Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Motivate Audiences With Motivation

by Ian Coburn

"The box-office is in a slump." This statement has plagued the film industry the last few years. Why?

It’s an age-old question: What makes a movie a domestic box-office draw? Given the subjectivity of the medium, start with me. Is it my opinion that makes a film a draw? Nope, not a fan of Titanic. What about film critics? Nope, most of them loved The Aviator and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. The Aviator cost $116 million to produce and grossed $102 million domestically. Eternal cost $20 million to produce; it grossed $34 million domestically. By contrast, many critics loathed Saw and The Grudge. Roeper said, “… I’m trying to stop you from even entering the theater …” when he reviewed Saw; yet, Saw, which cost $1.2 million to produce, grossed $55 million domestically. The Grudge was produced for $10 million and grossed $110 million domestically. What’s the problem? Critics like or dislike movies for a variety of reasons—cinematography, acting, directing, etc. Audiences are often apathetic to critics’ values.


Surely, the Oscars® indicate which films rack up dough at the box-office. Nope, The Aviator was nominated for best picture and Eternal won best original screenplay. Star power. No. Waterworld, Gigli and Hostage all struggled in the domestic box-office. Marketing must be the key. No. Seventy million was spent on Pearl Harbor’s marketing; $60 million was spent on The Polar Express. Both did poorly.


The sure-fire way to guarantee a movie draws a big audience and makes lots of money … the three-act structure. Films that adhere to it do well; those that stray from it don’t. Hostage follows the structure and did poorly. The Mummy strays from the structure, dividing itself into two halves. The first part is about finding Hamunaptra; the second part is about releasing and recapturing the mummy. Pulp Fiction doesn’t follow the three-act structure. Pulp and The Mummy made big money. High concept, that’s what a film needs. Barbershop and American Beauty did great without high concepts. A suave man who gets nervous around the woman he likes and a dorky guy who takes advice from a player to win the woman of his affection is nothing new. That’s Hitch, and it cleaned up at the box-office. Hostage and The Terminal are high concept and they didn’t do well.

Long movies won’t draw crowds. Dances With Wolves did. Happy endings guarantee big crowds. Titanic and Casablanca were big in the box-office and have unhappy endings. Audiences don’t want historical or biographical films. The Passion of The Christ and A Beautiful Mind did well. Throw special effects at the crowd. Didn’t help Battlefield Earth. Make television shows into movies. The Honeymooners bombed. Remake movies. Get Carter failed. Comics make money. Hulk didn’t. Dammit! Frustrated? Ergo the common belief that no one knows anything in this industry.

There is one common denominator in movies that draw crowds and earn big bucks domestically: Motivated characters. Many of the characters have strong motivation, even some who appear in only one scene. The characters in Saw have a strong motivation to escape, or identify and capture the killer. They have different motivations in their daily lives that led Jigsaw to select them as victims. Pulp Fiction is full of characters with their own motivations. Characters visit the house in The Grudge for a variety of reasons: to have an affair, to care for an elderly woman, to burn it down. The Mummy is full of motivated characters: a brother who wants to work very little to make very much; a hero who wants to keep his word to take a woman to Hamunaptra; desert people who want to keep the mummy from being discovered; a mummy who wants to revive his true love; a woman who yearns to be recognized for her scholarly knowledge. These characters seek their motivations simultaneously or, rather, the scripts stack their motivations vertically. Million Dollar Baby—which did well at the box-office—is also full of motivated characters, including a skinny, little boxer wannabe and a poor-excuse-of-a-mother who wants to cash in on her daughter’s hard-won success. Crash did very well at the box-office and is rooted in motivated characters.

