Most Profitable Films of 2011

January 5, 2012

Yesterday, The Bitter Script Reader analyzed 2011’s Top 20 grossing films, and what that means for us as screenwriters. The summary is, not surprisingly, a bitter one, pointing out that 18 of the top 20 are either franchises, adaptations, animated films, or some combination of all of the above. And as BSR points out, these categories represent  “the three types of scripts that it’s nearly impossible for an aspiring screenwriter to break in with.”

As I was looking at the numbers, though, I realized that most of these top-grossing films also had enormous budgets. Which got me thinking: which films were the most profitable – i.e., had the highest box office return as a percentage of their budget?

Movie Budget US Gross Profit Margin (Domestic)
Insidious $1,500,000 $54,009,150 3601%
Paranormal Activity 3 $5,000,000 $104,007,828 2080%
Courageous $2,000,000 $34,088,360 1704%
Like Crazy $250,000 $3,372,100 1349%
Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain $750,000 $7,706,436 1028%
The Help $25,000,000 $169,499,546 678%
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never $13,000,000 $73,013,910 562%
Jumping the Broom $7,000,000 $37,295,394 533%
Bad Teacher $19,000,000 $100,292,856 528%
Bridesmaids $32,500,000 $169,106,725 520%
Our Idiot Brother $5,000,000 $24,814,830 496%
50/50 $8,000,000 $35,016,118 438%
Apollo 18 $5,000,000 $17,686,929 354%
The Ides of March $12,500,000 $40,850,788 327%
The Hangover Part II $80,000,000 $254,464,305 318%
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II $125,000,000 $381,011,219 305%
Limitless $27,000,000 $79,249,455 294%
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules $18,000,000 $52,698,535 293%
No Strings Attached $25,000,000 $70,662,220 283%
Super 8 $50,000,000 $127,004,179 254%

Before I go any further, let me mention that I got my data here, and there were some conspicuous omissions – including six of the films from the Top 20 grossing list – but after collecting the data for those films manually, I discovered that of those six films, only one made it into the top 20 most profitable, so I think this list can at least give us some useful information. It’s also worth noting that films released late in 2011 won’t make this list, though they may very well be headed in that direction. For example, War Horse has yet to make back its budget, but it was only released a week and a half ago.

The first thing I notice is that of these films, 4 are horror films (Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Apollo 18, Super 8), 9 are comedies (Laugh at My Pain, Jumping the Broom, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids, Our Idiot Brother, 50/50, The Hangover: Part II, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, No Strings Attached), and 5 are dramas (Courageous, Like Crazy, The Help, 50/50, The Ides of March). Fourteen of them had budgets under $20 million, none were animated, and only 6 were adaptations or sequels (Paranormal Activity 3, The Help, The Ides of March, Harry Potter, Limitless, Diary of a Wimpy Kid). All of this, I think, is good news, as these are the films that make people’s careers.

The worldwide results admittedly look much more like the franchise/adaptation/animated features list that BSR posted about, as does the list of films in places 21-60 (the 100-200% of budget range). But I think this is an interesting point: comedies and horrors sell well on spec, and can launch a career, as can a good drama.

What do you think?

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Top Five Thoughts on High Fidelity (11.07)

February 26, 2011

Let me start by saying that High Fidelity is one of my top five all-time favorite films. And it has been, I think, ever since a friend and I first snuck in to see it, following a (free) red-carpet screening of American Beauty. It was a good day at the movies. And hopefully I’ve paid my dues for that one, since I own the DVD and have told hundreds of people that they need to watch it. In fact, I even wrote an essay about it in college, arguing that those two movies, along with Wonder Boys, were part of a new genre of film, the “mid-life crisis melodrama.” I don’t remember much of the details, but I’m sure my essay was brilliant. Anyway, I digress.

Last week, I found, bought, and read the book on which the movie was based. Something I knew would be a good read? Yes. An exercise in adaptation study? Yes. So here goes:

1. Movie takes place in Chicago, the book in London. I really have no preference. I liked that Rob’s parents live near Amersham (which I lived about 15 minutes away from, when I lived in the UK), but I also like the line from the movie, “John Dillinger was killed in a hail of FBI gunfire right outside that movie theater. You know who tipped ’em off? His fucking girlfriend. He just wanted to go to the movies.”

