Thursday, January 6, 2011

A look at what we should learn from the yearly box office results

If you'll recall, last year I ran a post taking a look at that top twenty-grossing films of 2009 and extrapolated some lessons that writers might take from knowing what's popular with audiences. Well, with 2010 behind us, we can now take a look at the trends of the past year. Here's a look at the top domestic grosses for 2010.

1) Toy Story 3 - $415 million
2) Alice in Wonderland - $334 million
3) Iron Man 2 - $312 million
4) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - $300 million
5) Inception - $292 million
6) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I - $284 million
7) Despicable Me - $251 million
8) Shrek Forever After -$238 million
9) How To Train Your Dragon - $217 million
10) The Karate Kid - $176 million
11) Tangled - $169 million
12) The Clash of the Titans - $163 million
13) Grown Ups - $162 million
14) Megamind - $144 million
15) Tron: Legacy - $135 million
16) The Last Airbender - $131 million
17) Shutter Island - $128 million
18) The Other Guys - $119 million
19) Salt - $118 million
20) Jackass 3-D - $117 million

First off, there are fully seven films that are part of a franchise (Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Harry Potter, Shrek Forever After, Tron: Legacy, Jackass 3D). Five of those are in the top ten!

Two other entries are remakes of older movies: The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans

On top of that, five films are adapted or based from other mediums: Alice and Wonderland, How To Train Your Dragon, Tangled, The Last Airbender, Shutter Island (not counting the sequels already listed in the franchise category.)

Number of animated films: 6

So if you're planning your new spec script, obviously you can't count on writing a franchise, remake or adaptation. That right there takes out fourteen of the top 20 films as something YOU could have written.

Animated specs are long shots as well. There are only three serious animation houses in the feature business and you'll find that stories tend to be developed in-house at those studios. So let's take those off the table.

Number of original spec scripts in the top ten: 1 (Inception.)

What are we left with when we remove franchises, adaptations, and animation from the Top 20? Inception, Grown-Ups, The Other Guys and Salt.

That's basically two high concept comedies and two high concept action-thrillers. If you're writing for the market, comedy, action and thriller would be where I'd concentrate my efforts.

Do you know how far down the list I had to go to find a drama? The Social Network at 29. And after that it took until Eat, Pray, Love and Dear John at 37 and 38 respectively. And guess what? Both of those were based on novels. Spec dramas did not finish well on the yearly chart at all.

Straight-up dramas are a longshot. True, they can often be low budget, meaning that a failure to appear in the top 50 films doesn't necessarily mean they weren't profitable. But you won't need the entirety of one hand to count all the original drama specs in the top 100 films of the year!

But what do a lot of first-time writers write? Drama.

Yes, The Social Network is brilliant - but that came from one of the mediums strongest writers - Aaron Sorkin, and a director who's able to make even the most unlikely material compelling, David Fincher. (Could anyone else have made the nearly three-hour Zodiac as engrossing?)

Consider yourselves warned.


  1. I also noticed fifteen of the twenty are aimed at a younger audience, with maybe two or three for tweens and teens.

    Is it me, or are more movies being made for kids?

  2. Maybe its that kid movies are made well. As an adult, I enjoyed more of the kid movies this year than most adult ones. The adult films were predictable and often full of sensationalism simply for shock value. The kid movies seem to lose a lot of the pandering. Just my thoughts.

    Also, good thing most of my scripts are action/thrillers.

  3. As much as I hate to say it, I think the real lesson to learn is to write something that will look good in 3D.

  4. 3D is definitely pushing sales numbers, but I'm not sure I'd say that you wnt to write something that looks good in 3D. I think I count maybe, and I'm being generous, two films that were specifically designed to be seen in 3D of the Top 20 films.

    The remaining Top 20 would have been up there without 3D being added to the finished product.

    I want to believe that 3D is just a way for Hollywood Studios to generate income. I don't know if they see it as a way to tell a story.

  5. Just write a damn good story, with strong characters. Write something people will see, love, and rant to their friends about.
    I'd never write a thriller just 'cos they're 'in'.
    But I'd leave drama to TV, because that seems to be the forum best handling it now.

    And I wouldn't say this list is full of kids movies. They're 'family films'. Blockbusters - i.e. they bust the blocks of demographics, attracting all ages.
    I saw an animated feature script sold on spec recently. Hopefully that writer has opened the gate for the rest of us who'd like to get our feature animations looked at by the normally closed animation leaders. Looking at some of the CG films to come out in the last 5 years, they really need some new thinkers.