Exposed: How Low Stakes in Movies are Killing Hollywood

Hollywood sign on fire

Key Takeaways:

  • The Importance of High Stakes: In storytelling, the stakes represent what characters stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal. High stakes, such as the fate of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, make audiences care deeply about the characters and their journeys.
  • The Problem with Low Stakes: Many modern movies suffer from low stakes, where protagonists face superficial challenges and lack inner flaws.
  • The Solution: To make films better, Hollywood needs to reintroduce high stakes in movies. Films like Toy Story, Taken, and The Dark Knight are examples of great high-stakes storytelling!

In today’s world, more and more studio movies feature stories that have low stakes for the main characters.

The result of low stakes in a movie is a relatively flat character arc and a bland and predictable narrative – the combination of which is driving audiences away. Let’s look at why this is happening in modern Hollywood.

If you’d prefer to watch my thoughts rather than read them, check out my YouTube video below!

Stakes: What Are They?

Stakes in a novel or story are the possible outcomes for the characters should they fall short of their objectives. It’s what they stand to lose and what’s at risk for them in the story.

Because there is a lot on the line, high stakes compel us to care about the characters’ adventures.

Think of these examples – if Frodo’s only task in The Lord of the Rings was to deliver a letter to a neighbor rather than a ring that held the key to Middle Earth’s destruction, would you still care about him as much?

Or if Harry Potter was just taking part in a school spelling bee rather than facing the most powerful wizard of all time, would you still care about his story as much?

a magician in a movie with stakes

The Problem with Low Stakes

The problem with many movies these days is that the stakes just aren’t high enough. Sure, the protagonist might face some challenges or obstacles, but they tend to be increasingly superficial or purely external problems. 

Thanks to a lack of creativity, many of today’s protagonists are written as relatively perfect people. They are smart, capable, skilled, and don’t require training, guidance or wisdom to achieve their goals.

On the contrary, it’s these modern heroes who impart wisdom and guidance to the classical mentors. The young are increasingly teaching the old and consistently show that it should be the more experienced and learned who should be the students.

Not only that but heroes of today are increasingly shown as having no inner flaws. No flaws mean no inner battles, and that means no real stakes.

The outcome of the story is telegraphed from the first moment, and all that’s left is for everyone to acknowledge the superiority of the hero so they can shine. In other words, the outcome is just a formality, and hence doesn’t really matter in terms of the story. 

But it begs the question – if the outcome doesn’t really matter, why should we (the audience) care?

hollywood walk with stars

Why is Hollywood Not Raising the Stakes?

In a word, it all comes down to MONEY. See, studio movies – especially theatrical releases – cost a lot of money to make. 

A typical theatrical release has a budget that includes three main stages:

  • Preproduction – including getting the script written (and rewritten), casting actors, assembling a crew, securing locations, getting the costumes, props, and sets made, and all the other elements required for filming are organized
  • Production – where the movie is actually filmed.
  • Post-production – where the film is edited, visual and sound effects are added, music is incorporated, the sound is finalized, color and grading are added, and other elements are worked on to make a final product. 

But there are also marketing and promotional costs. Legal fees and clearances. As well as the money required to pay the theatres to carry the film. Investors to pay back. And a host of other costs and fees associated with a typical studio release.

With so much overhead involved, fewer and fewer executives are willing to take the risk of the film not making money at the box office. So, they tend to insert themselves into the creative process to ensure that the movie will make money.

But, I hear you ask, how can they do that if they’re not the ones actually making the film? If they’re not the filmmakers and writers? You know, the storytellers.

And there’s the problem. When people who aren’t storytellers try to dictate how a story needs to be told, it will inevitably end in disaster. They will opt for dipping into the well of past hits rather than taking a chance to create a new hit.

Why? Because it’s easier to remake or reboot a hit film, or make another sequel, or make a lazy derivative of a popular book or comic or video game, than it is to make something original!

Originality doesn’t have a track record. And these executives are all about a track record.

And that means reining in the actual creatives attached to the film and instead rehashing tired plot lines and predictable character arcs we’ve all seen a million times. Because it’s safe.

Not taking a risk in real life means they’re not taking a risk in their stories. And that’s hurting the bottom line.

In car terms, Hollywood is paying top dollar to make a Ferrari with the performance of a Yugo. Sure, it’ll get you there, and it might be flashy on the outside. But it’ll be a boring and predictable ride that has you wishing for a different car altogether.

How Movies Have Lowered the Stakes

“What If” Example: Happy Gilmore

Happy Gilmore movie poster

Remember Happy Gilmore? At its most basic, it’s a movie about a hockey player trying to win a golf tournament. If that was all there was to it, for all its laughs, it would be disappointing if he loses in the end, but not too surprising, right?

Now, if his winning means saving his grandmother’s home AND proving to himself that he’s not a failure? Well, that’s a whole different ball game! The stakes are higher, he has something to overcome externally and internally, and as a result, we’re more invested in his success.

And when he does eventually succeed, it makes the victory that much sweeter!