2. The DVD contains my favorite delete scene of all time. In it, Rob goes to the home of a woman in her fifties who’s selling her husband’s record collection. It’s thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, and the woman wants to sell it to Rob for $50. Apparently, her husband is on a tropical island with a 26-year-old, and asked her to sell his record collection and take a 10% commission for herself and send the rest to him. Rob refuses to buy it for so little, because he just can’t do that to another record collector, and so ultimately leaves (mostly) empty-handed.

Why is this my favorite deleted scene of all time? Because it’s a really, really good scene, that’s well-written and entertaining … which doesn’t belong in the movie at all. It doesn’t forward the plot, so they were absolutely right to cut it. It was watching that deleted scene that I first got one of my mantras: anybody can cut a bad line and replace it with a good line, but a great writer can cut a good line, because it’s not the perfect line.

Here’s the interesting thing: in the book, that scene is absolutely necessary. Why? Because it shows Rob’s character in a way that we haven’t seen yet. Rob is written to be a whiny, self-centered, self-righteous loser, so in the book, this scene serves as a “save the cat” moment — something that makes him likable, so we actually root for him moving forward. But as portrayed by John Cusack, the guy is really quite charming, which makes that moment totally unnecessary.

3. It’s interesting that the movie and the book start off almost identical to each other. The way the book starts:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nicholson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we’re too old to make each other miserable, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, so don’t take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are goon, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it’s just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.

Sound familiar? The next fifty pages or so are filled with scenes that I recognized from the movie. (One exception: we do actually get to meet Jackie Allen.) But as the story progresses, it diverges more and more. One of the most notable differences was that Rob and Marie de Salle actually become friends after their one night stand. One of my favorite passages from the book comes from when she walks into the store following their night together. After a few lines of dialogue:

This, it seems, is what you get for sleeping with an American, all this up-front goodwill. You wouldn’t catch a decent British woman marching in here after a one-night stand. We understand that these things are, on the whole, best forgotten. But I suppose Marie wants to talk about it, explore what went wrong; there’s probably some group-counseling workshop she wants us to go to, with lots of other couples who spent a misguided one-off Saturday night together. We’ll probably have to take our clothes off and reenact what happened, and I’ll get my sweater stuck round my head.

She ends up doing a gig at the record store, which proves to be a huge success, and he never starts his own record label with anyone who comes into his store. I think I like that better, although I can see, in filmmaking terms, how it’s stronger to have your protagonist take a giant leap like that, rather than a little step toward success.

Rob’s parents have a more active role, Ian/Ray is portrayed more like a regular guy, rather than the hyperbolic buffoon depicted by Tim Robbins. The visits with his exes are less … conclusive.

4. The tone is frickin’ identical. That scene in the movie when Rob pictures all the ways he could have responded to Ray’s visit to the store? Yeah, in the book that scene is a phone call, but it’s pretty much written exactly the same way. I wanna find a book like this to turn into a movie. Because it more or less writes itself.

5. Okay, there is no number five.


Postville Part II – The Screenplay

February 7, 2011

To date, this has been my most successful screenwriting endeavor, which only serves to confirm the suspicion I had from many years ago that I should really start my career as an adapter of screenplays, rather than generating original concepts which is so much harder.

To walk you through the process by which I started working on Postville:

2000 – Stephen Bloom publishes Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,  a nonfiction book that recounts the author’s move to Iowa from San Francisco to be a college professor, and his two years investigating the cultural conflict that’s occurred between the Postville locals and the Lubavichers who had moved in to open a kosher meat-packing plant.

