Lucy vs. Hercules: It's the Story Idea, Stupid

How many times have you avoided a movie because it was based on a lame story idea that you simply didn't care about?

Plenty of times! You have to wonder what the studio was thinking.

In virtually every industry, the product development process works like this: Uncover what consumers are interested in, test many ideas with consumers to ascertain which has the most potential, spend production dollars to make it, test it to be sure you made it well, develop and test marketing materials, make revisions throughout the process as needed, and then launch it with enough money to gain people's attention and interest.

The movie business is pretty much aligned with this process with one unfortunate exception. Studios rarely, if ever, test story ideas before they spend millions of dollars to produce them. This colossal misstep is partly responsible for the movie industry's immense failure rate. One study found that only about 5 percent of films account for nearly all studio profits. This suggests that studio heads are far more skilled at picking bombs than picking blockbusters.

That's the movie business.

It's rather odd, too, when you consider that all of the other crucial decisions including the screenplay, direction, casting, acting, production, and marketing all arise from the story idea. So you would expect that before expensive production starts, someone would say, "Hey, perhaps we should ask moviegoers if they have any interest in the story idea?" But it doesn't happen, and so the production machine starts grinding dollars like they were lemons. In most cases they are.

I believe that the strength of the underlying story idea is one of the key reasons why the film Lucy beat Hercules at last weekend's opening (domestic gross of $44 million vs. $29 million). Add to this that Lucy only cost $40 million to make versus Hercules $100 million, and you have to wonder if a little research on the story idea might have informed the studio that Hercules might not have been the best idea they had on their shelf. The concept of Hercules is age old and powerful, but it was not made new enough to interest enough moviegoers. Lucy, though derivative in many ways itself, was just novel enough to entice.

Creative people traditionally hate exposing their embryonic ideas to consumers. This is true in every industry. They would prefer a blank check to consumer research. One argument in the movie business is that story ideas cannot be properly understood and appreciated by audiences, and so any research would provide inaccurate results. The reasoning goes that the studios need to spend $50 million and more to produce each idea before audiences could understand the total vision. While it is true that the finished product will be a better barometer of what will sell, I believe that the risk of fully producing a film before you test the basic story is a greater risk. Judging from the minuscule success rate of the current filmmaking process, I'd say that testing early story ideas is worth a try.

How the story concept is conveyed to audiences in consumer testing can mitigate some of the concern. In one study I conducted of two movie story ideas, I asked the studio to develop a brief storyboard for each film's story treatment, to shoot each on videotape, and to insert an audio narrator to describe each film's story in a tone and manner reflective of each idea. Each video story ran about 10 minutes and describe the story from beginning to end, inclusive of key characters and key plot points. The research went very well and the results proved to be predictive of audience appeal once the films were introduced.

And, of course, the studio never conducted that type of research again, at least not to my knowledge. It just wasn't in their culture.

The culture of studios has to change. Studios need to routinely test story ideas to ascertain which have the greatest potential to interest audiences. This research isn't perfect and it would be debated, hated, and much maligned, especially by those who prefer niche, artsy films. But if story research can increase box office receipts by a mere 5 percent, while reducing wasteful production spending on bad ideas, the results would be seismic. More importantly, it will make mainstream audiences much happier.

It's the appeal of story idea, stupid, and it's about time that studios get audiences involved earlier in the process.