I’m not sure why, but I can’t wait to see Suicide Squad. Is it the costumes, or the actors, or the story? I think it’s because for the past year and a half, Hollywood has been telling me that I can’t wait to see this movie. You see, it is a tentpole movie. A “tentpole” is one of those fancy industry exec terms having to do with financial investment. According to script analyst and industry blogger J. Gideon Sarantinos,” successful tentpole films must generate around $1 billion in global box office receipts off production and P&A budgets of $200 to $300 million, they must be exhibited in theaters all year long (wide theatrical window), they must appeal to a four quadrant audience (men, women, boys and girls) and contain universal and culturally relevant themes.” Whew! Got that? Because that is a lot to get.
Let me boil it down to one thing: Superhero saturation. And I don’t mean only the traditional heroes in the comic book universe, I mean dinosaurs, aliens, vampires and animated fish (I’m looking at you Finding Dory). Not to mention anything that comes from a galaxy far, far away. Aren’t you tired of it? I know I am. I’m not the only one. Of course these films won’t fail. They will make money, but maybe not as much as they could have say, ten– even five years ago. Independence Day: Resurgence had a budget of $165 million USD and made $266.5 million domestically. It topped the charts in its opening weekend overseas but still, for a film engineering to skyrocket on the Fourth of July, it certainly fizzled by box office standards.
What does that mean for the emerging screenwriter? Quite simply, forget about writing a tentpole. The screenwriters of these big budget, blockbusting, sequels and IMAX megaflicks are known to producers and executives. They are not investing over one hundred million on action sequences and special effects alone. They are trusting proven talent. If you have a brilliant alien invasion concept set in the fairy tale sphere that you know Disney will chomp at the bit for, by all means write it– hey, always go for it, but I would put that spec in second or even third position in your sample case. Your focus as a writer is on getting work, not getting a script made. To get work, you need to be read and to have a script that a producer will buy. Most producers do not buy screenplays from unknown, uncredited writers. Once you are in the door, then promote the shit out of your tentpole spec and maybe you’ll get an assignment. If your tentpole is set in a dystopian outback with a lot of car chases, George Miller might read it for the next Mad Max movie. Maybe.
Tentpoles are the summer circuses studios hang their year on. Sequels are the easiest to sell financially and blockbusters always bring the biggest box office. In my thinking aloud, I’ve answered my question – yes, tentpoles are still a thing. However, with the decline in returns and the sequel weary audience who is tired of been there, done that blow-em-ups from outer space, there is an opening in lower budget films and television projects. These are where the emerging screenwriter will shine. There is plenty of time to brand yourself as a sequel tentpole writer after you’ve gotten in the door, but get in the door. With a whisper and great writing rather than a battering ram and box of popcorn.
In the meantime, I’ll see you in the theater. Suicide Squad opens August 5, 2016.