2008 – My father, Don Fried, reads the book, options it, and writes the play, Postville, a fictionalized retelling of the conflict. A few things look strikingly similar: a journalist moving to Iowa to be a teacher acts as the vehicle for the exposition, someone for everyone to tell their backstory and their problems; an Easter headline that reads “He Has Risen,” which violates just about every rule of journalism you can imagine (it’s not breaking news, it’s not impartial, and it hasn’t been verified by two independent sources); the Hasid who buys the plant is the son of a New York butcher who was having trouble getting his meat; the locals battle for annexation, and a terrible tragedy occurs on the day of the referendum. The names, of course, are changed. He takes dramatic license with the characters. The best scene in the play — near the beginning when the locals welcome the Hasids with a big sign that reads “Welcome Jews” — was not mentioned at all in the book. The tragedy that occured on the day of the referendum — a train derailment — was combined with an event that actually occurred while the play was being written — a raid of the plant by Immigration & Customs Enforcement for some 389 counts of illegal workforce violations. But the spirit, so I’ve heard was similar.

2011 – Here come I, moved by this play and the potential that its story presents. I re-read the play a few times before I start. I write down what happens in each scene, as well as what happens offstage – the things that the characters say they’re going to do, or the things they say they have done. I put these on index cards, that becomes my beat board, used to inform the outline. I start reading the book.

And here’s the critical piece … I schedule a reading, to be conducted at Austin Screenwriters Group, for March 6th, just two months from when I began writing. And lo, I realize I need to bust my butt to get this screenplay written by mid-February, so I have time for a rewrite or two before presenting it to the public. In the mean time, I take ScreenwritingU‘s class on rewriting, which proves to be the best three hours I’ve spent on my education in a long time.

What’s made the process easy, though, is having all the source material to draw back on. Although the majority of the dialogue is original, I’ve been able to lift entire scenes from play. In that way, a week after starting the “writing” process, I already had over 40 pages complete, spending only an hour or so a day.

From there it started to slow down, but reading the book helped, as did having the deadline to work toward. No time sit down and spend an hour crafting the perfect line of dialogue. Just gotta get it down on paper. In that way, I’ve now reached 103 pages, with one more scene to add at the end, and a couple more to add in the middle. I need to visit the local Chabad to ground myself in some Orthodox traditions — how a mikvah in a small town like that would ordinarily get set up; what role the father might play in the birth of his child. I also need to visit a slaughterhouse to see for myself what the slaughter and processing might look and feel like (recognizing, of course, that any slaughterhouse I visited would not be kosher).

But even with all of that, I should have my first draft done by the end of the week, as planned. There’ll be a ton of work to do in the rewrite process. I’m clear on that. But fortunately I’ve got a process to follow, now, which I’m convinced will move the screenplay miles forward in the next three weeks.


Review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

December 27, 2008

A lot of things ran through my mind watching this film, all the result of several months’ worth of blogging and pondering scripts.

First, I think about theme.  The film starts in modern day New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina builds strength in the Gulf.  An old woman in a hospital prepares for death, and tells the story of a clockmaker who lost his son in World War I, and the clock he builds in response runs backward. He hopes, he says, that maybe we can get back some of our sons we lost in the war.

Immediately we establish themes of the reversal of time and the value of life – one, approaching the end, at the beginning of the film, the other reaching a premature end at the hands of war.

Then we begin reading the memoirs of this man.  The baby is born.  It is an ugly baby, and rejected by its father and taken in by a young black couple who run a nurshing home.  Themes of rejection vs acceptance.  I can’t help but marvel at the genius choice to make it a black couple, in nineteen-teens deep South, driving in this theme.  Rejection vs acceptance.

His biological father comes to show remorse for his decision, and comes back to make amends.  Remorse for decisions made in the past.  But it’s not too late to change your future.  The inevitably immature mistakes of our past, but the ability to forgive, and love, and grow, and sieze opportunities in our future.  Another huge theme that permeates this movie.

And of course, there is birth and there is death.  The cycle of life.  The beginning and the end.

I think about adaptations.  The original story was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.  Benjamin’s birthdate was 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War; in the movie, it’s 1918, on the day World War I ends.  It seems, as I’m watching it, that so much has been skipped to trim eighty years of a man’s life into three hours, I was surprised to find out the original was a short story, 9,000 words, and not a full-length novel.  I think again to the fact that this was a work in public domain, for which a beautiful adaptation has been made, and I consider again the adaptations I want to make: Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Milton, Chaucer, the list goes on.  There are so many ways to adapt a work, only your imagination can hold you back.

