The Next Great Movie

Figuring out the market

Tuning the crystal ball

What will be the next great movie? Everyone wants to make the next Harry Potter, or vampire movie, or movie with a hero or supernatural element. Everyone hopes that their movie will be a blockbuster and trend setter. But how do you read the tea leaves? Movie interest changes as our culture changes, so it is always a moving target.

Some stories are always in fashion. The styles of movies made popular in the 1980s and 1990s will always be with us - they were good storytelling, and particularly action and thrillers movies, are always in fashion. From test audiences and focus groups, I know the audience demographic is very wide and solid for the action/adventure, and thriller movie genres. Hollywood has a lock on big budget extravaganzas that thrill audiences, and that probably is not going to change much.

You can count on some other story types because they are universal and timeless. Struggle and triumph pictures always win an audience. Good versus evil (high concept) movies also gain big audiences. Romantic comedy varies in popularity, but an audience is always there. Comedy is always in demand, but the audience soon becomes fickle on any popular style - it's difficult when the unexpected eventually becomes the expected and a sophisticated audience pans the style like yesterday's cold hamburger. Any movie has to give us the unexpected, not the reheated leftover.

As Oscar winning producer Cathy Schulman attests in "What's Next," today's more sophisticated audience won't settle for the onslaught of "boring and indistinguishable movies" produced by Hollywood, no matter how much "blitz marketing" they get. Venues like Redbox and the Internet are giving people who are hungry for movies the option of finding better content, and finding it more often.

Next page: Tuning in to culture and relevance.

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Tuning in to culture and relevance

For other movies, such as relevant stories, the target moves constantly. The market is huge for relevant stories. As you look through the ages, movies reflected our interests of the moment. For example, our cultural change as we moved beyond the "romantic era" in vogue before the 1970s where people swooned over each other and put heroes on pedestals, was reflected in the movies with people swooning over each other.

Romance is still with us, and we still want our heroes, but our reactions are different. Generation X (Baby Boomers after WWII) admired the heroic, felt liberated as the sexual revolution was in full bloom, and became disillusioned by the Vietnam War and Watergate. Yet Generation X still characteristically got married right out of high school or college, and definitely got jobs right away. Sexual freedom led to pregnancy and early marriage. Movies of that era idealized youth and sex in the "beach party" movies, while Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon reflected our disillusionment about war. Movies reflected the questions we had about ourselves.

Just as people stopped falling for the illusion of romance and war, they passed on to Generation Y their disillusionment, helping produce the "Me" generation of the 1980s, with its narcissism, irresponsibility, and lack of ideals and civic mindedness. The acceptance of divorce and having children outside of marriage, and the narcissism inherent in the era, influenced people to avoid deep and lasting marriage commitments, and to postpone marriage and career until later in life. By 2010, the average age of marriage had moved from age 20-22 to age 26-28. Many "kids" are still living at home with jobs that won't support them at 27. It's more desirable for many to play video games, have fun, have casual sex, and postpone starting families and careers. The ever increasing longevity and quality of life have enabled them. Movies have reflected most of these attitudes. Examples: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Wedding Singer, Sex and the City, and Failure to Launch.

At the same time, military technological advancements raised pride in the US ability to precisely target and bomb with few civilian casualties and troops on the ground - an instantaneous "clean hands" hammer to be used against enemies. Anger at Hussein in Iraq, and at Al Qaida's attack on Sept. 11, 2001, swung attitudes about war toward a feverous passion. Most Westerners approved the attack on Iraq... but once again the realities of the real cost of war in civilian casualties, troop casualties, escallation, high impact on the budget, and foreign ungratefulness and rejection, brought disillusionment. Movies have reflected these attitudes as they changed. They have reflected us. Examples: BlackHawk Down, Green Zone, In The Valley of Elah, No End In Sight, The Hurt Locker, Taxi to the Dark Side, The Messenger, The Kingdom, and Three Kings (compare the attitude in Three Kings to the 1961 Catch 22 story after WWII/Vietnam). A difference between attitudes in 1980 and less caustic ones and better portrayal about the Iraq war now, is the US won in Iraq. Confounding the movie reflection was the hesitance of many to avoid criticism that might be reflected as not supporting the troops or the mission.

A very interesting and radical change in movie genre interest occurred since 2000. People of the culture change produced by government failures to protect in events like Hurricane Katrina and the Al Qaida attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and multiple economic crises, have become a wide audience for reality shows that don't shovel unreality and smiley endings at us in a continuous stream. Children of today even like "Lemony Snicket" in his "series of unfortunate events." Yet dark fiction hasn't become wildly popular. It isn't darkness that people are after, but something closer to reality. And the difficulty many find with TV reality programs is that while they are not scripted, the people in them are paid to create drama, which is artificial. An increasingly sophisticated audience is likely to slowly drift away from many of the current reality programs toward something more relevant and "real."

Next page: Getting there - finding the trend.

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Getting there - finding the trend

What is relevant, popular, and real? Can we take cues from the marketplace? There is an opportunity in movies to get to where people are today. It isn't easy - religious institutions have the exact same problem - the established institutions find it very difficult to get there - it almost takes something new. Going to the extremes, such as being "dumber" and ever more outrageous and pushing the envelope even further doesn't get there. The movie has to be good. It has to be relevant. It has to be unique, giving us something that hasn't been given to us. As seen in many of the most popular TV shows, an emphasis on sex is a winner.

