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Posts Tagged ‘Box Office Mojo’

“I’m saying you are stuck in Wichita.”
Del Griffith (John Candy)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles

On Thanksgiving Day 2013 I decided to challenge myself to a movie mash-up. Could I take a classic 26 year old Thanksgiving story (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and somehow connect it with a movie that is currently number one in the box office this Thanksgiving (Hunger Games: Catching Fire). According to Box Office Mojo Planes had a total gross of just under $50 million—Catching Fire made more than that its opening day and has gone on to make more than $300 million worldwide in the first six days of its theatrical release. 

Granted Planes was released in 1987 so you’d have to adjust those numbers to be an equal comparison, but the truth is that John Hughes written and directed film starring Steve Martin and John Candy was far below the box office winner (Three Men and a Baby) the year it was release. But when was the last time you heard anybody talking about Three Men and a Baby or quoting lines from that movie?

Like every year, 1987 had its share of memorable films that have endured. Some did well at the box office (Fatal Attraction) and others didn’t find their audience until later (The Princess Bride). But what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles continue to entertain and please audiences today?

“Some movies are obviously great. Others gradually thrust their greatness upon us. When ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ was released in 1987, I enjoyed it immensely, gave it a favorable review and moved on. But the movie continued to live in my memory. Like certain other popular entertainments (‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘Casablanca’) it not only contained a universal theme, but also matched it with the right actors and story, so that it shrugged off the other movies of its kind and stood above them in a kind of perfection. This is the only movie our family watches as a custom, most every Thanksgiving….The buried story engine of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels.”
Roger Ebert
Review for Planes, Trains and Automobiles

What Ebert called a “buried story engine” I would call theme and emotion. Here are two of my favorite questions on those subjects:

“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
Screenwriter Bill Martell

“The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.
Michael Hague
Selling Your Story in 60 seconds

Call it “an understanding how the other guy feels” or “empathy,” but 26 years from now people will still be watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I’m not sure the same can be said for Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The studios don’t care about that now, they’re making money. The reviews are good. They’ve done their jobMe? I’ll watch anything with Jennifer Lawrence in it (she had me at Winters Bone), but Catching Fire didn’t warm my bones. I felt like I was watching a middle program in an episodic TV show that was a cross between Survivor, LOST, and The Truman Show. (Please don’t tell me I need to read the books to appreciate the movie. That was never said of The Godfather—or The Wizard of Oz.) 

At first I thought maybe it was just me coming off a long road trip before I saw Catching Fire until I read ScriptShadow’s review of the film.

“The Hunger Games, and movies like it, represents one of the most thankless screenwriting jobs in Hollywood. Sure, you get to write one of the biggest movies of the year, but all the credit will go to the two people who sandwiched you in the process – the author of the original book, and the director who put the movie on the big screen.

To that end, that middle cog, the screenwriter who adapts these huge books, is allowed little to no creativity. His job amounts to that of a translator. Maybe that’s why Catching Fire feels so empty inside. Its two talented screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, weren’t allowed to do anything but translate. And it’s left this movie without a soul.”
Carson Reeves/ScriptShadow
Movie Review—Catching Fire

Even if you really enjoyed the film (which many of its intended audience did) you have to admit it didn’t have what Arndt calls an “insanely great ending”—the credits just come up and you go, “I guess it’s over.” Just one of the problem of sequels.

BTW—Scriptshadow also had a good post this week on 10 Screenwriting Tips from Thanksgiving favorite: Plane Trains and Automobiles! 

P.S. Films released in 1987 worth going back and watching or re-watching include Empire of the Sun (Christian Bale’s first major film), Wall St. (Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his role created by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser), Moonstruck, the third Coen Brother film—Raising Arizona, and my personal favorite of that year Broadcast News written and directed by James L. Brooks.

Related Posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Theme: What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
“The Artists” 3— “Hunger Games” 0
Before John Hughes Became John Hughes (And how Planes was inspired by his day job.)

Scott W. Smith

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Coming off a couple of posts on Super Bowl commercials, I thought I’d point out that making commercials is not an uncommon place for writers and directors to hone their skills. Today I’ll highlight one such person who made the commercial below that aired during the 2003 Super Bowl and who has since built a career making feature films:

It’s fitting in light of the Green Bay Packers winning  Super Bowl XLV to mention that the director of that commercial, Zack Snyder, was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  He didn’t live there long, but he was born there in 1966. He went to art school in London and also attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He spent many years making music videos and high end commercials.

