The Tutorial

How To Make A Hollywood Hit

Ever wondered what it takes to launch a Titanic? Wonder no more, just follow these easy steps (and add few hundred million dollars)

  • Director Mr George Lucas with Mr Anthony Daniels (who plays C-3PO) on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, 1977 Sunset Boulevard/ Corbisis

The summer blockbuster as we know it today was born in 1975 with the release of Jaws and came of age two years later with Star Wars. Both films were a revelation to the studios of Hollywood, demonstrating that, with a simultaneous nationwide release (in the US), heavy TV ad spend and simple, bankable concept, movies could achieve almost instant success (storming ahead of whatever the critics might have to say) and, more importantly, instant revenue (Jaws recouped its production costs in just two weeks following its release). Since then, Hollywood studios have relied on this phenomenon to rake in serious cash. To put things in perspective, in a single year, Mr James Cameron’s 2009 CGI epic Avatar brought in more money than the whole of Armenia (in fact, its takings of more than $2.7bn beat Armenia’s gross domestic product of $2.4bn by quite a way).

So, who wants a piece of this garagantuan pie? Great. No problem. Assuming you have a few hundred million dollars to hand (who doesn’t?) and Mr Chris Pratt’s number (maybe “@” him on Twitter?), it’s completely achievable, so long as you borrow from the greats. To help you along, we’ve crunched the data, to provide you with an action plan for creating your own blockbuster.

  • From left: Mr Jack Reynor, Ms Nicola Peltz and Mr Mark Wahlberg in Transformers: Age of Extinction, 2014 Rex Features

With Hollywood movies there are no bonus points for being original. The formula is to find something that’s already working and copy it, adding a few more explosions. Pretty much anything that exists can be made into a movie, including board games, toys, theme park rides, websites, comics, video games and yes, even books. Look at The Scorpion King; it’s a 2002 spin-off of the 2001 prequel to the 1999 remake of a 1932 film. (And there have since been three straight-to-video sequels.)

Only 39 per cent of all of the top movies released by Hollywood between 2005 and 2014 were original (ie, not an adaptation, remake or sequel). Increase your chances of being in that list at all: adapt, adapt, adapt.

  • From left: Messrs Kevin McNally and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011 Rex Features

Two simple ways to do this: offend no one and choose your locations wisely. In the 2012 remake of Red Dawn, the invading force was changed from Chinese to North Koreans and in Looper the hero’s retirement nirvana was changed from Paris to Shanghai.

Studios also reduce costs considerably by moving their productions to whichever country will offer them the greatest tax break. Currently the UK has a very generous tax system, which means studios can claim back about 20 per cent of the money they spend there. Between 2007 and 2014, Disney claimed back £170m in return for making Pirates of the Caribbean, John Carter and other blockbusters in the UK.


  • From left to right: Ms Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Mr Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mr Chris Evans as Captain America, Mr Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Mr Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man and Mr Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in The Avengers, 2012 Rex Features. Data source CAA, BFI, Film Monitor

Want to feel old? No problem, know this: the main age group for Hollywood movies is the 15- to 24-year-old demographic. They go to the cinema every week, no matter what’s on, they buy buckets of Coke and popcorn and they are heavily influenced by marketing. This makes them a wonderful audience to be making movies for.

It’s a good idea, therefore, to make sure your movie has everything that teenagers crave – excitement, action, sex, laughs and rebellion. Quantity takes a back seat to visual stimulation; your movie doesn’t have to better than the competition, just bigger. 

This works well for your standard movie. But what if you’ve spent so much making your blockbuster that you need record sales to recoup? Well, then you need your movie to appeal to what studio executives call “four quadrants” – ie, over 25, under 25, male and female. Take a look at the biggest grossing blockbusters of all time and you’ll see that most have destruction and distraction for all the family (Jurassic World, Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, Skyfall, etc). Four-quadrant movies often contain a high-concept premise, a balance of emotion and action, starring both kids and adults and well-known faces in the leading roles.


