A century of motion picture production has generated a remarkably small cannon of films that have achieved true ‘Deep Culture’ Impact. The odds against making a true “double-bottom-line” film–Critical Acclaim and, Popular Appeal–are nearly astronomical.
Never Tell Me the Odds!
At any given moment there are over 100,000 screenplays being shopped around Hollywood. These are the ones agents deem worthy of representing. The total number of completed screenplays is much higher.
Of these 100,000+ screenplays, less than 5,000 per year are actually produced as independent films. These are the films vying for notice at Sundance, Cannes, Tribecca, Toronto, and other film festivals for major Studio purchase and hopefully distribution. They join a handful of Studio-produced films that are all but assured to end up on screen.
Of these 5,000+ films, less than 250 actually end up in national theatrical release each year, and another 250 or so distributed for limited release. That means that less than 500 films per year make it to the local cinemaplex and/or art house theater.
Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner enough critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in the “Best Picture”  and/or “Best Writing” categories (original or adapted screenplay.)
If you’re keeping score, that means that a screenwriter who manages to get an agent to represent their passion project has less than .02% chance of their movie even being nominated for an Academy Award. An indie producer who manages to achieve film lock has less than .075% chance of nomination. And that doesn’t even guarantee their the film will be profitable.
Of the 10 to 15 Academy Award-nominated films, many never reach the threshold of box office respectability requisite for broad “popular appeal.” For instance, 2012 Best Picture winner, The Artist, garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, and 2010 winner, The Hurt Locker only $17 million. They may be great films, but not enough people will ever see them for the movie to have much of a cultural impact (although the rise of Netflix and other streaming services is changing that formula.) A film financier recently told me that their entertainment lawyer suggested that they would have a better chance of turning a profit if they purchased $10 million in lottery tickets.
No wonder only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 60 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation) in the past 40 years.
These films are the type of rare gems I seek for use in teaching my students. They not only constitute what makes for a truly great film, they also help my students discover the stories that have most deeply shaped their lives. When combined with films like the nine in yesterday’s post, they form the foundation of a very rare canon of films to achieve deep cultural impact.
Could any of this year’s nominees join this elite company?Perhaps. Only time will tell, which measure is better for finding a ‘deep culture’ impact film: the 6000+ academy voters, or the test of time.
Disaster epic POMPEII opens tonight in theaters nationwide. No doubt you already know this. Tristar’s non-stop media blitz between figure skating sessions, curling matches, and updates on the Bob Costas eye-infection saga have seen to that. But what you probably don’t know is that the screenplay for POMPEII was scripted by two of the most loved and respected screenwriters of faith in Hollywood: Lee and Janet Scott Batchler.
Like all screenwriters who sell their beloved work of art to a studio or production company (who then have absolute control over changing it in any way they deem best), Janet and Lee can’t vouch for everything you’ll see. Their faithful adaptation of Robert Harris’s meticulously researched historical novel helped them learn, in Janet’s words, “more about volcanoes (and about this particular volcano) than any reasonable person should,” and carried a compelling character arc in the film’s hero, Milo (Kit Harington of Game of Thrones). Sadly, much of that depth is missing from the onscreen version. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) isn’t exactly known for his subtly and POMPEII is no exception. The action sequences are stunning, while character development is significantly weaker.
Still, $100 million in special effects make this entertaining spectacle of a morality tale well worth an evening’s investment, and by going tonight, you’ll be helping Lee and Janet shine in an industry focused on little more than first weekend’s box office numbers. Janet suggests, “Think of it as contributing to a Kickstarter, or clicking on a Doritos ad, only on a bigger screen.” So go see POMPEII tonight (or at least this weekend.) It could be some of the best artistic patronage you will ever invest in two of the best people you could ever know.
Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures(with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).
Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.
Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angeland his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.
On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.
In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.
Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird
GDS: What excites you most about the film?
Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.
GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?
BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.
GDS: Any personal stake in the film?
BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.
GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker. First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?
BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.
GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?
BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture. Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.
GDS: Any others?
BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.
GDS: Like who?
BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.
Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.
Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.
Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.
GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?
BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.
GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?
BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself. We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.
GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?
BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.
GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?
BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.
Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).
Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.
Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:
Of these 400+ films released in theaters each year, only 5 to 10 garner sufficient critical acclaim for Oscar consideration as “Best Picture,” and few of which reach a broad enough audience to deeply impact culture.
A century of motion picture production has generated a remarkably small cannon of films that have achieved true “deep culture” impact. (See, Films with ‘Deep Culture’ Impact.) Even if you know that your goal is the “double bottom-line” of Critical Acclaim and, Popular Appeal–it is a fete that is nearly impossible to achieve.
The truth is, the odds against making a true “double-bottom-line” film are astronomical.
