Secrets of Blockbuster Movies - Part I
By John Truby
Hollywood is interested in one thing: a script with blockbuster potential. Why? Because the revenue from films is now global. The typical hit film makes more money from foreign revenue than it does from the U.S. Couple that with the exorbitant cost of making and selling a film and you've got an entertainment community that won't even look at a script unless it has blockbuster written all over it.
That's a big problem for most screenwriters. Most writers, if they have any training at all, never learn the techniques for writing hit films. In fact they don't even know such techniques exist. They go off to write their standard three-act script and think that blockbusters happen when you're lucky enough to get some big star attached.
No question about it, big stars help. But the list of big star vehicles that bombed at the box office is a long one. And if you look at the best selling films of all time, you'll notice a surprising number have no stars at all.
Blockbuster films don't come from big stars. They come from blockbuster stories. They come from writers who USE FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES THAN OTHER WRITERS.
I'd like to point out just a few of the key elements found in the best-selling films of all time. These are elements that you can use in your script. They won't guarantee you'll have the next hit film, but they will radically increase your chances of selling your script to a hungry market.
A word of caution: These techniques don't guarantee that you'll write a great script. On the other hand, don't assume that these techniques force you to write a bad script. There doesn't have to be a contradiction between what is good and what is successful.
1. Blockbusters use the right genre for the story idea.
To see why this is such an important blockbuster technique, you have to understand the first rule of Hollywood. Hollywood doesn't buy and sell stars. It doesn't buy and sell directors. It doesn't buy and sell writers, much as we might wish it did.
The first rule of Hollywood is: it buys and sells genres. A genre is a type of story, like action, love, thriller, detective, etc. There are 11 major film genres and scores of sub-genres. A genre is a brand that the audience recognizes. With genres, the studios and the audience don't have to reinvent the wheel for every film.
Key point: you can't write a hit film without mastering at least one, and usually two, major genres.
And for most writers, there's the rub. I've worked with thousands of writers. And I have found that 99% of scripts fail at the premise. Right at the one-line story idea. It's not that the writers failed to come up with an original and commercial story idea. The writers failed to use the right structure/genre to develop the idea from a one-line premise to a two-hour script.
You may have great characters and write terrific dialogue. But if you have chosen the wrong genres to express your idea in story form, none of the other craft elements will matter. The story will die.
Blockbuster scripts always choose the right genres for their story idea. The right genres highlight the inherent strengths of the idea and hide the inherent weaknesses.
Finding the right genre for your idea is not easy. You don't want to make a snap judgment. Often the same idea could be expressed in five or even ten different story forms. The trick is to find the one or two best forms that will bring out the 'gold' in your idea.
2. Blockbusters use the myth genre or some variation.
Myth is one of the 11 most popular genres in movies. Like all genres, myth is a special story structure with unique story beats.
A surprisingly large number of hit films are based on the myth genre. Why? Because myth travels better than any other form. Many of the key beats in a myth story transcend cultural and national boundaries. This is why 'Star Wars is as popular in Japan as it is in the U.S. We see myth elements in such films as 'The Lion King,' 'Jaws,' 'Batman,' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' 'Titanic' and even 'Forrest Gump.'
But you should keep in mind a key qualifier. Blockbusters almost always combine the myth form with at least one other major genre, and often two. The other genres help to modernize the myth form, and also overcome many of the weaknesses inherent to this tricky genre.
3. Blockbusters hit the genre beats, but do them in an original way.
Writers of hit films know their forms cold. They never underestimate the complexity of their genre. Each genre is a system, with a number of unique story beats, a special hero, opponent, symbols and themes. Hitting all these unique elements of the genre is essential to success. It's what the audience pays to see. It's where you pay your dues to be in the game.
But writers of hit films go a step farther. They know their genres so well they hit the genres' unique story beats in an original way. Originality is what sets you apart from all the other writers working in your form.
Let me give you a couple of examples. 'Sleepless in Seattle' and 'When Harry Met Sally' are both love stories, romantic comedies to be exact. Love stories are among the trickiest of all genres, with no less than 12 special story beats.
These two films are very different love stories. Yet each one hits all 12 of those key love story beats. The writers paid their dues.
But they went farther and did those beats in an original way. Conventional wisdom said you couldn't tell a love story where the lovers don't meet until the last scene. Which is why no American film had ever done it. (A French film did it about 25 years ago, but that doesn't count). But the writer of 'Sleepless' found a way to hit all the genre beats of a good love story while keeping the unique element of the lovers not meeting until the end. Result? Smash hit.
Conventional wisdom said you couldn't do a love story in which the two leads are friends for ten years before they become lovers. The leads are supposed to have an immediate spark followed by a rush to love where the man chases the woman. But the writers of 'When Harry Met Sally' were able to do the key love story beats while letting the lovers get to know each other in a slower but deeper way. Result? Smash hit.
4. Blockbusters have a strong, single cause-and-effect line with a single, clear character change.
Hit films always have a strong spine. A strong spine comes from a single cause-and-effect line: having a main character who takes a series of actions to reach a goal. Action A should lead directly to action B, which should lead directly to action C, and so on until the end.
Look at your own script, or the script of a film that was not a blockbuster. You may be surprised at how often the actions of the hero are not linked in this relentless kind of way.
But linked action is not enough. Audiences want to know how a hero's actions lead him/her to change. Hit films always have a clearly recognizable character change. For example, in the hit movie 'Outbreak,' the hero goes from being an arrogant, insensitive, egocentric control freak to someone who learns how to love and how to value others in a more intimate way.
This clear character change doesn't have to be positive. In 'The Godfather,' Michael changes from being unconcerned, kind, mainstream, legitimate and outside the family to being the tyrannical, absolute ruler of the family.
I always recommend that writers spend a lot of time exploring their premise line. One of the best things about a premise is that it allows you to see clearly whether your idea has a single cause-and-effect line. If it doesn't, it is easy to fix.
But the most important thing to find out when exploring your premise is your hero's probable character change. It is embedded in the idea. If you can tease it out, the rest of the writing process will be a lot easier. And you'll have a much better chance of writing a blockbuster script.
In future articles, I'll talk about blockbuster techniques for character, plot and theme. In the meantime, keep writing.
Meet the Author: John Truby
John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.