On New Year's day, Richard Botto challenged us as members of the Stage 32 community to discuss our strategies for 2020. The point of Stage 32 is to help members see new possibilities to expand their craft, make connections and produce entertainment that audiences love.
What strategies are you planning on implementing toward reaching your goals? I'd love to know more about them, and I'm sure others in the community would as well."
- Richard "RB" Botto, Founder and CEO of Stage 32
I propose that we expand our vision. It’s tempting to settle for just getting something made. It’s common to hope for something considered a success in the independent market. The higher vision is to take on the likes of Avatar II and delight a massive international audience.
I’d like to encourage you to consider a strategy for taking on Avatar II.
Getting huge numbers of people away from their giant high definition televisions, iPads, and smartphones and into a theater requires entertainment that qualifies as an event. Independent films can attract niche audiences, but the mega-general audience movie must offer more – much more.
Avatar is now 11 years old, but it cost $237 million to make back in 2009. You can expect the budget for Avatar II to be in the very high category as well.
How do you match the Avatar II box office?
Let’s begin with the concept of an event that people from around the world will want to come to a movie theater to enjoy. This is not standard independent film thinking. Look at the top movies in history (adjusted for inflation): Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, E.T., and The Sound of Music. Going to one of them for the first time was an event with a capital “E.”
What would qualify as a comparable event film in the 2020s?
I was not alive when Gone with the Wind came out, but I was for the other three. I can testify that going to see each of them for the first time was an astounding event. You came away ready to tell everyone they needed to see the movie.
How do you have that kind of impact on an audience today? My strategy can be summed up in one word, “euphoria.”
Every filmmaker works to create audience emotion – different emotions in different scenes. A great director plays with an audience’s emotions like a conductor conducts a symphony. Camera angles, lighting, and certainly music are meticulously integrated to create entertainment value. An emotionless movie is a worthless movie.
The movie with the greatest entertainment value offers euphoria. To generate the highest possible level of euphoria you either need a John Williams Star Wars opening theme or a careful buildup leading to a euphoria scene.
You don’t need a huge budget to offer euphoria. You need a story that grabs the heart and throws it in the air. Let’s look at how euphoria has been achieved by some of the greatest examples.
The Sound of Music did it amazingly well. After a stunningly beautiful series of mountain vistas — with gently building music — you’re introduced to Maria, whose heart is made to soar by mountains, streams, and birds. Her opening song is interrupted by church bells and the realization she’s in trouble. She returns to the abbey where the nuns are in a musical argument over whether she’s wonderful or horrible (this only makes you want to root for her). She gets sent packing, against her will, to become a governess for seven children. On her way there she can’t decide if she’s confident or scared. She’s not exactly cooperative with the captain who’s overly strict with the children. She then befriends the children with a song about favorite things.
Step by step Maria is made into a champion of joy in a world of strict rules. By the time she teaches the children to sing "Do, Re, Mi" the audience is hooked. As the song ends on some steps, with Maria’s arms outstretched, the audience is ready to buy a ticket to Salzburg and take a Sound of Music bus tour. Many people saw the movie multiple times to get their euphoria fix over and over.
Granted, it was not for everyone. Many critics hated it and even some people who worked on the movie considered it offensively sweet, but it had and still has a fanatic fan base. Its euphoria power was enhanced by it being a musical with catchy songs that could be sung at home.
In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey featured a space ship landing at a space station to the music of the Blue Danube waltz. It was the most breathtaking science-fiction visual in motion pictures up to that date but was unveiled at a snail’s pace. In 1977 Star Wars opened with an impressive space ship under attack. The audience I was with was in awe, then the second ship entered the picture much larger than the first. That was it. Euphoria. This, with John Williams’ help, was 2001 on steroids. The special effects just piled on as if they were just eye candy in the course of an adventure many times more exciting than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its impact is still being felt today. This was a level of euphoria that created a whole new concept in making movies.
Steven Spielberg had made Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Arc, so in 1982 you could expect E.T. would at least have a solid base of support, but as of 2020 it still remains Spielberg’s greatest hit. The reason for this is again euphoria. By the time E.T. came out, I had a son to take to the movie with me. Euphoria is just that much more fun when you can share it with your child. We can all remember several high moments in the movie but E.T. has the classic euphoria ending. Again, John Williams plays a key role, but wow, just wow, you wanted to go out and drag friends down to the theater.
