Why Movies Fail at the Box Office

The One Thing That Makes All the Difference

Part II of a multi-part series on why movies fail at the box office

Financial data sourced from publicly available information

A movie’s financial success or failure depends on a single thing that happens to the main character in the first act. That one thing determines whether the story that follows will attract audiences or not, and it determines whether the movie will succeed at the box office or not.

That’s a pretty outrageous claim, isn’t it?  We all know there are many factors that influence a movie’s success, not just something that happens to the main character.  For a start, the star and the director are far more important, right?

No, that is definitely not right.

As of May 2016, five of the last seven of Johnny Depp’s movies fared badly at the box office. Four of the last five movies Angelina Jolie starred in had a similar fate, and nine of the last ten movies Ridley Scott directed didn’t exactly light up the box office.

Financial success in the movie business is tough: marketing costs are expensive, exhibitors and distributors take a big slice of the box office, so a movie needs to return around three times the cost of production just to break even.

You get a rough estimate of a movie’s success or failure by dividing the worldwide box office by the production budget. That gives you the cost to box office ratio (CBR).

For example: The Johnny Depp movie, Transcendence took $103 million at the worldwide box office and cost $100 million to produce, so it has a CBR of only 1.03 – a long way from the break-even point of 3.

Angelina Jolie’s Salt has a CBR of 2.6; her By the Sea barely managed a CBR of 0.34 and it starred Brad Pitt as well.  James Cameron’s The Abyss has a CBR of only 1.3; the last ten movies Ridley Scott directed averaged a CBR of 2.4.

Other big name actors and directors also have mixed track records when it comes to the financial outcome of their movies.

Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are wonderful actors; Ridley Scott and James Cameron are brilliant filmmakers. Their work is no less talented and no less brilliant and no less wonderful in the movies that fail than in the ones that succeed.  So why do some of their movies fail?

They fail because that one thing is missing or it isn’t used properly.

So what exactly is this one thing?

The one thing in James Cameron’s The Terminator is when the terminator robot tries to kill the Sarah Connor character.

That event gave Sarah Connor – the main character – four key story elements that determined the success of the movie:

  1. It gave her a problem that had severe consequences if she didn’t solve it: the robot is going to keep coming after her until she’s dead.
  2. It gave her a physical goal: she has to find a way to stop the robot before it stops her;
  3. It gave her an antagonist: the robot, who will create all kinds of obstacles and conflict for her before she can stop it; and
  4. It gave her an emotional goal: she has to overcome her fear and find an inner strength in order to deal with the problem.

Those four key story elements – problem, antagonist, physical goal, emotional goal – generated the continuous series of obstacles, conflict and jeopardy that Sarah Connor had to deal with for the rest of the movie until she resolved her problem by turning the robot into junk metal.

That’s the crucial bit: the one thing has to generate continuous obstacles, conflict and jeopardy and force the main character to take action and solve the problem.

Audiences identified with Sarah as she struggled through the danger, the stress, the emotional conflict and all the twists and turns until she finally beat the bad guy.

The Terminator achieved a CBR of 12 and generated enormous profits for its investors.

The one thing in Ridley Scott’s Alien is when the small alien creature burst out of John Hurt’s chest and grew to gigantic proportions. That event created the 4 key story elements that determined the success of the movie:

  1. The crew of the spaceship now had a problem with severe consequences if they didn’t solve it: they would all die.
  2. They had an antagonist that was a killing machine.
  3. Their physical goal was to kill the alien before it killed them.
  4. Their emotional goal was to overcome their fear and panic so they could deal with the problem.

Alien achieved a CBR of 22 and also made heaps of money for its investors.

The one thing in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is when the new Emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) orders the death of Maximus (Russell Crowe) and his family.

Maximus escapes, but his wife and child are killed.

The movie achieved a CBR of only 4.4, which means it did okay financially but was far less profitable than Alien with a CBR of 22.

Gladiator had the one thing: the main character is dealt a huge problem in the first act. So why didn’t the movie perform better at the box office?

The movie didn’t perform better because that one thing wasn’t used to develop the story.

Instead of using the problem inherent in the one thing, the filmmakers gave Maximus another problem: he was captured by slave traders and became a gladiator.

The story suddenly became about something else: it was no longer about the problem Commodus had created for Maximus, it was about Maximus surviving as a gladiator.

