Everyone strives for it. Careers can depend on it. It seems everything is measured by it. But what exactly is “success”? As you've come to expect with these columns, it really depends. It depends on who is measuring, what metric is being used to judge by, and what standards are being applied. It depends on context, content and considerations. It depends on an innumerable number of factors to the point that two people can look at exactly the same results and rate the success of the venture on completely opposite ends of the scale. Success is … complex.
What makes a successful film?
To tell you the truth, if I could answer that specific question I'd be able to print money in Hollywood. It's impossible to define. And not because no one has ever tried. The difficulty comes out of the fact that no two perspectives see success the same way.
A studio mogul can look at a slate of a dozen films and rate them a success if two of them are blockbusters in her (and her accounting department's) eyes. The rest, who could care less? As long as the final company books are in the black. The slate's “success” keeps that executive employed and making more films.
A director can count his latest film a success amongst all the award nominated competition that it beat that year. Sure, no one came out to see it in the theaters, but, look at the statues he's collected!
A writing team counts as a success their first sale of their spec to a producer. Sure, the producer could never raise enough money to make the thing, but, the writers actually sold something!
You can see that personal perspective makes a project a success or not.
Different ways to measure a film's success
Box Office is one of those factors that is often used to measure success. Box office, in the simplest terms, is the ticket sales at the “box office” of the theater. Of course, it's not that simple, but, when the numbers are comparably and reliably gathered it gives an apples-to-apples way of comparing how films stack up against their competition. You should be able to get the B.O. of two films and determine that the higher one was the more successful. You should. Of course in practice, it depends.
One factor that muddies the waters of comparison is the split or the percentage of take the cinemas showing the picture share with the distributor of the dollars that reach the ticket booth. Studios and distributors with lots of films in the pipeline tend to have more favorable splits for their wares than a smaller distributor and film. Also, the number of screens the theater chain controls can sway the split in the other direction. And the split varies with how long the picture is making the rounds. You can see opening week splits as high as the 90/10 variety and find pictures still in theaters after several weeks with splits around 50/50. The actual numbers are closely guarded secrets, but, the general assumption is that after all is said and done the split is assumed to eventually even out at 45-55% of each dollar paid by a ticket buyer ending up going to the distributor. How much the filmmaker takes out of that depends on how many other hands are reaching for those bucks.
Once you try to compare films that don't open on the same weekend, you often have to take into account the differences in the marketplace. Movie going is cyclical. More people go to movies around Christmas time than in the middle of May. So a number one box office film at the end of April is likely not as successful as a number one that opened December 23rd. Then there is the matter of changes over time. Today's dollars aren't the same as they used to be. They don't buy the same things anymore. (25 cents for a cup of coffee now buys you just the cup.) That's why when comparing films of different eras you hear that they've been adjusted for inflation which means a calculation has been made by people who should know how to do it that estimates what each film would have grossed (the take before you take out expenses of any kind) if they had come out together.
And that's not even touching on the fact that B.O. doesn't take into account the production, prints and advertising or marketing costs of the picture. Come to think of it, box office is a pretty shaky way of judging success.
Foreign and domestic
Another aspect of success often overlooked is myopia. Especially in Hollywood, there is a tendency for success to be measured in domesticbox office terms only. Domestic box office, as it is used throughout the industry regardless of what country you are in, is the United States and Canadian market and their territories exclusively. Everything else is considered foreign box office. The combined total of both domestic and foreign B.O. is called worldwide box office. Many studios feel they can judge a movie a success if they've had a good domestic B.O. regardless of how much money is gained overseas. This leads to weird dichotomies where a film like The Tourist that grossed $278M worldwide is considered an utter failure. You see, it only grossed $67M domestically. With a production budget of of $100M, even though it starred Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, you won't see a sequel.
This sort of thinking about success is tied to the belief that you must do well domestically in order to have foreign buyers interested in your film when it comes their time (traditionally films hit the domestic market first, then later are released in international markets.) That used to be the case, but, recently there's been a trend of following the money. There are quite a number of big budget films now that are targeted to the higher dollar international markets and seemingly ignore the domestic one, or at least lessen its importance. Often these films are released in foreign markets first and only eventually come to North America. With the potential of the EU Digital Single Market initiative currently seeking among other things to make cross market film sales easier, this can only become more attractive for future filmmakers seeking success.
Other measures of success
There are many other roads filmmakers travel in trying to label their work a “success”. Often given great weight in the analysis is the film's opening weekend. That's how well the film does in the first few days of release. It's a telling aspect of how anticipated the film has become in the eyes of the filmgoing audiences. A measure of how well the marketing worked, if you will. Often a big opening weekend can be celebrated as a success followed by a quick plummet in ticket buyers as word gets out about the actual film or the rush of those early viewers waiting to see the film are the only ones who were interested in it.
