The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The 80s Movie: A Formula Cracked

Written by: Sal Crivelli, Special to CC2K



You want to earn your way into this box? Then Read on…

If you’re a child of the late seventies and early 80’s (like myself), you’re familiar with the film phenomena now known in the collective social consciousness as “the 80’s Movie.” One of the many issues we take with cinema of today is the burning question: why can’t they make movies like they used to?

Indeed, there is something lacking in today’s movies, isn’t there? Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and The Blues Brothers are of a bygone era, each encapsulating an almost forgotten magic that both happily co-existed over two decades ago, yet cannot be re-created today.

I submit this is due to an unseen code, a formula, which moves of the late 70’s and early 80’s seemed to follow. While I haven’t managed to fully “crack the code,” I have isolated some undeniable truths surrounding the genre. I believe, were Hollywood to discover this code, we may get countless clones that lack originality and substance, but the influx might inspire those true creative geniuses to come out of hiding and give us a return to the Renaissance we experienced when we were barely in junior high.

I have broken most of this genre down into 13 sections, and have outlined each (in no particular order).


First of all, most movies of the time have the main characters involved with, or erecting, some kind of source for personal financial independence. Whether it's being independently wealthy like Doc Brown in Back to the Future (or um… Obi Wan in Star Wars…I guess he uses the Force to eat), a freelancer like Doctor Jones in the Indy Trilogy, or an original, self-made business that they build from the ground-up like the Ghostbusters.

Now it could also be you're making a movie about being young and finding yourself. If this is the case, you're making a teen movie, and they live with their parents. They usually have some kind of shit job that they hate, which unbeknownst to them, builds character.

So you need to have some element which either a) gives your main characters the free time they need in order to have an adventure in this economy, or b) make a movie about the adventure your characters have endeavoring to cut through the bullshit of corporate America in going into business for themselves, and the effect it has afterward. So that's numero uno.


Your movie MUST have an ensemble. I'd say your main characters should be anywhere from 2-5 players, depending on the nature of your plot. If your plot is about teenage personal discovery (Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, Better off Dead), you may want to keep your main cast down to two or three (unless you plan on making another Breakfast Club clone, in which case, you can keep your cast up to about 5 or so, but most BFC clones crash and burn completely; there never has been, nor will there probably ever will be, another Breakfast Club. And whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen ).

On the other hand, if your movie is about a couple of guys who want to [get back at someone], [combine their unique talents to create a machine of financial independence], [slack off with their friends but get paid for it anyway], you could be looking at a set of main characters anywhere from 3-5 people. A two-character movie is a "buddy movie," kind of like BTTF or Bill and Ted. But you can still make a movie from that era with multiple players as main characters. Just look at Stripes, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Stand By Me, etc. (of course Stand By Me had kids in it, and as we all know, kids suck big time). But this leads you to the almost equally important job of…


Your ensemble is nothing without a crack team of hilarious actors to pull off your outrageous dialogue. You could try to fill your movie with very talented people and see if that sticks (like the most recent Ocean's Eleven), but you could risk the potential of a really lousy sequel (like… Ocean's Twelve). One could also take several slightly unknowns and put them in a room to see if they stick (Usual Suspects), but if you're doing comedy/action-adventure (and I think we are), you may be running a risk using truly dramatic actors. What worked for the Harold Ramis, Bill Murray movies was something very odd, which most executives only seem to do with television shows now, and that is: get funny writers (possibly the writers of your own movie) to be the ensemble. Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd were writers -and- actors. True, it required the mix of Murray (and of course, Ernie Hudson) to fully complete the effect, but SOME comedy writers are an unexpected source of acting genius. And while we're talking about acting, we can't have an ensemble without our…


Every movie of this era has a bombshell woman in it. Not necessarily a big-tits, voluptuous, "bombshell" bombshell. I mean more of a quick-witted, clever, sassy, sexy, independent, (sometimes taller than your leading man) woman. For this, you need the work of a very talented actress in order to pull it off. Because in your movie, your main characters are more or less goons who get lucky. You don't want to completely lose your audience when the beautiful redhead goes for the retarded rabbit, so you need a) a talented actress to convince the audience she's in love with your sarcastic jerk of a main character, and b) a good reason for her to fall in love with him. Because humor is the lynch-pin of any comedy/action-adventure movie between 1970 and 1990, you could go with that and call it a day. If you want to get more "real," and complex with it, you could, but you may run the risk of overcomplicating things. People will want your hot leading lady to wind up with the main guy, because like all movies of that era, every dork in the seat believes he could be that guy.


I hesitate to use the term "leading man," only because he doesn't usually act especially manly. If he does, it's usually for a selfish reason like trying to get laid. You take your funniest, least weird-looking actor out and give this part to him. You need him to be the Everyman, or Every-Dork. Every dorky dude who sees this movie needs to be able to put himself in that position and say, "Yes, I could do that. I could be that. And if I am like that, people will think I'm clever and at least one hot chick will think I'm awesome." If you nail this part, you're assured success.



