There are two ways movies can fail. The most common way is to tell a story poorly where characters only appear to do things long enough to advance the plot and then they disappear again for no apparent reason. Bad movies often have plot holes and poor character development so it’s just a collection of scenes that make no sense.
However, even creating a good plot is no guarantee of success. What you also need is meaning.
In the early days, people told stories to make sense of their world such as why the sun rose every day or what made the sound of thunder. Stories are more than just entertainment but a way of making sense of the world around us. If you just tell an interesting story, that will quickly be forgotten five seconds after it ends. If you tell an interesting story that tries to explain something about the world around us, then that story will likely last far longer in memory and hit us with a far greater emotional impact as well.
Think of every classic movie from “Casablanca” to “The Shawshank Redemption.” Classics endure because they not only entertain us but they also explain something about life. The plot exists not just to amuse us but to help make a point. When you give a story meaning, then it will likely be far greater than a story that just gives us an interesting plot.
For a movie that fails on all levels, watch “Cell,” an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel by the same name. The basic idea is that a strange electronic pulse turns every cell phone user into a mindless zombie. This is never explained and even worse, it tends to create different results with some people turning into murderers and others simply smashing their faces into the wall for no apparent reason.
The story is all about the hero trying to find his son. Not only is the plot choppy and lacking in suspense, but the ending is so confusing as well. Even worse, the story has no purpose and tells us nothing about life. So not only does it fail to entertain us, it fails to make any sense of life at all.
“The Green Room” is an example of a movie with a compelling plot, but that’s it. In this movie, a punk rock band plays a gig in an isolated bar where white supremacists reign. When the band witnesses a murder, they’re trapped in the green room (the room behind the stage) while the white supremacists plot to kill them and they plot to escape.
It’s an interesting story with some convenient plot holes (such as so many white supremacists willing to suddenly help them escape), but in the end, it tells us nothing about life. The best way to make a story tell us something about life is to make the villain the evil version of the hero. Now the hero can only succeed by defeating an evil version of himself.
In “Terminator 2,” the hero is the good Terminator who gradually learns that it’s wrong to kill. The villain is an even more powerful liquid metal Terminator who is a relentless killing machine. For the hero to learn that it’s wrong to kill because life is precious, he must not only learn not to kill, but he must also defeat that killer instinct in himself by defeating the villain. “Terminator 2” tells an interesting story with meaning.
In comparison, “The Green Room” just tells an interesting story. The villain isn’t really an evil version of the hero so there’s nothing the hero really learns through his defeat of the villain.
When a story is both interesting and meaningful, you’ll likely write a far more interesting screenplay. When you focus just on telling an interesting story without meaning, you may succeed like “The Green Room” or you may fail like “Cell.” Without meaning, every story is forgettable. With meaning, a story must still be interesting, but it now has a greater chance of making a huge emotional impact that will make your screenplay into a great movie.