The movie business is a speculative business. Screenwriters know this all too well. Given that anywhere from 50-78% of U.S. studio films rely on their international box office receipts to recoup their costs, our screenplays need to reflect the cinema-going tastes of worldwide audiences. How is this done?If you’re looking for a simple formula or algorithm which accurately predicts box office in various territories, click away now. You didn’t really think there were any easy short cuts did you?
Screenwriters can’t simply cherry pick elements from successful films around the world to write a screenplay which will be a worldwide box office success. You will most likely end up with a contrived cinematic cocktail that tastes bad. Several government funded film commissions experimented with this approach. It resulted in many diluted, inauthentic ‘global’ films being produced without a large audience.
However, there are some things to consider to improve the odds of your screenwriting traveling wide.
Let’s look at the top ten global highest grossing films to date in descending order:
|3||2015||Star Wars Ep. VII: The Force Awakens||$2,058,662,225|
|7||2015||Avengers: Age of Ultron||$1,408,218,722|
|8||2011||Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II||$1,341,511,219|
|10||2017||Beauty and the Beast||$1,263,714,165|
This clearly relates to the brand recognition and marketability of major motion pictures. Marketability isn’t only restricted to a film’s franchise potential. It also relates to merchandising, theme parks, product tie-ins and additional revenue sources. Granted, newer screenwriters won’t generally have this problem.
That doesn’t preclude us from having our own marketing plan to boost the awareness of our films and screenplays. These efforts include social media pushes, live events such as screenings, Q&As and live reads, flyers, badges, t-shirts and other merchandise. Don’t forget the value of in person contact at film festivals, writers’ conferences and other industry events.
Universality vs Specificity
There is a certain epicness to highly profitable films like Avatar and Titanic. Interestingly, they were both directed by James Cameron. Apart from the this, they both explore broad themes of humanity like forbidden or unrequited love, survival, social class and tribalism. These themes transgress culture, boundaries, religion and race.
The universality of their box office success also transgresses a finite world. Avatar is set in a fantasy world that reduces audience geographic bias. It’s basically us against them; Earth versus Pandora.
Writers should also be cognizant of genre screenplays. Action writing tends to play better to a global audience than home-grown, culturally specific comedies and sports films which don’t travel as well.
Universality also refers to common major life events such as graduating from college, marriage or the birth of a child. Audience interest is piqued when they compare and contrast their local experience of such universal events to those portrayed in an ‘international’ film. Consider films about the clash of cross-cultural marriages. A universal theme can be told through a multitude of stories.
In contrast to a broad-based fantasy or heightened world, a granular investigation into a tightly-structured, specific world can also travel well. Consider films set in a nuclear war race, the White House, a surgeon or a violinist. These worlds create interest by relying on audiences on the outside looking in. They rely on the audience NOT being overly familiar with the story world and are compelled to watch a film.
Specificity helps create an authentic and believable world, so it pays for screenwriters to undertake sufficient research when writing their story worlds. Make sure you know what a military court proceeding or surgical procedure looks like if you write about them.
Specificity must also incorporate universality of theme to succeed. It may often be the subplot screenwriters weave into their screenplays.
Although there is no guarantee your screenplay will make a profitable film, you can improve the odds by taking these factors into account.