First thing that people have to understand is that the film industry is a mixture of 50% art and 50% business, hence the popular term “show business”.

Since the goal of all film studio and production companies is to make money, they would then try to ensure the highest amount of success, usually by hiring proven actors and directors who have had successes in the past.

From a business perspective, how do you judge which director/actor are more “successful” than other directors and actors?

The studios and producers look at the person’s box office record. They can then justify to the financiers/investors that this particular person has produced this much money and therefore we expect them to do so again.

If it’s a business, why isn’t this method of hiring experienced workers always successful?

Because while the film industry is a business, film itself is a piece of art and it’s extremely difficult to predict the reception of art. All the elements (acting, directing, music, etc) need to come together to produce the piece of art that many people will find appealing.

The most expensive directors and actors are not always able to produce great films, but from a business perspective, it would make sense to invest in them because of their track record. Hence, financiers/investors and studios have expectations of a film’s performance after putting in so much money.

Below are projects and thought-experiments on whether or not you would have approved the film and hopefully help you understand the difficulty of film returns.

PROJECT A:

  • Will Smith has an idea for a new sci-fi franchise. He’ll star in it with his son, who just finished the successful remake of Karate Kid, and he got an amazing script from M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t had a major success in a while, but Will Smith rarely miscalculates.

Would you green light it?

So why did After Earth flop?

  • Poor use of Will Smith (he played the supporting role)
  • Sub-par special effects
  • Budget was too high ($130M)
  • High expectation that this was going to be a major franchise with multiple sequels and adaptations and so they gave M. Night and Will Smith far more leeway than they should have. The end result was a sub-par film.
  • To be fair, this would have been difficult to say no to. A new potential franchise starring Will Smith would be pretty amazing if they got it right (think Independence Day and Men In Black).

PROJECT B:

  • An aging, unproven action hero will star as a father who goes after his kidnapped teenage daughter in Europe. The crew will be mostly European.
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Would you green light it?

So why was Taken a surprise hit?

  • Right casting — this film defined Liam Neeson as an action hero, prior to that, nobody thought of him as an action star
  • Great story — relatable story about father wanting to protect his daughter at all cost and lots of memorable lines (ie “I have a particular set of skills…”)
  • Moderate budget of $25M as Neeson wasn’t expensive since people didn’t see him as an action star

PROJECT C:

  • A-list director Michael Mann, A-list star Chris Hemsworth, popular Chinese actor/singer Wang Lee Hom. Lots of international location about hacking.

Would you green light it?

So why did Blackhat flop?

  • Unoriginal story about hacking.
  • $70M budget.
  • Bad marketing. People didn’t really know what the film was about.

PROJECT D:

Unknown actors about vampires and werewolves based on a b/c-rated chic novel.

Would you green light it?

Why was Twilight a success?

  • First, Paramount passed on it because they didn’t think it would be a success. But then again, would you have accepted the above premise?
  • Twilight is a success because of the huge female fanbase that the novel had. Unfortunately, Paramount didn’t do their research on this and missed out.
  • Right casting — Robert Pattison was becoming popular after appearing in the Harry Potter franchise.
  • The $37M budget was low due to a lot of unknown actors.

To be fair, this was risky. Consider Project E and Project F.

PROJECT E:

Unknown actors based on a beloved, best-selling children’s fantasy series. Lots of merchandising/licensing potential.

Would you green light it?

Why did the Narnia series flop?

  • Unfortunately, the undiscovered actors remain mostly undiscovered, unlike theTwilight franchise.
  • The $150M-$200M budget per film was a lot higher than Twilight and so they needed to earn more to recoup the cost.
  • Bad marketing. Kids didn’t want to see it and parents didn’t want to take their kids to see it. Contrast that lukewarm reception with the passionate fanbase ofTwilight.

Honestly, I thought that Narnia had the best shot of the fantasy adaptation, but the market is different now. The films can’t be marketed too young and need some romance (ieTwilight, Hunger Games, etc). There’s very little romance in the Narnia series and that didn’t help it.

PROJECT F:

A-list star Nicole Kidman and A-list star Daniel Craig on a series adapted from a critically acclaim fantasy series.

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Would you green light it?

  • Twilight and Narnia had undiscovered actors. The Golden Compass had two major stars.
  • Poor marketing makes it difficult to understand what the film was about.
  • Didn’t know anyone who wanted to see it.

I won’t necessarily characterize this one as a flop, but it wasn’t as successful asTwilighteven though the novel is more critically acclaimed and had more well-known cast.

PROJECT G:

A-list director, A-list actor, and upcoming actor Armie Hammer in an adaptation of a popular TV series. It should be noted that both A-list actor and A-list director were previously involved in a wildly successful launch of a famous franchise.

Would you green light it?

Why did The Lone Ranger flop?

  • Poor use of A-list actor Johnny Depp as a sidekick (see problem with Project A)
  • High budget ($225M)
  • Bad press (the press piled on about the budget and so most people didn’t want to see it)

PROJECT H:

Pirates of the Caribbean proved that rides can make for a successful film franchise. Director Brad Bird, who directed the popular Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and learned about live-action directing in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, will direct the film. A-list actor George Clooney will also star in the film. Huge franchise potential.

Why did Tomorrowland flop?

PROJECT I:

A decade old fantasy trilogy with mostly unknown actors and lots of special effects.

Why was Lord of the Ring series a success?

  • Fanbase
  • Timing (a revival in interest and consumption of fantasy film in the market)
  • Special effects (for the tech geeks who want to see it)

PROJECT J:

An R-rated comedy with unproven actors about a wild night in Las Vegas. Bear in mind that it’s difficult for R-rated comedies to make as much money as PG-13 rated comedies because of the market size.

Would you have green light it?

Why was The Hangover a success?

  • Technically, the studio passed on it and only accepted after director Todd Phillips agreed to forgo his salary (and took a percentage of the gross instead). Needless to say, Todd Phillips made the right move.
  • Marketing — people wanted to see what the talk was about
  • Casting — lots of breakout roles for the different actors: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ken Jeong.

And last but not least, the project that defined Hollywood for decades to come.

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PROJECT X:

A young, talented, but still somewhat unproven film director wants to direct a sci-fi film with a lot of unknown actors and lots of special effects. The budget is quite high and requires a lot of investment in special effects for things that have never been done before.

Would you green light it? Think carefully, the budget is very high and can possibly bankrupt you guys.

Why was Star Wars a success?

  • Casting — career-defining roles like Han Solo and Princess Leia
  • Timing — came out when there were no other good sci-fi film out there
  • Special Effects — ahead of its time
  • Fanbase — huge sci-fi fanbase
  • Budget —Fox okayed the film by lowering the budget and they lowered it by not paying George Lucas his fee for directing. In exchange, George Lucas only asked for the merchandising rights. Fox didn’t expect much, gave it to Lucas.

Needless to say, studios no longer give away merchandising rights. They learned that lesson the hard way.

Generally, if you look at the list, the reason for the flops is usually due to the high budget because the studio expected them to do very well but the final product (art) wasn’t that great.

Surprise hits are the ones with low budgets like Taken and Twilight, because people didn’t think it would make a lot of money, and the final product was just so good that it surpassed expectations.

If you would have approved only the successes (projects B, D, I, J, and X) and none of the flops, then perhaps you should consider a career in Hollywood. You’ll do better than most.

Otherwise, I hope this shows how difficult it is to approve and predict a film success (50% business + 50% art) and why films flop.

It is as the famous screenwriter William Goldman says:

“Nobody knows anything.”