If your car is any sportier than this…take it back!

  You need, need, need, NEED an awesome car in this movie. And when I say "awesome," what I mean is "unique." DO NOT make it a sports car. This almost never works. You need a car that nobody expects to see as the main car the "hero" drives. The car is almost like the last, most important supporting character, because in effect, it literally SUPPORTS the entire cast. And if you're not making a buddy movie, you need a four-door. The Delorean was the closest thing to a sports car you can get away with, and even they had a problem when Jennifer needed to be in the car. So your best bet is to go to old car shows, auto junkyards, and the like, and try and find a car that's just really cool, really original, something nobody on earth would expect your "heroes" to be driving. And definitely, if you have the option, go for an older car rather than a newer car. Always in favor of the old, the classics. Take an existing car and enhance it, so not only is it solidified in the collective pop-culture consciousness, but you can sell cool model kits of your movie-car.


The setting where the main characters go to lick their wounds or suit-up for battle is integral in your movie. In Wayne's World, it was his basement. In Bill and Ted, the garage. Ghostbusters, firehouse. Caddyshack, the…caddyshack. You need an original place where the guys can go and chill out. Preferably, if your movie is about building a business, you should take an existing place (like the car) that was not used for that type of business, and show your characters renovating it, bonding over it, and making it look immaculate at the end. You need people to want to go into whatever business your characters created, just by nature of the HQ, alone. Of course, if your characters are bumbling around in time and space, your car can be the HQ. Factor that into your car choice.


New York. When in doubt, start in NYC. If you want to make it independent from any other movie from that era, pick a unique city that will be a) easy to film in, and b) happy you're doing it. An oft-ignored city that actually is kind of cool is Richmond, VA. Yes, I know I've spent time down there, so I'm slightly biased, but it's still kind of a neat place that loves movies. If I had to go in a list of cities you need your movie to take place in (or suburbs of said city), here's my top 3:

-New York

But make it your own. Maybe you haven't picked the city until after you write the flick. Or maybe you take a pre-existing city that people would expect your place to be in, and then pull a 180 and take them someplace else. Like they're from New York and the audience expects them to build up in NYC, and they move to Richmond and you make it an out-of-your-element movie like My Cousin Vinny. Five New Yorkers making a living in Richmond doing… whatever. Their antagonist could even be someone from that area who doesn't care for them, and will stop at nothing to destroy them or expose them for the frauds they are. Which of course leads to… (dun dun dunnn):


You need an excellent villain, with excellent casting done on this, as well. Your audience needs to hate this guy (or girl). You need to make this guy such a total and complete fuckhead, that you'll ruin his career and make people think nothing other than what a dick he was in your movie. If you can find someone who's either OK with that, or is unaware of that, you're gold.


Your movie needs a theme. It doesn’t matter if it's an original John Williams score, an original titular pop song, or an old 70's tune that everybody's heard, but nobody remembers, so once it's played not only will they get nostalgic about the song, but they will forever associate the song from their past with your movie. Either way, you need a theme.


That's right, science! Your characters will encounter some kind of necessity for this alternative to magic. Whether it's automotive science, to make the car awesome and also distinctly yours, or movie-science to bring your #5 military robot to life from a bolt of lightning, you're going to need that extra little element to spice up the movie. The underplayed, the more mundane even the most fantastical science you throw into it seems to your ensemble, the better.



Every good film needs a dork.

  If you're making a comedy, don't kill the main character at the end and make your main cast learn a lesson. If you're making a teen learning comedy, don't take the girl away and make your protagonist bitter and angry at the world, effectively rejecting moral lessons. If you're making a reality-focused, fun, adventure, don't all of a sudden throw in dragons because you think you can do no wrong.

And another thing: no swords, people. I'm telling you now– this barely worked for the Highlander series. You put swords in your movie and your movie's not about pirates or Jedi, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Your characters can play D&D if you like, but they can't then FALL INTO a D&D game and battle serpents and orcs with a 1980's sass, razor sharp wit, and equally sharp Dragon Blade. Keep it real. That having been said…


You can stretch an audience's suspension of disbelief only so far before it snaps and they walk out, or rent your disaster to make fun of, only to then eject the tape halfway through in favor of a REAL movie from the 80's. You can take liberties, but just be conscious of how many, where you put them, and what they are. One big allowance, in the beginning of the movie, will set up your movie and inform the audience what to expect. That doesn't mean then throw it on autopilot, but don't blindside the audience with something retarded. Take a concept some people actually believe in, but in reality obviously aren't in our world:

-time/space travel

All these elements, while ridiculous when you actually think about them, are the source of hundreds of movies from that era. Consider these, or some other element I overlooked, and ask yourself if you want one of them in your movie.

So that’s all I’ve got! I may wind up coming up with another lengthy companion piece to this formula for a classic 80’s movie, which would be most appropriate since no 80’s movie is complete without the all-important, contractually mandated sequel.