Many different elements factor determine whether a movie is destined to become a timeless classic or will barely cause a ripple at the box office. Many a film, for instance, that has generated a high budget for its special effects and the name recognition of its stars (e.g., "Waterworld") has failed to live up to its hype. Conversely, there's no shortage of indie productions with a low price tag and a cast of unknowns (e.g., "The Blair Witch Project") that have achieved surprising success.
For a movie to be a commercial hit, its plot has to resonate with the dreams, fears, beliefs and values of its target audience. Further, the plot needs to be driven by the concepts of reward, revenge and/or escape and revolve around a conflict or quest that can only be resolved through escalating acts of risk and sacrifice on the part of the protagonist.
Extraordinary vs. Ordinary
A successful movie features a "fish out of water" hero who is either an extraordinary character trying to fit into an ordinary setting (e.g., Forrest Gump) or an ordinary character forced to survive in an extraordinary environment and/or under unusual circumstances for which he is not prepared (e.g., Luke Skywalker).
When an actor has a large and enthusiastic fan base, virtually any movie he is attached to is going to be guaranteed an audience. Unfortunately, this condition exists even if he's totally wrong for the part and/or the script isn't particularly well written. It's also a little-known fact that actors-turned-producers sometimes make movies they know will fail because they need to be able to claim them as a loss on their taxes.
Technology has radically changed the way movies are filmed, especially insofar as computer-generated imagery (CGI) has not only reduced the cost of building sets but also allows actors to magically morph into different beings, integrates historic footage into a contemporary context (e.g., "Forrest Gump"),and can create all manner of natural and manmade disasters without actually destroying anything. This "electronic eye-candy" is a popular draw that translates to commercial success, particularly with teens who are the largest moviegoing audience worldwide.
Many moviegoers base their decisions about what to see on how well or how badly the films are reviewed by critics. Resources such as the Internet Movie Database (see Resources) include a wide range of comparative reviews. Critics--just like actors--have their own fan base and wield a lot of clout on whether a new release will be touted as a "must-see" or a "don't bother."
Sequels and Adaptations
If something works well once, logic would seem to dictate it could not only work well again but could also work in a different medium. Almost 60 percent of a sequel's revenue --even if the content is a rehash--is derived from audiences who loved the original premise and characters. Remakes of earlier films, TV shows and adaptations of novels, however, usually don't fare as well because the charm and success of the original was either predicated on the audience mind-set at the time (i.e., the 1960s) or a reader's mental casting of the characters, frame of reference and visualizations.
Real Life vs. Reel Life
A review of recent films that have achieved commercial success and garnered awards reveals that many of them embrace content based on real characters and events. Because the storylines per se are already well known by the audience, the attendance at the theater is driven by a dual desire to enhance personal understanding of the facts and to compare how a producer's interpretation of those facts is similar or contrary to their own.