One of the biggest flops of this summer was Cowboys and Aliens (screen story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oderkerk, screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby). Lots of reasons have been suggested for its failure (such as the large number of writers), and many have merit. Personally, I think the biggest problem was the title.
When I hear Cowboys and Aliens, I think, “That’s a movie I’d like to see!” But what I’m picturing is a fun, campy romp – something along the lines of Ghost Busters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis). The actual movie is a serious, surprisingly violent action/horror movie. Once you accept this, if you can, there’s a lot that’s good about it. But it doesn’t deliver the promise of its title.
I think most people realized that the moment they saw the trailer, and that’s a big reason they didn’t show up. There are some flaws in the film itself, but I can certainly imagine a successful straight action movie about an alien attack in the Wild West. However, I wouldn’t give that movie a “pun” title like Cowboys and Aliens.
Maybe more important, the filmmakers had a concept that could make a great campy adventure, but they didn’t make that movie. They fought their concept. I’ve had students do that as well.
A while back one of my students was pitching an idea that was along the lines of My Mother is a Werewolf.* Everybody in the class laughed when he said the title. But he didn’t want to make a comedy. He wanted to make a serious horror/thriller. My first note was to change the title.
This isn’t just a title issue. Dude, Where's My Car? (written by Philip Stark) was also a notable failure. I believe the biggest problem was that the original script was a stoner comedy. But as they were about to enter production, some study came out that said, at that time, PG-13 comedies were making more money than R comedies.** So they took all the drugs out to make it PG-13. Without the drugs, the storyline becomes odd and nonsensical. In this case, the rating fought the concept.
I’ve seen that in student work as well – a raunchy idea done without raunch. Can you imagine the PG-13 version of The Hangover or Bridesmaids? Not nearly as good. If you’re doing a movie about the wildest bachelor party ever, you have to be free to show wildness. (On the other hand, There's Something About Mary could be done nicely as a PG-13 movie, though you’d lose some of the funniest sequences. But as a concept, it works either way – you’d just have to come up with equally funny, cleaner replacement scenes.)
Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Bily Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) was not only a success, but is a classic and personal favorite. Still, there’s something that always strikes me as a little odd. The movie, a romantic comedy about two guys who dress up as women and join an all-girl band, opens with a car chase-shootout. There are gangsters in the film, obviously, but the action of the opening scene definitely feels like a different tone from the rest of the movie.
Obviously Some Like It Hot makes it work. The audience knows they’re going to see a Billy Wilder comedy with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, so they roll with it. But, if you were a development exec reading this as a spec, imagine how you would react. You don’t know anything about the story. You read that opening – oh, this is a gangster movie. And then it suddenly gets funny? Could be a little tough to switch gears.
With a spec, you’re making implied promises to the reader with your title and your opening (and your logline if they’ve seen that). If you don’t deliver on those implied promises, then they will see it as you’ve failed, regardless of how well you might have delivered on different promises. In other words, make sure you’re promising what you plan to deliver!
You have to make decisions about the tone of your movie in the early development stages. Is it going to be funny, campy, serious, dark? Is it going to be G, PG, PG-13, or R? It pays to think about what the best choices are for your premise. If you’re going to go against the natural suggestion of your premise – if you want to do the serious, dark version of cowboys fighting aliens – then you have to work harder to “sell” that tone to the audience. This means avoiding things like a misleading title or an opening scene that could confuse the reader – after all, you’re probably not Billy Wilder.
*Actual idea kept confidential, but this is very much in the spirit.
**This pendulum swings back and forth and studies keep coming out that shift development. For a while PG-13 comedies are making more money, so studios try to turn all their comedies PG-13. Then the audience grows tired of them and suddenly R rated comedies start making more money. So the pendulum swings raunchier. The truth is, a balanced mix would probably be the most successful, but studio execs like to chase the heat of the moment.