The “Must-Haves” in a movie to be successful

“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) is the highest-rated film on IMDB. Almost everyone who has watched the film loves it. Surprisingly, the critics also loved the film and rated it highly. Since it’s release, the film has won tons of awards and nominations in different categories. The film has even made The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. However, the movie was a box office flop, barely grossing $28M against its budget of $25M. Similar to this, if we consider other great films at different times, absolute classics like Citizen Kane, Brazil, Vertigo, and even Fight Club – all of them crashed at the box office prior to their initial release. But we all know how influential and fan-favorite all these movies are, so much that they are considered cult classics.

So what makes a film a success? What do we mean when we can label a film successful? Is it box office numbers? Or how influential it is? Or how highly it is rated? Is it because of the artistic achivements of the film? Simonton goes through in-depth about the different factors that make a film great in his research work “Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics” (Simonton 2011). According to him:

“What Do We Know? Lots! Perhaps the single most critical lesson is that there’s more than one kind of great film. There are movies that make big money, motion pictures that rake in the awards, and films that garner critical acclaim. And even these three groups of criteria have subgroups. In the case of movie awards for example, we must take care of movie awards, for example, we must take care to distinguish the honors defining the four creative clusters – the dramatic, visual, technical, and musical. Not only are these four awards largely independent of each other, but they also feature contrasting correlations with other criteria of film greatness, including box office returns, best picture honors, and rave reviews.” (Simonton 2011: 190)

Let’s take a deeper look into the matters.

Recipe of a successful film:

If you are a filmmaker and/or a screenwriter, to define if your film is a success or not, there are several methods. Such as:

  1. If the film was profitable in the box office by numbers (i.e made a greater than say, 373% return on investment)
  2. The number of awards and nominations in key categories is also important to consider (awards like Oscars, BAFTAs, AFIs, etc)
  3. Critics’ Reviews can also determine the success of the film (e.g.: on Metacritic.com, and Roger Ebert, ad Joe-Bob Briggs, etc)
  4. How far the film spreads in the culture, how influential the film was to the audiences – these can be a key factor (i.e.: “audience reach”)
  5. If the film was actually produced (for your information, only 2% of movie screenplays submitted to producers are actually made)
  6. If the film had a theatrical release (or was perhaps straight-to-disc media)

It costs around $100 million to produce a major studio movie, including marketing and distribution, so success is absolutely important.

However, despite a lot of studies, precise predictions of box office success stills give a really hard time for the analysts, says consumer behavior expert Associate Professor Francois Carrilant from UTS Business School.

According to him, “This is because movies are ‘experiental’ so, unlike a Big Mac, you don’t know what you’re getting in advance – and preferences vary,

Researches from UTS, HEC Montreal, and the University of Cambridge compared and analyzed several common factors across 150 studies to pin down the formula for a film to be a box office success. These factors that are influential for the audiences to watch a movie are: Star power, acting expertise, rousing reviews, and public ratings.

Star Power :

The study gave an interesting point of view about the relation between a great actor. It, published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, explained how the “Star Power” plays a very important role in the beginning to pull audiencess. But it wanes away unless the “Superstar Actor” also gives a solid performance. Then the movie is remembered and recognized for a long time because of their showcase of outstanding acting abilities.

Even though there is always a temptation, movie executives must not try to somehow save a low-quality movie with a star actor, says Carrilat. “Evidence shows that the waning impact of stars on the box office is due to the decrasing quality of movies featuring popular stars.”

Unsurprisingly, if a film has the main actor who has received awards and recognitions for acting is actually one of the best predictors of the movie being successful, according to Carrilat. “We find a steady influence of stars’ artistic recognition on theatrical success since the early 1930s – it is the most stable dimension,” he says.

“The assumption in the industry that stars are losing their luster is verified only for popular stars but not for artistically recognized stars.”

Distribution and release :

For moviemakers, Carrilat says “it’s worth bearing in mind that even with excellent actors and brillant reviews a movie will not do well unless distributors are on the side. As it is a key determinant of box office success and is the number of screens where the movie is released.”

Here we can use China as a glowing and growing example for our case study. Recently, a significant number of major American releases have gone out of their way to not just showcase an American film to Chinese audiences but to actively target them at Chinese audiences. For example, the movie “Independence Day: Resurgence” dedicated an entire subplot to an ace pilot played by the popular Chinese actress Angelababy. Then again, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” sets its whole final play and the climax in Hong Kong and has abandons of cameos from domestic stars and Chinese product placements. The movie “Iron Man 3” even went as far as shooting extra scenes for exclusive inclusion in the Chinese release. And with box office revenues expected to reach US$ 50 billion worldwide by the near future, all the distributors and production companies will be aiming for as many screens as possible.

In conclusion, we can say a film is a success when the target audience loves it. However, it is not possible that a film is like and appreciated by everyone. Movies should reflect the intellectual and moral state of a culture. We get what we perpetuate. Harmony Korine, director of “Spring Breakers”, pretty much sums it up: “Hollywood is run by accountants,” he continues. “And so anytime you speak with someone who’s not a pure accountant, is not a pencil pusher? It’s exciting. They had a hear to them.”

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