How to make a blockbuster movie
Once upon a time in Hollywood, that was all the advice about making a mega-hit movie you needed, based – since Jaws was the highest-grossing film ever released right until Star Wars came out – on the fact that Steven Spielberg’s temperamental robo-shark was kept under wraps until the final act. After that, the formula got refined to take in aliens and archaeologists, DeLoreans and dinosaurs, and the tradition of the summer blockbuster – a tentpole mega-hit able to prop up the rest of a studio’s yearly output – became entrenched.
Now, though, things are getting more complicated. With an ever-more demanding international audience and budgets regularly hitting nine figures, the modern blockbuster is an ultra-evolved beast, stomping all in its path. Sequels, merchandise lines and spin-offs are planned years in advance, and once the wheels are in motion, they’re difficult to stop. And yet, the resulting films are…actually pretty good?
Sure, there’s the odd Baywatch or Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, but for every one of them there’s a Fury Road or an Edge Of Tomorrow: a genre-bending banger that’s as smart as any award contender. This year: with Incredibles 2, Infinity War and a surprisingly good Solo effort (sorry), is already shaping up to be one of the best ever - but how do you make a film that’s guaranteed to please the audiences and the auditors?
Get your priorities right
What are the most popular elements of any blockbuster? According to the Internet Movie Database, which keeps track of the tags most commonly associated with movies in each genre, you’re looking for a heady brew of ‘Violence’ (256 tags out of 633 films), ‘Murder’ (250), ‘Explosions’ (238) and, uh, Title Spoken By Character (234). Father-son relationships are also good, as are fistfights, fires and people falling from a height.
By this metric, claims FiveThirtyEight culture writer and statistical analyst Walk Hickey, Chris Nolan’s best Batman film The Dark Knight is the most blockbusterly film of all time, hitting almost every key tag – and, what’s more, modern films are better at doing it than older ones. Are we heading for a future in which *every* film’s simply a cut-and-paste sequence of chases, rooftop fights and people diving out of exploding buildings? Possibly, but there’s still room for improvisation: Back To The Future hits at least half of the popular tags.
Make it mythic
Why is A New Hope so appealing when so many other Star Wars films, er, aren’t? It’s at least partly because Luke Skywalker’s story – leave home to seek adventure, find brave mentors and charming princesses, end up on an epic quest to unify the universe – mimics a myth-structure that’s literally thousands of years old.
This isn’t coincidental: George Lucas was friends with Joseph Campbell, literature professor, mythology expert and author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, who argued that almost every culture has some form of the legend of the hero’s journey, a ‘mono-myth’ that mimics the major stages of life.
According to Campbell, there are 17 altogether – from ‘The Call To Adventure’ to ‘The Approach To The Innermost Cave’ – and half a century after Campbell’s book, screenwriter Christopher Vogler condensed the whole thing down to 12, using a template that almost every blockbuster follows. Look to shmoop.com for endless examples, from Jaws to Jurassic Park - everyone ‘Meets the mentor’ and ‘Crosses The Threshhold’ at some point.
A few decades ago, domestic box-office take was the barometer of most films’ success - but in an increasingly-connected world with budgets spiralling out of control, being big in America isn’t enough. That’s why modern mega-hits increasingly cater to big overseas markets, with films that emphasise universal ideas and themes, globe-hopping plots and beloved non-American actors.
Iron Man 3, for instance, was one of the first films to fully embrace this idea, adding in extra scenes and extra characters who were barely in the American version to cater to a Chinese audience, while Red Dawn had its Chinese villains digitally removed and replace with an invading Korean army. Beloved Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen brought a lot to Rogue One, while model-turned-actress Angelababy helped Independence Day: Resurgence recoup its budget in overseas territories. Having twelve different locations in your script might be bad planning if you’re an ultra-budget indie film, but for the modern mega-smash it’s almost required.
Upgrade your fight choreography
Fact: in the late 1980s, every single fight scene was some sort of variation Jean-Claude Van Damme getting elbowed in the face without even trying to block forty times, then doing a jumping spinning kick and winning the fight.
Things started to change with The Matrix, when Keanu kicked off a trend for leading men learning to fight – often with the aid of established Hong Kong choreographers like Yuen Wo-Ping – but now, even Metacritic’s most-derided cash grabs have fight scenes that put JCVD to shame. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Good fights. World Of Warcraft? Good fights. Fantastic Four? Trick question, it’s impossible to actually watch to the end, but in higher-end efforts the choreography’s even more beguiling, with the likes of Civil War using its choreography to pick up where the dialogue leaves off.
Use the blockbuster colour scheme
In the Jaws days, getting a film’s colour-scheme right was something that had to be worked out on-camera - but now, modern colour-grading techniques allow almost every hit to embrace the same palette, known as the ‘blockbuster look’ by colourists.
The trick: cyan gets pushed into the background, oranges get emphasised, and the resulting cool shadows and warm highlights make almost any shot pop. Some films tweak the formula to smart, jarring effect - The Matrix’s green-tinged computer-land shots echo early computer monitors to eerie effect - but for most big-budget films, high contrast is the way to go.
Do something completely ridiculous
This isn’t strictly necessary, but Hollywood’s learning today what Jackie Chan knew twenty years ago: if you want people to go to your films entirely on the strength of your stunts, they’d better be absolutely insane.
Witness, for instance, every Mission Impossible film since the first one, with this year’s effort featuring Tom Cruise in a 200mph skydiving sequence that took a reported 106 takes to get right.
Embrace ‘fractal’ filmmaking
Almost any film can be neatly chopped into three acts, with a turning point after the first quarter, a game-changing ‘midpoint’ halfway through and a point-of-no-return ‘worst moment’ twenty minutes or so from the end.
But, as screenwriter John Yorke explains in his influential Into The Woods, this structure also crops up throughout good films – in each act, each scene, and even each conversation – like mathematical fractals, where each tiny part has the same structure as the whole.
How does that relate to watching Chris Hemsworth hit monsters with a hammer? Well, consider the fight scene at the end of the original Avengers: it starts badly (aliens invade), but then there’s a game-changing moment (Banner shows up) and a crucial midpoint (that bit where they all get together) followed by a worst moment (aliens keep coming, everyone gets tired).
But then there’s another, even smaller mini-plot where (spoilers!) the World Security Council launches a nuke, Nick Fury narrowly fails to stop it, and Iron Man juuuust manages to lob it at the Chitauri. That’s modern film-making – every tiny layer comes with tension, risk, and consequences. It’s why you’re constantly on the edge of your seat in even the dumbest movies.
…And have a post-credits scene
Fun fact: James Cameron’s Aliens was arguably the first film to do this, with the audible *squitch* of an alien egg hatching heralding the unremitting bleakness of Aliens 3. But now that post-credits scenes are the de rigeur way to set up a sequel, there’s an escalating arms race going on. This summer, Deadpool 2’s become the first film to break the post-credits event horizon with three of them...and a sequel’s guaranteed.