Everybody follows a leader. Nobody follows a couch potato. If you want an audience to follow your story, make your hero into a leader, not a couch potato.
Back in 1984, I was an extra on a movie called “The Hanoi Hilton,” which was about the infamous Vietnamese prisoner of war camp that held most of the captured American pilots who had been shot down. When the movie bombed in the box office, the studio tried to claim that the liberals in Hollywood helped kill the movie, but the truth was that the movie sucked.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell. The first American pilot is shot down and captured by the Vietnamese. Now he spends the rest of the movie just watching new prisoners come into the camp.
Real exciting, isn’t it? You could get just as much excitement by watching people arrive in an airport terminal.
That’s why “The Hanoi Hilton” sucked so badly and that’s why you’ve probably never even heard of it. The hero is a couch potato, just watching the war pass him by as new prisoners arrive almost daily.
That’s the biggest danger with a bad movie in that the hero doesn’t do anything. Some bad movies allow the hero to react, but a true movie lets the hero lead.
Tom Cruise in “The War of the Worlds” had a tricky role. Based on the book, the story is simply about one man watching a Martian invasion from beginning to end. In the book, the hero doesn’t really do anything other than run, hide, and watch the Martians slowly die in the end through no effort on his part.
As a movie, the fatal flaw is that Tom Cruise also doesn’t do anything to bring about the demise of the Martians. Unlike the President in “Independence Day,” who fires the first missile that gets past the alien’s force field and ultimately brings down the alien ship, Tom Cruise in “The War of the Worlds” simply brings his daughter back to her mother in Boston while the aliens succumb to Earth’s bacteria.
Boring? You bet, but although the screenwriter couldn’t spice up the ending, the screenwriter did make Tom Cruise proactive in several ways so he fits the classic mold of a hero as a leader.
First, Tom Cruise makes the decision to steal a van and get away before the Martian’s first attack.
When Tom Cruise gets stuck in a cellar with a nut case who panics and threatens to give away their location through his actions, Tom Cruise makes the conscious decision to kill the guy to save his daughter.
Later when the Martians kidnap his daughter, he makes the decision to deliberately get picked up by that same Martian so he can be with his daughter again and plant a hand grenade into the Martian walker, blowing it up and freeing himself and his daughter.
Finally, when the Martian walkers are staggering around, Tom Cruise notices that the birds are landing on it, indicating that the shields are down. This allows the military to knock one of the Martian walkers down.
Tom Cruise is always proactive, reacting, but then making plans and taking action. People want to follow a leader and that’s what your hero must be. Unless your hero can convince an audience to follow, it won’t be able to convince a studio executive to greenlight it.
Make your hero proactive. Make your hero a leader. That’s what audiences want to see, and that’s what makes a good movie.