Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Action, Thriller, Comedy, Drama

I think, when people talk about genres, most people think of them in terms of what the story is about. Instead, I think a genre is really much more about who the audience is for a particular story.

I recently came across a fascinating analysis of spec script sales by genre from the Go Into The Story blog by Scott Myers. A "spec" script is when a screenwriter sells a script "on spec," which means they weren't hired to write a specific story; instead, they write whatever they think will be marketable and then hope to sell it to a producer. They are speculating, gambling their time and effort in hopes of a future sale. It's always interesting to see what kinds of stories Hollywood thinks will make them money. What I find particularly interesting, is to see the breakdown by the four major Hollywood genres: Action, Thriller, Comedy, and Drama.

Now, this kind of analysis is not an exact science, especially when you are dealing with the murky interior of a Hollywood crystal ball. Having said that, it is useful to get a generalized idea of what kind of stories are "hot," or at least were in 2011 (which, given the lead time of production, won't hit the theaters - if they ever do - until 2013 or 2014.)

Overall, there were 110 spec script sales in Hollywood in 2011. Quick side note: Think about that for a minute, all you aspiring screenwriters. Imagine all the thousands of scripts that studio readers probably had in their slush piles. Studio execs read hundreds of scripts a year. Their assistants and people whose job consists almost entirely of reading, read hundreds more. So the percentage of spec script purchases, verses the total number of scripts floating out there is pretty low. I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, I just think it's interesting.

Okay, let's break down some numbers. I have taken the liberty of combining some of Mr. Myers figures. I  combined Action with Science Fiction, since it seems to be a rare Hollywood SF movie that is more cerebral than action oriented (although Moon by Duncan Jones is a very refreshing exception.) Also, in Hollywoodland, Fantasy and Science Fiction are interchangeable, of course. I also combine Thriller with Horror because, well, that's just the way producers think ;) So it breaks down like this:

  1. Action - 42
  2. Thriller - 28
  3. Comedy - 19
  4. Drama - 14
  5. Other - 7
The overall trend is unsurprising in that Action is king. Just look at the top all time box office numbers and count how many action movies are in the top 25. If you broaden the action brush to include science fiction and fantasy animation, then they are almost all action, with the three exceptions being high concept, larger than life Dramas.

In 2011, only 14 sales out of the countless thousands of spec scripts were Dramas. That doesn't bode well for your coming of age tale about the struggles of a farm boy set in the 1930s dust bowl.  Better change the location to a desert planet and add a mysterious mentor, a space princess and an evil galactic empire. Or elves.

I'm kidding. Mostly. I think it's pretty funny that in the fiction book world, "genres" generally play second fiddle to "literary" fiction, while in Hollywood it's just the opposite. However, right now the top three spots in the Kindle Top 10 are Hunger Games, so go figure ;)

Hollywood's conventional wisdom has been that their biggest demographic is young males (although this very insightful post disagrees, and says women actually buy more tickets) aged 13-24.  What Hollywood thinks the young male demographic wants to see most is giant robots, lots of explosions and lots of lasers and/or gunfire. And elves and/or hobbits. And young wizards. So we can define the action genre as an audience of mostly teenage boys who like explosions. And sequels. I think that is going to all change. Probably sooner, rather than later, too.

Without going into some pretty boring statistics and research data, I think it is safe to say that what this boils down to is that you must know the audience you wish to reach and work back from that to tailor your genre to that specific audience. We live in rapidly changing times, and YouTube, eBooks and other yet - but no doubt soon - to be invented technologies are revolutionizing and revitalizing the industries of storytelling.

I'm not predicting that giant robotic explosions and sequels will go away, but I do think they will take a more creative form that dares to step away from more traditional Hollywood formulas and classifications. As truly "independent" (and by "independent" I mean really independent, not the "smaller studio with smaller big budget" type of independent) filmmakers and independent publishers/authors have more opportunities to showcase their stories to the world, we'll see new audiences enjoy genres that would have otherwise rarely been given the spotlight.

What are your favorite (new or old) genres? What kind of stories do you like?


  1. My husband is all bright-eyed about the fighting robots. I roll my eyes and make fun of it. He knows he's going to watch that one alone. lol

    I think this era affords us to offer new forms & formulas. I'll be experimenting with some crossed-genres in a series I'll be starting later this year. They typically say sci-fi is a male audience. That's probably true, but I've noticed in my travels online, that the genre has a huge number of female fans. This is what I'm going to try to tap into.

  2. I think you are right, M Pax. And not only are there a huge number of female sci-fi fans, but I think there are also a lot of people that like all kinds of stories and genres. People seem to have much broader interests now than in the past.

  3. I just know the fantasy ebooks with dragons on the front sell better than those without. I'm thinking of selling out and adding a dragon to the next series. :P

  4. Ha, that is so funny because I was thinking the same thing, Lindsay. I just might do it if I can come up with a way to make the dragon, umm, "unusual" enough ;)

  5. Wait, wait, I've got it! We'll do the mother of all crossovers! Angelina Jolie stars as a kickboxing elf princess who escorts a fledgling wizard hobbit boy through a valley inhabited by giant robots to save the last of the dragons! Yes!

    Seriously, I think this is one of the great things about being an indie writer. We've got freedom to write the stories we want, the way we want them.

  6. I gave you the Weird Science Award. On my website blog -- http://mpaxauthor.com/2012/02/10/weird-science/

  7. Ha Ha, that is a great plotline, Nicholas!

    Thanks, M Pax! I am so sorry for being so slow in response. But I am slowly getting back up to speed ;)