Movies are like a box of chocolates... or maybe a restaurant.
Ask any producer and they will tell you they are looking for
something original... But give them something original and they will reject it instantly! Crazy, huh?
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH was rejected by every producer in town... it's was just too
weird. Too original. And BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is basically a comedy about a guy
who has an affair with a woman he works with - not that original after all.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH touched a chord in audiences - they liked the original
and unusual story and that's what made it a hit...
Except it wasn't a hit.
It was a crunchy frog.
Critics loved it (I
loved it) but the audience for the film was very small - in the months it spent in theaters
it made a grand total of $22.8 million... less than a quarter of what TRANSFORMERS 3 made on it's opening weekend.
TRANNY 4 made $15 million more on it's opening *Wednesday* than MALKOVICH made in it's whole theatrical run!
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is just too weird for the average filmgoer - like that Crunchy Frog candy in the Monty Python sketch.
Kauffman's follow up film, HUMAN NATURE, did even worse - $695k was the grand
total for its theatrical run. It didn't even make 3/4 of a million! You would think that all of
the people who really loved BEING JOHN MALKOVICH would have gone to see
HUMAN NATURE (that's why I saw it) - and maybe they did. Or maybe the novelty of
the weird story wore off with MALKOVICH and NATURE seemed like eating a pizza with a topping of crispy grasshoppers.
Kaufman had 2 films come out in 2002 - ADAPTATION and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND... and neither made much money.
Even with the Oscar nominations and all of that critical buzz, ADAPTATION only made $22.2 million in it's entire theatrical run - about what the movie cost to make.
CONFESSIONS had George Clooney and Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore and came out over the Christmas holidays (when everyone goes to the movies) and
made a grand total of $15.9 million - about half of what it cost to make even with Julia and George and Drew working for scale.
One of the best movies of 2004 was ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, but even with Jim Carrey starring the film only made $34 million.
Two years ago he had SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK which only made $3 million in its entire USA theatrical run. $3 million. The budget was $21 million for production
*plus* prints and advertizing and other exhibition costs - which could easily be another $10-$20 million!
Kauffman's written six quirky films... and had six financial flops.
His scripts just don't seem to connect with audiences - they don't like the taste.
Critics love them, screenwriters love them... but they are an acquired taste.
Hollywood is like your favorite restaurant. When you go there, you usually order the
same dishes. You find things you like and stick to it. (I have an Italian
restaurant I go to where I usually order spinach ravioli, I have experimented with almost everything on the menu, but I really like their spinach ravioli.) You expect that dish to be
"the same" every time you order it, but you don't want it to be out of a can! You want it
to be made specially FOR YOU (originality)... but you don't expect to find marshmallows
or jalapeno peppers in your ravioli. When we order ravioli, we expect to get ravioli. The
same is true with movies. When we go to the movies, there's a certain expectation
involved - we want to be entertained... but we don't want something that tastes weird or
has ingredients that are so unexpected we have to spit them out.
If your script is too different than other movies, the audience won't want to see it.
But if it's "canned" and bland they also won't want to see it. We want food that we're
comfortable with - but we don't want it to be yesterday's food reheated. If it's too much
like other movies, people will have seen it all before. If it's too different no one will want
to see it in the first place. Balance is the key! Write an original script that the audience
wants to see!
This isn't pandering to the audience. You can still be Wolfgang Puck and put
barbecued chicken on a pizza. People like pizza and they like barbecued chicken and
those two elements seem to go together. You just can't put sauteed crickets on a pizza
and expect people to want to eat it. That might even taste good - but the majority of
people will find it hard to swallow and won't order it in the first place. Movies are mostly a mass
market medium - a movie usually needs to appeal to millions of people - they are like chain
restaurants. That doesn't mean it has to be Dennys or MacDonalds, you can be
Wolfgang Puck. You just have to make food that lots of people want to eat.
There are chef-driven restaurants... places with unusual menus that appeal to a
limit number of diners. If you want to create original dishes that challenge the palate,
you need to open your own restaurant - write/produce/direct an independent film. If
enough people like the way your movies taste, you'll build up a loyal following and can
keep serving the same challenging meals. There are writer-director-producers who have a cult following
that is big enough for them to continue making movies.
