More Lessons from the Biggest Movies

In my previous post, we looked at the lessons writers can learn from successful movie loglines, to help us plan (and pitch) our own work. But if the whole point of a logline is to convince a funder to cough up the cash, a better measure of the logline itself (as opposed to the film as a whole) might be to examine those loglines which were successful in attracting major funding.

The average top-rated film from my previous post (after adjusting for inflation) had a budget of $80 million (in 2022 USD). The average bottom-rated film attracted less than half this funding, at $39 million. The least expensive top-rated film was, unsurprisingly, the oldest – 12 Angry Men had a budget of $350,000, or the equivalent of $4 million in today’s terms. Three bottom-rated films – Birdemic, Manos and Saving Christmas had budgets under $1 million in today’s terms.

Low-Budget Bad Movies

Birdemic, written, directed, and executive-produced by James Nguyen, the lowest budget of these films, was largely self-financed, and produced through Nguyen’s Moviehead Pictures for a budget of less than $10,000 (or $13,000 today). Similarly, Harold P. Warren wrote, directed, and starred in Manos, as the result of a bet. Both Nguyen and Warren only needed to convince themselves that their films were worth producing.

While Kirk Cameron also wrote the original story for his film, starred in it, and of course, named it after himself, a better comparison for Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas is quite possibly The Hottie & The Nottie starring Paris Hilton, as both movies appear to have attracted funding at least in part because of their stars (Kirk Cameron capitalising on his former career acting in Growing Pains (which, unusually, is referenced in the logline to Saving Christmas, and Paris Hilton still being famous for her sex tape in the early 2000s). In fact, Paris Hilton Entertainment was one of the three production companies involved in the project, and while The Hottie & The Nottie doesn’t fit with the other self-produced films above because of its significantly larger budget (though $9 million to Hilton probably feels like what $10k represents to a regular person), it is probably fair to say that the other companies involved got on board not because of a stellar logline but because of the film’s star.

Importantly, Cameron starred in the 2008 Christian film Fireproof which had the same budget of $500,000 as Saving Christmas but which managed to gross over $33 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing independent film of the year. (In fact, despite having a budget 18 times smaller than The Hottie & the Nottie, Fireproof out-earned Hilton’s film released the same year more than 20 times over). It’s easy to see why any investor – particularly a faith-based university and a religious production company – would want to pour money into a film called Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas regardless of its logline.

Big-Budget Bad Movies

The three most expensive movies among the lowest ranked ten were Son of the Mask, Battlefield Earth, and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. Notably, both Son of the Mask and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 are sequels to family comedy movies. The Mask, which was generally well received, had a budget of $23 million and grossed $352 million worldwide. Even though Baby Geniuses was almost as badly reviewed as its sequel (with 2.5 stars on IMDB), it did make money, with an estimated budget of $12 million turning into $36 million gross worldwide. It is clear that the executives who greenlit these projects did so based on the profits of their predecessors, not necessarily a convincing logline.

Battlefield Earth perhaps makes an even better comparison to Saving Christmas than Paris Hilton’s The Hottie & The Nottie. While Cameron’s film is overt in its religious messaging (evidently alienating both the “Reddit atheists” Cameron claims are responsible for the film’s poor rating, and the fundamentalist Christians the film attacks for how they celebrate the birth of Christ), Battlefield Earth has been accused of being a vehicle for Scientology to infiltrate the mainstream – though not particularly successfully, if its ticket sales are anything to go by. Despite being one of the highest budget films in the low-ranked ten (or possibly the highest, depending on which report of Son of the Mask’s budget you believe), Battlefield Earth earned only $29.7 million at the box office, on the back of a $73 million budget ($124 million in today’s terms – more than double what The Godfather, Schindler’s List, or The Shawshank Redemption had to work with). Admittedly, Battlefield Earth is an effects-heavy film, but even so, its budget is comparable to the significantly more successful Lord of the Rings films.

At first glance, then, Battlefield Earth may seem like an ideal example for us to study: a premise that managed to attract tens of millions of dollars, even if the final outcome was a flop. But as with Cameron’s movie, it appears that Battlefield Earth‘s acquisition of funds was based on a combination of the star power of the person seeking to make it (in this case, John Travolta), and its spiritual significance.

Travolta tried since the mid 1990s to obtain funding for Battlefield Earth, but the very thing that presumably made the book an attractive candidate for a movie in Travolta’s eyes was the reason it was rejected by Hollywood big shots – Wikipedia states he was “unable to obtain major studio funding due to concerns about the script and its connections to Scientology”. Exactly what proportion of the fault lay in the script itself, as opposed to the book’s connection to L. Ron Hubbard is uncertain, but these fears seem to have been well-founded, with reviewers and audiences alike criticising numerous aspects of the movie, which went on to break the record for the most Razzie Awards given to a single film, and it won Worst Picture of the Decade in 2010.

