Monday, March 8, 2010

Why "The Hurt Locker" shouldn't encourage you to write about the Iraq War

Those who follow me on Twitter probably heard me express this opinion a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating in the blog proper - just because The Hurt Locker has gotten a lot of press, and picked up the Oscar for Best Picture last night, don't expect that to start a spate of Iraq War movies. In fact, I'd actively discourage you from starting a spec about the Iraq War.

Here are the facts when it comes to The Hurt Locker. The film reportedly cost $15 million dollars to make, but has made barely $13 million domestically, with just under $7 million coming from international sales. A $5 million profit might be nothing to sneeze at, but for the fact that it's probably more than eaten up by marketing and distribution costs. One could blame the limited release for that fact, but studios have expanded limited releases before when the demand has proven to be there. There wasn't that amount of audience support for The Hurt Locker, despite all the press it got as the Oscar-frontrunner against the highest grossing movie of all time!

For a few years now, I've let out a heavy sigh each time I've opened a script to the slugline: "EXT. IRAQ - DAY" or "EXT. FALLUJAH - DAY." I know I'm probably in for spending a few hours reading and writing up something that my bosses would be loathe to make even if it was good... and let's face it, most of the Iraq specs I read aren't that good.

I challenge anyone to name a single Iraq War film that has been a hit. Let's even expand that to Iraq and Afghanistan War-on-Terror related movies.

Still nothing? Let's look at the numbers that the development exec, producer, or studio bean counter will look at when your Iraq spec crosses their desk.

Rendition - Budget: unknown. Domestic gross: $9 million. Foreign gross: $17 million. This was pretty widely considered a flop, so odds are it cost a lot more than it made.

In The Valley of Elah - Budget: $23 million. Domestic: $6.7 million. Foreign: $22.7 million.

Lions For Lambs - Budget: $35 million. Domestic: $15 million. Foreign: $48 million. This was a huge flop for Tom Cruise and his United Artists' pictures. Not only did it open at 4th in the box office, but it was Cruise's lowest-grossing film since 1986!

Home of the Brave - Budget: $12 million. Domestic: $51, 708. Foreign: $447, 992.

Redacted - Budget: $5 million. Domestic: $65,388. Foreign: $714,212

Stop-Loss - Budget: $25 million. Domestic: $10 million. Foreign: $291,386.

Body of Lies - Budget: $70 million. Domestic: $39 million. Foreign: $75 million. This wasn't a total flop, but you can bet that even with Foreign bringing in some cash, the studio was not happy with the box office on this.

The Kingdom - Budget: $70 million. Domestic: $47.5 million. Foreign: $39 million.

The reality is that your audience has spent the last seven-plus years trying to ignore this War on Terror. We're stuck in a quagmire of two wars with no sign of getting out anytime soon. They're not going to pay $14 admission to see something they've only been too happy to ignore for free on CNN.

All of this is exactly why I have precisely ZERO expectation that Green Zone will do well at the box office.


  1. I agree, except ... it's true until something comes along to change it (the most famous example being that pirate movies don't make any money ... that was true until Johnny Depp teamed up with Disney, granted, without Johnny, I don't think that movie would have worked as well, but it worked) ... now that doesn't mean I'd recommend starting an Iraq spec, but just that things can and do change pretty fast ... and actually, the Green Zone is not being marketed as an Iraq movie (tho I know it is), it's being marketed as an offshoot of Bourne films, which are massively popular, a smart move on their part.

    So I predict that GREEN ZONE will do better than the others, though for the same reasons you state ... they're actively avoiding the word IRAQ in the title.

    Oh, and does the 911 highjacking movie (FLIGHT something or other) count?

  2. well... the reason I avoid writing war scripts is because-- war films are VERY hard to write, I can't even write a scene. I've never been in the military, I've never been to Iraq or Afghanistan.

    One of my friends, a former Green Beret, wants me to help him write a memoir about the war. I told him I'll give him feedback, but I can't actually write it for him, cos I was NEVER there.

    Big kudos to those screenwriters who know how to write war scripts. I don't think I ever can write something so difficult yet demands to be realistic.

    but you're right-- war films are hardly profitable.

  3. Joshua - I think of UNITED 93 as a 9/11 script rather than an Iraq script, but that's another blog post in its own. After all, it's not about the war that resulted, it's about the events of that day.

    As to your point about them marketing with the Bourne connection - I don't think that ruse will work in the long term. They're clearly trying, but I don't think it'll be successful. But you're probably onto something - if anyone COULD break the jinx, it probably would be Damon in that kind of role.

  4. I heard this EXACT thing a year ago on a spec I was trying to get read a year ago. It still sits, collecting dust.

    I would say that the politically charged stories are going to do poorly. If there is a movie that comes along such as THE HURT LOCKER that focuses on character and combat action, instead of political message, you'll fair a little better.

    I can turn on any news channel and get a politically-biased story as well. Don't need it in the theatres...

  5. yeah, but guys, a thought just came to me. War films are essential to our cinema BUT also our social landscape and pop culture. War films don't let us forget the past and what we must never repeat in history.

    Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Deer Hunter, Platoon, all remind us of the brutalities of the Vietnam War... and that's important.

  6. Aside from Apocalypse Now, all of those movies were made after the Vietnam War was over, and thus, it was easier to look at those events from the perspective of hindsight and put everything into a larger context. We're still in the thick of these wars - is it possible to take that sort of cold, honest look at something while it's still going on and changing daily.