One of his best known commercials is this 1997 Jeep spot called Frisbee which was a Clio winner.

His first feature film Dawn of the Dead, was released  2004, and in 2007 he wrote and directed 300. Two years later he released Watchmen and in 2010 he produced and directed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga ‘Hoole. Next month his latest film, Sucker Punch (it’s been called “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns”), will be released which he co-wrote (with Steve Shibuya), produced and directed.


And he is on board to make the next Superman movie, The Man of Steel.

“In the pantheon of superheroes, Superman is the most recognized and revered character of all time, and I am honored to be a part of his return to the big screen. I also join Warner Bros. and the producers in saying how excited we are about the casting of Henry (Cavill) . He is the perfect choice to don the cape and S shield.”
Zack Snyder

Snyder and his wife, Deborah, have a production company in Pasadena called Cruel and Unusual Films.

According to Box Office Mojo, the first four moives Zack has made have a phenomenal box office average of $100 million a film.

Scott W. Smith

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Orson Welles was only 25-years-old when he made his first film Citizen Kane. It is considered one of the greatest films ever made. He won his sole Oscar on that film. He was 43 when he directed his last significant film Touch of Evil. Welles died in 1985 at age 70. Though he worked as an actor, voice-over talent, director, and even had his own TV show in his later years,  he was most well known to the general public for his Paul Masson commercials; “We will sell no wine before its time.”

When Clint Eastwood was 25-years-old he was digging swimming pools in Los Angeles.  While in his thirties he started to build a name for himself as an actor, but it was not until he was in his forties when he turned his hand to directing. And that was a 12 minute film called The Beguiled: The Storyteller. He followed that with the feature Play Misty for Me and has gone on to direct more that 30 films. He’s won four Academy Awards (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) the last one at age 74. He was 78 when he directed and starred in Gran Torino, which to date (according to Box Office Mojo) is the highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in or directed.

“Some people glow really early, in their twenties and thirties, then in their fifties they are not doing as much. but I feel that growing up and maturing, constantly maturing—aging is the impolite way of saying it-—I like to think there is an expansion going on philosophically.”
Clint Eastwood
Devil’s Guide to Hollywood
Joe Eszterhas
Page 361

Scott W. Smith

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“I rode a school bus for an hour each way… so I had two hours a day on the bus and I tried to read a book a day.
James Cameron

They should have a special room for James Cameron over at Box Office Mojo. Titantic, which he wrote and directed, sits atop every film ever made in terms of box office gross ($600. million domestic/$ 1.8 billion worldwide). And for the last two weeks his newest film Avatar has been #1 at the box office already bringing in $600. worldwide.

And, of course, those aren’t the only films he’s ever made. Aliens, The Terminator,  Terminator 2:Judgment Day also found quite large audiences. But how many saw his first two films Xenogenesis and Piranha Part Two; The Spawning? It’s easy to get lost in the big numbers Cameron puts up and forget that he had to jump-start his career just like anyone else who’s made it.

So where did he come from?

Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada and raised in a town of 2,000. He was inspired by the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey and said he read The Making of 2001 book eighteen times and dreamed of Hollywood all before his family moved from Canada to Los Angeles when he was 17. And before he ever won an Oscar he drove a truck to pay the bills until his screenwriting career took off. I’ve pieced together a few of his quotes from various places to give a succinct overview of his views on filmmaking.

“The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer…You never really ‘get’ an opportunity. You take an opportunity. You know, in the film making business no one ever gives you anything…If you wait until the right time to have a child you’ll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it’s bad…Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee…I think it’s, the old adage: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I think chance is not a big factor in the long run…There are many talented people who haven’t fulfilled their dreams because they over thought it, or they were too cautious, and were unwilling to make the leap of faith.”
James Cameron

Most of these quotes were pulled from an interview found on the Academy of Achievement website.

Scott W. Smith

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The truth is there won’t be any government bailouts any time soon for Hollywood. They don’t really need one.

If the box office numbers continue at the same pace they’ve  been the first two months of the year then it will be Hollywood’s biggest growth in 20 years. Movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Taken, Slumdog Millionaire, Marley & MeGran Torino and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all passed the $100 million mark at some time in the first two months of 2009. 

According to Box Office Mojo January and February of 2009 have been the biggest months ever box office-wise for any January or February. Just as in the Great Depression people retreat to the movies in hard times. And just for an added emphasis in February,  The Dark Knight passed the billion dollar mark just before the Academy Awards. (That kind of makes up for not being nominated for best picture.)

