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Stuck in the Middle

Creative Screenwriting’s Danny Munso examines why films with a mid-range budget may be the most challenging to write…

Movies come in all different shapes and sizes. More specifically, for this commentary, they come in all different budgets. Each year, movie theatres fill up with blockbusters and indies; each film comes with different expectations about what it needs to gross to consider it a success. Indeed, what’s considered a success for one film could be the death knell for another.

The film industry is in a state of flux and has been for a number of years. The recent economic downturn that has befallen the United States has certainly hit Hollywood on a number of fronts. People’s income has fallen; it’s not surprising, therefore, that box-office receipts are in decline as well. Couple that with the advent of home video and rising ticket prices, and it’s getting more and more difficult for theatre owners to fill their seats.

It’s common to take a glance at the weekend box-office results, see a film that has grossed into the nine figures and feel emboldened. But when you account for inflation and compare the grosses of the films of today with those released just a decade ago, it’s plain to see that the bottom line remains this: less people are going to the movies than before.

A popular refrain when confronted with this information is ‘Well, if they made better movies…’ Look, everyone even remotely involved with the film industry wants quality over quantity. But there are great films that no one goes to see, just as there are horrid films that way too many see—yes, people who saw The Smurfs, I am talking about you.

So what does all of this mean for you, the screenwriter?

It means that, just like your favourite restaurant or clothing store, movie studios exist to make money. They are a business and their goal is to make a profit at the end of the year, just like any other company. Unfortunately their business acumen doesn’t always translate to what moviegoers want to see on the big screen and that’s when it begins to affect screenwriters, both professional and aspiring.

The studios see great value in blockbusters, the so-called summer and fall tent poles—as they should. True, there are always a series of flops; for every Thor that exceeds expectations, there’s a Green Lantern that wildly underperforms. But there’s also an inherent reliability with these types of films: often they are adaptations of popular works (such as 2011’s late-year release, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or sequels to films that no one thought should have them (hello, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). These projects have built-in audiences, so the studio can count on a certain number of filmgoers to attend. If the films are well-made, all the better.

Octavia Spencer in THE HELP

The indie genre can also be a lucrative avenue for filmmakers. Make a film on a shoestring budget and maybe you will hit the jackpot, as 2007’s Paranormal Activity proved. But even at the $5m-and-under range, there are successful films being made that don’t require a large audience to turn a profit. And so we come to it: the mid-range budget, the ‘dying breed’ that don’t fit into either of the categories mentioned above. And it is this level of film that is finding the most difficult traction, both at the box office and in the executive boardrooms of studios. It’s difficult to find an exact formula for why this is the exact case, but my opinion is that it is due to the subject matter often found in films of this budget range. Stories found in blockbusters are meant to appeal to a wide audience and multiple demographics. The ground covered in indies is irrelevant, because of how little they need to make to be deemed a success. Mid-rangers have a tough time because often their subject matter appeals to just a specific enough audience to ensure that it fails.

A good example of the risks studios encounter with this type of film is exemplified in this year’s Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns collaboration: Contagion. On the surface, this should be a successful movie. Soderbergh is one of Hollywood’s best helmers and the cast features luminaries such as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, to just name a few. The budget came in at reportedly around $60m—modest, considering all the talent involved. But the story is a bleak one: a virus that threatens the human race is beginning to break out.

Luckily for fans of film, the early returns on Contagion are positive and the film should make its money back and then some. But this film, despite the star power, was a risk; audiences could have easily shunned it, considering the dark subject matter. And it’s this risk that you need to take into account as a screenwriter.

As you get late into the creative process, it’s OK to take some business aspects into account. After all, what’s the use in writing a great screenplay if you’re not going to give yourself every opportunity to get it read? The reality of the mid-range budget is that it could get your movie shut down before it even begins. Despite the positive feelings around Contagion and the great success found by The Help at the box office this year, realistically you need to take a look at your story and think about what kind of changes you could make for it to fit a more marketable budget range.

In most cases, this will mean scaling back instead of turning your story into a blockbuster—but that could also apply if it interests you. Analyse your story and focus on the following items: locations and cast size. How many different locations does your film feature; are all of them necessary? Locations add to a budget, so anything you can do before your script gets read to cut down on them will benefit you greatly. Same with the cast: the question you need to ask yourself is, ‘Are all my characters serving a purpose?’ If they’re not, can you cut those characters or maybe even combine two into one? Be economical, because that is what studio readers will be looking for.

I know what you’re asking right now: is the mid-range market really in this much trouble?

Sure, Contagion’s early numbers seem promising but don’t get too excited. If making films were simple math then I, and most, would have predicted that Steve Carell + Ryan Gosling + Julianne Moore + Emma Stone + smart writing + romantic comedy would have equalled major success. The film I just described was, of course, Crazy, Stupid, Love, a movie that cost over $50m to make and made barely $80m at the US box office. Sure that seems profitable but take into account marketing and publicity, and that profit margin is pretty slim. While you couldn’t call the film a flop, you would be incorrect in labelling it a success.

That was the epitome of a mid-range budget film that had too many frills. For the record, I liked the movie but, looking at it from an economical standpoint, there were changes that could have been made to shrink the budget. This is the problem you, as a screenwriter, will be faced with: can you scale your story back without losing any elements you feel are essential to its core? You never want to change your story in a major way to accommodate budget; that’s not what this column is about. This is about you needing to find the excesses in your screenplay and remove them. Because a few million dollars removed from a budget could mean the difference between a pass and a sale from a studio, as they begin to realise that mid-range budgets are becoming less and less feasible as time goes by.

While we can all hope that The Help and Contagion will lead to more quality mid-range films made and backed by the major studios, don’t let your script fall victim to the dreaded ‘middle’.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 25 (Nov/Dec 2011)

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