alone.

    The book certainly needs structural changes, but I wouldn’t say that’s because it’s overly reliant on cliffhangers or feels serially scattered. APOM was originally written as one piece, in the regular format of a novel (albeit ERB’s first novel), and only later was it broken into sections for serialization in All-Story Magazine. It could be that, while he was writing, ERB had in mind where the four magazine segments would be separated, but I don’t remember reading anything to support that idea. It would be interesting to learn where the divisions in the story were made for that initial publication. Generally, it has always seemed to me that ERB just took things at a steady pace during the Thark segment of the novel and then hit the turbo for the last third of the book that takes place mostly among the Red Men.
    As we saw in the Disney movie, changes in a film are likely to be made to incorporate the Red Men earlier on and to help the narrative build in a more consistent way, rather than strictly adhering to the somewhat clunky gear-shifting in the book.

    “Audiences love huge special effects sequences, but they may be starting to get sick of oceans of CG with no personality. So there ought to be a rule: for every minute of greenscreen mo-cap CG stuff, there has to be at least a minute where someone is actually having thoughts and feelings. (These can be the same minute.) There’s a reason why Andy Serkis is becoming such an MVP of mo-cap — he brings acting and character development into the process.”

    The story should have heart and should read dramatically on the page. If the script is full of strong characters and compelling story, the visuals will serve as a wonderful backdrop. The opposite approach of going for visuals first, and stringing the visuals together using as little character and story as necessary, is a guaranteed way to stumble into the pitfall of empty CGI.

    “A large group of enthusiastic fans probably cannot make or break a movie — see Serenity for a perfect example — but fans can create buzz and word of mouth that percolates into wider audiences. But fans can also create bad buzz, that spreads equally well. And fan apathy can translate into more widespread shrugging, especially among the mainstream press, who keep one ear to the fan community. But pandering to the fans can often backfire, especially if they know they’re being pandered to. My sense is that fans will generate more buzz for something they think their non-fan friends and family members will also like, rather than something they see as aimed only at themselves. So job #1 is to convince the fans that a movie will be good, rather than just true to the original in some way.”

    Tons of great insight in that paragraph. The plain title “John Carter” presumed some degree of recognition from a fan base, but the marketing overall didn’t make any specific effort to market to the fans. Virtually nothing was mentioned of ERB and Tarzan, the centennial, or the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure heritage. I suspect that Disney decided not to pursue those selling points because they would be perceived as marketing to the fans, rather than marketing to the much larger uninitiated audiences. Ironically, those very selling points would have helped give the uninitiated many more reasons to believe that they would BECOME fans.

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