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Every time I watch a movie I don’t like, or that I think is bad, I find myself wondering: what are the key ingredients that separate good movies from bad movies? What actually makes a movie good?
The key ingredients that make a movie “good” are when the acting, directing, writing, cinematography, and overall production value all come together to tell one cohesive, entertaining, and impactful story. In essence, a good movie uses all these tools of filmmaking to tell a compelling story that makes you feel.
That’s just the short version, of course. There’s so much more that goes into creating a good movie, and since certain ingredients, like writing or directing, can be subjective to the viewer’s individual tastes and opinions, separating good movies from bad ones can be complicated.
However, it is impossible for a movie to be considered “good” without all or most of these key ingredients involved. Because film is such a collaborative medium, it requires multiple artists with various talents all working together to make one cohesive product.
So let’s have a look at each individual ingredient that goes into a good movie and see how they all add up and interact with each other to make a movie most people can objectively call good!
Ingredient #1: It all starts with good writing.
In case you didn’t know, every great movie that was ever made started with a great script.
In fact, almost every movie that gets made has to start with a script. Unless it’s a big franchise tentpole movie a studio has planned years in advance (I’m looking at you, fourth Spider Man reboot!), you need a locked script written before you can start working on a movie.
Without a script, how would the production designers know what sets they need to build? How would the casting directors know who to cast? How would the cinematographers know what to shoot or the director what to direct?
Screenplays are blueprints that every other department working on a movie uses to inform their own decision-making.
You might think that directors are the ones who tell everyone else what to do, but you’d be remiss to think costume designers and sound mixers don’t reference the script to inform their decisions on how to tell the story.
And while directors have a vision that guides the work of the other departments, their vision still refers back to the movie that jumps off the page and into their head when they read the words of the script.
What makes good writing?
Good screenplays do more than just describe what happens in a movie; good writers will write visual metaphors woven in throughout their work to reinforce their story’s themes.
They will characterize actions and dialogue choices so each word chosen tells you something about the characters and how they are feeling – without writing out how the characters are feeling like novels do.
Good writing is also entertaining; it keeps the action moving and always keeps the audience asking what’s next?
Beyond these generalizations, there is something else that every good screenplay has that makes a movie feel like it’s good: story structure.
What is story structure?
In traditional western narrative storytelling, story structure is the gears churning behind the clock face that makes the hands turn on time. Story structure in movies refers generally to the traditional three-act narrative arc, where the movie has a beginning, middle, and ending.
While there are many categorical systems, theories, and even formulas different writers use to define the story structure of any given film, most modern American stories follow similar narrative conventions that adhere closely to Joseph Campbell’s theory of The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Most stories follow a single character, the hero, who ventures forth from their familiar world after an inciting incident and takes up the call to adventure to achieve a particular goal, where they face a series of trials and tribulations, overcome a lowest moment, face a final confrontation, then return home having changed.
Why story structure matters.
When a movie follows the above formula, it feels satisfying to the viewer. That’s because we’ve all seen hundreds of movies that follow the same structure, and have been trained what to expect from a film.
When certain elements are missing from the familiar structure we’re used to, like a character never overcoming a lowest moment, or a final confrontation that feels underwhelming, we feel as if something is missing or wrong with the movie.
Sometimes a movie follows the structure too perfectly – and feels like a hundred other movies we’ve seen before. In this case, the audience will feel the film is too predictable and boring, and not feel as invested in the story because they aren’t asking themselves what comes next.
The secret to writing a good movie is writing something familiar that feels new – either by blending two genres into something that feels original, or writing something that twists the normal conventions we are used to, but in a way that feels exciting as opposed to confusing.
A good script keeps you guessing while also rewarding you for paying attention. This is where little narrative tricks like plants and payoffs help you – by planting a detail early in the script that comes back and pays off at the end, those audience members will be surprised – but also satisfied.
Ultimately, the success or failure of a script comes down to how satisfying an experience the viewer has while watching the film. Do they feel invested? Do they care what happens to the characters? Do the characters change in ways that make sense? Do they feel what the characters feel? Or what the writer feels?
Writing is communication – and communicating your story in a way that makes the viewers feel what you want them to feel while telling a compelling story is the key ingredient to good writing.
Ingredient #2: Directing with a vision.
Did you know that the only two requirements to be a director is to 1) have a vision and 2) be able to communicate it to your team?
A directing teacher in college told our class this once and I never forgot it.
That’s because it’s true; the director doesn’t have to know how to light a scene, work a camera, or edit the film. Does it help if they know what everyone else does? Of course! But it’s not required.
