Summer is notoriously populated with blockbusters. Some of you get excited by them. Others hiss and sigh and lament the world. Either way, they’re here and this week the Film Doctor team are examining one of their integral ingredients – the formula…
Consider this list of The 15 Most Profitable Films of All Times, compiled from a CNBC research in 2010:
- The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of The King (2003)
- Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
- There’s Something About Mary (1998)
- The Hangover (2009)
- Jaws (1975)
- Ghost (1990)
- Home Alone (1990)
- The Passion of the Christ (2004)
- American Beauty (1999)
- Star Wars (1977)
- Grease (1978)
- Pretty Woman (1990)
- Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
- E.T. (1982)
…and, at number 1 – “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)!
Notice something? 99% of the films on that list are formulaic ones, i.e. they follow certain narrative patterns and components. There are clear obstacles, protagonists, antagonists, and other archetypal narrative elements (3 act structure, character learns lessons, highs lows). There’s, usually, a happy, or just, ending. This is often known as the “Hollywood formula“.
As the list suggests, formula is good for profit margins!
A lot of filmmakers scorn the idea of having a “formula” for their projects, viewing such use as negative, dull and overdone. Perhaps they think they are ‘selling out’. In reality, it is not so black and white.
What many independent directors/screenwriters/producers seem to miss, when deriding theories or formulas, is that the original purpose of the formula was to bring the audiences into the cinema and engage them.
This is how it worked: gauge what the audience likes>design a project to fit this desire> sell it to the audience>make profit>continue making more. It’s basic business. Supply and demand. The films were not always good and they do not always turn profit but on a basic level they were there to service the audience in exchange for money.
Remember: for every ‘mechanical’ formula movie there are just as many, if not more, art films which were NOT designed for an audience and fail to even get distribution.
The lifeblood of all entertainment or art is finding an audience. Yes, you must write what you know. Yes, you must produce something that you will enjoy. Yes, you can direct a project that is close to a cause you care about. But, unless you do not plan on making many more or you would prefer to ‘stick to your guns’ and potentially struggle through with every project to find that market/audience, then you must, whether using a formula or not, work to (or from!) an identified audience/market to ensure your project is distributed and seen!
So why the negative connotations? What DOESN’T work in formula movies? Well, the Film Doctor team suggest that “the Hollywood formula” falls flat because of the following:
– Repetitiveness – When several movies use the same formula/elements, it becomes repetitive and overly familiar. This, in turn, makes the plot predictable and, ultimately, boring. So, simply “copy/pasting” another successful project is not a good example of utilising elements for audience engagement.
– Cheap thrills – Formulaic films are often accused of playing on the most basic of storytelling principles (to work universally and internationally). Often only “the basics” of life – love, friendship, betrayal, death, overcoming a fear/hardship are covered. “Formulaic” movies don’t tend to explore “the grey areas” and the more intricate emotional states or life scenarios – e.g. where there’s no ‘happy ending’. To put it simply, movies of this kind are said to offer cheap thrills.
What DOES work about formula movies? What is it, creatively, that keeps those studios turning them out and the audiences flocking to see them?
Here are some useful tricks you can take from “formula projects”:
– Give your protagonist(s) a compelling and concrete goal – Kevin needs to survive holidays alone and protect his home from burglars (“Home Alone”), Phil, Stu and Alan need to find Doug, the groom, in time for the wedding (“Hangover”), Daniel Hillard wants to be closer to his kids (“Mrs. Doubtfire”). When the audience knows the character’s end goal/dream, they can begin to understand – or at least accept as plausible – his/her actions/reactions and, ultimately, root for their hero. If the audience is confused by the character’s motivations, the whole story MAY make no sense to them – and, hence, receive no engagement.
– Work with(in) a genre – “Formulaic” movies are usually genre projects and, as practice shows, genre sells well. Execs, distributors and agents like it and can get behind it, because it is easily identifiable – i.e. they know what they get and how to present it to the audience (“A chilling thriller”, “The funniest comedy this year”, etc.). When you conceive your project, be sure to place it within a certain genre – and THEN ‘bend’ the rules, so that your project stands out. This could work so much better for you than starting out with something “wishy-washy” and trying to ‘package’ it later on. Like they say, you got to know the rules, to break them.
Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with formula, when it is applied cleverly and if it fits the purpose of the project and what you want as a filmmaker. This isn’t to say you should just blindly copy Hollywood productions – the “Hollywood formula” is not a series of boxes to be ticked, but rather a helpful set of questions, to which you should have your own answers.
You do not have to subscribe to using a formula. Just have in mind that there are certain filmic patterns which seem to work and it is up to you to find out why they work, which parts are essential and which can be disposed/rewritten.