Thursday, May 10, 2007

Form? Or Content? Or Something Else?

What makes a hit film a hit film? I mostly agree with this. Mostly:

Supposedly, people weren't interested in watching hand-drawn animation as much as computerized animation. But what people weren't interested in was watching bad movies. It's as (Finding Nemo director) Andrew Stanton said: 2-D became a scapegoat for bad storytelling.

That's John Lasseter, quoted in USA TODAY a week ago.

It's what people who've worked in story heartily endorse: Story is what it's all about. You got no compelling story, you got nothing.

Well, story is a big part of it, but only a part. There are so many other elements involved in making a "hit" that it boggles the mind.

Let me give you one example, one I was involved in: The Fox and the Hound. Most people sort of remember it fondly, if they remember it at all. The beginning is okay, and the ending is slam-bang, but the middle? Just kind of lays there. Some character motivations don't work. Plus the animation is good, bad and in-between (last of the Frank-and-Ollie era, start of the Glen Keane era).

But the movie was the highest grossing (in terms of inflated dollars) Disney animated feature to that time: $52 million, domestic. The thing grossed more than The Rescuers, the previous high grosser.

Now, why did this happen? How did this happen? I don't think it was the story. I think story was good enough to get by (maybe), and the characters were charming enough (although derivative). But what the picture had was the rarity/competition factor (there weren't any other new, full animation features out there), the brand factor (all those fond memories of other Disney flicks: Dumbo, Bambi and Lady and the Tramp). And lastly the expectations-met factor (it lived up enough to audience expectations to get positive word-of-mouth...and go on from there).

Plus it had the momentum from The Rescuers (arguably a better Disney animated feature) going for it. Never underestimate momentum.

All the factors listed above are in play inside Animation Land now. Story's important, but you need the other things too. (And yeah, publicity, release date, and the quality and level of advertising all play a part, but I think the other elements matter more.)

And sometimes those other things beside story trump story. Take Star Wars Episodes I, II and III. Were those films monster grossers because of the compelling tales they rolled out? Uh, don't think so. It was because they had the brand, rarities, and expectation factors working for them, also momentum. So if they weren't up to, say, The Empire Strikes Back, it didn't matter. Or didn't matter enough to make audiences stay away.

And Pixar's had seven hits in a row. Have all Pixar films had the same level of story-telling excellence? Some say yes, but I think most people would agree that some Pixar films are more entertaining, more riveting than others. (I happen to be crazy about The Incredibles, while I merely like most of the others.)

But what the Pixar toons have at this point in time are the brand-expectation-rarity-momentum factors working at full tilt. Just as many Disney hand-drawn features did, once upon a time.

Which isn't to say that sheer story-telling brilliance won't, all by itself, carry the day. You produce a film that grabs an audience by the scruff of its neck and lifts it out of its seat (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Toy Story, Stars Wars, and The Matrix come to mind), you probably have yourself a hit.

So what does it take to create a box office winner? Story and execution sometimes. And sometimes the other factors. Otherwise how do you explain Night at the Museum?


Anonymous said...

Well said, Steve.

If story is King, as I hear so often nowadays -- then why did the "Story King," Walt Disney shout at us back in 1966 when we complained about "The Jungle Book's" rather lackluster story?

"You guys worry too much about the story!" Walt shouted at his story team -- this young kid included.

Yeah, story is important -- but it sure ain't "King." I heard that from no less than Walt Disney himself.

Anonymous said...

TV has the same issues. While at Cartoon Network, I attended a seminar that explained the ratings system. They also stated the 5 key things that made a hit TV show. Before revealing the list, the speaker stated, "I know you don't want to hear this, but 'quality of show' is number 4." The top three had to do with time slot of your show, the ratings of the show in front of your show, and the ratings of shows on other networks opposite your show.

Anonymous said...

Story isn't king. STORYTELLING is king. Walt himself dropped the ball when he started deferring his interests in animated features to animators who were fine artists, and actors, but not necessarily great storytellers or directors. The animators may have been driving the productions but no one was driving the stories.

I have fond memories of "Fox and the Hound," although I found it overly sentimental and ugly to look at. Over the years since, I've grown to admire what it tried to do with it's fairly ambitious story (dealing with racism), and the fact that it was a "transitional" film for the artists. It's somber ending was an interesting departure for Disney, too.

Anonymous said...

Marketing makes a huge difference too - specifically the approach to marketing the movie.

Take "The Matrix" for example. I think it was one of the most brilliant campaigns in recent memory. The trailers never once used shots from the "real world" and showed only clips from inside the matrix. When audiences got to the theaters, they had a big surprise waiting for them.

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