By the Numbers

By now you’ve heard about the big budget summer movies that supposedly tanked at the box office. Maybe you’ve seen some of them and wished you hadn’t. Or, maybe you loved them and can’t understand why they didn’t do as well as predicted. (Or, perhaps you have no opinion at all on the subject.) I haven’t seen any of the ones critics placed on the “tanking” list, because I haven’t seen very many movies at the theater this year. But the issue is, other people haven’t either.

If you follow Nathan Bransford’s blog, you read his post on the subject and the part formulas played in the perceived failure of some of the summer blockbusters. Apparently famed director Steven Spielberg predicted something of the sort. But Nathan discusses an opportunity formulas provide for exercising your storytelling muscle. If you haven’t read that post, you might click on Nathan’s name above and do so. You might also check out the Slate article on Steven Spielberg’s predictions or the Suderman Slate article, which discuss the formula issue. Both are mentioned in Nathan’s post.

Formulas. Aren’t they a guarantee that something works in a certain way? That’s the way formulas in math and science behave. I find the subject of formulas quite fascinating, because I’ve never been very adept at following them. Oh, I could swing a mean Pythagorean theorem if I had to, or whip out the formula for sulphuric acid (H2SO4). But formula writing usually did me in.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post (and I can’t find it right now, just take my word for it) that when I was a teen, my goal was to write Harlequin romances. A friend and I read a good hundred or so one summer to get the formula down before trying our hand at writing some. Crashed and burned we did. All we wound up doing was parodying the romances. I later tried writing a teen paranormal romance. Here’s the formula I worked with:

One hot guy who is special (not exactly sure how; something paranormal) + one girl who thinks she’s plain, but is secretly beautiful + one not-so-hot guy the secretly beautiful girl loves + one girl who thinks she’s hot and the guys do too + some big plot point = ???

Couldn’t make it work. Failed miserably.

I even bought Save the Cat, the book at least two of the above articles mention, hoping to discover some good advice for producing commercially successful fiction. Now I can admit I’d hoped to find a shortcut—an easy way to success.

I love what Nathan said in his post:

First, it just goes to show that while you might follow the market and cash in on the short term, following your own vision will win out in the long run.

Following your own vision. Guess that means doing the hard work of birthing that vision. Hmm. Perhaps I’ll finish reading Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. . . .


Better still, I think I’ll work on my book and stop searching in other people’s books for a way to do just that.

What about you? Like formulas? Dislike them? What do you think of the summer movie situation?

Formula from

21 thoughts on “By the Numbers

  1. Living in my little bubble as I do, I wasn’t aware this was the Summer Of Flops.
    I remember a few years ago all the hype about The Blair Witch Project, made on a shoestring and hugely popular.maybe there will be a re-think. Speaking of Spielberg, my favourite film is still the one that stayed with me from childhood-Jaws, bloodthirsty kid that I was. That and the original Star Wars trilogy. Perhaps the things that are ‘stamped’ on us as kids remain permanent. Attachment when we still have a sense of wonder. E.T anyone?

    • I love E.T. and Jaws. Some movies I loved as a kid have remained favorites. But some haven’t. I grew up with Spielberg movies, so his earlier ones are still favorites.

      But yes, this is the summer of big budget flops. Some movies with budgets of $200 million haven’t opened well. Granted, summer is a time when movie after movie debuts week after week. So audiences have a ton to choose from. And since many people are under an economic crisis, we just don’t have the money to spend on a movie that might only be so-so.

  2. I think high school chemistry turned me off to formulas. There was always an exception that I had to keep in mind or a trick that I needed. Now, I just fly by the seat of my pants. I haven’t been paying much attention to the summer movie situation. All I know is that Lone Ranger tanked and most movies are vanishing from the theaters after a month.

    Interesting about following your own path because there is a push for aspiring authors to write what is popular. I’ve been told this a lot. Study that market and find the hot genre. Apparently, I’m supposed to clone Hunger Games to get popular and then I can write my own stuff. I don’t like this tactic because I think you end up with a lot of fans that only want you to write in the popular genre. If you try to go off to your own dreams then you risk losing the fans that have no interest in it.

    • True, Charles. There’s a double message inherent in all of this. Clone what’s popular, but don’t follow the formula too closely. Is it any wonder we’re all slapping our foreheads, especially if attempts at originality (or as original as we can make it) are panned? So all we can do is keep going in a direction and write what we love.

