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What Makes a Four-Quadrant Film? 10 Essential Elements

by ScreenCraft Staff on November 22, 2013

Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Mrs. Doubtfire, Avatar, Independence Day, Despicable Me, Super 8, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Superman, Jurassic Park, The Santa Clause, The Blind Side, Enchanted, The Hunger Games, Kindergarten Cop.

All of those films fall under a creative executive's definition of a four-quadrant family film. When some people think of family films, they're likely to conjure up G-rated fare like Bambi.  But family entertainment has evolved tremendously in the last several decades. Along with societal changes have come major changes in what people see today as “family entertainment” and what Hollywood sees as a “four-quadrant” movie, meaning one that appeals equally to all four demographics: young and old, male and female.

And because, understandably,  those films continue to be by far the most profitable and stable, Hollywood is chasing them now more than ever. A four-quadrant hit is what every executive dreams about every time their head hits the pillow. They are the Holy Grail, the sweet spot and the homecoming queen all wrapped into one.

** If you have written a feature screenplay with four-quadrant appeal, be sure to consider ScreenCraft's annual Family-Friendly Screenplay Contest with major studio executives as judges!

So, for us writers, just what does today’s four-quadrant film look like? Being a lifelong fan of such movies, and through years of experience as both a writer and middle grades teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing this question. So briefly, and with the caveat that there are always exceptions, I modestly present this list of the ten key elements of a four-quadrant film:

  • A “high-concept” premise. Whether it’s a superhero’s adventures, an amazing fantasy, a sci-fi quest , or a compelling true story, four-quadrant films live in this realm: an irresistible story idea that can be grasped in one or two sentences.
  • Heroes and villains. That doesn’t mean heroes are flawless or villains can’t have a sad backstory, but concrete-thinking kids struggle with too much complexity in characters. You have to find the balance.
  • Plots filled with EMOTION, ACTION and DANGER; and yes, that probably means violence and/or death. The trick is to find the right edge without crossing into inappropriate territory. And thus comes another potential shocker…
  • Chuck the G-rating! Unless it’s animated, nothing is perceived as more boring to the moviegoing kid than a G-rated movie. The film must have enough edge to go beyond, but again, not too far.
  • Theme. Kids and adults both like a story that says something and has genuine resonance, whether they can articulate it or not.
  • Humor.  Comic moments always enhance enjoyment, no matter how serious the story might be.
  • Kids in lead or major supporting roles. Including kids of course targets the "young" quadrant but also adds new levels of dramatic tension and/or comedy for adults. And let’s dump that “child protagonists can’t carry a film” idea for good! Harry Potter, E.T., Super 8, The Wizard of Oz and more say otherwise.
  • A-List stars in some roles.  Stars still open movies, particularly with the right packaging.
  • Hints of romance. Except for the rare, truly committed misanthrope, everyone responds to a well-done love story; it's universal. Even 9-10 year-olds (particularly girls) enjoy a bit of titillation here, and the adult quadrants love it, but again, striking the right balance re tone and content is important. Stop at innuendo and kissing.
  • "Big-budget” not necessary; in fact, five of the above films were made for $50 million or less, and three of those for under $30 million.

From guest blogger Lee Tidball.

Lee Tidball is an optioned, represented screenwriter, novelist, and former middle-grades (4th-6th) teacher who has written numerous screenplays, TV pilots, and novels in the 4-quadrant, family genre.  Many have won various awards and recognitions in screenwriting and novel-writing competitions for family films and YA novels.  You can find out more about Lee at his website, Mr. T's Movie Club ( where he regularly reviews 4-quadrant family films, his Amazon author page

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