Thoughts on The Avengers

May 9, 2012

I didn’t grow up as a comic book geek. I grew up as a fan of comic book movies, worshiping at the feet of Richard Donner and Tim Burton, but I never really read the comic books themselves. I was, and still am, barely conscious of the Justice League of America comics, and was even less cognizant of the Avengers.

And yet, at the end of the first Iron Man movie, when Samuel L. Jackson appeared with those immortal words, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” I was every bit as giddy as all the fanboys who’ve been reading the comics for years. Why? Because I knew, as did everyone else, that it was the start of something huge.

Many years ago at Comic-Con I had heard screenwriter Zak Penn hint at creating a horizontal world in the comic book universe. At the time, I had no clue what was coming. But he sure did. According to this ScreenwritingU interview with him, he was hired years ago as the one to manage creating a single narrative thread through all the comics; to make sure that each movie adequately set up what would culminate in The Avengers.

It was a job very, very well done. One of the biggest challenges, I think, of a movie like this is figuring out how to stuff ten characters, each a leading man in his own right, into a single story. As Joss Whedon put it, “Too much is going to throw people, and at the same time, you don’t want to leave anybody in the cold.” So you start with the villain, bring in the heroes one by one, create a bunch of interpersonal conflict among the heroes themselves, and have the ultimate battle turn into a war. Throw in a whole lot of humor thanks to a rewrite by Joss himself and the presence of king of the one-liners Robert Downey, Jr., and you’ve got the makings of a hit.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

As a writer, I think my favorite part of the whole movie was the decision to kill off Agent Coulson. I was commenting to someone the other day that I stopped watching Fringe the third time Olivia went into the hallucinogenic tank of doom, because they kept trying to convince us that it was so dangerous, but she ended up being fine each time, and we knew she was going to die anyway because she was the lead character and you don’t kill off your lead character in the first season. Meanwhile, I watch Grey’s Anatomy religiously, because they create characters that I care about, and then (sometimes) kill them off. When an artist actually proves that he’s willing to kill someone you care about it, the stakes become that much more real. Agent Coulson, having assembled the Avengers over four years’ worth of movies, was not someone we expected to die. So when he did, we totally bought into the emotional stakes — i.e., that he was important enough to all the other characters to have them avenge his death.

END SPOILER ALERT

I’m positively ecstatic that this gamble on the part of Marvel and Disney has paid off. A few years ago I heard a screenwriter for some comic book movie (don’t remember which one) say that when he was writing the screenplay, he begged the studio, “Let me put a blind lawyer named Murdoch just in this one scene.” In the comics they do that stuff all the time, but in the movie world they were seen, for the longest time, as completely different properties and didn’t want to cross them over. The studio refused. And now creating this horizontal world as they have, we’re seeing how powerful it can be.

Given the tag during the credits, and this summer’s auspiciously-timed reboot of Spiderman (only five years after the last Spiderman movie, the same time difference as between 2003′s Hulk and its 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk), I’ve heard some people speculate that Spiderman will be joining the Avengers for the sequel. That sequel has been confirmed, so now our job is to look for other clues — like, for example, a reboot of The Fantastic Four.


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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