Of course, it must be noted that the box office numbers are also due to the increase costs of a movie ticket. At least for the time being if people are going to forgo a trip to Vegas, Florida or Europe they are willing to pay $8-10 to see a movie. 

But playing off my last post, almost every single minute of all those money-making recent films that passed the $100 million mark this year were made outside of L.A. 

They were mostly made in New Jersey, France, India, Detroit, Miami or New Orleans. (And, just for the record, The Dark Knight, was filmed in Chicago.)

So the outsourcing of L.A. production jobs due to runaway production is one way Hollywood is becoming like Detroit. And just as new car sales are down, so too are DVD sales. Way down. As in the billions.

DVD sales were down two and a half billion from 2007 compared to 2006. Blu-Ray may have won the battle over HD-DVD but it hasn’t won the hearts of the people. Perhaps people are content with their DVDs. I know I am. Blu-Ray may have higher resolution but they won’t play on my laptop which is how I like to listen to the director’s commentaries on the $5 DVDs I’ve been buying.

A lot of people don’t want to shell out for another player and pay $25. for the Blu-Ray movies. The economy is part of the problem, but so is technology since digital downloads appear to be the next big thing. Why not ride that shift out and save a few bucks? And even psychologically when you have a stash of your favorite movies on  DVDs that you’ve collected over the years it makes it hard to justify the next obsolete shift.

When all is said and done there may not be the big three automakers any more and there may not be as much big Hollywood dollars flowing in the streets of Los Angeles. But there will still be cars and movies. They will just be originating from places beyond Detroit and L.A. 

As far as movies go, the downturn in the economy mixed with the rise in digital technology are empowering creative people outside L.A. and that’s one more reason why people are Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. (Note that the number one movie this weekend was written and made in a studio in Atlanta.)

And that’s why $86 million is being spent to convert a former Metro Detroit auto plant into a movie studio. (With the hope that 4,000 jobs will follow.)

The real question; Is Detroit the new Hollywood?

Related post: Screenwriting from Michigan

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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I Hate Valentine’s Day!

That’s a movie now in post-production and was written by the female screenwriter who actually wrote the most successful romantic comedy in box office history. Any guesses on the title of that movie?

Here’s a hint, the screenwriter was born in Canada.  Another hint? The writer’s name is Nia Vardalos and she starred in the film. 

According to Box Office Mojo, My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulled in $241,238,208. Not bad since it only cost $5 million to make. One thing that wasn’t fat was the script as the movie came in at only 95 minutes. And I should add that it was Nia Vardalos’ first script and she received an Academy Award nomination.

She wanted to write it as a one act play but a friend told her to write it as a script first so she could register her story. So she wrote the script first then she wrote the story as a one-person play and began performing it in Canada and in the US. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson loved the play and thought it would make a good movie and the rest is history.  

Now that the actress is now also a writer/director I figured I could find a quote from her for those of you who love screenwriting. 

“I think the lesson in everything that happened to me, for people, is don’t listen to the odds, not to listen to the naysayers, to listen to the odds of you getting hit by lighting and getting kidnapped by terrorist are greater than your screenplay being done–if you have a story to tell just write it.”
                                                                                Nia Vardalos 

And while Vardalos was born in Canada and found fortune and fame in LA, I should add that she honed her comedic chops here in the Midwest at Second City in Chicago. She worked in the ticket office for two years until she got a break one night by getting on stage when a performer was sick.

If you recall, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding is set Chicago (though it was filmed in Toronto). Years ago while on a production in Chicago I made a point to eat in Greektown. (If you’ve ever had a gyros, that’s where the tradition reportedly started in America.) It’s a great area to visit to get a different slice of America beyond the suburbs and strip malls.  

I didn’t realize this until I wrote this post that there are similarities with Nia Vardalos and Diablo Cody. First time writers that found box office success, comedy writers, Chicago connection, recognition from the Academy Awards, films focused on families dealing with issues.  (Didn’t I just write about Orson Welles and his Chicago-area connection? There’s something going on over there.)

By the way, I pulled the Vardalos quote from an interview she did that is part of a video series called The Dialogue, Learning from the Masters that looks great. Here is a sample found on You Tube.

 

Related post: Screenwriting da Chicago Way  (Which for the record is the #4 most read post on Screenwriting from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
Dorothy:
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 
                                                                               Twister
 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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