Part III of a multi-part series on why movies fail at the box office
Financial data sourced from publicly available information
Movies that don’t follow the Story Pattern lose money.
The Story Pattern has a number of elements. The most important is the 1st act plot point because it creates a problem for the main character and sets off a series of obstacles, conflict & jeopardy the character must confront to solve the problem.
To launch the Story Pattern effectively the problem has to come packaged with an antagonist, a physical goal and an emotional or character goal.
We saw how the 1st act plot points in The Terminator and Alien generated a Story Pattern with solid box office results but in Gladiator the 1st act plot point was misused and the box office suffered.
The filmmakers of Jupiter Ascending used a 1st act plot point very effectively in The Matrix (Warner Bros) and achieved a CBR of 7.5. The Matrix was very successful and spawned two sequels.
The same filmmakers didn’t create a viable 1st act plot point for Jupiter Ascending, and the studio didn’t acid test the screenplay to make sure it had one, so the movie fared badly at the box office.
The event in the movie that tried to be the 1st act plot point is when Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is at the fertility clinic and the medical staff turn out to be aliens who try to kill her.
Well, that’s certainly a problem for Jupiter. The antagonists are the aliens. Her physical goal is to stay alive, and her emotional goal is to overcome her terror at what’s happening.
That seems clear enough, so why isn’t that a viable 1st act plot point?
It isn’t a viable 1st act plot point because Jupiter doesn’t know what her real problem is: she doesn’t know that Earth’s human inhabitants are about to be used as a youth serum by the aliens.
And because she doesn’t know about the real problem until almost the end of the movie, she doesn’t know that her physical goal is to stop the aliens and save Earth.
And because she doesn’t know what her physical goal is she also doesn’t know who the real antagonist is.
And because she doesn’t know who the real antagonist is, she can’t behave like a main character, take charge, deal with the obstacles and solve the problem – so she ends up being a passive bystander for pretty much all the movie while Cain (Channing Tatum) does all the heavy lifting trying to save her.
The event used as a 1st act plot point in Jupiter Ascending is not viable: it doesn’t lock the four key story elements into place for Jupiter. It’s not the same kind of event as the one the same filmmakers used in The Matrix:
When Neo (Keanu Reeves) wakes up in that incubator to discover he’s just a human battery and that a machine is feeding his brain a video game that pretends to be his real life, he knows he’s got a problem; and he knows he has to do something about it; and he knows Mr Smith is the guy he has to deal with; and he’s not sure he has the confidence to handle it.
Problem, physical goal, antagonist and character goal.
The function of the 1st act plot point is so misunderstood it’s worth repeating: Jupiter Ascending failed at the box office because it didn’t have a viable 1st act plot point.
The event that was used to launch the story didn’t provide Jupiter with a problem, an antagonist and a physical goal that forced her to be an active participant in confronting a continuous series of obstacles and conflict until she, and she alone, took action to resolve the problem.
The Wachowskis always come up with big concepts. Their concept for The Matrix was as complex as their concept for Jupiter Ascending. The difference between the two movies is this: they condensed the complexity of The Matrix concept into a core idea that was a viable 1st act plot point but they didn’t do it for Jupiter Ascending.
The concept for The Matrix is this: humanity has developed to a point where artificial intelligence has taken over. It controls humans by feeding them a virtual reality while it uses them as batteries to energize itself.
That’s the concept, but the core idea which generated the story is this:
A man discovers that humanity is enslaved by a machine.
That simple idea is actually the 1st act plot point and it launched an engaging Story Pattern because as soon as the man (Neo) discovers that he (and the rest of humanity) is enslaved by a machine, he immediately has a problem, a clear physical goal and an antagonist (Mr Smith, chief agent of the machine) who creates obstacles and continuous dramatic conflict.
Neo also has the character goal of having to overcome his lack of confidence in order to do the job that lay ahead.
Those four key story elements need to be contained within the core idea: the physical goal, the antagonist and the emotional or character goal must be inherent to the problem. They must be self-evident otherwise audiences won’t understand what’s going on; and if they don’t understand what’s going on they can’t root for the character while she’s trying to solve the problem.
For example, in Taken, as soon as his daughter is abducted the Liam Neeson character’s problem is self-evident, his goal is self-evident and the antagonist is self-evident: his child is taken, so his automatic goal is to rescue her and his antagonist is whoever took her. And because he feels he hasn’t been a good dad, his emotional goal is to redeem himself.
The four key story elements were self-evident and locked into place automatically. Audiences got it immediately and rooted for him all the way to a box office hit and two sequels.
That’s the acid test that the studio, the writers, the directors, the script consultants and whoever else was involved in developing the screenplay of Jupiter Ascending didn’t understand: the 1st act plot point has to be an event that creates those 4 key story elements and it has to be immediate, self-evident and able to generate continuous dramatic conflict.
The writer of Taken condensed the concept of human slave trading into a simple core idea that could work as a 1st act plot point:
A man’s daughter is abducted and sold into slavery.
The concept of Jupiter Ascending is this: aliens grow and harvest humans as youth serum.
That’s the concept. What the filmmakers didn’t do was condense it into a core idea that could function as a 1st act plot point.
A woman is abducted by aliens who turn humans into youth serum.
That’s a viable 1st act plot point and would have worked because it gives the woman:
- A problem: aliens want to destroy the human race;
- It gives her a physical goal: she has to save the world;
- There are antagonistic forces working against her: those damn aliens; and
- She has a character goal: she wants to be more than just a cleaning woman.
Perfect. All the elements are there to generate a continuous series of obstacles, conflict and jeopardy for Jupiter to confront, to overcome, and to save the world and achieve her character goal.
If everything superfluous to the core idea is stripped away that’s what’s left:
A woman has to save the world from aliens.
That should have been her physical goal and would have generated a Story Pattern that had people lining up at the box office.
Instead, the movie got buried under this idea:
A cleaning woman goes on a space odyssey & becomes a princess.
That’s the idea the Wachowskis wanted to make – a Cinderella story – but they didn’t realise the idea doesn’t generate a problem, a goal and an antagonist for the cleaning woman.
The idea doesn’t generate the key elements essential to creating a story with continuous dramatic conflict.
And the studio didn’t acid test the screenplay to make sure it had an idea that was a viable 1st act plot point.
Jupiter Ascending cost $176M to make, took $184M worldwide and achieved a CBR of only 1.04.
Movies that score well at the box office always have a viable 1st act plot point but it’s truly astonishing how often studios, investors and talented filmmakers forget – or don’t know how – to acid test their screenplays before spending millions on production.
But then again, coming up with a viable 1st act plot point can’t be that easy: Pan couldn’t even muster a CBR of 1 and according to media reports may have lost over $100M.
Next up: Pan
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