Action Adventure or Movies That Make You Think. Which Sells? Which Creates Longer Memories?

 Edward Fox as the Jackal in the 1973 action-suspense film,
The Day of the Jackal, an action adventure film that made you think.

Action  adventure films sell more tickets, but are less likely to earn critical acclaim. Movies that are more emotional and contain darker portrayals earn praise from critics and favorable ratings from viewers.
This, in a nutshell is the challenge of making serious movies in the U.S.  According to recently published research, action and adventure movies sell more tickets and make more money in release. But after release, does anyone remember them even a week later?

Let's face it, action movies drive box office revenues. But dramas and deeper, more serious movies earn audience acclaim and appreciation, according to a team of researchers.

If you're trying to sell a script to a producer or studio, are your odds better with an action adventure movie, or with a serious examination of an issue or the people involved?

"Most people think that entertainment is just a silly diversion, but our research shows that entertainment is profoundly meaningful and moving for many people," says Mary Beth Oliver of Penn State. "It's not just types of entertainment that we usually think of as meaningful, such as poetry and dance, either, but also movies, television shows, video games -- or Youtube videos."

The study
Researchers from the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State led by Oliver examined the critical and financial success of 582 films released during the past 30 years. To study the financial success of the movies, they used U.S. domestic gross box-office revenues. Critical acclaim was measured through awards and award nominations, along with online ratings from internet sites, to determine how regular viewers and non-critics responded to the films.

The researchers examined Academy Award and Golden Globe Award winners and nominees released between 1980 and 2010. To test acclaim from common audience members, they used ratings from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, two popular Internet sites for movie reviews.

While the researchers used the popular sites to compare the reactions of common movie fans to those of critics, they found that both groups generally agreed on the merit of films.

Silly, dark, thoughtful, or emotional? 
In addition to examining the genre, the researchers also recorded the way people described how silly, dark, thoughtful, or emotional the movies were on websites such as the Internet Movie Database.

Oliver said that action and adventure films tend to sell more tickets and have a better chance of being blockbusters, but they are less likely to earn popular or critical acclaim. On the other hand, movies that are more emotional and contain darker portrayals earn thumbs-up from critics and favorable ratings from viewers.

"What we see is that movies that encourage you to think may be seen as 
more moving and emotional, even if they tackle troubling issues or 
darker aspects of life," said Oliver. "You may not necessarily enjoy the 
movie, but you might deeply appreciate it."

Movies more than a diversion
The study points to the idea that entertainment can be more important than a simple diversion, providing audiences with ways to grapple with important and meaningful questions such as the purpose of life, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the online version of Mass Communication and Society.

Oliver said there are several possibilities to explain why highly acclaimed movies, though be deeply appreciated, do not fare as well as action flicks at the box office. Moviegoers may be less likely to see serious movies multiple times, for example. Thrillers and comedies may be more enjoyable with larger groups of people in bigger theaters.

"The difference between viewership and acclaim may be due to how people watch movies in theaters," Oliver said.
  • "Movies that are more fun to watch with a large group of people -- like an action movie -- may be popular in that venue, but 
  • more serious movies might be more enjoyable when they are watched in smaller, more private settings."
Recommended reading
However, that does not mean that audiences do not enjoy serious movies. Rather, they appreciate them on another level.

"They may not watch these movies over and over, but more serious films may be more valuable, in a sense, and also will be memorable to audiences," Oliver said. "They may stick with them for a longer time."

This may seem like stating the obvious, but it documents what most industry people have learned, often the hard way: for a screenwriter trying to break in, you're going to have more luck selling action adventure to a studio or major producer.  If creating serious examinations of life is your dream, you're decreasing your odds of success.  No matter which route you take, this is a very tough industry to break into, and the better you understand its dynamics, the better your chances of making it.

A suggested exercise
The question is, can you or anyone write an action adventure script that tells the viewer about deeper, personal issues and makes a long-term impact on the viewer?  The answer, obviously, is yes.  My favorite action adventure movie - and book - is Frederick Forsyth's "The Day of the Jackal."  The book, Forsyth's first which he wrote in thirty-five days, is highly rated on GoodReads and is still available.  The book was first made into a movie in 1973, The Day of the Jackal, adapted for the screen by Kenneth Ross, starring Edward Fox as The Jackal and Michael Lonsdale as Inspector Claude Lebel .  Both the book and the movie give their audiences a look at the psychology of these two characters, The Jackal, an unknown killer hired to kill French President Charles deGaulle, and Claude Lebel, the French detective assigned to stop him, could not be more different as men,
Click on image
to order your copy.

The Jackal character of the book and first film is cold, calculating and a study of suave antisocial behavior.  Lebel, as portrayed in both, is anything but a man of action, who is assigned against his will and forced to act, but who tracks the Jackal with dogged determination and hard work. There are parts of the book and the movie where you seem to see their minds working, and you come away from either experience knowing something about both men.

First read the book then watch the 1973 film, before watching the Bruce Willis remake, The Jackal, which focuses on action with very little character development and a completely new story.   The story line of Willis' script is fine, nothing surprising or original, but fine. However, I found the characters thinly drawn and of a muchness.  Great action though, especially when the bad guy blows off a man's arm with a rocket launcher, a scene not in the book or the first film (neither needed forced action to keep you riveted.  The originals are more highly rated on IMBd, as well.).

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Story Source:  Materials provided by Penn State, original article written by Matt Swayne. Journal reference: Mary Beth Oliver, Erin Ash, Julia K. Woolley, Drew D. Shade, Keunyeong Kim. Entertainment We Watch and Entertainment We Appreciate: Patterns of Motion Picture Consumption and Acclaim Over Three Decades. Mass Communication and Society, 2014.


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