Instead, the director only has to know how to communicate what they want (their vision) and hire talented people who can do all of that other stuff.
What makes good directing?
The most important thing that separates good directors from bad directors is how well they can communicate with their cast and crew in order to get what they want on screen.
When one or two individual elements of a film aren’t working as well as the others, like great actors wearing bad wigs in an important scene, it is often because the director didn’t put as much focus in that department as, say, the cinematography.
Or it could be the director wasn’t able to communicate properly what they wanted, and the result became mixed.
Good directing, instead, is when the director is able to guide the choices of every department towards one singular, cohesive story.
Every decision on a screen, no matter how small, should be made in service to the original story, and should play a part; from the placement of the camera to the clothes an actor wears, everything is visual information being conveyed on the screen, and the best directors keep this in mind when they make decisions and guide their teams.
Good directors motivate actors to make choices that best tell where the character is in the life of the story.
Good directors work with cinematographers to light the scenes and place the cameras in ways that creatively emphasize important story points.
Good directors let the costume and production designers communicate how the world around the characters impacts them and their choices.
If you want to learn more about directing and filmmaking from the masters themselves, have a look at our article Best Masterclasses For Filmmakers and Directors Online.
Also, if you’re an aspiring director yourself, you can read a lot of advice in our article How To Be A Good Director.
The role of editing in the direction of a film.
There is another element to directing a film I haven’t touched on yet; the editing. Editing is the act of putting together the various shots of the film into one continuous flow that makes up the movie.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard tossed around by various industry insiders that I’d like to paraphrase: “You write the movie three times; when you write the script, when you shoot the film, and when you cut it together.”
That’s why I’m including editing as part of the directing ingredient of a film; because the choices a director and editor make together on when to use (or not use) each shot, reaction, sound effect or line of dialogue are some of the most important a director ever makes.
Good directors are often good editors themselves, but the best directors allow others to edit their movie. That’s because the editor is the first audience for the footage that the director and their team created.
By letting the editor take a stab at putting the footage together, the director will often get a new perspective on their own work, which can help them see what they’ve created with fresh eyes.
The best directors will find great editors and work with them to allow the editor’s narrative voice to come through, just as much or even sometimes more than their own.
The more editors and directors work together, the more they start to understand what each other likes. If the combined result resonates with audiences, then that team will want to work together again to create more great movies.
This is true of every department head a director works with on a film; the more film crews work as a team that understands each other’s strengths and weaknesses, the better they will get at working together, and they can create great work more consistently.
Directing the music and sound of a film
Besides the acting and cinematography, one of the most important choices a director must make is deciding the tone of the film.
Unless specifically dictated by the script, the director will be the guiding hand in determining the film’s tone.
Outside of the performances of the actors, the score and soundtrack of the film is the director’s main lever for manipulating the tone and emotions of the audience.
By using different songs, two different directors can direct the same scene, and one could be a somber tear-jerker while the other a hilarious darkly comedic romp.
If you don’t believe in the power that music has on the movie-going experience, just watch this video:
Read our interview with sound designer Peter Albrechsen here.
Ingredient #3: Actors that bring the story to life.
As film is a human art form, no film would be complete without at least some type of human story for us to relate to.
One of the most successful production companies on Earth is known for doing exactly that, but with non-human characters; I’m talking about Pixar of course!
It doesn’t matter if we’re watching a Pixar movie about anthropomorphized bugs, toys, fish, or feelings, Pixar has a way of honing in on the human story behind every frame of their movies.
It’s impossible for Pixar to do this without great performers behind the cameras. For instance, how would we be able to feel for Woody in Toy Story without the heartstring-pulling vocals of Tom Hanks? Or the lovable ditzy-ness of Ellen playing Dory in Finding Nemo? Or what about the lovable cooing and beeping in the little robots Wall-E and Eva in Wall-E?
What makes good acting?
It might seem ironic to start any discussion on acting by referencing digitally created characters, but the power of performance is vital to our experience as viewers. How are we supposed to invest in a story if we don’t feel something?
It’s through great acting that we empathize and relate to the characters on screen. Even though we know it’s all pretend, great actors make us believe that they are real people with real problems in a real world outside our own. If something is important to a character, it should feel important to us. That’s what great performances do.
Where bad actors make the lines they read feel cheesy or cringey, great actors make their lines sound inspired, impromptu, and natural. Where a bad actor struggles to communicate how they are feeling even when the lines are written for them, great actors can communicate an entire backstory with just one look.