That was a huge mistake and cost the investors plenty at the box office. The filmmakers didn’t understand Maximus’ real problem and took the story in an entirely different direction.

As soon as the one thing happens – as soon as Maximus escapes imminent death and his family is murdered – 4 key story elements fell into place that were not used to develop the story:

  1. Maximus’ problem is he will be hunted down and killed by Commodus’ soldiers.
  2. His antagonist is Commodus.
  3. His physical goal is to overthrow Commodus.
  4. His emotional goal is revenge for the brutal murder of his family.

They were the 4 key elements that should have determined the pathway of the story. The filmmakers went in the wrong direction because they didn’t understand Maximus’ problem: He escaped death but he’s still a wanted man. If he’s captured he’ll be executed. The only way to win back his freedom and get justice for the brutal murder of his family is to achieve his physical goal by overthrowing Commodus.

That’s what flows logically from the thing that happened: Commodus wants Maximus dead. Maximus escapes. So he has to be found and killed. That’s the story that was set-up in the first act, but here’s what actually happened in the movie:

The first act set-up a story about a man who escapes a death sentence imposed by a tyrant Emperor because he poses a political threat. So far so good.

But the second act is about a man who is captured by slave traders, becomes a successful gladiator and is then used by the tyrant’s sister to help mount a coup because she’s afraid her brother will kill her son, the heir to power.

When the coup goes wrong, the man is captured by the tyrant and dies in the third act while fighting and killing the tyrant.

One story is set-up but another story takes over.  The result is a main character who becomes a celebrity gladiator but who does nothing about his problem for most of the movie until his enemy’s sister persuades him to join her attempted coup.  The problem gave Maximus a clear goal which he never acted on and which he never resolved.

That’s the difference the one thing can make to the story and to the outcome at the box office.

The flaw in all the Warner Bros movies that failed in 2015 is exactly the same: the one thing is either missing or not used properly.

The one thing is sometimes called the 1st act plot point. It’s the most important element in the storytelling process but its function is often misunderstood.

The function of the 1st act plot point is to create the 4 key elements of a Story Pattern that generate a continuous series of obstacles, conflict and jeopardy for the main character: problem, antagonist, physical goal and emotional or character goal.

The Story Pattern is the twists and turns, the constant jeopardy and the final resolution that stem directly from the main character trying to solve the problem by pursuing the physical goal while the antagonist creates obstacles and conflict.

Alien did what Gladiator didn’t do: it developed the four key story elements into a Story Pattern that focused on the physical goal of stopping the alien.  All the obstacles, all the twists and turns and all the jeopardy was organised into a Story Pattern driven by the characters’ need to solve the problem created by the 1st act plot point: the need to kill the alien before it killed them.

Gladiator was directed with as much cinematic brilliance as Alien. The difference is in how the 1st act plot point was used to structure the Story Pattern.  That difference is why Alien was five times more profitable than Gladiator.

Without exception, the top ten box office movies of all time have a viable 1st act plot point. They all follow a Story Pattern driven by the main character’s physical goal to solve a problem.  All of them are profitable, and all of them achieved a CBR greater than 7.5.

All the Warner Bros 2015 movies that failed* have a CBR less than 2.5.  The five movies discussed in the following articles have a CBR less than 1.4.  Three of them have a CBR less than 1.

The movies represent distinctly different genres but all of them performed badly at the box office because they didn’t have a viable 1st act plot point or didn’t use it properly.

                                                         BUDGET*      WORLD BOX OFFICE*   CBR

  • Jupiter Ascending                     $176M                      $184M                   1.04
  • Pan                                               $150M                      $128M                   0.85
  • Run All Night                              $50M                        $72M                     1.44
  • In the Heart of the Sea             $100M                      $94M                     0.94
  • Our Brand is Crisis                     $28M                        $8.5M                    0.30


* According to publicly available information.

First up: Jupiter Ascending.

This is a multi-part series on why movies fail at the box office:

Part I: Warner Bros 2015

Part II: Creating Hit Movies – The One Thing That Makes All the Difference

Part III: Jupiter Ascending

Part IV: Pan

Part V: Run All Night

Part VI: In the Heart of the Sea

Part VII: Our Brand Is Crisis


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