The Rules of Modern Blockbusters

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler), in which an android asks why he was created by humans. The unsatisfactory reply comes “Because they could”. It’s an explanation that could just as easily apply to the film itself. Why was it made? Not – judging by the cut that ended up on screen at least – because it had a decipherable message to transmit, or a cohesive universe for its audience to explore, but simply because they could. Because the tech, the budget, the brand-recognition and the bankable names allowed for it to be made at this time, in this way.

“Because they could” is a poster slogan for the spate of effects-driven, incoherent, Swiss-cheese scripted blockbusters we’ve endured in recent years. Granted, not all big-budget movies of late fit into this model, some, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games, say, or Joss Whedon’s The Avengers took the respective trouble to either mean something or sport an entertaining script. Others, the later Potter or Lord of the Rings movies for instance, come from source material that makes them cohere to a satisfying narrative spine, but they’re largely in the minority.

Most of the rest, the Battleships, Snow White and the Huntsmans, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and yes, even Prometheus, seem to have been regrettably following the (not altogether serious) rules outlined below. Here goes then, the recipe for making a modern blockbuster…

1. Start with a big bag of visual tricks, then fit the rest of the movie around them

All that stuff you’ve heard about character and story being everything? So not the case. Instead, just start with a handful of really cool-looking sequences – your Christmas baubles if you will – and then reverse-engineer a fir tree of whatever size, shape or structure to hang them on. Remember, everyone’s going to be way too busy cooing at the baubles to wonder why the tree’s daft, boring, or lop-sided.

As a rule, the more you can make your audience feel like it’s watching one of those ‘Top 50 SFX’ telly compilation shows, the better. Can’t come up with a satisfying story? Not a problem. Just let the technology dictate what happens. If your tech team has figured out how to make things explode faster, bigger, better and spinnier than the next guy, then your movie is kickass, and anyone who says it isn’t is a whiny girl.

Importantly, don’t trouble yourself forming your baubles into any cohesive, overreaching narrative. They can honestly just be there because they look cool. It’s not like the old days, when the shark from Jaws needed to explode at the end because it was all part of a simple yet utterly convincing and satisfying narrative. Now you can make stuff explode, have characters form out of flocks of birds, face off against monsters of precisely no narrative importance, and give themselves fantastic-looking but completely superfluous caesarean sections, it’s all fair game.

2. Include big, important themes (but don’t worry, you don’t actually need to say anything about them)

Now this one won’t be for everyone, but if you want to be able to slap adjectives like thought-provoking; complex; intelligent; probing, the new Inception etc. on your viral marketing campaign, then you’re going to want to write this down.

Good and evil, faith and science, the origin and meaning of life… All this stuff’s golden. As long as the dumbest person who sees your movie can come away with the impression it’s deep, and everyone else leaves feeling vaguely troubled that they’ve missed something, then you’ve nailed it. (As an added bonus, shoe-horning big, important themes into your movie also gives your actors a list of impressive abstract nouns to reel off in press interviews when for the life of them they can’t answer the question of what the film’s actually about.)

Remember, you don’t have to trouble yourself by saying anything about the big, important themes, just chuck in a few lines that allude to them, edit in a few scenes where characters gaze into the middle distance or finger their crucifix necklaces whilst biting their lip and job done. Essentially, treat your themes in the way that kids at the seaside will treat a dead jellyfish: prod them tentatively with a stick for a bit, then run off to worry a seagull and watch the plaudits come rolling in.

3. Work with a recognisable brand

People, as we all know, are idiots. If a movie is flimsily tied to something, anything they recognise from another context, they’ll clap happily at it like toddlers who’ve correctly identified that duckies go quack quack. It’s worth keeping in mind that your audience is made up of people who let Linda Robson from Birds of a Feather tell them what brand of washing powder to buy. The rule is simple: if they recognise it, they’ll pay money for it.

The upshot of which is that you can stamp any old movie tosh with the name of a beloved toy, TV show, or quite possibly, brand of vitamin, and it will more than likely succeed. If you’re not lucky enough to be remaking an existing film, then just think of something that featured in your audience’s past that hasn’t yet been optioned for a movie – those R. White’s Secret Lemonade Drinker ads, say, or the phenomenon of white dog poo, and ker-ching!

4. Whatever you do, don’t keep it simple

Whatever you do, don’t let the needs of a classic, immersive story stop you from unnecessarily complicating shit up. Remember that boring eighties movie about the little alien who meets that kid, wants to go home, then goes for a ride in a bicycle basket? There were barely three main characters in that picture, and one of them was just a guy in an rubber suit, talk about half-arsed.

Everyone knows that a blockbuster today needs at least a dozen characters, who, ideally, should act as if they’re all in different films. How else are you going to appeal to each of the four quadrants? You need at the very least an android one, an action one, a funny one, an evil one, a heroine caught between two heroes, and between six and eight others (you don’t really need to think up characters for them). Oh, and a dog. People really like dogs.

5. Book some of the best actors around, write them a paycheque, then piss them away

Everybody has a price, and luckily for blockbusters seeking bankable names, most big name stars also have a mortgage to pay. There probably isn’t an actor your huge budget movie can’t afford so why not treat yourself? Buy that De Niro, that Neeson, that Guy Pearce or Charlize Theron, actors capable of giving the most human of performances, of inhabiting the fantail of emotions from extreme vulnerability to icy danger, and then just let them… stand there. Why tax them with an actual role? As long as their name’s on the poster and their faces are on the exclusive! set! pics! the audience will turn up regardless.

Ideally, your audience should be able to forget your film’s characters by the time they reach the concessions stand on the way out, and if you’ve followed step one well enough, they’ll be quelled into ear-ringing passivity and thinking about Nando’s by the time their feet hit the pavement.

6. Don’t worry about the ending, it’s called a franchise for a reason

Two wonderful, wonderful things have saved blockbuster filmmakers’ arses when it comes to endings in recent years: Christopher Nolan leaving that top spinning in Inception, and the longevity of movie franchises.

Leaving your audience guessing is the new black when it comes to blockbusters, and remember that if you use up all of your plot and character development on one measly picture, you’re just making work for yourself when it comes to the sequels. String it out, and leave your audience wanting more (or not, as it happens, they don’t even have to really enjoy the movie, they’ll still turn up for the next instalment).

Most blockbusters these days are less whole movies than blindingly expensive instalments of a so-called ongoing story, which means: you don’t need to write an ending for your picture. Just have a major character turn their back to the screen and walk away to an ominous score, and you, my friend, are golden. Now away with you all, and make your millions.

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