As examples, the television shows, Friends, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and Two and a Half Men struck a respondent chord in content, and The Office is a little closer to what people often like in form, but it isn't quite there either. They all reflect a culture in development, not an established culture. They reflect the questions we have about our world.

Reality is a question mark. Movies don't give answers, even if the character finds one. They expose and explore the questions. The best movies today will be those that expose the most relevant questions that reflect us at this point in time... with movies targeted to specific age demographics.

Examples from wildly popular TV series: Friends - Single and couple centric - People fall in love, get married, get divorced, and continue on as friends with the old wife and new husband. The overall storyline reflects our fragmented society of today. Sex and the City - Single centric - Does sex bring us true love - how do you find the right person... and have a little fun along the way? Desperate housewives - Female centric - The desperation, fantasy, and sometimes reality, of the housewife out of her traditional role. (And the reality take-offs: The Real....) and Two and a Half Men - Male centric - The role of sex in relationships (or male fantasy and how to sabotage a relationship).

The sexual freedom ushered in by the first half of the 20th. Century brought us many more questions than answers. Hopeless romance and being trapped in loveless and abusive relationships are out... way out. But where does that leave enduring relationships, and how do you find that right person? Roles have changed, but have they really? Women still get pregnant, saddled with childcare, and now must have a job and continue to clean the house in many relationships. Ouch. Questions.

Online and communication technology since the early 1990s has brought another revolution in relationships. The question becomes, are virtual relationships real relationships? The 1960s science fiction story of love for a robot has become reality in love over a computer. Phone sex is a big business. Already taken a step further, people get married to virtual companions in the "Second Life online virtual community, and in some virtual communities even have sex... with each other... through communications and sometimes devices.

Are these online and virtual relationships unhealthy relationships, or are they actually more healthy than many real world marriages? Has technology made us more connected, or more anonymous and even less committed? Do we know what a real relationship is? Questions. Ripe for exploration. Dorian's screenplay, Total Immersion, explores this topic, and can be read on Amazon Studios.

Next page: The pitfalls, the market.

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The pitfalls, the market

The danger in using relevance as a criteria is in going full overboard into "message films," or overly moralistic stories, which doesn't work well. Characters find out the consequences of their actions through realistic story development, not through preaching or contrived plots. It's well determined that fiction movies have very little influence in the day to day lives and thinking of people - that's more the role of documentaries - movies are more a mirror of who we are and what we want to think about or be thrilled by - not necessarily who we actually want to be or want to do.

We don't necessarily want to do what people do in movies. People want to explore questions, not be handed a smiley face answer. Significantly, there is a major difference between truth and reality in movies. Movies are never reality, but they pry away at a truth in the human condition. In several years of research and writing about storytelling, Dorian calls writing for this, Creating Honest Characters and story.

It pays to keep up with society and not beat a dead horse. Society changes, and with it the questions. Divorce rates surged in the 1980s, but have returned to 1970s levels in the first decade of this Century. Drug use among teens surged last Century, but this Century drug use has been declining. Teen sex surged in the last decade, but this decade has declined. Abortion surged in the last Century, but in this decade declined to 1970 pre-abortion law levels. Writing about these things is likely to mark you as out of date and not relevant - not a today writer. Society changes, and with it the questions that are important to us.

The demographics on movies isn't just the narrow Hollywood focus of the young adult. Young adults flock to the theater for thrills, and leave asking, "Is that all there is?" Their need for thrills is insatiable, and theaters recognize that as their meal ticket. The MSP Internet test audience, who subscribed for no other reason than their love of movies, is fairly equally represented through all ages up to around age 60. Hollywood has simply left these people behind, either by focusing on ticket sales to the most frequent buyers, or by not giving them a convenient venue. The market is there for all age groups.

Today there are many trends influencing what will be good stories today and in the future. Whether writing a comedy, drama, or action movie, some relevant questions are:

  • When does a social trend become a "point of pain" in the psyche of the population, so that it is worth exploring in a movie?
  • When does the social trend become a point of fantasy in the psyche of the population? What trend is prompting the need for this fantasy?
  • When does a social trend reflect serious questions we have about ourselves?
  • When does exploring a social trend achieve burn out by an increasingly sophisticated audience?
  • When has a social trend evolved to the point in society that it deserves a new approach?
  • Where is an existing trend going? Are zombies the new vampire craze?
  • Can you take an existing trend and add traditional elements to it, such as mystery, suspense, action?

Movies are loosely about the human condition. Human nature really doesn't change much, but our situation changes and presents us with new questions. Many of the same human condition themes are used over and over in a new setting or in a new plot that reflect our changing world. Filmmakers are really free to write about any topic they want, incorporate elements of today's trends (society's concerns and fantasies), spice it up with comedy, mystery, suspense, action, and have an entirely new movie. Or they can just write specifically (theme and plot) about the new trend. The market is there and it is hungry for good content, and the Internet provides a preferred venue. Create better content, and the audience will find you.

Google Trends might be one place for research.

Have you produced a good independent movie or short? Get more attention for your shorts on Rent your movie on for more profit.

- Dorian

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Movie names that are mentioned are not given reference citations. This is because numerous studios are involved in production, and they then assign distribution rights to multiple distributors, and these rights can be sold to other distributors. For production and distribution information on any movie mentioned, consult the Internet Movie Database, or other authoritative listing.

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