I'll be the first to admit that my tastes in both fiction and movies are not what people should aspire too. I cast a wide net from the high brow (TRUE GRIT being my current favorite movie) to the low brow (nothing gets my blood pumping the way FAST FIVE did), but I think the same can be said of most people. What I like from my entertainment is that, more than anything, it is ENTERTAINING. To different people this may mean different things, but it's pretty easy to see what it is that works and what it is that doesn't work.
This year has not been great for movies, but those that have hit have hit big, so I'd like to examine what it takes to make a solid piece of late spring/summer entertainment.
(NOTE: Please excuse my excessive referencing of superhero movies, but they are the most prevalent and successful franchises of late, and the ones of most personal interest to me as a viewer.)
SOMETHING I HAVEN'T SEEN BEFORE
As is becoming increasingly obvious in Hollywood, new and innovative concepts are few and far between; modern audiences have a sense of having seen it all. Thus, the first step in any summer blockbuster is an original idea, or, failing that, a fresh new take on an old one.
Now this doesn't always work, as PRIEST can prove, as sometimes, in that desperate rush to create something new, you end up with a concept that is too high, or a mix of too many genres (really PRIEST? A religious sci-fi vampire western? Talk about reach exceeding grasp).
Whatever the idea is, the conceit should be simple and concise; THOR for example, was a stranger-in-a-strange-land take on a comic book hero based on the mythic God of Thunder. A simple enough premise to wrap your mind around once you've firmly established the rules for the audience.
Similarly, when rehashing an old idea, give it a new spin; it worked wonders for X-MEN FIRST CLASS, which re-envisioned the franchise as a slick, hip, mash-up of 60's style James Bond with the modern superhero concept. It was a bold direction for a franchise already so firmly established, but paid off quite well (I actually liked it better in some ways than the first three movies).
CHARACTERS WITH CHARACTER
People want to be charmed by a protagonist. They want to be seduced by a hero with charisma. This is a quality that's shared by such recent greats as Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Tony Stark (Robert Downey...who also does a great turn as an equally charming Sherlock Holmes), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). These were characters that invested a certain swagger and humor to their characters that encouraged you to get invested in their continuing exploits. At a certain point it doesn't even matter what they're doing; you just enjoy watching them do it. This takes a great actor with a lot of confidence, wit, and charisma.
This isn't something that can just be created...it's more of a happy coincidence. Casting is important, as well as the actor investing something into the character; they need to believe in the character they're portraying if they expect the audience to.
A SOLID STORY
It doesn't have to be Academy award winning, but a solid script is a must. People will suspend their disbelief for a lot, as long as there is a strong foundation to stage it all on. Clearly established characters and motivations, and effective and concise world building.
But most importantly, the script should have some HUMOR. This is why MARVEL has been so successful this summer, and why I'm so worried about GREEN LANTERN. Yes, GREEN LANTERN cast comedian Ryan Reynold's, but the trailer is humorless. There are jokes, but the movie is obviously taking the idea of a guy that makes giant fists out of light with a green Space-Ring way to seriously. THOR and X-MEN FIRST CLASS, and hell, even something like TRUE GRIT, all worked so well because there was a healthy dose of wry humor to them; a willingness to recognize some of the goofier aspects, while not becoming a parody (this is part of why I think GREEN HORNET was ill concieved...it was a parody that didn't know it was a parody).
SHOCK AND AWE
Many will argue that big budget CGI is extraneous, and at a certain point it is, but if you manage to achieve all of the above, some really eye-popping visuals can only help to cement your success at the box-office. For many, the theater experience is a short escape from reality; sometimes people just want to be dazzled by a well realized visual; a cool monster, a violent fight, a superhuman act, a big explosion...it all adds up to a world more lively and vibrant than our own. A great production design, with some original art direction, and some solid CGI can be enough for people sometimes (*cough cough* AVATAR *cough cough* AVATAR only really HAD the visual going for it, but people LOVED it and forgave it's many, many, flaws).
These are the elements that really make a great summer movie. A sort of ethereal magic formula that studio's chase after; it's almost impossible to tell what will hit and what will not, and what works for one movie, may not work for another, but a good director, a solid script, a talented cast, and some dazzling visuals will almost always ensure you at least make your money back, even if they don't guarantee a sequel.