MSN lists 28 of the biggest box office bombs of 2016. If you browse through this list, you’ll see that most of these bombs tried substituting A-list stars and special effects in lieu of an actually interesting story, which is a guaranteed recipe for constant and consistent failure. One of the more consistent bombs is “Allegiant,” the movie based on the Divergent series.
If you watched any of the earlier Divergent movies, they’re simply not that good. If the original movie isn’t any good, it’s hard to imagine why Hollywood would assume the sequels would be any better. The big problem with the Divergent movies is that they’re poorly structured as a film. As a novel they may be interesting but the movies fail to make viewers actually care about what’s going on.
“Ben-Hur” is another bomb where the studio poured millions into a mediocre story. The “Ghostbusters” remake was actually decent, but the amount of money spent couldn’t justify the decent story. By browsing through the box office bombs of 2016, you can see what not to do.
First, don’t rely on special effects to make up for the fact that the story itself is mediocre. As a novice screenwriter, that means creating a story that minimizes special effects. Car crashes, alien spacecraft, and lasers might look visually appealing, but if they aren’t an integral part of the story, avoid them if possible. The fewer special effects, the more likely the movie can and will make a profit.
Second, don’t rely on facts. People don’t care about facts so much as they care about a story. “The Free State of Jones” and “Snowden” were both based on reality, but that’s meaningless if people don’t want to acknowledge or see that reality. In the case of “The Free State of Jones,” the actual history is interesting but the story itself is told in such a drawn out and dull manner that the movie becomes nothing more than a series of interesting scenes with little or no emotional impact. In the case of “Snowden,” the topic itself is divisive where some people see Snowden as a hero and others see him as a traitor. So right away half the potential audience won’t want to see the movie.
So here’s how to avoid writing a box office bomb. First, focus on telling a good story. Second, focus on keeping special effects to a minimum. As a novice screenwriter, no studio will want to spend millions on an unknown screenwriter’s script. Studios will gladly spend $100 million or more on a trusted screenwriter, even if that trusted screenwriter turns in garbage.
Third, true stories can be difficult to write simply because the truth doesn’t fit into the typical story format of distinctive heroes and villains. As a general rule, a true story won’t necessarily make a great movie. If a true story is really interesting such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then studios will still prefer to hire an experienced screenwriter. If a true story is much smaller in scope, then it’s likely not interesting enough to attract an audience anyway, so writing about a true story won’t necessarily help you sell a script or attract a large enough audience to justify turning your script into a movie.
So write great stories that rely on minimal sets, costumes, or special effects. Don’t try to write the next “Star Wars” or “James Bond” copycat movie. Try to write a unique story that can be filmed in a contemporary setting. That will increase your chances of selling a script and creating a movie that will actually make money in the long run.