ANY MOVIE CONCEPT CAN WORK
The great screenwriter, William Goldman (All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Misery, The Ghost and the Darkness, Marathon Man, and many, many more), is famous for his assessment on what is the single most important fact that every budding filmmaker should be aware of about the entire movie industry —
“Not one person in the entire motion picture field,” Goldman asserts, “Knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”¹ What Goldman was stating was a truism that is still relevant today. Hollywood, in spite of all its experience and resources, can never truly predict whether any one particular movie will succeed.
While this opinion would seemingly cast a pall over anyone considering going into the movie business, it actually serves as a great incentive. For no one knowing anything means everyone knows something. In fact, most of the incredibly successful movies listed in the tables provided in The Potential Of Low Budget Movies were produced independently because the major studios would not back the projects; reinforcing the fact that neither Hollywood – nor any so-called industry expert – holds a crystal ball, and that any movie concept can ultimately work.
The point to all of this is that Goldman’s famous quote should be viewed from both perspectives. For looking at this from the opposite but equally valid perspective, it also means that a good movie can come from any source!
These Movies Found Financial Backers – Would You Have Funded Them?
Consider this premise. Two men have dinner in a chic restaurant in New York and we watch them as one of the men, Andre Gregory, discusses such things as experimental theatre, the nature of theatre, and the nature of life for about an hour. After which the other man, Wallace Shawn, then partakes in the conversation by arguing that life as Andre defines it is not possible for the majority of people.
Boring you’d think? Never fly? If someone was pitching this premise for a movie, would any of us have funded it? Well, all of this is still debatable, but the fact remains that My Dinner With Andre went on to gain critical acclaim. A movie that the late film critic Roger Ebert once praised as “… being totally devoid of cliches.”²
Now picture this incredibly wild idea for making a movie. What if Elvis never died. Instead, he traded places with an Elvis impersonator in order to live a regular life for awhile but then couldn’t prove later who he was. You see during his “sabbatical” his IDs are lost in a fire and the fake Elvis dies and is mourned. Meanwhile the real Elvis is injured (he throws his hip out on stage and falls during a performance) and has to be confined to a nursing home as the years pass on. There he meets a crippled John F. Kennedy (he didn’t die either) who just so happens to have turned black over the years (“The CIA dyed me!”). Together, they must combat an evil 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy who has risen from the dead and is collecting souls from amongst the helpless elderly. Can “The King” and JFK save themselves and the other residents from eternal damnation?
Ridiculous you say? Absolutely the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard? Well chances are if you were betting against this proposed comedy horror thriller when it first came out you’d probably get no takers. But Bubba Ho-Tep went on to become a surprise hit that truly impressed critics. Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and highlighted the film’s “delightful wackiness” by stating, “It has the damnedest ingratiating way of making us sit there and grin at its harebrained audacity, laugh at its outhouse humor, and be somewhat moved at the poignancy of these two old men and their situation.”³
And you needn’t go further than its title, Napoleon Dynamite, to likely have cast doubts as to its likely success when it originally opened. But this quirky comedy about a socially awkward high school student in Preston, Idaho, and his cast of equally maladjusted supporting characters – geekish older brother Kip, former athlete and present day weirdo Uncle Rico, Mexican American best friend Pedro (who aspires to be student body president), and not to forget, a llama and a liger – has not only attracted a cult following, but on a budget of $440,000 that eventually brought in $46 million, has become one of the truly legendary movie success stories of all time.⁴
Managing The Risks
In effect, not every movie needs to be a Titanic – tipping the scales in everything, budget, sales, critical acclaim – in order to be labeled a success. Although it should be noted that in spite of its now iconic place in the pantheon of movie classics, the Titanic’s original premise had studio executives rolling their eyes in doubtful unison. In describing his pitch to make the movie, Director James Cameron said, “They were like, ‘Oooooohkaaaaaay – a three-hour romantic epic? Sure, that’s just what we want.”⁵ Cameron’s Titanic was also a titanic risk. It was at that time (1997), at $200 million, the most expensive movie ever made. The fact that it went on to become the biggest grossing movie of all time basically rendered all original concerns moot, but the fact of the matter is that had the movie failed at the box office it could have also become the biggest cinematic bomb ever made.
My Dinner With Andre, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Napoleon Dynamite (and many more) all reinforce the point that a hit can come from any story idea no matter how far fetched. But what also should be stressed is that these examples were all low budget movies.⁶ So while the producers were ecstatic at both the critical and commercial successes of their movies, the fact was that had the productions not done as well as they did, they would have managed the downside risk by having kept their costs low.
The Bottom Line
Focusing on producing low budget productions mitigates the risk of financing movies and greatly increases the chances of returning a healthy profit. The bottom line — regardless of the budget, any movie concept WRITTEN WELL, ACTED WELL, and DIRECTED WELL…
… CAN BECOME A HIT!
¹William Goldman, Adventures In The Screen Trade, (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1983), page 39.
⁶Exact costs for My Dinner With Andre is not available, but article sources all indicate it was made for well under a million dollars. Bubba Ho-Tep was made for exactly $1 million. As stated, Napoleon Dynamite was made for $440,000.