  • Mr Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, 2008 Allstar/ MGM. Data source Wikipedia 

To get people to go to see your blockbuster you’re going to need a big star in the leading role. Finding the right person is hard – you need someone famous (but not “Paris Hilton famous”), attractive (but ideally in a “girl/ guy next door” way), with a special charisma (but not like Mr Uri Geller). It’s a bonus if they can act (but not essential).

The right star can mean the difference between your movie being Jurassic World or John Carter (both movies about a white man who is hunted by giant CGI monsters in another world).

Be prepared to get your chequebook out. Big stars command astronomical figures. Mr Tom Cruise’s deal on Valkyrie ensured he received a minimum of $38m, with a further $54m in bonuses if the film did well.

But it’s not their salary that matters, it’s their value to the production. In 2014, Forbes estimated Ms Emma Stone to be the best value hire (based on her past three movies at that time, including The Amazing Spiderman 2), with every $1 she was paid bringing in more than $61 in return.


  • Mr Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, 2006 Christophel Collection/ Photoshot

In the early days of Hollywood, cinema was the only source of revenue. However, in our modern multi-screen world, it’s television deals that provide the greatest income. The cinema release for most movies is extremely costly and doesn’t provide as much revenue as you may think. When you see a headline stating that a movie has “made more than $100m”, bear in mind that taxes such as VAT come off the top, the cinemas take half of what’s left, leaving the studios with just 39 per cent to cover the costs of making and marketing the movie. In TV, on the other hand, the marketing and advertising expenses are borne by the licensee, which means that the costs of doing a lucrative TV deal are limited to guild and royalty fees and paying your lawyers to email each other (just a few million, then).

Then, of course, there are endorsements. Hollywood blockbusters are seen by so many people that brands are keen to have their products featured. Product placement can generate millions for the studio, or can reduce production costs by providing free products. Mr Michael Bay has a long-running deal with Ford to provide him with hundreds of cars to destroy in his movies. The producers of Transformers 4 signed deals with 55 separate brands, including Budweiser, Beats by Dre and even Yili, a Chinese dairy company.

James Bond may be the world’s slickest spy but he’s also pretty good at securing product placement. Skyfall received $45m for its in-movie promotions and his previous outing, Quantum of Solace, benefited from deals worth more than $100m.


  • Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991 Rex Features. Data source stephenfollows.com 

If after all your planning, producing, spending and marketing you actually have a hit on your hands… quick, do it again! In the past 10 years, the number of top grossing films that were actually sequels has more than doubled. In fact, sequels accounted for 14 out of the top 20 grossing films between 2013 and 2014.

Best of all, create an entire cinematic universe; adjusted for inflation, the movies in the Marvel universe have grossed more than $8.4bn.

Be warned: sequels tend to cost more than the original. Terminator 2 was budgeted at 1,207 per cent of the original Terminator film. Why? Well, for one thing, the unknown, once cheap, actors you hired to fill up your cast now have agents and managers to hammer out a better deal.

Things to avoid

01.
Don’t shoot a bad script. Hollywood history is littered with blockbusters whose poor scripts turned them into gigantic flops. Recent examples include 47 Ronin (which lost an estimated $149m), Mars Needs Moms (losing $131m) and The 13th Warrior ($129m in the red).

02.
Don’t spend your own money. Movie producers are always on the lookout for “cash rich, fun poor” folks to front the film’s budget. Investors are attracted to the idea of gambling on the film’s success, or sometimes they’re just trying to save a bit of tax. Right now the big money seems to be with Chinese investors, so brush up your Mandarin.

03.
Don’t hire Mr Adam Sandler. Mr Sandler has been judged Hollywood’s most overpaid actor for two years in a row. In 2014, every $1 paid to Mr Sandler translated to only $3 at the box office. 

04.
Don’t let your star rule the roost. When an actor becomes more famous they start to think they know best on all matters. Give them too much power and you could end up making Last Action Hero

05.
Don’t make a western. Most big-budget Hollywood westerns turn into a disaster; Cowboys and Aliens, Wild Wild West, Heaven’s Gate, Lone Ranger to name but a few.