It’s easy to see why bad movies flop. It’s usually because the story is dull, confusing, or so unrealistic that nobody can take it seriously, even in a spirit of fun. However, it’s harder to understand why well-written movies flop.
The Coen Brothers tend to write excellent screenplays, but the success of their movies has varied over the years. Their first film, “Blood Simple,” dazzled critics and audiences alike. However, their third film, “Miller’s Crossing,” actually bombed in the theaters although it’s popular on TV or DVD. Here’s a case of a well-written screenplay that didn’t do well. What happened?
I think it goes to the idea of an Unsolvable Dilemma. By the time we figure out what the hero of “Miller’s Crossing” is trying to do, the movie’s already over. In other words, it’s not clear right from the start what stacked odds the hero is facing, even by the end of the movie. If you can’t clearly identify the hero’s unsolvable dilemma, nobody quite knows what they’re watching or why they should care.
Pick any popular, commercially successful movie. “Predator” is about an alien hunting down commandoes. Clear goal and a seemingly unsolvable dilemma. If a team of commandoes can’t defeat an alien, how can a single commando do it by himself?
“The Blind Side” is a less action-packed film, but still poses, right from the start, an unsolvable dilemma. How can a white woman take in a black boy as a foster child, and raise him up to become a football star?
Even comedies pose such an initial unsolvable dilemma right from the start so audiences know what they’re watching and why. “The Proposal” makes us wonder if a couple, faking that they’re engaged, can actually find true love.
What makes unsolvable dilemmas so compelling is because the odds are heavily stacked against their success that we can’t help but watch to see how it turns out. Watch any busy intersection and it’s boring watching an ordinary man or woman cross the street.
Now consider a man or woman balancing a stack of pizza boxes and holding a six-pack of sodas. The odds of failure are higher so this scene is far more interesting to watch than just seeing a man or woman cross the street.
Raise the stakes higher and have someone in a car trying to run over the man or woman carrying the stack of pizza boxes. Suddenly you’ve amped up the suspense even more.
Crank it up one more time and give this person a deadline. If they don’t deliver the stack of pizzas across this busy intersection in five minutes, something horrible will happen, such as a gangster will kill the man or woman’s lover and child.
Now the story is progressively made more interesting in three ways:
- Give the hero a clear challenge.
- Give the hero a clear opponent who wants to stop the hero.
- Give the hero a deadline that must be reached or some horrible consequence will happen.
If you know all of this while watching someone cross a busy street, balancing a stack of pizza boxes, now you really want to see what will happen next, and that’s what good story-telling is all about.