It’s not a big stretch to say that Travolta’s desire to turn Battlefield Earth into a movie was likely motivated by his devotion to Scientology and out of respect for its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, more than by a clear-eyed assessment of the book’s plot and characters. Travolta had received an autographed copy of Battlefield Earth from the author when it was first published in 1982, who reportedly hoped that Travolta would turn the book into a film “in the vein of Star Wars“. Around that time, Travolta’s influence in Hollywood was low, owing to his participation in a series of flops (more evidence that Travolta didn’t have an infallible “golden touch” when it comes to assessing scripts), but after the success of one of the top-ten ranked films of all time, Pulp Fiction, for which Travolta received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, he began shopping around Battlefield Earth, describing the film as “like Pulp Fiction for the year 3000″ and “like Star Wars, only better” recruiting other prominent Scientologists to help with promotion.

Some of these fellow Scientologists were so zealous in pushing the film, it backfired. Bill Mechanic, the former head of 20th Century Fox, said “Do you think in any way, shape, or form that weirding me out is going to make me want to make this movie?” Another studio executive said that “On any film there are ten variables that can kill you. On this film there was an eleventh: Scientology.” In addition to the expensive effects required and the general view that Hubbard’s narrative was naive and outdated, the “Scientology factor” was perceived by most executives to negate Travolta’s star power. But there was one company willing to take a gamble.

Somewhat surprisingly for a film with such an enormous budget, Battlefield Earth was actually produced by an independent company, Franchise Pictures, which specialised in rescuing the pet projects of major stars. In other words, Travolta’s obsession with Battlefield Earth was based on the book’s personal and perhaps spiritual significance to him, and Franchise Pictures’ agreement to produce the film was based on the fact that it was Travolta pushing it – in much the same way that we might speculate that Cameron’s films are based on the Bible’s personal and spiritual significance to him, and (at least some portion) of his funders’ agreement to produce his films is based on his past success.

In the end, it wasn’t a gamble that paid off. Franchise Pictures was sued by its investors and went bankrupt after fraudulently overstating the film’s budget. Though Travolta poured millions of his own money into the film, and lobbied other Hollywood celebrities for support, most of the funding came from the German distribution company Intertainment AG. In the eventual case, head of Intertainment Barry Baeres told the court he only funded Battlefield Earth because it was packaged with two more commercially attractive films The Art of War (which in the end received lukewarm reviews and failed to make back its $60 million budget, though it performed far less poorly than Battlefield Earth) and The Whole Nine Yards (which did receive largely positive reviews and made a substantial profit). So I think it’s fair to say that Battlefield Earth was made not as a result of a fantastic book with a terrific plot which resulted in an outstanding logline, but because a star wanted to make a film related to his religious beliefs, a company wanted to buy any movie that star wanted to make, and another company wanted to invest in a different movie but had to fund Battlefield Earth along with it.

Middle of the Pack

Perhaps the secret to writing a killer logline lies in the middle of the pack, then? Aside from The Hottie and the Nottie, which we discussed above, there are three films with budgets in the equivalent of tens of millions of today’s money: House of the Dead, Disaster Movie, and Epic Movie.

Alas, we turn up no gold here either. Disaster Movie and Epic Movie, like Son of the Mask and Superbabies are part of a series of films and presumably signed off on based on the franchise’s demonstrated capacity to make money. Before these two were Scary Movie (a smash hit, grossing $278 million on a budget of just $19 million) and Date Movie (also commercially successful, making $85 million on a $20 million budget). The disastrous Disaster Movie was the last film Friedberg and Seltzer made with this exact format (although Scary Movie sequels continued to be released – and make massive profits – up to and including the release of Scary Movie 5 in 2013).

House of the Dead has a logline which perhaps most closely resembles the loglines of the top-ranked films, though it still lacks the conflict and agency most of them contain. The film, produced in part by Sega, is a prequel to the Sega video game franchise, and Sega representatives even shot footage during filming to include in the game House of the Dead 4. Presumably, it would take far less convincing to get Sega to fund a 90-minute advertisement for their video games than it would to get them to fund a completely original film. So it is hard to imagine a well-written logline and excellent premise was the vital ingredient here either.

In my previous post, I noted that the movies clustered around the bottom of the rankings were all comedy sequels, religious propaganda, or cheap horror. Based on the above observations, I think we can observe an even higher-level pattern that transcends genre. The worst-rated movies were either heavily profit-driven (sequels/prequels forced out even when the narrative does not demand it, simply because the previous film(s) were profitable), or person-driven (and by person, I mean the ideology or vanity of the star, not the film’s characters).

So, if even the best funded of the bad films give us no real guidance, perhaps we should look at films which attracted a LOT of funding, regardless of their outcomes. What are the loglines of the world’s most expensive films like?

Most Expensive Films – Ever

Wikipedia’s list of the world’s most expensive films (adjusted for inflation) tells a familiar story. Of the 75 films listed, I could only identify six as “original” ideas – that is, movies that weren’t based on a book, a comic, a TV series or a game, that weren’t a remake of or a sequel/prequel to a previous movie. Movies that didn’t rely on the audience’s familiarity with the characters or universe from previous media.

Those movies were: Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), both produced by James Cameron, 2012 (confusingly released in 2009), Armageddon (1998), Waterworld (1995), and WALL-E (2008). Five are disaster movies, and the other two are set in space – but still have themes of ecological disaster.

