Part V of a multi-part series on why movies fail at the box office
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Reviews of Run All Night claim the film is better than Unknown and Non-Stop, two earlier thrillers made by the same director and also starring Liam Neeson.
Audiences didn’t agree: Unknown achieved a CBR of 4.4, and Non-Stop 4.5. Both films were profitable. Run All Night has a CBR of 1.4 and lost money.
Like Jupiter Ascending and Pan, the flaw is the 1st act plot point: the event that creates a problem for the main character.
But who is the main character? Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) or his son, Michael?
One character has the problem but it’s the other character who tries to solve it. That flaw cost the movie at the box office.
The set-up for the 1st act plot point is when Michael is at the wrong place, wrong time and witnesses the gang boss’s son, Danny, killing the Albanian.
That’s the start of Michael’s problem: Danny is intent on silencing him and will stop at nothing, including killing his wife and kids.
Danny tracks Michael down at his home and is about to shoot him but Jimmy shows up and shoots Danny first.
That’s the 1st act plot point. That’s what creates the problem, both for Michael and for Jimmy, but mostly for Michael.
But before any of that happens we learn that Jimmy works for, and is a close friend of the gang boss (Ed Harris), and Michael has a long-standing hatred of his dad for having left him and loathes him for being a murderous criminal.
That’s the first 32 minutes of the movie and the end of the first act.
The problem happens to Michael, his antagonist is Danny’s gangster boss father who now wants Michael and Jimmy dead; his emotional goal is to find a way to forgive his dad; but the flaw with the 1st act plot point is that the physical goal of solving the problem is given to Jimmy, not Michael.
It’s the same mistake Jupiter Ascending made: Cain kept stepping in and rescuing Jupiter. It also happened with Pan: Hook kept getting Peter out of trouble. And now it happens again with Run All Night: The main character is mostly passive and never gets to pursue the physical goal and take action until almost the end.
Although both Michael and Jimmy have a problem – killing a gang boss’s son means he will send people to kill them – Michael is nevertheless the main character because he has a bigger problem: his wife and two kids are also in danger, not just him; and he’s the one whose problem is resolved in the end at the expense of his father’s death; and he’s also the one who overcomes his emotional issue and finds a way to forgive his dad.
So it’s his story: we meet him in his world as a decent family man, working as a limo driver by night and helping wayward kids by day; we learn he has an emotional issue about his dad, and then the problem happens to him.
Michael had a huge problem with severe consequences from the moment the psychopathic Danny saw him. Danny would have hunted him and his family down no matter what.
Jimmy stepping in and killing Danny only took Michael’s problem to another level: instead of having Danny after him, he now has Danny’s father with all his henchmen, resources and contract killers gunning for him.
The mistake the filmmakers made in setting up the 1st act plot point was to have Jimmy showing up and taking over the physical goal of solving Michael’s problem for him. The 1st act plot point isn’t viable because with Jimmy taking charge, Michael doesn’t have a physical goal.
The physical goal the 1st act plot point tried to create for Michael is to stop the gangster boss from killing him and his family. But he does little to fix his problem except to stash his family away somewhere and abuse his dad when he shows up to help. Michael doesn’t take action because Jimmy is there doing it all for him.
Okay, that’s Michael. But why isn’t Jimmy the main character? He has an antagonist: Gangster boss Shawn wants him dead more than he wants Michael dead; he has a strong character goal: he wants to redeem himself with his son; and he takes on the full weight of the physical goal: he does everything he can to negotiate a solution before wiping everyone out.
All of that is true, but Jimmy doesn’t really have a problem.
Jimmy doesn’t care about dying. He even offers up his life to Shawn in exchange for Michael’s. Staying alive is not his problem. He just wants to save Michael and his family and redeem himself.
The filmmakers wanted Jimmy to be an action hero like the Liam Neeson character in Taken: an ex-CIA operative who stops at nothing to get the job done.
But the situation in Run All Night is not like the one he faced in Taken. Having a teenage daughter abducted and sold into slavery is automatically a father’s problem.
Audiences had no expectations for the daughter to rescue herself.
That’s not the case here. Audiences did have expectations of the Michael character.
Having Michael with the problem, Jimmy with the physical goal and both of them with the same antagonist created confusion. Audiences wanted Liam Neeson to be the guy from Taken, sure, but they didn’t know where to invest themselves: Jimmy or Michael?
Jimmy is not the main character because the 1st act plot point doesn’t happen to him. He just takes on the goal of saving his son and undermines Michael’s role as the main character.
If our imaginary engineer studied the blueprint, he would identify the problem and suggest that one of the characters competing for the main role had to go.
For example, what would happen if the Jimmy character wasn’t there? What if there was nobody to rescue Michael?
Michael could still be the same decent guy, working to support his family, helping kids like Legs at the local gym; and he would have the same back-story, the same resentment of his criminal father who maybe was killed doing Shawn’s dirty work.
Shawn might even reach out to him in the first act, offering him money out of guilt for what happened to Jimmy. And of course, Michael wouldn’t want anything to do with him.
Then at the 1st act plot point the exact same thing happens but now there’s nobody to help Michael. Nobody to show up and kill Danny. He would have to kill Danny himself in self-defense and Shawn would come after him with all he’s got.
Now it’s Michael’s problem to solve, his physical goal to achieve and his antagonist to confront.
That might raise some casting issues but there’d be no more confusion about the role of the main character and audience expectations would be met.
Another approach would have been to keep the Jimmy character, but instead of miraculously transforming him from the drunken, has-been enforcer into the action hero he suddenly becomes in the film, have him be the same character we meet in the first act: he tries to save his son from Danny in exactly the same way but the booze has slowed him down and Danny shoots and kills him first. That would help Michael pull the trigger on Danny.
That way, some of the father/son character issues remain in focus but the Michael character is more active, solves his own problems and forgives his father for at least trying.
The filmmakers obviously liked the idea of a character having to choose between loyalty to his boss and loyalty to the son he deserted. The character dynamics are seductive. The critics loved it, but the story didn’t deliver on audience expectations and the box office suffered.
The flaw with the blueprint is the idea that was chosen as the 1st act plot point.
This is the idea the filmmakers tried to make:
A man is forced to turn against his gangster boss to save his son.
That idea doesn’t work as a 1st act plot point because the son had the bigger problem – nothing trumps women and children in danger as a problem – and he became the main character while the father took on the physical goal of solving the problem.
The father became the action hero but the son was left with the jeopardy.
Here is the core idea that would have worked as a 1st act plot point:
A man and his family are hunted down after he kills a gangster’s son in self-defense.
That’s the story that’s struggling to get free of the choke-hold Jimmy has on it. After all, it’s actually what happens; and if Michael had been allowed to run with it the film would have had a better chance of reaching its target audience and making money.
The 1st act plot point is uncompromising and demands exactitude: if you give a character a problem in the first act, then that character has to solve it.
Audiences know that instinctively. They also know that if you sell them a movie about a demon whale it better deliver the way Jaws delivered.
Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea starring Chris Hemsworth couldn’t be Jaws because it’s based on a true story and doesn’t take liberties with what actually happened to the crew of the whaling ship Essex.
It’s a harrowing story of survival but it failed at the box office for the same reason the other films failed: the 1st act plot point isn’t viable.
Next up: In the Heart of the Sea.
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