1. For every jumbo-size, CGI-filled, action-adventure extravaganza a studio greenlights, it should commit to one modestly budgeted drama or comedy.
Despite the studios’ single-minded focus on costly tentpoles aimed at younger audiences, the masses sometimes actually prefer the leaner, smarter fare: True Grit, The Fighter, Black Swan, The Town, and The King’s Speech were all produced for less than $40 million each (and in the case of the $13 million Black Swan, much less), and each managed to double, triple, even quadruple (or more) its production cost. Meanwhile, supposedly surefire projects like the Jack Black comedy Gulliver’s Travels and Reese Witherspoon’s How Do You Know reportedly cost more than $100 million and earned less than half that in U.S. ticket sales.
So it would make good sense for movie companies to balance their release slates with a handful of more sensibly budgeted entries. The key is to be patient with the smaller movies — True Grit, after all, didn’t hit No. 1 at the box office until its third week in wide release.
2. Don?t remake good movies; remake bad ones
We’d be wasting our breath if we told the studios not to remake old movies — the lure of that built-in name recognition is simply too powerful. But if you are going down that road, here’s a rule of thumb: Remake a movie that had a great idea at its core but was poorly executed or has aged badly — not a movie that was actually good. Films that follow this rule succeed: True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, Ocean’s Eleven, The Fly, The Thomas Crown Affair. Films that don’t, fail: The Women, The Longest Yard, Planet of the Apes, Sabrina, The Pink Panther.
3. Stop killing us with your popcorn.
A 2009 study found that a single medium-size bag of popcorn from the Regal theater chain contained 1,610 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. Add in a large soda (350 calories) and some Reese’s Pieces (1,200 calories for an eight-ounce box), and you’re taking your life in your hands. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, insists theaters are just giving moviegoers what they crave. ”When people go to the cinemas, they want to escape — from their diets, too.” Still, popcorn shouldn’t have to come with a warning label. Some theaters, mostly in upscale neighborhoods, have been offering healthier, higher-quality concessions.
4. Treat 3-D like the good silverware: only bring it out for truly special occasions.
This tidal wave of big, loud Hollywood movies that are now even more in-your-face is a charming gimmick at best and annoying at worst. Studios love 3-D because they can charge moviegoers a premium of $3-$4, but crummy 3-D in movies like Clash of the Titans has already created a serious backlash against otherworldly epics such as Avatar (or guilty-pleasure cheesefests like Piranha 3D). Even those who like the format, such as IMAX Filmed Entertainment president Greg Foster, don’t want to see it worked to death. ”If 3-D is literally a part of the story and part of how the movie comes together, fantastic,” says Foster. ”But if you have a movie that’s stumbling and you’re not quite sure what to do with it…and the solution is ‘I know — let’s try to convert it to 3-D!’ then I don’t think that works.”
5. Embrace the on-demand button
Sure, there’s something to be said for the communal joy of watching the latest Twilight movie in a theater packed with 300 screaming Robert Pattinson fans, but it’s time Hollywood got over its fear of video on demand. For certain types of films — mid-budget grown-up dramas, the kind that the major studios have all but given up making — a simultaneous theatrical and cable on-demand release makes a lot of sense. ”There’s a whole untapped audience out there who are not going to come out to the theater no matter how much you promote a movie,” says Todd Wagner, CEO of 2929 Entertainment, which last year released the Ryan Gosling–Kirsten Dunst drama All Good Things on VOD before it arrived in theaters (for a premium price). The film grossed $4 million in at-home rentals, about eight times what it made in theaters. The idea of shattering release windows isn’t popular with theater owners — ”Not surprisingly, we think that’s crazy,” says NATO’s Fithian — but Wagner and others have a solution for that, too: ”Give the theaters a small cut of the DVD and on-demand sales,” he says. ”It’ll more than make up for what they lose in ticket sales.”
6. Admit you're jealous of TV — and start hiring its best writers.
Have you seen a recent romantic comedy that was as funny as an episode of Modern Family? Have you seen a horror movie that was as much creepy fun as AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead? And yet, a snobby caste system still exists in Hollywood that makes it tough for TV writers to cross over into features (at least for TV writers whose names don’t start with ”Aaron” and end with ”Sorkin”). ”The major studios are mostly run by TV guys nowadays,” says the former head of one of those major studios, ”but there’s still the old bias. Actors used to have trouble crossing over — writers have that problem too.”
7. Before a film gets a green light, someone involved with the project — the director, the star, the boom-mic operator — has to believe it will be a good movie.
Use a lie detector if necessary. Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of Legendary Pictures and producer of hits like 300, The Hangover, and Inception, says that commercial considerations have overtaken creative ones far too much of the time. That may be why we’ve seen so many movies based on everything from old TV shows (The A-Team) to board games (the upcoming Battleship) to fairy tales (at least three new versions of Snow White are in the works). ”Marketing has become so important — people go, ‘If I have a trailer, a poster, and a hook, I’ve got a movie,”’ says Tull. ”You have to ask, ‘What makes this movie special?’ If you can’t answer that question, you have to think hard about why you’re doing it.”
8. Can the commercials.
We know, we know, theaters need every nickel they can scrounge — and cinema advertising accounted for $584 million in 2009. But theaters also risk alienating the primary source of their revenues: moviegoers. So how about this? If you’re going to show us commercials before the opening credits, at least give us an old-fashioned cartoon as well. Audiences adore the cool shorts Pixar runs before its features (the Toy Story gang will appear before June 24’s Cars 2 and this fall’s new Muppet movie). ”There are wonderful shorts being made all the [time by others], but they don’t get seen by so many people,” says Gary Rydstrom, the Oscar-winning sound designer who directed Pixar’s short Lifted as well as the pre-Cars 2 short, ”Hawaiian Vacation.” ”It’s a great way to warm up an audience and get them in the mood. It’s like an appetizer.”
9. No more than four screenwriters per script (unless the fifth one is Aaron Sorkin).
If you need to keep throwing writer after writer at a project in hopes of producing a workable screenplay, odds are the idea isn’t worth doing in the first place. 1994’s The Flintstones reportedly had more than 35 writers working on its Swiss-watch-like comic timing. But this year’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of True Grit had only two writers, both named Coen. ”The movie becomes the bastard child of a thousand maniacs,” says a producer, quoting a description of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. ”If you look through history, most great movies were a singular vision.”
10. Create separate screenings for schmucks.
There are already Mommy and Me screenings for parents with rambunctious little kids. Perhaps we need one for adults who act like children. Or we could establish a voluntary Moviegoer’s Code of Ethics: I will not tweet, Facebook, or gab loudly to my friends after the lights go down. I will not relentlessly kick the seat in front of me. ”I will not bring rotten-smelling food that I got outside the theater at the food court. That’s my pet peeve,” adds IMAX’s Greg Foster. ”Moviegoing is a communal experience. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk back to the screen and have fun, but manners do matter.”