The best actors work well together and feed off one another; when a scene comes alive, it’s because all the actors in that scene are living and breathing the world of that film and gaining momentum from each other’s energy – which is why casting is so important.
The role of casting in the quality of acting.
Casting is the process of finding the actors to play all of the parts in a movie. Overseen by casting directors, casting is a vital part of getting a movie made, and an even more important aspect of whether or not the overall acting of a film will feel good or bad.
When you think of casting for Hollywood movies, you probably think about leading roles and leading actors like Leonardo Dicaprio, Viola Davis, Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington (like how great would a movie be between those four?!)
However, casting directors have to work with the director to cast everyone from the leads and supporting roles all the way down to the background talent in the background of every shot.
Believe it or not, a ton of what we consider good or bad acting depends entirely on whether or not an actor was properly cast for the role.
This isn’t to say that there’s a right way or a wrong way to cast a film; rather, the role of a casting director is to find talented (and / or popular) actors that embody the essence of a particular character.
On top of that, the ensemble of a film can make or break the success of a film. If the cast works well together, it will elevate the entire film; but if even one or two miscast actors don’t seem to fit into the world of the movie or the characters they are playing, it can make the whole film feel somewhat awkward or off-balance.
Great movies feel immersive; they feel like their own world, where the stakes, story, and everyone involved in it feel real to us. Even imagined characters need to feel real in their own world for us to imagine them generously. Which is why it is important for great acting to create that sense of reality, even inside the fantastical.
Great actors make us feel what they are feeling and identify as them – even if they look different from us or live lives that are radically different from our own. To understand each other is to understand ourselves, right?
When we identify with their on-screen trials and tribulations, we are called to a deeper level of understanding of the human condition – which is what makes great acting feel so magical, and makes a good movie even better.
Ingredient #4: Cinematography that awes and inspires.
Cinematography is the art of photographing moving pictures. It’s what we refer to as “the shots” of a movie.
The cinematographer, or director of photography, is the person in charge of the visual look and feel of the film and works closely with the director to tell the story on the page in the style of the director’s vision. They can operate the camera themselves, but don’t always do so.
What makes great cinematography?
The best directors and cinematographers work closely together to carefully craft each frame of the film, and by doing so, use each frame to convey meaning and importance to the overall story.
Everything from the angle of the camera to the subject matter being captured therein should convey something important about the story, characters, and meaning behind everything happening on screen.
In this way, great cinematography is both visually stunning and narratively important.
Think about a shot of a boy running up the side of a hill at dawn, taken from far away so the boy looks diminished compared to the vast world around him. So much is being conveyed – his sense of adventure, his role in the world around him, the vastness of everything he doesn’t understand, even the new-morning light can be a visual metaphor for his whole life ahead.
It’s not just a pretty picture – it’s a work of art in itself, telling its own story in a single frame.
The role of the camera in cinematography.
When we talk about cinematography, we’re talking about the placement of the camera and the lighting of the scene as well as the lens the camera is using and even the camera itself. All of these elements come together to create the visual look of the film, and different choices in each area can convey different things.
For example, a popular cinematography trick to do nowadays is to shoot scenes in different aspect ratios, like 4:3, to convey a “period” style look that was exemplified by the VHS video cameras of the 80s and early 90s. This dates the footage and creates an interesting visual motif.
Camera choices can be much more subtle, however. Choices like filters and focal lengths are all decisions that cinematographers make to change the look and feel between each shot. Even the camera you choose can determine certain things about the look and feel of a scene.
All aspiring cinematographers love to work with cinema-cameras; but what if a cinematographer and director choose to film their entire feature film on an iPhone?
That doesn’t necessarily mean the film will be bad – instead, it could be a creative choice to convey a certain feeling throughout the telling of the story, like if it was a film about a bunch of poor kids who escape their day to day struggles by skateboarding and posting skate videos on TikTok.
Is that a good story idea? Who knows – but the choice to tell it all via iPhone is creative and supports the story.
In the case of focal lengths, a cinematographer might use a 50 millimeter lens for a close-up on an actor for an emotionally vulnerable moment, then switch to an 18 millimeter wide-angle lens for a heated exchange to distort the faces of the various characters yelling over each other.
The point I’m trying to make here without getting too deep into cinematography theory is that good cinematography is motivated by story, and the best cinematography comes from choices that support and better tell the story while also looking visually stunning and awe-inspiring.
Not every shot has to be a masterpiece – but they must help tell the story of the film.
Ingredient #5: Production value that supports the scope of the film.
