This may be one of the most spoken, often misspoken, statements regarding the entertainment business in history. It is a quote from the great screenwriter, William Goldman (All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid) explaining how, in the business of moviemaking, nobody can REALLY predict what will work and what won’t, what films will be successful and which films would fail miserably.
This is true- to a point. There are thousands of factors that go into the production of a movie, and only some of these factors are controllable. For instance, the 1962 film “Manchurian Candidate” was predicted as being a highly successful film, starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, about the brainwashing assassination of the President. However, the film’s prolonged impact and place in history was derailed when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and out of deference to his memory, distribution of the movie was pulled by Sinatra himself. It’s hard to say just how popular “The Dark Knight” would have been had Heath Ledger not died immediately after its filming and six months before its release. While his performance was stunning, surely his death at such a young age had to have an effect on the Academy Awards voting, which he ended up deservedly winning for Best Supporting Actor. More to the point is that these are some issues that are out of control of anyone in the production and executive circles, cannot be planned for, but can, ultimately, have an impact on the success or failure of said film.
At times, a writer or performer comes along and alters the cycle of moviemaking just enough to start a new trend. Quentin Tarantino is often cited as one example of this phenomenon with his film “Pulp Fiction”, although we saw it to a lesser extent in his earlier release of “Reservoir Dogs”. With “Pulp Fiction”, QT wove a tapestry of several different stories interconnecting in a climatic ending. At the time, this was groundbreaking stuff. Comedic actors like Jim Carrey, Steve Carrel and Will Ferrell have come along with their hilarious genius, beginning a string of successful movies, albeit very formulaic, in an attempt to highlight their individual talents.
However, just because there is that occasional blip on the screen, a flashing spark of greatness, doesn’t alter significantly the bigger picture, and that is “What makes for a successful movie?”
Surely, it begins with story, or the script; the concept, the premise. Once a high concept is devised- one that is marketable (four-quadrant marketing), one that is easily understood by the masses, one that is unique, fresh and original, the rest lies in the writing of the script. There are formulas frequently bantered about- the STC beats, The Hero’s Journey, the Mini-Movie Method, and countless of others- and they all work to a certain extent.
But, there are “rules” to writing a screenplay, especially if you are an undiscovered, unproduced writer of spec screenplays. These rules need to be learned and adhered to at all times, or at least up until that time where you can write a non-conforming screenplay and still generate reads (Shane Black, Joe Eszterhas). Knowing that these rules work, and knowing what these rules are, seems to belie the statement “Nobody knows nothin’”. Clearly, if you have a strong concept (see above), a degree of writing talent, and you know the rules to writing a spec screenplay and follow those rules, you will be discovered at some level. It won’t be by accident, but rather destiny. Someone will read your screenplay and become your strongest advocate and supporter and get that screenplay into the hands of someone who can ultimately affect that destiny. Be it through networking, or contest wins, or blogs or social media, that screenplay will eventually work its way to the surface. Those that deny such rules exist, or worse- acknowledge that they do exist but are compelled to disregard them, will forever fall short of this goals. I’m convinced of that.
Nobody may know nothin’ when it comes to determining hit movies, but some people certainly know somethin’ when it comes to writing strong(er), more marketable screenplays. Discover whom those people are in your circle, and learn from them.