  3. I’m like Andy, I live in a bubble. 🙂 Having invested a lot of money in craft books, many of which I haven’t read, I believe the best formula is to keep writing.

    Ugh, I hated chemistry in high school!

    • Keeping writing–good advice, Jill. I have a bunch of craft books too. I refer to them when I’m stuck on something or have to write a post on craft. 🙂

      • Yes, they’re very helpful with writing blog posts on craft. I recently purchased my first book on outlining. I’m going to give it a try, even though it goes against my nature. 🙂

  4. Interesting article. I haven’t seen a single film this summer, although I was tempted by the Alan Partridge film (Alpha Papa) but only because I’m a huge fan of Steve Coogan and his Alan Partridge TV series. But that is an indie film. What I find about MOST blockbusters is that they’re visually stunning, ultimately pointless. (From now on, I will know as John Carnell, from Mars) So, have blockbusters always been like this? I don’t believe so. I’m not sure there was a golden age, either. I mean, 70’s disaster films? C’mon!
    As a scriptwriter I find it difficult to enjoy most films anyway, unless I’m sucked in enough to stop watching the formula underpinning it. That sleight of hand can come through the cast and the director, but MAINLY from the STORY. We (ME) LIKE STORIES!
    But the biggest bone of contention to me is knowing how the film business works – and how so few writer’s actually get to flex their creative muscle within it. Writer’s used to be important in Hollywood, powerful even. But now it’s the directors, actors and even the producers themselves who are the stars. (Not to mention the agents)Together all three know how to make a financially attractive ‘package’ make the movie look sexy, and how to sell it to an audience. Writer’s are an annoyance. They’re got rid of as soon as possible. And why? Because they’re the ones who actually know what the film should be. But hey, why the hell let a story get in the way. As long as the latest ‘hot’ actor is in, and the trailer looks good, the distributors will make sure they get a slice and the film will get multiple screenings.
    Here’s a way I’ve devised to explain to the wide-eyed masses WHY a film that so obviously was going to be a turkey, from the moment some lazy exec sat his warm ass down to hatch it, still became a hundred million dollar film.

    Property x package = distribution.

    I’ll explain.

    I’ve got an agent through winning a film competition. I’ve made it through to a meeting with a low-level studio exec, because my agent once sent him the writer of a film that ten years ago made him a lot of money. I’ve pitched my much crafted idea, that exists as a 110 page screenplay. They are interested because it can be summed up in twenty five words or less.

    The next thing is they’ll want to know is it now,or has it ever been is a comic book? A paperback blockbuster? A viral internet clip or any other kind of well-known property?
    If the answers yes, they’ll want to know who’s in it? (Just say the hottest star you can think of). And if by any chance, your agent actually got a script to them or did lunch or auditing at the star centre with their latest wife, and they’re interested… they’re now really interested, because they know that actor really wants to work with the hottest director who they had a meeting with last week, and that director is looking for a project just like yours.

    The concept is easy to sell. It’s about that guy that made fart noises with his face, y’know the one that became an internet sensation. People will love it. The distributors will love it. FART FACE, THE MOVIE. Hell, they loved the fact that I sold it to them as a trilogy. (they haven’t even read your script or they’d know it was really about the true story of that tragic guy made famous by the internet WHO HUNG HIMSELF. No sequel.)

    They buy your script, for an over inflated price, because your agent gets a bidding war going for your hot script – and bingo, you’re sitting round a pool, drinking mojitos while they get someone else to turn it into a sci-fi blockbuster because they’re doing good box office at the moment.

    But just in case you feel like hanging yourself, here’s a list of some blockbusters I’ve enjoyed over the years.

    Alien. Aliens. Ghostbusters. Ghost. Star Wars. Predator. Bugs Life. Toy Story. Jaws. E.T. Avatar. The Dark Knight. Blade. Blade Runner. Terminator (1&2) add your own here…

    And a couple of my all time fav films that weren’t blockbusters, at least to start with – Blues Brothers, Princess Bride, Leon, In Bruges… add your own here.