I think about the formula, and how great it is to have a character who’s so passive in his protagonism.  He makes choices, but never makes a wrong one.  He never does something that makes us say, “Oh, no, not that!” because from birth to death he has this patience, this calmness, this understanding.  He’s a man of few words, and he somehow seems inactive in the way he drives the action.

And he’s so damn beautiful.

I’m not one for period pieces.  And I’m not one for epic dramas.  But this was an outstanding, beautiful piece of fiction that absorbed me at every moment, beautiful and ugly.


Adaptations

December 20, 2008

I was reading today about adaptations.  Of course, I’m familiar with the notion of adapting works in the public domain, and I’ve thought about this in the past, but Mystery Man has a way of talking that makes you look at things in a slightly different light.

In the past, the I’ve had a problem of desire.  Everything that’s in the public domain is set sometime in the past.  (Duh!)  And I’m not all that fond of period pieces, and I’m starting to tire of “modernizations” of old works – Ten Things I Hate About You, O, She’s the Man, Cruel Intentions … they’re all kind of silly to me. I’m also starting to feel like the “story told from someone else’s perspective” technique is getting trite: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, in my view, highly overrated, although perhaps I have a problem of seeing that one in its zeitgeist.

But I don’t have so much of a problem putting West Side Story in its zeitgeist, and although I don’t really like it, I do appreciate it for what it is.  As a writer I loved Adaptation, which is Charlie Kaufman’s wily adaptation of The Orchid Thief, told through the perspective of a screenwriter struggling to adapt that book.  And I loved Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, as he did something that thousands of high schools around the world have been doing for decades, but doing it on film and with a tremendous cinematographer.

So what I realized in reading Mystery Man’s post is that there’s no reason I can’t find something, in the public domain, that I am interested in adapting.

Something that intrigues me is the idea of taking a short story or poem – something with only a few minutes of material – and making it my own.  Harrison Bergeron was a 10-page story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which was then turned into a feature-length film.

The first piece that came to mind was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.  This was my favorite poem as an adolescent – in 10th grade we had an assignment to memorize and recite 4 stanzas, and I recited the whole thing for extra credit, complete with desk-throwing and deep, intense, soul-searching self loathing – and I still find myself looking back at it from time to time.

From there, my thoughts turned to The Tell-tale Heart, Poe’s 4-page story about a man who kills his housemate and the guilt drives him insane.  I picture something like the expansion of Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, the 25-minute short written by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, into the feature-length Oscar-winner, Sling Blade. I’ve always been interested in movies that successfully delve into people’s psyches and explore the slow descent into madness.

Here’s another one I’ve been thinking about that is surprisingly underrepresented in film history: The Canterbury Tales. Considering it’s one of the greatest works of literature of all time, it’s amazing how much it’s ignored compared to Shakespeare, I suppose because it’s read, not performed.  My favorite is “The Pardoner’s Tale”: three young men are drinking in a tavern, and angry at Death for taking so many people during the Black Plague, decide they’re going to go find him.  They meet an old man, and rough him up a little bit so that he’ll tell them where Death is.  He points to a tree, and says they’ll find death there, but when they go to that tree, what they discover is a massive treasure chest.  Two stay to look after the chest while the third goes into town to buy wine to celebrate – and while gone, the two decide to kill the third when he returns.  They do so, and then sit down to drink the wine, which he had poisoned.  All told, it’s a great premise for a 15- or 20-minute film, and I’d have no idea how to do the rest.  Perhaps it’s done in real time, and the second act is the slow, elaborate development of the decision to murder one’s friend.  Perhaps it’s a play, not a screenplay.  I don’t know.

Here’s another interesting idea: many of the works in Project Gutenberg are nonfiction.  I’d love to find a way to tell a story around “‘Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period.”  Sounds like an interesting challenge.

Anyway, I’ll enjoy looking at that as the next place to go.


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