Movies are intended to transport you to another world; as a visual and auditory medium, all the elements of a film should work together to immerse the audience in the story. Which is why the overall production value of the film should support the scope of the story.
Production value is the combination of all the elements that create the world of a movie coming together. A film with high-quality production value has good props; great sets; excellent visual effects and camera work and amazing sound design, all coming together to create a cohesive movie-going experience.
Speaking of sound, sound design is one of the most important elements of production value, that if a great movie does well, you shouldn’t even notice. Great sound design embellishes and immerses the viewer in the world of the film.
Think about big sweeping epics like Star Wars or the Marvel cinematic universe franchise – so much of the feeling and world-building of those films are all in the sound design.
It’s not just laser, droid, and Wookie sounds that make great sound design – even the quietest dramas have to have an excellent sound design team in order to feel full and lived in, and the masters of cinema know this.
One of my favorite examples is the understated sound design of No Country for Old Men and how it builds anticipation and dread with every little moment.
Plus, nothing, and I do mean nothing, ruins a movie than bad sound design – it’s one of the hardest things to get right when creating your first films as a first-time filmmaker.
If you don’t believe me, try attending a high school student film festival and not notice the sound design. I’m not saying they are all bad – but you’ll definitely notice the ones that are.
What makes good production value?
We just mentioned filming a feature film on an iphone. If you’re filming an indie-feature about skateboarding teens, filming with iPhone quality footage is an interesting and informed creative choice that affects the overall production value.
If you tried to film something more like, say, Avengers Endgame on an iphone, the production value of the footage captured wouldn’t go nearly as far.
That’s not to say you couldn’t film a superhero movie with an iPhone, or that it wouldn’t be entertaining; just that the production value might not fit the scope of the story being told.
It’s important to distinguish that overall production value is not necessarily tied to budget. For example, a film that’s made for $30 million could have a much worse overall production value than a film that’s been made for $5 million.
This is because production value is the end result of everyone working together to create a single, cohesive story.
Remember earlier when I explained how the job of the director is to work with and guide the department heads to all come together under a unified vision? That synergy of unified vision is the production value.
Good production value or bad production value depends entirely on how well everyone worked together to bring the story of the film to life. The better everyone works together, the more satisfying, immersive, and “good” the movie should feel.
How production value affects the overall quality of a film.
Think about a movie that looks amazing; the cast is full of talented actors, and the visual effects are stunning. There’s just one problem – none of the dialogue lines up with the actor’s mouths and it looks like everyone is talking with a five second delay. Watching this movie would drive you insane – and ruin an otherwise beautiful, perfectly fine movie.
Now imagine you’ve got heartthrobs Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in their third movie together. After keeping them separated the whole film, trying to “requite” their unrequited love and get back to each other in the middle of an intergalactic space-war, the time has come for the lovers to finally be reunited.
There’s just one problem – the VFX budget looks like it ran out at the end, and you can tell the set design is clearly a greenscreen, like someone just photoshopped a desktop screensaver behind them. Talk about production value gone wrong!
There are so many movies that you can probably think of off the top of your head that missed the mark in more than a few areas and still somehow got distributed to the public.
That’s because at a certain point, Hollywood studios just have to make as much money back on their investments as they possibly can, even if something (or multiple somethings) went wrong and the movie they set out to make got lost along the way.
This could be because of budgetary reasons or it could be because of creative ones, but if the problems behind why a film just doesn’t work are more with the making of the film itself as opposed to the film’s story, it’s pretty much a production value issue.
Which is why it is so important for every department to be working in service of the story they are telling – and the tone of the story as well.
Now you know how to create a great film!
That’s it! That’s all the ingredients you need to bake up a good movie. What are you waiting for? Go get cooking!
Just kidding – obviously there’s so much more that goes into the creation of a film. So many choices on so many levels – we barely broke the surface of everything that goes into making a movie, let alone a good one.
Rather, the larger point I want you to take away from what makes a great movie is how everything works together to service a single story so that it can be easily understood while also satisfactory to watch for the audience.
This starts with the script, but doesn’t end with it; a good movie takes a good story and uses good acting, good cinematography, and good overall production value and unites it all with good directing.
When done the right way, it looks easy and impossible, and the sum seems bigger than the individual parts. It goes unnoticed and then all at once, becomes overwhelmingly impressive. It’s the magic that drew you to the movies in the first place.
Ultimately, a good movie makes you feel; good comedies make you laugh, good dramas make you cry, good thrillers make you tense and good horror makes you scared and good action adventures get you fired up!
Without feeling, a movie is just a string of moving pictures; with feeling, a movie means much more – it matters.
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.