    • My hat is off to you for staying in the business. I gave up trying to go anywhere with my screenplay. Actually, it’s pretty bad, so I was right to do so. There were some great small films in the 70s–namely Taxi Driver. But films like that seem rare these days. But I wonder if this rethinking process the articles mentioned will usher in a new age of smaller films, with blockbusters only reserved for proven franchises (like Marvel superheroes).

  5. Thanks for the post and the link to Nathan Bransford’s blog. I confess that I grew up a comic book reader, so I like the Marvel superhero movies. Still, when sitting through the previews at a movie, I find myself saying things like, “Seriously, can’t we have a movie that isn’t based on a comic book anymore?” At some point the trend has to change. I loved Nathan’s comment about This Is the End (which I haven’t seen): “The sense of ‘This movie may completely suck and be a flop but who cares, we had a blast making it and I can’t believe people pay us money to do this’ is pervasive while watching the movie.” Having a blast doing what you’re doing is really the point, isn’t it? At least, that’s what I keep coming back to. I can’t control what’s going to happen with my books or stories, but if I love writing them and putting them out there, then my time has been well-spent, right?

    • I agree, Stephanie. I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics. So I have my favorites among the superhero movies (The Avengers, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class, the first Iron Man, the first Spider-Man). But like you, I don’t have to see one every week. I like a variety of films–animated films, foreign films, and smaller character-driven films. Mostly, I like a film that tells a compelling story. I think that’s why I like Christopher Nolan’s movies. He takes chances with the hero arc.

      But yes, enjoyment of what you’re writing is key!!!

  6. While any story has to have a formula to work, I try to come up with unexpected riffs on the formula. I’m not sure how well I succeed, but I am working on the second book of a three-part trilogy right now, and it will be very different from the first, though still a page-turner. (I hope.)

    As for summer movies, Hollywood has totally and utterly abandoned all creativity. The expectation that every movie has to be a blockbuster is preposterous and just plain bad business, and this summer proves that. I miss the independent film movement, when there really was one. I went to the movies all the time and experienced such glorious creativity. Sometimes good. Sometimes not. The quality didn’t matter to me as much as the discovery of something I didn’t expect. It is next-to-impossible to find that now, especially in a small town like Charleston. Even our ‘art house’ theater has gone mainstream, and it just breaks my heart.

    • A trilogy! Ooo! That’s wonderful. I’m also a fan of putting a new spin on the formula.

      And I know what you mean, Andra. The art house theater near me has bowed to economic pressure and shows some indie films and mainstream too.

      I used to go the movies every week. I look for movies like Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis. Beautifully acted and written. This is a smaller, quieter film I thoroughly enjoyed. And it was written by the same writer who wrote Moonstruck–one of my favorite movies.

      The sad part about this summer is that so many movies are crammed into the schedule. With so much competition, only a few will make a profit.

  7. Math formulas: happy.
    Science formulas: not bad.
    Life formulas: Are you kidding?
    Story-writing formulas: I might read a few to glean info. The whole “beginning, middle, and then end” formula seems to be pretty reliable. 😛 I tried emulating one author once. I abandoned that idea quickly. I just try to note the strengths of authors I like and see if there’s some way I can develop those strengths in my own writing without losing my voice.

    • Yes, the beginning, middle, and end thing is good. But I guess the “blockbuster” formula in Save the Cat is getting overused (according to the articles). My guess is that the pendulum will swing away for a while, then return.

      • You could probably find a formula for the pendulum itself if you looked over all of Hollywood history. What makes it all the trickier is that some things which bust at the box office end up lucrative classics later (Wizard of Oz) and others which rock the box office gradually fade into “You know, that one movie…” status.

  8. I’ve been a little bit out of the loop with summer movies. I only heard of Lone Ranger failing at making money.
    I believe in learning formulas so you can either break them successfully or enhance them to fit your story or book. However it’s not a 100% guaranty of success.

    • I agree. There’s value to learning the formula–knowing the hero’s journey and other story structure details. After all, Picasso studied the Old Masters, then did his own thing.

  9. I saw some amazing movies this summer, and the best one for me was by someone who didn’t follow formulas but stayed true to his vision. That doesn’t mean he avoided great storytelling techniques, and I’m going to write about that on my blog. The movie was Fruitvale Station, and if you think I’m the only one who found it a powerful story, I can tell you that I heard other people crying in the (crowded) theater at the end–even though we all knew how it was going to end.

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