Good premise, good outcome

The highest-rated films on IMDB from this bunch (with ratings over 7.5) were WALL-E, Titanic, and Avatar. Their loglines follow the guidelines in my previous post to the letter. All are just one sentence long and have perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The main character is introduced with a generic description (“a small waste-collecting robot”, “a seventeen-year-old aristocrat”, “a paraplegic Marine”). The main action is summarised using verbs (“embarks on a space journey”, “falls in love”, “becomes torn between following orders and protecting the world”). Setting is mentioned, because in all three it is important (“space”, “the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic”, “the moon Pandora”). In the case of Titanic, a romance, the romantic lead is introduced, “a kind but poor artist”, while for the other films, only the protagonist is mentioned.

All three films were commercially successful – WALL-E made its money back almost three times over, but Cameron’s two films Titanic and Avatar each made $2 billion on their roughly $200 million budgets.

Good premise, fine outcome

The three lower-rating (but still very respectable!) films, with ratings between 5.5 and 7 on IMDB, were similarly commercially successful. Waterworld made the least return on investment, but still made a sizable profit (only after video and other post-cinema sales were taken into account).

The loglines of Armageddon and 2012, on the whole, also follow the guidelines identified in my previous post. Both are just one sentence long (Waterworld’s is also one sentence, but did spill over two lines) and all three have perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

In all three, the main character is given a generic description (“a misfit team”, “a mutated mariner”, and a “frustrated writer”, though Armageddon and Waterworld don’t introduce their misfit team and mutated mariner until the second line. Indeed, the main difference between this group of loglines as a whole and those examined in my previous post is that half (including WALL-E) describe the setting/time frame before introducing the main character. Since none of the films in the previously examined top 10 were set in futuristic dystopias or space, this would appear to be a genre-based variation authors should keep in mind.

Again, the main action is summarised using verbs (“save the planet” and “keep his family alive” for Armageddon and 2012, though the main conflict is somewhat difficult to identify in Waterworld‘s logline: “fights starvation and outlaw “smokers”, and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land”.

Watching our hero fight “starvation” sounds depressing and unexciting – not necessarily the “action” I would choose to lead with. Grammatically, the double-meaning of “outlaw” (the verb meaning to ban something, and the noun meaning someone who operates outside the law) makes this part somewhat difficult to parse, especially because it is separated from the verb “fights” and because we uninitiated readers can’t be expected to know what a “smoker” refers to, and the dominant references in my head are people who smoke cigarettes, and people who smoke meat. Perhaps because I am so used to seeing “outlaw” in the context of “smoking”, the first couple of times I read this logline, I read it as the mariner trying out outlaw smoking (of tobacco or bacon, I am not sure which).

This part of the logline also violates another of our guidelines: mentioning too many additional characters unless the genre demands it (which I don’t think it does here). Compared to Titanic, where the romance with the “kind but poor artist” is a crucial part of the story (and the contrast between our seventeen-year-old aristocrat and the poor artist creates tension), there is no inherent tension between a “mutated mariner” and a “woman and a young girl”. Unless some specifics about the woman and/or girl can be given which will add to our characterisation of the protagonist or will build excitement in the story, this may as well have been made generic: how much more epic is WALL-E‘s “decide the fate of mankind” or Armageddon‘s “save the planet”? By singling out these characters but making them bland, the scale of the action has been reduced without giving us anything interesting to make us care about their fate.

Since Waterworld is a bit of an outlier, it is perhaps worth delving into further.

Sand and surf

Waterworld was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made, and the writer Peter Rader evidently came up with the idea during a discussion with Brad Krevoy – the founder and chairman of the Motion Picture Corporation of America, who has been directly involved in the financing and production of more than 150 movies over his three decade career. The idea was to create a rip-off of the 1979 Australian movie, Mad Max.

It is interesting then, to contrast Waterworld‘s lengthy logline with that of Mad Max:

In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.

Waterworld

In a self-destructing world, a vengeful Australian policeman sets out to stop a violent motorcycle gang.

Mad Max

In Mad Max we have a clear protagonist and antagonist. Despite its futuristic and (for US audiences) foreign setting, there is very little mental effort required on the part of the reader to figure out what is going on. The main action (conflict between the policeman and the gang) is clear. And although the logline may seem to break the guideline of giving just one description for our main character, the adjective “Australian” plays double-duty, giving us information about the setting. No words are wasted on extraneous detail – compare “In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged” with “In a self-destructing world”. Do we really need to know the precise manner in which the world is destructing? Do we need to spell out what disasters will befall us if the ice-caps melt? Don’t we normally assume that a story takes place on Earth unless otherwise specified? These phrases convey the same meaning, but the lengthy description in Waterworld’s logline lacks the punch of Mad Max‘s much shorter logline. In fact that description takes up 15 words of Waterworld’s logline – while Mad Max’s logline is just 16 words long in total.

So what have we learned?

Regardless of a film’s eventual reception by critics and audiences, regardless of its box office success, those movies which attract the megabucks without relying on existing properties to win over executives are those which, on the whole, follow the guidelines identified in my previous post:

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