April 1, 2010


In my Avatar article in the recent issue of Craft & Career, I promised a blog about why mimicking blockbusters isn't really a solid screenwriting strategy. I touched on the idea that there are things you can learn about storytelling from the filmmakers of the top grossing films of all time. Of the top 50 or so of the top US Box Office films, the only spec scripts were The Sixth Sense and The Hangover. If anything, those two movies are something to model a spec after: modest budget, clever concept (The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Twist, and using the mystery/detective genre).

Well, I let Kathryn Cottam --my right hand researcher -- do some investigating to see if I am right.....

... and here they are in all their glory. So let’s look at the top 50 film U.S. Box Office films to see how many of them are either original concepts or written by first time screenwriters.

From Kathryn:

 • The first Star Wars film was definitely original, but five positions in the top 50 are held by the subsequent films of the franchise.

• The Spiderman Trilogy holds three positions. It is also a pre-existing intellectual property that debuted in 1962 and has a built in following.

• The Pirates of Caribbean Franchise holds two positions and is based on a theme park ride that opened in 1967 and is owned by Disney.

• The Shrek Franchise sits in two spots and is based upon an existing property that first appeared in 1990.

• The Transformers Franchise occupies two positions and is based on a line of toys.

• Lord of the Rings holds three positions. These are adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels which have sold over 150,000,000 copies worldwide since publication.

• Harry Potter holds four positions and the series by J.K. Rowling has sold over 400,000,000 copies since publication.

So barring the first Star Wars film, all of these 22 films are based on preexisting properties -- books, toys or a ride. So 7 entities or concepts account for over half of the list (22 of the 40 positions).

Of the remaining 18 properties on the top 50 U.S. Box Office:

 • Five are based on bestsellers or literary properties:
- Forrest Gump (Bestseller)
- Chronicles of Narnia (Bestseller)
- Jurassic Park (Bestseller)
- Dark Night (Graphic Novel)
- Iron Man (Graphic Novel)
- ... and if we throw in the Lion King - based on Hamlet and Passion of the Christ - the Bible -- then that number increases to 7.

• Three of these places are occupied by sequels of pre-vious movies:
- Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
- Meet the Fockers (Meet the Parents)
- The Matrix Reloaded (The Matrix)

• Two of these positions are occupied by films from the the incredible Pixar Machine which develops its own properties:
- Up
- Finding Nemo

Which leaves us with the following: Titanic, E.T., Independence Day, Sixth Sense, Home Alone and the Hangover.

In other words of the 40 ... only 6 are ideas NOT based on a pre-existing property. But let’s look at these closer.

The Titanic certainly wasn’t Cameron’s first film; he has a most impressive resume, working in Hollywood since the early eighties, writing and directing several franchise properties (Terminator, Rambo, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies).

E.T. was created by the powerhouse, Steven Spielberg. Home Alone was by John Hughes (what didn’t he write in the 80s?) and Independence Day -- Dean Devlin had previously had a hit with the blockbuster, Stargate.

Each and every one of these writers, directors or producers is certainly no Hollywood novice.

So it appears that only the Sixth Sense and the Hangover are Spec Scripts ... 2 of 40.

BUT the Hangover is the only ORIGINAL property to make the top 40 in the past 10 years ... since 1999 when the Sixth Sense emerged. And The Hangover was sold as a Spec Script with the Director and BenderSpink already in place. And M. Night Shyamalan had written Wide Awake, Praying with Anger and Stuart Little.

So who are the screenwriters that appear on the top 50?

Well we have:

• Steve Kloves in 3 positions
• David Koepp in 3 positions
• Fran Walk, Peter Jackson & Phillipa Boyens in 3 posi-tions
• Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot in 3 positions
• Andrew Adamson in 3 positions and ...
• George Lucas in a whopping 6 positions.

Which means that 6 screenwriters or their screenwriting partnerships occupy a whopping 21 positions on the U.S Top 50 Box Office -- again over half the list.

Who are some first time screenwriters who made it NOT on the top 50 list, but the top 500 list?

Well, My Big Fat Greek Wedding written by Nia Vardalos comes in at #52 (which is pretty damn good - although it IS based on a pre-existing property, a one woman play). There is also Blair Witch at spot #212 written by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and Se7en written by Andrew Kevin Walker at #433.

Like Jim mentioned with The Hangover and Sixth Sense, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Blair Witch and Se7en were clever concepts with modest budgets, strong hooks that captured attention and became audience favorites.