Instead of opening in as many theaters as you can, a necessity in the big opening weekend approach, some distributors take a completely different tack. A slow roll out is one that uses a small number of key, initial theaters at the start of a run and relies on the good word of mouth or award buzz to slowly build a final success. A hidden benefit of this choice, if it works, is that successful movies trying this tend to stay in the theater longer where the percentages shared with the venue owners levels out.
Then there are those films that are destined for other things. They often get a limited release which is where they will only ever be shown in a small number of select theater screens. If you want to see this pic you have to hustle and be lucky enough to be near one of these screens. Sometimes this is used by studios to fulfill a contractual theatrical release quota for a film they don't believe much in before sending it into the next market on the list. Sometimes this approach is used by a really good film whose distributor doesn't have access to all the multiglomerate film theater chains.
Eventually, once a film has finished its theatrical run it goes on to the next stages, video on demand, premium video, home video, etc. The time between the start of the theatrical run and the next opportunities of media is called the film's window. It used to be that the window was at least 90 days. Now there are films that are released day and date in both the film theaters and other venues (e.g. Netflix). With these changing alternatives it is starting to become difficult to determine just how much success a film run needs to have.
There are other ways of determining success still. Per screen average is one of my favorite ways of judging success. Per screen average is the amount of B.O. take divided by the number of screens the film played on. This balances out the real value to the audience between a blockbuster that opens on 3,500 screens and rakes in $40M (a little over $11,400 per screen) versus a small art film that gets $20,000 per screen playing on only 200 screens ($4M). Both are successful films by their own standards, but, the first is no where near 10 times a better success than the second as the box office alone would suggest.
Then there are ways of claiming success whether or not your film gets to any of these measures. A good festival run can be a success in itself and lead to more work and prestige for the filmmakers. Good word of mouth often can successfully lead to more work even before the talked about film makes it to a viewing public.
Some films reach cult status and make their success known long after their initial runs through ancillary sales and revivals.
All told, there are many ways of reaching or evaluating success. All of them are geared toward building and sustaining a reputation for the film and filmmakers.
Screenwriters can gather their successes in many ways as the films they write have their own paths. Awards, box office, critical acclaim, credits and money can all combine in different combinations for a writer to be judged by outsiders as a success. But there are other ways of garnering hidden success. Writers can become very successful under the radar if they are good at rewriting what others have started even without being credited for the efforts, becoming one of those formerly known as “script doctors”. Writers can gain great reputations for writing even if the scripts they wrote to get those reputations are never made. This type of success is wonderfully accoladed in the Blacklist and other collections of writing talent that hasn't yet gotten the public's attention. There are a lot of uncredited writers with much more esteem than would be reflected in their IMDB listings.
Recognizing your own success
A long time ago, in a previous life, I attended a screenwriter's conference where we heard Danny Rubin recount his experiences having written and sold the script for Groundhog Day. It was intriguing to hear him recount how disappointed and unsuccessful he felt. Even though the picture went on to be made, garnered great reviews and a pretty good box office and plays forever on television, he still felt disappointed. In his mind he failed. He recounted that the script he wrote wasn't the one that was made into the film. He had written a much darker comedy with much deeper questions and a tragic comic ending. The film that hit the screens was a pale reflection of the one in his head. He said he moped about this for months trying to come to grips with the disparity. He finally realized where he could find his own success in the mix. He hadn't sold a film, he sold a script. He was able to convince somebody with a lot of money to give a significant sum in exchange for 120 pieces of paper and some dollops of ink. His success lay in the fact that he created the impetus with just his ideas and expression on the page for someone to be enthused enough to take his start and run with it. He successfully fulfilled the duties of screenwriter. Even after so many years I still recall that perspective in my own endeavors.
Leveraging the differing scales of success to your advantage
With so many different ways of evaluating success, how can you leverage some of them to your advantage as a screenwriter? One way is to tie contractual bonuses into the evaluated success levels that your film finally attains. Having a bonus clause in your contract that gives you a reward if your film breaks a certain dollar figure at the box office ties your success to the film's. For those producers who struggle to find the finances at the start of a project, giving them a smaller figure to pay up front but sharing in the rewards is one way of keeping those precious projects moving forward. Just don't get caught in the trap of expecting profit sharing without carefully re-reading my previous warnings about the vagueness and ambiguity of the terms used.
Being flexible about how you see success can also serve you in your career. There are many ways to spin whatever results work in your favor. This is a key to marketing anything, so, take advantage of the perspectives that shine the best light on your endeavors.
There are a lot of ways to look for success. How do you go about it? As always, it depends.
- More articles by Christopher Schiller
- Balls of Steel: What is Success?
- Breaking & Entering: Screenwriting Career - Drive and Success
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