The Duplass Brothers made a movie called CYRUS - and though they have a loyal following who
have made all of them shot-on-video low budget films successful so far, CYRUS had a big cast
of comedy stars... and they needed people outside of their cult to break even or turn a profit.
CYRUS made most critic's best lists, but cost $7m and made $7.4m... and the cinemas take 55% of that.
If you do not know who the Duplass Brother are - that's a good indication at how successful
their past films have been. Did you see BAGHEAD? I did. But their films are some of the weird, exotic types
of food I like to eat every once in a while. If there aren't enough people who like what
you're serving, your restaurant will go out of business. You may curse the American
public for not enjoying Cockroach-au-gratin made with fresh New York cockroaches, but can you really blame them? It's one
thing to put barbecued chicken on a pizza, another to expect people to eat cockroaches
covered with cheese. Maybe your tastes are, um, too individual? Too exotic?
You know, there are people who think ham and pineapple on a pizza is too weird to eat.
THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
Here's a good exercise: Write down the names of three recent successful films that
are similar to your script. Not the same story, but the same subgenre. If you can't
think of any recent films like your script, there may be a very good reason... they don't
make movies like that! If that's the case, I'd start looking for similar stories in other
media... maybe you wrote a movie for Lifetime TV! Maybe your story would make a
better novel. Maybe your story would make a better stage play. If you've written a live
action musical for the screen, you're in trouble. Though CHICAGO was a success a few years ago, both RENT and THE PRODUCERS didn't do as well as expected. Hey? What about
MOULIN ROUGE! - wasn't that a popular film? It was nominated for Oscars and made every critic's Ten Best List.
But in its entire theatrical run it made only $5 million more than it cost to make - which means it lost money.
And don't get me started on NINE... which was nominated for 4 Oscars and made $19 million on a production budget of $80 million and P&A exhibition costs probably in the $35 million range,
Audiences will accept singing teapots in
cartoons, but won't accept ultra-hot Penelope Cruz singing in a teddy and garter outfit on screen.
Strange but true.
Writing movies is different than most other kinds of writing - a screenplay is not the finished product. It takes hundreds of other creative people to
get that script on screen... not to mention an average cost of *over* $106 million by the time it hits the screen.
Screenwriting is a "team sport". If a play that works for you doesn't work for the rest of the team you will lose the game, even if *you* played well. You need to play *with* the team, not against it. You need to make sure your playing helps the team, not just makes *you* look good. We aren't out on that field alone, even though when we write our scripts we're alone.
Match your script to the market. I loved 3:10 TO YUMA, but it didn't make enough money to start a trend... and COWBOYS & ALIENS may have killed the western. If you've written a western, and they don't really make
theatrical westerns anymore (unless they have Gay cowboys), find out where they DO make westerns (TBS) and send
your script there! Remember - you are what you eat! If you are writing the same type of
movies that you regularly pay to see, you probably won't have any trouble. If you're a
movie lover (and you should be) write the kind of movies you love seeing every week in the cinema... than follow the same path those scripts took to get to the screen.
Movies are a business, and producers want to make the same kind of movies that have been successful in the recent past. The sure things, not the crazy long shots. When they say they want something "original" it is in the context of mainstream Hollywood movies - a mainstream story that we haven't seen before. Not something weird. Something weird may work in the indie world... where you'll probably be writing and directing and producing the film yourself.
And if you have written the next BEING JOHN MALKOVICH... well, it might be a good calling card script that gets you an assignment... writing TRANSFORMERS 4! Can you do that? All roads lead to Hollywood - if you want to be paid for your screenplays, you will eventually be writing the sort of screenplays producers buy.
It may not be TRANSFORMERS 4, but it's going to be like some other mainstream genre film. Some other type of chain restaurant food. Not too spicy, not too strange.
The other alternative is to open your own restaurant and do whatever you want - find the money and make the film yourself. That's a viable way to get your strange story on film.
Whichever path you pick, you need to have enough people interetsed in eating what you dish out to stay in business.
Note: As usual, if you have to write the cockroach-au-gratin screenplay you have to write it. The problem is when you *expect* to sell it to a mainstream producer. Write whatever weird thing you want to write, but be aware that what gets bought or assigned is usually something that is the same as some recent hit film... but different.
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