The box office in South Africa (and worldwide) is a war zone in which two unseen forces are at constant war: those who go to the movies, and those who make movies. It's tough being a film that is released on circuit and thrown to the wolves; like a lamb led to slaughter or Daniel in the Lion's Den, nothing can save a movie from its fateful demise or victory, not even prestigious awards or lofty reviews.
The cinema box office serves as the voice of the people; it is as cruel as it is kind, as surprising as its unpredictability, and as feared as revered. No matter how much those who worship at its altar praise its magnified constructed reality, the voice of the masses sings its own tune. This tune changes drastically with the release of each new film and is sometimes a song most fans don't want to hear.
The irony is that the sudden death of a film or absolute execution at the box office begins its lifespan with the screenwriter; as most screenwriters are often at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to the marketing of films, with directors and actors reaping all the accolades, this might be sweet revenge and prove that the pen is mightier than the sword.
The conceptualising of an idea
The first step in writing a screenplay begins with the conceptualising of an idea, no matter what the source material is. This magical concept will either be a high concept (an event-driven narrative with lots of physical and explosive action), or low concept (a narrative driven by characters that has tons of emotional explosions). If it's a blockbuster, the film will usually be the perfect marriage between high and low concept, but, as in real life, ideal wedding bliss is not moonlight and roses. In South Africa, the war zone of box office supremacy is divided into the commercial box office, and the nouveau box office, each respectively serving its target audience.
Deemed a senseless sequel by some critics
At this week's box office, A Good Day To Die Hard lands in number one at the commercial box office, showing a perfect marriage between a character-driven and event-driven story; although it was deemed a senseless sequel by some critics, audiences could relate to the story of an estranged father and son who are forced to overcome their differences in order to thwart a potentially disastrous crime in the most desolate place on Earth, and equally escape into a hard core action film.
The full-blooded character-driven narratives of the low-concept Quartet, an adaptation of Cape Town-born playwright Ronald Harwood's play, as well as Zero Dark Thirty found favour at both the commercial and nouveau box offices.
Ang Lee's masterful The Life Of Pi has been enjoying a prosperous life at both the commercial and nouveau box offices since its release on 21 December, 2012, and is crowned the top-10 title on circuit with highest life to date box office with R21 145 849.
Even the low-concept Afrikaans film Klein Karoo is still standing firmly on its feet at the commercial box office after three weeks.
The cinema is a wonderful beast to study and keep track of, as it reflects the social and cultural climate and gives one a sense of what film is all about and why films are made.
Television diminishes the scale of our fantasies
As Ingmar Bergman said: "You sit there in a completely dark room, anonymous, and you look at a lightened spot in front of you and you don't move. You sit and you don't move and your eyes are concentrated on that white spot on the wall. That is some sort of magic. Even if you are with friends, it is your individual experience that is important. It is great to share the enjoyment you derive from watching a film with others."
And as the one and only Quentin Crisp stated: "Television diminishes the scale of our fantasies, but it does worse than that; it domesticates them. It does not compel us to give it our whole attention. We can sip our instant decaffeinated coffee while being thrown out of the 40th-floor window of an expensive hotel; we can file our nails while being raped by hooded intruders. We see television on our own mundane turf. It is as injurious to the soul as fast food is to the body."
Crisp believed that we should vacate our homes and go to a film for the very reason that "this exodus will force us to take the occasion seriously, to abandon everyday life; to place ourselves for a while where there are fewer distractions".
"We ought to visit the cinema as we would go to church. Those of us who wait for films to be made available for television are as deeply under suspicion as lost souls who claim to be religious but who boast that they never go to church. Such people are as wholly to be condemned as the Philistines who say they are art lovers but who never step inside a gallery, preferring instead merely to buy picture postcards of famous paintings," he stated in his book How To Go To The Movies.
A force to be reckoned with
The cinema box office in South Africa is indeed a force to be reckoned with, but also one that should be respected as it truly represents democracy in action. Being a screenwriter empowers storytellers to rule the masses and take ownership of their stories, and is equally an exciting craft for those whose imaginations are larger than the films they watch.
Daniel Dercksen has been a film and theatre journalist in South Africa the past 30 years and as a trainer and educator has presented regular workshops in scriptwriting and creative writing during the past 17 years.
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