At any given moment there are over 100,000 screenplays being shopped around Hollywood. These are the ones agents deem worthy of shopping. The total number of scripts is much higher. (See, Fresh Story Ideas a Tough Sell in Hollywood.)
Of these 100,000 screenplays, less than 5,000 per year are actually produced as independent films vying for notice (and purchase) at Sundance, Cannes, or other lesser film festivals.
Of these 5,000 films, less than 250 are purchased and/or developed by studios for national theatrical release year, and another 250 or so distributed for limited release. That means that only 500 films per year make it to the local cinemaplex and/or art house theater.
Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner sufficient critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in Best Picture  and/or “Best Writing” categories (Original or Adapted screenplay.)
Of these 10 to 15 Academy Award-nominated films, many never reach a threshold of box office respectability necessary to considered to have achieved “popular appeal.”
In other words, very few motion pictures are BOTH critically acclaimed and widely experienced.
In fact, in the past 25 years only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 50 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation).
These films are the kind of rare gems that I seek to utilize in teaching my students. They not only constitute what makes a truly great film, they also to help my students discover the stories that have most deeply shaped their lives.
When combined with films like the nine in yesterday’s post, they form the foundation of a very rare canon of films to achieve deep cultural impact.
Could any of 2010’s nominees join this august pantheon. Perhaps. This year’s nominees may have the highest “deep culture” potential of any slate of Best Pictures in recent memory. Five of the ten nominees have broken the $100M box office mark–Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, True Grit, and King’s Speech, with two others likely to break that mark as well–The Fighter and The Social Network. This fete is even more remarkable when you consider that last year’s winner, The Hurt Locker, grossed only $17M.
In fact, I believe that one of this year’s films has a very high potential for eventually achieving “deep culture impact.” (Hint: It isn’t even my pick for Best Picture.)
The five films competing for original screenplay all had long, difficult paths to the big screen.
David Seidler first sparked to the idea of writing a movie about the life of King George VI in 1980. A stutterer himself, he found the real-life narrative of the English monarch’s struggles to overcome a debilitating stammer moving and profoundly relatable, but Seidler understood that it wasn’t going to be easy to see his script turned into a feature film.
First, he had to wait for the Queen Mum to die; he had asked the royal matriarch for her blessing to tell her husband’s story, and she had requested that he wait until after her passing, since the memories of that time were still too painful. And then, the 73-year-old Seidler explains, there was another, possibly even more significant hurdle: “It was the subject matter.
“If I had gone into any executive office in Hollywood to pitch a story about a dead king who stutters, I would have been out of there in 30 seconds,” he said. “They would have thought I was out of my mind.”
Seidler has a point. For years now, the notoriously risk-averse Hollywood studios have been spending their money on the safest bets possible, big-budget projects and potential franchise properties that usually are based on a book, a video game, a toy or even an amusement park ride. It’s a trend that shows no signs of abatement, with Universal working to bring Stretch Armstrong to the screen, while Paramount develops a Magic 8 Ball movie among many other projects that have been co-opted from the toy aisle.
“We used to make toys based on our movies, and now we are making movies based on toys,” said Nina Jacobson, former head of production at Disney who’s now an independent producer. “We used to be the generators of intellectual property, not just recyclers of it.”
It’s a fact that’s helped drive many of the industry’s most highly acclaimed screenwriters — people such as Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) — to devote more of their time to plum writing assignments such as Zaillian’s current work on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Goldsman’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” rather than develop their own ideas.
And it paints a grim picture for many screenwriters hoping to tell original tales…
Striving to attain mastery as a Two Handed Warrior occasionally results in some very enjoyable if unintended consequences. Learning to “reverse engineer” Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldview (see Teaching Worldview Through Film) somehow led to my inadvertently developing a unique skill-set for analyzing how filmmakers create Academy Award-winning films.
A true script consultant, such as Linda Seger or Key F. Payton, has read thousands of screenplays and can instantly recognize a myriad of factors that might improve an unfinished script. I, on the other hand, hate reading screenplays, and often can’t tell the difference between snappy dialogue and good scenery.
However, in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. Since few (if any) script consultants are trained in worldview thinking, I can sometimes help screenwriters and creative executives in story development in a way that others can’t. The highly intuitive use of worldview often employed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers in their character-transformation arcs is often clearer to me (the amateur) than it is to more broadly trained experts.
Guiding my students’ understanding of worldview in the classroom and serving as story consultant in Hollywood have become some of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey toward becoming a two handed warrior. Helping screenwriters, producers, directors, and creative executives “see” and clarify the worldview journey in their film is a very gratifying experience.
So while I would never claim to be an expert, I hope that this ongoing discussion of the relationship between worldview and story will be as helpful to filmmakers as it is to educators.
Who knows, it might even help a two-handed filmmaker win an Academy Award someday.