How to make box-office gold

Survey says original scripts are key

Who says an original idea won’t go far in Hollywood?

Although it’s often said that the studios are too dependent on remakes and sequels, it turns out the big moneymakers are fresh concepts and comicbooks.

Variety conducted a study of the top 20 films at the domestic box office for each year over the past decade. Each film was classified by its source — and of the 200 films, just over half were from original scripts.

While the survey shows original material can reap big payoffs, some of the biggest hits did not go through the studios’ lengthy development process. And few of these originals came from the expensive first-look deals that studios are trying to pare.

In short, the new data sends a mixed message to studios as they continue to question how cost-effective their development is.

“As the studios continue to cut back on their development budgets and overall deals with producers, it’s as if they’re taking down the antennas they used to have to pursue their original ideas,” says UTA partner Jeremy Zimmer.

Rounding out the top five sources of the hit pics were books, comicbooks, remakes and based-on-TV-series. Spec scripts tend to launch more sequels — and thus, franchises like “The Matrix” — than any other source material.

Original scripts did so well because of their sheer volume: 101 films that collectively raked in $16.7 billion (or an average of $167 million, but that average is skewed by mega-hits like “The Matrix” films). Among the better averages were pics based on comicbooks: There were only 13 such films, and the $2.8 billion total means that each comicbook hit averaged a $215 million gross.

Which explains why Hollywood is so hot to film comicbooks.

But how does one explain the studios’ avid pursuit of vidgames? Only one vidgame adaptation has been able to break the top 20 in the past 10 years: Paramount’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” which raked in $131 million.

In other words, vidgame adaptations were only slightly more popular than documentaries. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was the only nonfiction feature to break through, with $119 million in domestic grosses.

There were also two musicals (“Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) and two themepark ride movies (the two “Pirates of the Caribbean” pics); “Haunted Mansion” and “The Country Bears” (also based on rides) didn’t make the top 20 in their respective years.

Biopics have proven a little more popular, pulling in $1.1 billion in grosses from films based on everyone from Jesus to Johnny Cash.

But it’s original material that stands out across the board. Original scripts produced 20 sequels that were big earners over the last decade, versus 11 that were based on books, seven for comicbooks, and four from remakes.

Altogether, the numbers should provide plenty of ammo for screenwriters and their reps to get specs set up around town. Both those groups have complained that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pitch original material to the studios.

But if money drives Hollywood’s greenlight process, why is new material getting such a bad rap?

Blame it on the congloms.

The corporate takeover of the major studios resulted in a closer examination of how money is spent to make movies, and development was considered the least effective way to get hits made.

That’s mainly been due to the fact that few if any movies wound up getting produced as the result of pricey first-look deals with producers to develop scripts with scribes.

The studios’ cutbacks are understandable, says another agent.

“They’re very easy dollars to get rid of,” she says. “Producer deals are expensive. Development is a very expensive process.”

The result has been an increased reliance on libraries and published material, TV shows, sequels, comicbooks or remakes.

It’s not that the studios aren’t interested in new concepts, say agents — it’s just that they want projects that are easy to sell to audiences at a time when production and marketing costs are skyrocketing.

That means a high recognition factor or a built-in audience that’s familiar with a book, toy or existing property. The term “brand equity” is tossed around so much it’s like the studios are building Volvos.

But one helluva high concept still works, too.

“Movies are getting more expensive to make, so if a studio’s going to spend a lot of money on something, it better have a lot going for it,” says one senior lit agent at CAA. “Existing material comes with a marketing base. Studios want the insurance.”

The good news: The jobs for scribes aren’t going away.

The push for more adaptations or remakes “doesn’t make for fewer jobs, but making your client’s original ideas attractive is more challenging,” says one agent.

“Studios are more willing,” he adds, “to invest and take a risk in an original idea — whether it’s risky or not — and extend the relationship with a writer if they had a good experience with that writer and that person made money for them.”

Still, agents and scribes hope the studios will start relying more on new ideas to make movies.

“They’re going to run out of properties to sequelize or movies and TV shows to rip off,” suggests another agent.

Here’s how the source material breaks down by box office results.

Original Scripts:

$16.7 billion (from 101 pics)

Franchises like “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” may have been born from original scripts, but what’s proved the most popular among original fare are comedies and romantic comedies that are fairly inexpensive to make — low- to mid-range budgeted pics — that don’t require A-listers in the leads.

These low-risk, high-reward bets include “Meet the Parents,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Dodgeball,” “Notting Hill,” “Runaway Bride” and the “Scary Movie,” “American Pie,” “Rush Hour” and “Austin Powers” franchises.

Animated films have also traditionally relied on fresh ideas. For example, all of Pixar’s pics are based on original concepts.


$7.8 billion (40 pics)

The book biz has consistently provided studios with already developed plots to turn into pics and popular properties like “Harry Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The DaVinci Code,” “Shrek,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and “Jurassic Park.” The James Bond and Jason Bourne series also came with additional installments that are sequel-friendly.

The top tomes earned on average $195 million per pic over the period that was analyzed, proving that millions of readers of the bestsellers can, indeed, translate into ticket sales.

Comics and Graphic Novels:

$3.1 billion

It’s not surprising that the superhero genre has hooked Hollywood when comicbook movies featuring characters like Spider-Man, Superman, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four or Batman have been heroic at the B.O.

But properties like Sony’s “Men in Black” and DreamWorks’ animated “Over the Hedge,” also based on comic books or the funny pages, were also successful.

It’s clear that graphic novels won’t be losing their newfound respect anytime soon — not after “300” (which isn’t counted in the B.O. tally for this story) grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. this year.

The category has proven so successful that comicbook companies like Marvel have gone off on their own to start financing and producing their own superhero pics.

In fact, Marvel has “Iron Man” and “The Hulk” in production, and Captain America, Thor, Wolverine, Magneto, Sub-Mariner and The Avengers in the works. Another Batman and Superman, as well as first outings for Wonder Woman, The Flash and Justice League, are upcoming from DC Comics and Warner Bros.


$3 billion

Remakes have become a safe bet for studios, with popular pics like “Godzilla,” “The Mummy,” “King Kong” and “War of the Worlds” all having brought with them instant name recognition or been able to attract top stars, as “Ocean’s Eleven” did.

Again, comedies are also contributing to the success of the cate
gory, with pics including “Dr. Dolittle,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and “The Longest Yard” all doing well.

TV Shows:

$1.2 billion

Although bigscreen versions of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “I Spy” and “Serenity” wound up disappointing, “Mission: Impossible” spawned a hit franchise for Par, and adaptations of “Scooby-Doo” “Charlie’s Angels,” “S.W.A.T.” and “The Rugrats” also made successful transitions from the tube, with some leading to sequels. The titular character from “Borat” was also born on TV.

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