    It's also important to realize we live in a very different world than when the Vietnam was going on. People got their news from the major networks, which didn't have more than a few hours of news programming a day. Today, there are multiple 24 hour networks that offer little distinction between their "news" and editorial" programs, and often promote their own interpretations of events as it happens, which is only amplified by the "echo chamber" created on an idelogically-biased network.

    What I'm getting at is - most people probably can't even agree on history AS IT HAPPENS and even after the fact, it's going to take greater effort to separated the truth from the politicized spin on either side. Just as an example, I don't doubt that there's an interesting film to be made that explores the presidency of George W. Bush, but did I think that a movie made before the man even left office really stood a chance of being that sort of reliable "time capsule?" No way.

    But then I suppose I'm pretty much in agreement with Len's assertion that politicized stories are going to be harder sells than non-politicized ones. I agree, and it's part of the reason that you've seen little political outcry about The Hurt Locker. (Converserly, in the case of AVATAR, there were far more conservative nut-jobs who protested the film in the name of their own hobby horses.)

  7. You seem to be overlooking a salient fact - virtually all of these Iraq movies are also anti-American, or viewed as such to the vast majority of people in "flyover country".

    Rendition makes the US (Bush) government the villain.

    In the Valley of Elah and Redacted both hold that the average US Soldier is a murderous sociopath.

    Lions for Lambs maintains that the war is one of political convenience, and that those fighting it have been duped.

    Home of the Brave showed US soldiers as pure victims, broken and defective due to post traumatic stress disorder.

    Stop-Loss presents US soldiers as moronic hicks getting duped by the Big Bad (Bush) Government, even as it presents military procedure in grossyly inaccurate, ignorant fashion.

    Body of Lies went for moral equivalence, in which there is no such thing as "right" and "wrong", not exactly a tub-thumping, rabble-rousing theme.

    The Kingdom is the ONLY movie on the list where the antagonists are, in fact, Muslim terrorists - and it made the most money. Even then, it undercut that with moral equivalence, ultimately blaming the terrorism on the West.

    If you know any soldiers (or marines), you know that the above does not, in any way, reflect the reality of the war. Certainly, people get damaged, physically and psychologically. And, certainly, some US soldiers do reprehensible things -- for which they get punished.

    How about a script that treats the troops with respect? Not "respect" as defined by Hollywood leftism, but something of which actual troops would say "yeah, that story respects me and my role in the war." Something that doesn't make the US the ultimate bad guy? Something that recognizes that violent religious extremists would like nothing better than to destroy the US and everything it stands for so they could establish a global caliphate? Something that looks at the alternatives and declares that, you know what?, individual freedom and individual rights really ARE better than Islamic theocracy.

    Of course, such a script would never get made in Hollywood. But if it did, it's difficult to believe it would fare as poorly as the above listed movies.

  8. djasonfleming - you make a couple good points but the "anti-American" arguement really rankles me because that meme is the sort of jingoist rhetoric that is the stuff that would be argued by that quitting Alaskan nutjob.

    The US government has been the "villain" in many a successful thriller, and it would be a challenge to find ANY Vietnam film that didn't make use of what you call "moral equivalency" or "anti-American" politics. Granted, you probably won't find HUGE box office hits among the Vietnam films, but more than likely you'll find some modest successes.

    I think blaming those things is selling the audience too short because it implies they only will see a war movie that does without irony what TEAM AMERICA was making fun of. Plus, considering the reality of the Iraq War, the writers can only bend things so far - it IS a murky ethical area. Pull all of that out in favor of "Let's shoot all the Arabs" and you might as well be directing an Ah-nuld action film from the 80s... at which point, most filmmakers would probably just go the popcorn route and expunge politics entirely.

    But saying the problem is that the filmmakers are finding moral complexity in the Iraq War is a little like saying the problem with JURASSIC PARK 3 was all the damn dinosaurs.

    It seem that the middle ground between our points is that an exploration of the moral issues surrounding the Iraq War, coupled with viewing the deaths and violence associated with that war is something that makes most Americans uncomfortable. I wouldn't argue with that, and it sounds like you wouldn't either.

  9. Vietnam was over for five years when Apocalypse Now was made

  10. D'oh! Knew I should have checked that before I pressed "Post." For some reason, I remembered that one as the Coppola one that Lucas apprenticed on, and had recalled it as coming before "American Graffiti" and thus, the end of Vietnam.

    Nice catch though... everyone else seems to have missed that gaffe on my part.

  11. Some great posts here. Very true that 99% of the time, you should just stay away from modern war movie specs. But Joshua is right. It's true until someone proves otherwise. The thing is, are you really going to be that person who proves it wrong? Do you want to go up against those odds?

    If so, try to find a unique angle that hasn't been covered before.

  12. I just wonder if we are forgetting that many of these movies have attracted some really strong actors. Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal in RENDITION, Cruise, Streep and Redford in LIONS FOR LAMBS, Crowe and DiCaprio for BODY OF LIES. Renner got an Oscar nom for THE HURT LOCKER. Granted, only RENDITION was a spec script I believe, but stars do not seem to be averse to them

  13. Scott - I would say that the point you raise brings up an even greater cause for concern - that even bankable actors have had little success in enticing audiences to see this project.

  14. Sure one could make the jaded argument that writers should stay away from contemporary war pieces based on box office grosses. But the real lesson to take away from THE HURT LOCKER is that good writing + good acting + the right direction = good story.

    While the last few years have seen many terrible films make billions and many wonderful movies go straight to home video I still like to think that a good story told well is the secret to lasting success.