Gaining Traction

When the independent film Donnie Darko was released in 2001, it recouped less than an eighth of its $4.5 million budget at the box office.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. The film centres around a jet engine falling off an aircraft, and the picture was released a month-and-a-half after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet, when it was released on DVD, it began to develop a cult following despite flopping at the cinema and despite the format still being in the early-adopter stage. To date, the film has recouped all its costs, plus about half as much again.

It should have been the case that Donnie Darko was forgotten about. Just like those comedies that never make it past series 2, or the countless Top-10 singles heard everywhere for six weeks then never played again.

But there are other examples of where entertainment has taken a while to gain traction.

A recent example is the BBC drama series Line of Duty, with the first episodes broadcast in 2012 to a reasonable 3.8 million people, but seven years later, that figure has more than tripled. The audience of Love Island also turned an audience of barely 600,000 into nearly ten times that figure between 2015 and 2019.

Of course there isn’t a formula for this, or the examples quoted above wouldn’t be such rarities, but there is good advice. A phrase often attributed to PT Barnum is, ‘Always leave the crowd wanting more.’ It’s advice that often works.

Indeed, in a case of art imitating life, The Greatest Showman – based upon his life story – never rose higher than fourth place in the chart, but had a cinema run spanning several months.

Just don’t leave the crowd wanting too much without delivering it. Fans of the sci-fi TV show Firefly were left hanging when original run was abruptly cancelled after its debut in 2002. It took until 2005 to complete the narrative.

A Last-Minute Change of Plans

In the first few minutes of the film Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative branches off in two directions. This creates two separate realities.

In one of these, Helen Quilley catches her underground train and arrives home to find her partner cheating on her. In the other, she misses the train, giving enough time for the mistress to leave before she arrives. The rest of the film alternates between the two realities and explores how that starting point leads to two different outcomes.

The Sliding Doors screenplay is a great example of how a character’s last-minute change of plan – intentional or otherwise – can play a pivotal role in the plot. However, it’s unusual that the audience can compare and contrast both outcomes.

Another film that relies on chance is Titanic, starring Kate Winslet as Rose Calvert and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson. In the story, Dawson wanted to return to America, and was only on board because he won tickets in a game of cards and managed to arrive in time.

As an audience, we’re left to assume that if he’d been unable to board, he would have tried to find another way to travel, and that Rose would be with her intended fiancé as the ship sank. Without them meeting, the plot would be substantially less exciting.