Imagine writing a script with euphoria as your quest — not just euphoria for some niche audience — euphoria for a general, international audience.
Euphoria has little to do with the budget. E.T. was made for $10.5 million in a year when the movie Gandhi cost $22 million. What does matter is writing something euphoric and building a great story around it that heightens the moments of euphoria.
Notice that Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music and E.T. are radically different movies. There is no one formula for creating euphoria. There are some don’ts if you want a huge general audience. Lots of foul language, sex and nudity will stop large numbers of people from coming, and if your violence is too gruesome you will keep some people away.
I’d recommend writing a story unlike any other seen for the last 40 years. It’s very hard to create euphoria with another superhero or science fiction romp. Audiences will not be stunned by another cake baked to the same old recipe. You can enjoy another of your favorite cakes, but you will never experience the euphoria of the first time you tasted one.
It would be very hard to challenge Avatar II with a horror show. It would be possible to write a very successful horror show that includes euphoria, but there is a huge swath of the general audience that has no use for horror shows. I’m one, but there are lots of people who like them.
Richard asked Stage 32 members for their strategy so here’s mine. The clearest way I can explain it is with an example.
My target euphoria moment is in the Hollywood Bowl where my hero is in the finals of an international new sounds contest. His claim to fame is that he heard angelic music and has sought to recreate this music with a glass instrument his grandfather helped him make. As he rose toward the finals he came under attack as a liar who made up his story to get attention and bring his grandfather business. As he prepares to play and sing his final number his arch-enemy destroys his glass instrument. The contest is paused as he is talked into singing his final number without his instrument. As he finishes singing all heaven breaks loose over the Hollywood Bowl. An angelic choir and orchestra join him in song. The music is like a 21st Century Handal’s Messiah.
In the course of the movie, my goal is to make my main character (a shepherd boy from the mountains of Ukraine) into a character as beloved as Maria in The Sound of Music. He is a kind and optimistic boy who’s bullied and disrespected by his classmates. His rise to fame is most annoying to a wealthy bully who hungers to become a famous singer himself.
My desire is to make movies that are uplifting and inspiring to an international audience. I would recommend you consider this market. I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity for those with a vision to reach this audience.
This audience is not just faith-based. It is “good” based. What parent doesn’t want to raise their children in a “good” neighborhood and send them to a “good” school? Someone in India or Japan may have a different concept of what’s “good” in terms of appearance, but in character, goodness is things like kindness, honesty, politeness, integrity, peace and even love and joy.
Imagine a strategy to make general audience movies that model such values in the course of a great adventure with ample conflict. Imagine moments of euphoria as the hero modeling excellent character traits does something that results in the triumph of good (then hire John Williams).
Just kidding. There are other tremendous composers as well. I love the work of a number of composers.
I would recommend you consider writing a euphoria moment with good triumphing over evil and then compose a story heightens that euphoria to the stratosphere. Select a story that will interest the whole world.
I loved The Sound of Music. I saw it more than once in theaters. I bought the VHS. I bought the DVD and I may look for it on streaming one day. The value of a movie that offers euphoria goes far beyond the theatrical market.
In the 2020s the whole industry will continue its move into streaming. Streaming services will live and die on subscriptions. One of the keys to gaining and keeping subscribers is offering some of the greatest movies ever.
Euphoria movies are worth a fortune to streaming services. Disney is set to dominate the family market as their product moves from other services to Disney+ exclusivity. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime would do well to have some general audience euphoria movies in their exclusives library. The expectation of the flow of such material would be most helpful in maintaining subscribers. There are lots of opportunities.
I subscribe to a streaming service. It offers hundreds of movies I have no interest in seeing. I’ll soon drop my subscription if I don’t find more of interest to me. I don’t watch their new series programs filled with vulgarity. I look for more family-friendly content — not of the silly toddler shows variety.
If you can make something with tremendous general audience entertainment value it will be of great worth to streaming services for generations to come.
There are a number of great old movies that will be fo more value to streaming services than many modern movies that will wind up looking like clutter. True classics never look like clutter. Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Star Wars and E.T. will always hold an honored position on a streaming service.
With the goal of offering euphoria, you stand the best chance of creating such a classic.
David Outten is a former box office analyst turned screenwriter.
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