Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 vs. 1984 At the Movies

Happy New Year! Next week (probably) I will do my list of the Ten Best Written Movies of 2014. (I’m still catching up on my viewing). This week, I’d like to take a look at the movies released in 2014 in comparison to the movies released thirty years ago in 1984. 1984 has been mentioned a lot lately because it is considered one of the best years for genre movies in history, though that’s not what I’m really focusing on.

It would be easy to point to declining attendance and box office (when adjusted for inflation) over the last thirty years, but also perhaps misleading. The business has changed too much since then – in 1984 there was no internet or original cable programming, no HDTV, and international box office was a fraction of domestic – for a simple numerical comparison to tell us much. Analyzing the changes could easily be several blog posts, and it’s not really what I’m interested in today. Rather, I’d like to compare the two years in terms of how the types of movies studios produce has changed, and what that could mean for screenwriters.

There were, of course, hundreds of movies released in both years. To keep things manageable, I’ll look at the top 25 movies in each year. I’ll stipulate that this sample size risks being skewed by outliers, but I think it should give us some useful points of discussion. Here are the lists, drawn from, with a few notations that I’ll explain in a moment.


  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. The LEGO Movie (original)
  5. Transformers: Age of Extinction
  6. Maleficent (based on)
  7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  9. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  10. Godzilla
  11. Big Hero 6
  12. 22 Jump Street (sequel to reboot)
  13. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  14. Interstellar
  15. How to Train Your Dragon 2
  16. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  17. Gone Girl
  18. Divergent
  19. Neighbors
  20. Ride Along
  21. Rio 2
  22. Lucy
  23. The Fault in our Stars
  24. Mr. Peabody & Sherman (based on)
  25. 300: Rise of an Empire

  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters (sci-fi)
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins (sci-fi)
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy (action comedy)
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing the Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  10. Splash
  11. Purple Rain
  12. Amadeus
  13. Tightrope
  14. The Natural
  15. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (reboot)
  16. Revenge of the Nerds
  17. 2010
  18. Breakin’
  19. Bachelor Party
  20. Red Dawn
  21. The Terminator
  22. City Heat
  23. All of Me (romantic comedy)
  24. Places in the Heart
  25. The Killing Fields

I first divided the lists into the source of the idea for the film – original stories, adaptations, sequels, etc. In some cases, I had to make a judgment call. For example, you could argue Purple Rain is based on Prince's album, but I considered it original. And I decided Malificent is based on Sleeping Beauty, though you could make a case that it should be considered a new story. I tried to note the decision I made next to movies where that decision may be questionable. I also categorized sequels that were based on underlying material (such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1) simply as sequels, figuring at this point they rely more on the first movie than the source material. Though I did break out sequels to reboots just because I found that interesting. The results are:

  • Originals: 6
  • Based on: 5
  • Sequels: 9
  • Reboots: 2
  • Sequels to Reboots: 3

  • Originals: 18
  • Based on: 3
  • Sequels: 3
  • Reboots: 1
  • Sequels to Reboots: 0
Of course the thing that jumps out is how many original movies there were in 1984 and how few there are today. In fact, many of those 1984 originals (The Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop) spawned their own franchises. It’s hard to imagine that happening with the few original movies produced this year, other than The LEGO Movie.

I also analyzed genres. I made a couple of decisions to simplify things – I chose to lump thrillers in with action/adventure, though Romancing the Stone is not really the same genre as City Heat. I also lumped science fiction and comic book movies together. And I categorized musical dramas like Purple Rain and Footloose as drama, though there were enough teen oriented music and dance themed films in 1984 they might qualify for their own category. Here are the results:


  • Action/Adventure/Thriller: 0
  • Sci-fi/Comic Book: 12
  • Fantasy: 3
  • Broad Comedy: 1
  • Romantic Comedy: 0
  • Drama: 2
  • Animated Family: 5
  • Action-Comedy: 2

  • Action/Adventure/Thriller: 6
  • Sci-fi/Comic Book: 5
  • Fantasy: 0
  • Broad Comedy: 2
  • Romantic Comedy: 2
  • Drama: 8
  • Animated Family: 0
  • Action-Comedy: 2

What does all of this mean for screenwriters? I would conclude that it is going to be hard to interest a studio in an original idea. That poses a challenge if you’re trying to write a spec script and don’t have the resources to option a bestselling book or comic book. One possible solution is to try to find public domain characters to base your work on – Dracula or Santa Claus, for example.

Another thing to think about is that most specs these days might better be considered writing samples. So when you’re weighing your ideas, you might consider whether the anticipated spec will properly demonstrate your ability to adapt the kind of material studios are making.

And of course it looks like writing in the science fiction genre makes more sense than writing comedy or drama.

We could, of course, also just bemoan the lack of original movies and limited variety these days. (I do that a lot.) But that won’t help us very much when it comes to making a living. If you want to be a professional screenwriter, you have to pay attention to market trends.

Of course, considering how bad 2014 was at the box office (down 5.2% from 2013), maybe we should also anticipate a change in course for the studios. One can dream, after all…

Further reading: Here’s an interesting article from Variety about the bad 2014 box office and what may be behind it, plus a clue as to how studios are planning to combat it.

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