When the man with the two highest-grossing films of all time decides to drop some pearls of wisdom, I'm all ears. I mentioned the article by Peter Howell
on Twitter a while back, but the Cameron quotes were worth repeating. His answer on what makes a hit movie:
“I don’t think there’s a formula, because the films are all different,” he replied.
“But I think there’s a philosophy, and the philosophy is don’t talk down to the audience. Include them. Give them plenty of visual excitement. Play against their expectations. And include them in the emotional response to the movie. These sound very abstract, but it’s the only connective tissue I can find between these very disparate projects.”
He said he’s actually been thinking a lot about this topic, since Avatar took away Titanic’s box-office crown earlier this year. He elaborated on what it takes to make a movie click with an audience.
“I think it’s about creating characters that the audience can relate to, being very clear about what your intentions are, not being too mysterious or too aloof or too above the audience — too hip, if you will. You also have to include the audience in the emotional responses to the film, and making sure that the film fires on all cylinders between visual, character, narrative, surprise and emotional payoff.
“If you don’t hit them in the heart, it’s not going to work. And that’s the one thing I can say declaratively across all of (my) films.”
There's more than a little truth in what he said. Now some might argue that Avatar's success can be attributed to 3-D technology and the story is far from original. But spectacle doesn't always equal box office success. We might want to consider that the use of a simple, familiar tale is intentional, since his focus is hitting emotional beats.
Regardless of genre, it comes down to building an emotional bridge between the audience and your characters. No small feat by the way. Sometimes you get lucky. Right story, right time. Maybe the casting gods deliver the perfect actor. All that nuts and bolts stuff about structure is important, but it won't mean a thing if the audience doesn't give a damn about your characters.