Formula for film success

Matthew Sharpe

It’s often touted that when a director is handed a gargantuan budget to play with, there is a certain set of guidelines they should adhere to in order to ensure the film’s financial success. The most common suggestions would be to cast an A-list star, to make sure the budget is big enough to be news-worthy, and to have some sort of identifiable or remarkable visuals. The unsuccessful release of John Carter of Mars serves as testament to the validity of these criteria; it didn’t satisfy the A-list star category and as such never truly found its audience (Mark Kermode remarked that had it been called Tom Cruise of Marsit would most likely have made its money back).

Given that so much money is ploughed into audience testing and market research, along with the solid set of rules to stick by to avoid a box-office flop, it becomes all the more frustrating when studios waste money on what ends up being an entirely mediocre film like Need for Speed which still turns out to be a financial failure. Had that film been an avant-garde, fresh take on mainstream action cinema filled with creative risks, I would have no problem. “At least they tried,” I would say. However,  it was extremely bland, with nothing new to add to the genre. This is why I’m suggesting that with such safety in their investments so long as they follow the “rules” I mentioned, why not take more creative risks?

Recently I saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was marvellous. There were 6 different narrative perspectives and framing devices within the opening 20 minutes. It was extremely quirky and not at all bland, and, what’s more, it has made a profit. Why, then, must mainstream blockbusters be so generic, as though they were made by a committee?  With the studio’s investment all but secure, why can’t directors take more artistic gambles?

The truth is that filmmakers increasingly have to make their work as broad and unremarkable as possible, in order to garner the biggest audience. Something as universal as Titanic, for example, is always likely to remain one of the highest grossing films of all time, because it is completely generic and without quirks. No demographic is alienated, and everyone goes home moderately satisfied.  These are the cinematic versions of TGI Fridays or Nando’s. They are the film adaptations of shredded wheat. They are as though Adrian Chiles took up a career in directing. They aim for the middle, and hit their mark perfectly. Worryingly, there is a proliferation of them in recent years.  Studios: give the filmmakers some creative licence before it’s too late and, eventually, Generic Action Film #25E4B becomes the most successful movie ever.


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