The Aviator is about one man, Howard Hughes. The people around him seem to be there only for him. They have little or no motivation. His right-hand man has kids, which have absolutely no impact on his life. Believable? No. Katharine Hepburn seems to have no motivation outside Hughes. As successful as she was in life, that doesn’t ring true. Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin play characters with some motivations; but, ultimately, their motivations seem to exist more for Hughes to exercise his motivation than to serve any other purpose. In Waterworld, all the characters, save one, seek land. The teen villains in Hostage have no apparent motivation; hence, it appears as though they act simply to put Bruce Willis’ character in an impossible situation, as demanded by the three-act structure. The Polar Express takes a lack of motivation further by casting Tom Hanks in several roles. Fun for Hanks, but not much variety for audiences; and when characters have the same identifiable voiceover, it feels like they all have the same motivation.

The Incredibles

One group has its finger on the pulse of motivation. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Shrek, Madagascar, Monsters, Inc.—ironically, the most realistically motivated characters are animated. Why? Today, animated films have to draw both children and adults. Children are mesmerized by the main characters and plot. Adults are hooked by parallels to the real world, such as the “AA” shark meeting in Finding Nemo or rolling blackouts in Monsters, Inc. These parallels are often provided by extraneous characters, such as a neurotic fish swimming by, frantic because he’s late for work.

Do the most popular movies over time have motivated characters, even in small roles that appear only briefly? Jaws is full of them. Back to The Future? “Save the clock tower, save the clock tower!” The Rock? Right down to a daughter so wary of meeting her convict father, she brings a friend with her. Casablanca? Every character but Rick is motivated. In fact, the story is about Rick finding motivation. Some will argue I’m not talking about motivation; I’m talking about character development. No. Motivation and character development are two different things and Rick is a perfect example. When Rick is introduced, he is highly developed—from his suave demeanor, the respect he is given, and the power he exerts effortlessly over other people. He is, however, completely unmotivated.

Certainly, many elements play a role in the domestic financial success of movies—stars, marketing, casting and so forth. But regardless of these numerous variables, it appears a film must contain motivated characters to find success in the domestic box-office. Why do audiences want motivated characters? Life is just a bunch of people motivated to achieve one or more goals. Goals change, impacted upon by other people. (Somebody else got the job or the girl.)

Will Stubbs, director of development at Davis Entertainment (I, Robot, Alien vs. Predator), reads as many as eight scripts a day. “In many of the scripts, the minor characters involved in subplots have no real purpose or motivation. Characters need to have purpose and motivation,” comments Stubbs.

Joseph Bialik, a story editor at Ballyhoo, Inc. (Seven Years in Tibet, The Opposite of Sex), elaborates, “Motivated minor characters help movies succeed because they provide challenge and drama for the lead character. Without this drama, the movie feels contrived and planned.”

More and more articles encourage streamlining scripts, writing only characters necessary to moving the plot forward. This may be the problem that is causing domestic declines in box-office revenue. By this standard, let’s say I need to buy aspirin for my sickly mother. She’ll die if she doesn’t get it. Build the suspense. I go to several drugstores before I find one with aspirin. I get home and give my mom the aspirin just in time. Whew. BORING . . and is it believable that drugstores would be out of aspirin? Instead, how about real life? When I get to the drugstore, there are six people in line ahead of me. One is bugging the cashier for cigarettes while she tries to ring someone else up. Another is on his cell phone, asking his wife what kind of detergent to buy. This slows me down in true-to-life fashion and is interesting. These characters, just like the sharks in Finding Nemo, are extraneous and their elimination doesn’t encumber the plot . . but it may encumber the film’s domestic revenue.

Motivation. It’s the difference between walking out of The Aviator saying, “It was good, but not much going on. Just the story of one guy,” and walking out of Million Dollar Baby saying, “It was good. I liked the skinny little guy who wanted to be a boxer and had no clue. Hated that greedy bitch of a mother.” Got it? Get writing.

Comedian-turned-screenwriter Ian Coburn wrote two scripts-for-hire this year and is in the midst of optioning two others. His hilarious dating advice book God is a Woman: Dating Disasters by Comedian Ian Coburn, will be available in early September. It is geared for both men and women, and relives his funniest dating moments, including ones on the road working with acts such as Drew Carey and Damon Wayans. Please see and for more information, including pre-orders and representation.


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