Action-Adventure Movies Sweep Box Office Totals

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
May 2nd, 2012

Blockbuster hits do have something in common. Their stories catapult audiences on a thrilling action-filled adventure. Many factors affect the bottom line, but more than anything, success rests on an engaging plot that keeps viewers glued to their seats.

Studios often use big name actors to draw people in. That may work on opening night, but if the story suffers, so do sales. With the high price of theater tickets and concessions, today's consumers rely heavily on reviews to decide whether they should go to the movies or wait until a secondary release.

According to Internet Movie Database, the top American box office earner of all time was James Cameron's "Avatar." At $760,505,847, it clears the gap by nearly $150 Million. Genre clearly was not the only factor leading to those totals, but the effect of the story can't be discounted. Interest in "Avatar" transcended the screen and American cinema. The film's worldwide earnings are estimated at close to $3 Billion.

Other blockbusters, such as "Titanic," "Dark Knight," and "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope," share that same link. Their plots include dazzling visual effects, high-paced action, and characters involved in serious struggles against outside forces. "A New Hope" hit theaters with a largely unknown cast, and still managed to earn more than $460 Million in theater sales in 1977. The story behind George Lucas' masterpiece created an immense fan base that holds strong nearly 40 years later.

Why Audiences Love Action-Adventure

In his book Writing the Action-Adventure Film: The Moment of Truth, Neill D. Hicks explains why action-adventure movies remain the most successful movies in America and beyond. Our core values of independence, rallying against authority and flying in the face of social and cultural norms to reach our goals can be found at the heart of most blockbuster hits. When audiences see these movies, they get a glimpse of their own potential for making a difference.

We celebrate as Rose from "Titanic" shirks her duty as the bride-to-be of a rich but cruel socialite. It makes her love affair with Jack, the destitute, lower-class American Joe as thrilling and fulfilling as possible. The rebellion in her choices, especially as a woman of the times, inspires us all to fight against life's absurd rules.

The same could be said, however, for "Office Space." While the story of one man bucking his social responsibilities to stay in a boring, repetitive job where his work often makes no difference at all has become a cult favorite, it failed to perform at the box office on a large scale. Starring Jennifer Aniston at the height of her career, it still earned a measly $10,824,921. With a budget of $10 Million to make, "Office Space" barely turned a profit. What was missing? The action.

As much as film buffs may want to fight it, audiences get drawn in by big explosions, intense fighting scenes and grandiose battles that get the blood pumping. Viewers get a rush of adrenaline without being in danger. On the other hand, without a good adventure fueling those big bangs, movies have a tendency to fall flat at the theater.

Crashing, booming flicks like "Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000" and "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever" were big on action, but had stories so shallow that audiences walked out laughing. Used as examples of significant studio flops, they demonstrate why story remains a centerpiece to any movie intending to make a buck.

Why American Action-Adventure Can't be Outdone

Foreign markets eat up American action-adventure movies but have a hard time creating their own. The core values that make these movies successful in the US are difficult for foreign screenwriters to embrace. Their own audiences have a hard time embracing them too; the same bravado celebrated in American actors and characters by foreign audiences sours to offense and disbelief when donned by members of their own societies.

Blockbusters from other lands have gotten around this by conforming to traditional values in the end. In "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a young noblewoman learns the art of the sword and becomes a skilled assassin. When faced with honoring an arranged marriage, Jen Yu runs and reunites with her true love. Keeping true to tragedy found widely in Chinese cinema, the movie ends as the character takes her own life.

Action-adventure movies encapsulate audiences in excitement-laden purpose. They take viewers on a journey of good versus evil and let them root for the good guys. Having obstacles to face and the firepower to fight them work together to create blockbuster hits. Unfortunately, it's easy to create flops when either factor gets neglected.