There’s no surefire formula for writing a hit movie since as a screenwriter, the production, directing, and acting is totally out of your control. The best you can do is write the best screenplay possible and pray that studios don’t mess it up completely.
If you look at cult movies, you’ll find that they retain their attraction over time because they tap an emotional nerve somehow. If you’re just trying to create a “Die Hard” clone or another pale imitation of a popular movie, chances are good you’ll simply wind up with a weak movie that nobody will want to see more than once. However, if you’re trying to say something about people, then you’ll have a much better chance at creating a cult classic.
The key is having a strong theme.
“Harold and Maude” is about suicide and finding the meaning of life. “Dr. Strangelove” is about the insanity of war. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is about humanity’s future evolutionary path. “Titanic” is about living your life on your terms. “A Clockwork Orange” is about how people need to choose good over evil.
When you have a strong theme, you can create a strong and unique story that supports that them. Now people won’t be fascinated by your story just because there are plenty of car chases and explosions, but because your story actually means something beyond the special effects and action. “Terminator 2” is about learning the value of a human life, yet it’s loaded with plenty of special effects. The far less satisfying “Terminator 3” is nothing but special effects, so once you see one car crash and massive explosion with gunfire, you’ve pretty much seen the same movie scene over and over again, which makes it boring.
“Thelma and Louise” was about how woman get screwed over in a male-dominated world. Whether you agree with that premise or not is irrelevant. People who do accept that premise feel validated each time they see that movie. You’ll never satisfy everyone so don’t bother. Try to satisfy people who will appreciate your theme. Then if you write a strong story around that theme, you’ll be far more likely to create a cult classic that people will want to watch over and over again.
The latest cult classic is a South Korean science fiction movie that sounds like a bad idea. “Snowpiercer” is a train that perpetually roams around the world on a track while the rest of the world lies frozen in death. The last remnants of humanity survive on the train, but the theme kicks in when the rich live in luxury while the poor live in squalor. Then the poor decide to rebel and take over the train, which is more or less a metaphor for people rising up and taking control of the world.
Because “Snowpiercer” has such a strong theme, it’s easy to see how each scene supports that theme. It’s also easy to see how its strong theme makes it rise above a silly science fiction movie and into the realm of a cult classic. “Snowpiercer” really isn’t about a train holding the last surviving humans. It’s really about our own world in the same way that “Titanic” wasn’t just about a sinking ocean liner but about deciding to take control of your own life.
How do you define a strong theme for your screenplay? Start with a strong emotion in yourself. What’s a strong emotion that practically bursts out of your head that you want to share with the rest of the world. Capture that emotional core and build your theme and ultimately your story around that raw emotional energy. If you do that, chances are good you’ll create a far better screenplay than just going through the process of trying to copy the latest hit movie.