With the box office increasingly dominated by big budget ‘Four Quadrant’ movies, squeezing out mid-budget releases, Industrial Scripts looks at the recipe for quadrant movies’ success in that seemingly impossible goal – appealing to everyone.
Firstly, what are four-quadrant movies? Four-quadrant movies are mass-appeal films, very much favoured by studios as they can be pushed to the widest possible audience, as follows:
Men under 25 Women under 25
Men over 25 Women over 25
L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were the Harry Potters of their day – worldwide phenomena which gave the movie instant recognition, trading on a strong existing intellectual property. The film spans genres – musical, comedy, drama, horror, coming of age – but none so extreme as to fully define the picture. Dorothy’s exploration of family and home will be defining features of the Four Quadrant. THE SOUND OF MUSIC would hit on a similar formula – family under threat from a menacing presence, with laughs, thrills and musical numbers.
2. STAR WARS
After the 1950s gave rise to independent teenagers with their own disposable income, the family flick waned in popularity. The Hollywood auteur movement of the 60s and 70s created a new golden age of cinema – but they weren’t making Four Quadrant pictures. Step in Spielberg and JAWS and the summer movie was reborn. STAR WARS mixed big stakes (the universe), a villain to unite the audience (Darth) with coming of age and romance subplots. Would similar swashbuckling throwback piece INDIANA JONES have been so successful without Nazi enemies? Probably not. Both films capitalised on the ‘boo, hiss’ factor and high stakes – as with SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE.
A New Animated Era
4. TOY STORY
As Disney’s globe-trotting with animal sidekicks musical era petered out with THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and MULAN, a new contender stepped into the family ring – Pixar – and the rest is history. By rewarding the adults just as strongly as the kids, they made parents excited to take their children to the cinema – not feeling like they were dragged along. THE INCREDIBLES pushed the traditionally male dominated superhero formula to a broader audience, by having the mother and children rescue the father. Action? Check. Mid-life crisis identity drama? Check. Parental concerns? Check. Toy merchandising? Check.
The Event Movie
As AVATAR would prove, James Cameron is the master of mass appeal and ultimately the four quadrant movies arena. Action, romance, social barriers, dastardly villains and epic worlds bigger than their heroes. Perhaps more importantly, he understands how to inject an action film with elements that will broaden appeal – both T2 and ALIENS put mother / child dynamics at the heart of the action, helping to branch out from the more limited worlds of THE TERMINATOR and ALIEN. THE BIG BANG THEORY took off when the female cast was expanded from one to three; the ICE AGE sequels added Queen Latifah and a family vibe to build on the original’s THREE MEN AND A BABY model.
Following on from the STAR WARS model, these franchises were powered by a broad character mix. The more points of audience empathy, the more potential ways there are to hook viewers.
The Unlikely Suspects
10. THE EXORCIST
Four Quadrant movies do not equal family films with kids in tow – remember that the age demarcation is under / over 25. MEET THE PARENTS managed to capture a teen audience going to see a Ben Stiller comedy, and older viewers recognised the family dynamics – two sides of the coin. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE managed a similar trick.
THE EXORCIST was a box office powerhouse – and that didn’t come from teenage boys. As with T2 and ALIENS, a mother-daughter relationship was central, and a complex ‘loss of faith’ crisis for the priest. Teen slashers will only take you so far at the box office – INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING put families at the centre of peril, and expanded audience appeal.
Some common threads emerge;
High Stakes – a universal threat which is easy to convey.
Strong Villain – who unites the audience.
Family Affair – we all have family. Obvious, but simple.
Subplots – allows for genre mixing, hence the often badly executed love plot tag-on.
Broad Character Mix – multiple points of empathy and audience identification.
There is no exact formula for blockbuster success (FORREST GUMP anyone?) but certain useful patterns emerge. This should never be a checklist, such as throwing in a token female character with no genuine story function other than to balance the numbers. But when insight into broadening appeal combines with the quality writing to back it up – such as the fully fleshed out THE INCREDIBLES family, then the odds of global box office domination increase.