You can learn from all films — even ones that get panned by critics.
It’s hard to make a film, so right off the bat I want to acknowledge that even getting the job done is an accomplishment. Furthermore, while there are certain films that I’ve hated so much I took a certain pleasure in eviscerating them in a group text with my friends, I’m not a fan of the Razzie Awards, which publicly tear down filmmakers.
Films are subjective and critics are not infallible (looking at the guy who accused Turning Red of not being universal because it dared to feature an Asian girl as its lead). That being said, there’s something to learn from the lowest-rated films on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or from Pulitzer Prize-winning critics like Roger Ebert. Let’s dive in.
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Know Your Genre
The 1994 hit action film Speed, starring swoon-worthy duo Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 94% rating from 71 critic reviews. “A terrific popcorn thriller, Speed is taut, tense, and energetic, with outstanding performances from [its cast],” praises the site. That’s precisely what you want in an adventure film.
Speed 2: Cruise Control, the 1997 follow-up, however, is rated as #92 in the worst movies of all time list on the same site. The critics’ consensus is that “Speed 2 falls far short of its predecessor, thanks to laughable dialogue, thin characterization, unsurprisingly familiar plot devices, and action sequences that fail to generate any excitement.”
It’s important to understand your genre in a nuanced way. What makes viewers love similar films? What satisfies them? What excites them? And more importantly, what bores them and/or pisses them off? Know the dos and don’ts of the trade and apply accordingly.
Be Smarter Than Your Audience
Here’s what Roger Ebert had to say about The Waterboy (a film I also absolutely hated when I watched it as a sensitive kid in the 90s): “I suggest [Adam Sandler] is making a tactical error when he creates a character whose manner and voice has the effect of fingernails on a blackboard and then expects us to hang in there for a whole movie.”
This is no Rudy — a sports film about an underdog with a heart of gold — and it’s not even a decent Happy Gilmore (which Ebert still didn’t enjoy but he didn’t viscerally hate it the way he did The Waterboy).
Other critics agreed; the consensus for Happy Gilmore places it in Sandler’s top ten films, saying, “Those who enjoy Adam Sandler’s schtick will find plenty to love in this gleefully juvenile take on professional golf; those who don’t, however, will find it unfunny and forgettable.” The Waterboy, however, is described as “an insult to its genre with low humor and cheap gags.”
Comparing the two films is a great way to concentrate on humor. Adam Sandler has a particularly goofy style, which plays well in Happy Gilmore or The Wedding Singer but completely fails in The Waterboy.
The difference is the sophistication of the jokes. Punching down on people with crossed eyes or lisps isn’t funny — it’s mean and uncomfortable. Great humor is about truth and surprise, so take the time to deliver that in an intelligent way for your audience.
Critics Aren’t Everything
Critical acclaim isn’t the only way to measure the success of a film — just compare Oscar winners to box office numbers. There are plenty of films that are fun and exciting enough for fans to love them, regardless of their box office delivery.
Let’s look at the 1998 action/adventure classic Armageddon. Critics gave it a 38% review compared to the audience score of 73%. The film made over $200 million at the box office (a profit from its $140 million budget) and secured its place in pop culture while launching its cast (especially Ben Affleck) to even greater heights.
Know your goals. Sharknado isn’t out there winning any Oscars, but the franchise creators are probably sipping champagne on a yacht somewhere.
Promise and Payout
The Village started out so strong but sadly landed on Roger Ebert’s list of most hated films due to its dissatisfying ending. Ebert said it best in his review: “To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It’s a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore.”
There are a few takeaways here, and they all come back to the concept of promise and payout. If you build a great mystery, it’s much like creating a contract with your audience. If the reveal sizzles out, you’ve broken your contract. This is one reason why “It Was All A Dream” is so frustrating — it’s a waste of the viewer’s time, usually for a cheap scare. The same is true, however, if you’ve promised a journey that you can’t deliver on. The Village is a perfect warning of how to not do this.
It’s a great exercise to study what not to do just as it’s helpful to learn from the greats. Analyzing where a script went wrong will also build your own critical skills as you explore your own work. At the end of the day, you want to be clear on what your goals for a script are and then work to deliver on those goals, whether it’s a critical success, box office bucks, launching yourself to the next level, or maybe even becoming a cult classic.
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!