Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A look at 2011's Top 20 grossing films and what it means for writers

2009 Top 20 grossing box office analysis
2010 Top 20 grossing box office analysis

As has been a tradition here, it's time to take a look at the box office from last year and see what we as writers can learn from looking at the top 20 grossing films.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ($381 mill domestic/$1.3 billion worldwide)
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352 mill domestic/$1.1 billion worldwide)
3. Breaking Dawn part I ($275 mill domestic/$656 mill worldwide.)
4. The Hangover Part II ($254 mill domestic/$581 mill worldwide.)
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($241 mill domestic/1 billion worldwide.)
6. Fast Five ($209 mill domestic/$626 mill worldwide)
7. Cars 2 ($191 mill domestic/$559 mill worldwide.)
8. Thor ($181 mill domestic/$449 mill worldwide.)
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($177 mill domestic/$481 mill worldwide.)
10. Captain America ($177 mill domestic/$368 mill worldwide.)
11. The Help ($169 mill domestic/$202 mill worldwide.)
12. Bridesmaids ($169 mill domestic/$288 mill worldwide.)
13. Kung Fu Panda 2 ($165 mill domestic/$665 mill worldwide.)
14. X-Men: First Class ($146 mill domestic/$353 mill worldwide.)
15. Puss in Boots ($145 mill domestic/$400 mill worldwide.)
16. Rio ($144 mill domestic/$485 mill worldwide.)
17. The Smurfs ($142 mill domestic/$562 mill worldwide.)
18. Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol ($134 mill domestic/$324 mill worldwide.)
19. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ($132 mill domestic/$181 mill worldwide.)
20. Super 8 ($127 mill domestic/$259 mill worldwide.)

Fully 13 of the Top 20 grossing films were part of a franchise.  (Harry Potter, Transformers, Breaking Dawn, Hangover 2, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fast Five, Cars 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men First Class, Puss in Boots, Mission Impossible 4, Sherlock Holmes).  Last year, that category stood at seven entries!

12 of those films were adaptations. (Harry Potter, Transformers Breaking Dawn, Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor, Captain America, The Help, X-Men First Class, Puss in Boots, The Smurfs, Mission Impossible 4, Sherlock Holmes.) That's up from eight last year.

And 3 of the films were animated.  (Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio.)

I mention those three categories because those are three types of scripts that it's nearly impossible for an aspiring screenwriter to break into the business with.  I often see aspiring writers cite box office figures with some authority, as if the fact that Avatar made over a billion dollars means that there's a market for their sci-fi epic set on another world, full of complicated cultures and aliens.  If there's one thing aspiring sci-fi writers love, it's world-building.  (It's a love closely followed by the urge to map out an entire trilogy before selling someone on the first film.)

 Anyway, if you eliminate franchises, adaptations and animated films from that Top 20 list, you're left with the only scripts that really could have come out of the spec pile.  Do you know how many that is?  Two.  Bridesmaids and Super 8.

Last year, there were four films that fit that bill.  This trend is likely to reverse next year, as there was a nearly 100% increase in spec sales from 2010 to 2011.  According to Go into The Story, 55 specs were sold in 2010, and 109 were sold in 2011. One presumes that this means that in the coming years, perhaps more original films will find their way into the Top 20 as the percentage of sequels and remakes drops to accommodate them.

Even more interesting, both Bridesmaids and Super 8 somewhat defied conventional wisdom.  Coming from an amateur, Super 8 probably would have been penalized as a period piece set in the 80s and written as a throwback to an older style of film-making.  Bridesmaids would have had the stigma of being a female-driven comedy.

A promising sign - the highest-placing adult drama was The Help at No. 11.  In 2010, that honor went to The Social Network at slot 29.  On the other hand, after The Help, the next real drama was Moneyball at No. 42 and that was with Brad Pitt in the lead.  There'll always be dramas, but this underlines why one shouldn't expect to make a big splash on the spec market with one.

What else do you take from this list?


  1. Looks like Hollywood is playing safe. Works with a pre-established fan base seem to be a winning hand. More studios and producer will embrace this strategy, which is concerning. Still, a good spec will get the new writers enough attention, even if it won't sell. My crystal says that as long as this play-safe theory is paying off for them, we gonna see less spec-based movies on the screen.

  2. I was going to make a comment on how we should look at the next ten as well, but it doesn't prove any point. If I'm learning anything from this list, it's that even though specs are selling hotter than ever, the amount of them that go from selling to production to film to box office success is rarer than ever. Agree with Xwriter, this list is almost too safe.

  3. I don't know if these are necessarily the numbers that an aspiring screenwriter should look at. There are rare occasions of the sleeper hits, but the vast majority of big blockbusters are carefully planned by studios. Each movie on this list probably spent more on advertising than the complete budget of a film by a new writer.

    2011 was another banner year showing me the closer I get to being paid writer, the further way it feels.

  4. I agree with Steve. These films all have enormous budgets and spend huge amounts on advertising. It's no wonder they do well at the box office.

    Inspired by this post, I did my own analysis of the most PROFITABLE films of 2011, based on these same numbers. Take a look:

  5. That's... kinda my point. It's why I took a look at the Top 20 films and one-by-one discounted them. You'd be surprised how many young writers are out there with specs that they think are the next Matrix/Harry Potter/Transformers/Avatar. They'll chase a trend and when you point out that no one wants to buy their $200 million spec set on an alien world that ends with the dreaded words "To Be Continued," they say something like "Avatar was the biggest movie of all time."

    And some of that is fault of advice-givers like me, who advise readers to take note of what's "hot" and what's likely to have an audience. Part of the point of this exercise is, "okay, make sure you qualify that data."

    Enormous budgets and lots of spending on ads doesn't automatically guarantee a return at the box office. Just ask the makers of Sucker Punch and Green Lantern.