Part VI of a multi-part series on why movies fail at the box office
Financial data sourced from publicly available information
Creating a Story Pattern for a movie seems simple enough: create a problem for the main character with an inbuilt antagonist, then give the character a physical goal that might solve the problem and have the antagonist create obstacles.
The clash between the character and antagonist will generate enough dramatic conflict to keep audiences engaged until the problem is solved in a thrilling climax.
Seems simple but In The Heart of the Sea couldn’t pull it off.
The movie cost $100M, took only $94M at the box office and has a CBR of .94.
If those figures are anywhere near accurate the movie would have lost at least $80M.
To achieve the necessary level of dramatic conflict requires the ability to develop the full potential of the 1st act plot point into a Story Pattern that delivers on audience expectations.
We have seen how easily that can go wrong.
A film can have a viable plot point but the filmmakers might send the main character off on a physical goal that has nothing to do with the problem, like in Gladiator.
Or the character may not act on the real problem and just hang around being a princess, like in Jupiter Ascending.
Or the plot point might not give the character a problem that has severe consequences, like in Pan.
Or the problem might be given to one character while another character tries to solve the problem, like in Run All Night.
The flaws in movies that fail can usually be traced back to the 1st act plot point but it’s hard to spot when the underlying idea appears to have great dramatic potential.
Like this idea:
A crew is stranded when a whale destroys their ship and hunts them down.
That looks like an idea that could work as a viable 1st act plot point but if it isn’t used to pit the crew against the whale in competitive struggle it won’t engage audiences. The crew will be in jeopardy but unless they take action there won’t be sustained dramatic conflict.
In the Heart of the Sea runs to 120 minutes. The 1st act plot point happens 60 minutes into the film when the demon whale destroys the ship.
The crew has a significant problem: they are stranded in the middle of an ocean in flimsy boats with the whale still out there. The hunters are now the hunted.
They have the physical goal of needing to kill the whale before it kills them, and they have to find land to survive. Two very strong physical goals.
The antagonist is the whale, intent on destroying all the whale boats. The ocean is an antagonistic force as well, and so is the lack of food and water.
The emotional goal for the crew is to overcome their fear and anxiety and do what they can to survive.
It’s Jaws, and it’s Alien on the high seas.
So why isn’t it a viable 1st act plot point?
The 1st act plot point sets up a situation that has the potential for dramatic conflict but because it’s based on a true story it doesn’t have license for the crew to engage in a battle that gives them some chance of success.
Dramatic conflict requires action and reaction from two opposing forces: the whale does something and the crew does something back. A loss followed by a small victory, and then another loss and another attempt by the crew to solve the problem. And so on.
That doesn’t happen. Owen Chase and his crew don’t come up with a plan of action that would give audiences something to root for. The crew seemed doomed and audiences had to endure the pain with them.
The spaceship crew in Alien had a similar problem to deal with, but what makes that film so engaging is the crew kept coming up with ways to kill or capture the monster. When one attempt failed they came up with another idea: the crew acted and the alien reacted. Two opposing forces generating dramatic conflict.
There were also twists and turns to heighten the jeopardy: the Ripley character discovers that the crew is expendable because the company wants to keep the monster alive to develop advanced weaponry. And then another twist when the science officer turns out to be an android programmed to kill the entire crew to save the alien. The crew react by “killing” the android. Action, reaction.
Dramatic conflict was generated in Jaws using exactly the same action/reaction process. It achieved a CBR of 65.
Of course Jaws was based on a work of fiction and the characters weren’t stranded at sea with few resources, no access to equipment and no food or water.
The action/reaction process is implicit in the 1st act plot point: the main character’s physical goal to solve the problem has to be in opposition to the obstacles created by the antagonist and that creates the dramatic conflict.
In the Heart of the Sea has antagonistic forces so strong the obstacles the crew face are almost insurmountable. There’s continuous jeopardy but without the dramatic conflict and the small victories a story needs to hold audience interest.
So what would our engineer say about the blueprint?
He’d say if you’re going to spend $100M, forget about the realities of the true story and come up with ways for the crew to compete against the antagonistic forces so there’s dramatic conflict.
The crew has to win a round or two otherwise audiences will feel like a punching bag: having to take one blow after another without recourse.
If you can’t do that then it’s not a viable 1st act plot point: the right one has to generate obstacles that the crew can do something about, and hopefully even triumph over.
If you can’t do that, the project is a pass.
The next and final film in the series is Our Brand Is Crisis. Like all the other films, the 1st act plot point is flawed.
Next up: Our Brand Is Crisis.
This is a multi-part series on why movies fail at the box office:
Part I: Warner Bros 2015
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