Now imagine if Happy was a great golfer to begin with. If he didn’t have to learn new skills, overcome his quick anger and self-conscious pride, embrace the mentorship and advice offered by Chubbs, or win back his grandmother’s house?

What if he was relatively flawless, and his only limitations were that he had no money to enter the tournament or simply that the people around him didn’t acknowledge his greatness from the start?

What if he won every smaller tournament along the way, and in particular beat Shooter in every single interaction leading up to the final showdown?

Would his winning the tournament have any weight to it at all? Or would it feel like a bland paint-by-numbers with a wooden hero?

That’s the problem with making the hero great from the start, and it’s a huge mistake modern Hollywood is making over and over. 

In the words of the late, great Brandon Lee,

“If the hero’s not taking some kind of a journey, then there are no stakes – and no stakes, then you don’t care if he lives or dies, wins or loses.”

Real Example: Rey in Star Wars

Rey in Star Wars

To me, Rey from Star Wars is the epitome of this modern problem. A hero who cannot fail. At anything.

Her only limitation is that she has no money when we first meet her, and she doesn’t know who her parents are. But over the course of three Star Wars movies, she demonstrates proficiency at every single thing she does – without any training or acquired knowledge whatsoever.

She’s a top-notch star pilot (without seemingly ever having flown anything before). She’s an expert marksman (without being shown firing a weapon before). She can use the Force (without any training at all). She’s an expert light-saber wielder (beating the most powerful Sith Lord on her very first try).

And that’s just in the first movie!

Over the next two films, she doesn’t lose a single fight. She learns nothing from Luke, who is a Jedi Master and should be the most powerful Jedi left in the universe. In fact, it’s she who teaches him, and thanks to her, he regains some semblance of his previous courage and greatness.

She discovers powers never before attributed to other Jedi, such as Force healing. And she single-handedly defeats the resurrected Emperor in the end. Even Luke couldn’t pull that off without Darth Vader’s help.

By the end of the series of films, she’s essentially the same person she was when the story began. She learned nothing of note from anyone else other than to simply believe in herself as if that should suffice for any obstacle (and in her case, it does).

She has no inner flaws to overcome because she has no flaws. And no, not knowing who your parents are is not a flaw of character. It’s just an unknown fact.

She has no growth as a person other than starting out powerful and ending up super-powerful.

That’s not a character arc. It’s the embodiment of fantasy wish-fulfilment, and a pretty poor one at that.

As a result, we have a hero without stakes in a story without stakes. We know she’ll win because she never, ever fails on her way to the final battle.

And all this is to say, I think it’s a shame because I like Daisy Ridley, the actress playing Rey, and I see worlds of potential for the overall story being told over the three films. But with reduced stakes, it feels infinitely weaker than the original trilogy of Star Wars films that it’s trying to emulate.

Real Example: Black Panther

Black Panther movie poster

One other way stakes are being reduced is through the over-reliance on CGI for visual effects rather than practical effects and stuntwork. For example, while I love the movie Black Panther, the climactic scene has virtually no stakes. 

Yes, it’s a fight to the death for the hero and villain alike, and in theory, it should work as the moment of highest stakes in the film. However, it comes across as a glorified cartoon thanks to the fact that both characters, and the entire environment they’re in, are computer-generated. 

Contrast this final fight with their earlier encounter, where they fight for the throne. While there are certainly CG effects inserted to enhance the scene, at its base, the sequence revolves around real people having a realistic-looking fight.

The stakes are instantly higher because our brains recognize that there’s an element of realism here. The climax, in comparison, feels so artificial because there is no realism at all.

What Can Hollywood Do to Fix This?

So, how can Hollywood raise the stakes and make the audience care about the characters again?

They need to raise the stakes!

This needs to be on an emotional, personal, or moral level. The more layers of complexity they can add to the stakes, the richer the stories will become.

RELATED: Click here to learn more about how to ‘raise the stakes’ in your own story or script!

Great Examples of High Stakes

It’s not as though modern Hollywood can’t learn from the past. There are countless examples of great films with high stakes on all levels. Here are a few of my favorites:

Toy Story

Toy Story

Consider the Pixar classic, Toy Story. The stakes don’t just revolve around the toys being lost or replaced. At its heart, the movie is about friendship, identity, and finding one’s place in the world.

These deeper, emotional stakes make us care more about Woody and Buzz’s story.


Liam Neeson

Similarly, in Taken, the stakes are more than just a father trying to find his lost daughter. The real stakes deal with overcoming personal fears, the bond of family, a ticking time clock, and the lengths a parent will go to protect their child.

That’s why we care so much about Brian Mills’ journey.

The Dark Knight

The Joker

In The Dark Knight, the conflict between Batman and the Joker is about more than good versus evil. It also deals with one man’s struggle to bring order into a world of chaos while trying to reconnect with his lost love.

For all the characters involved, it becomes a battle between light and dark within each one’s own soul. This personal conflict raises the stakes and makes the story more compelling on every level.

Final Thoughts

I believe that we need a return to high stakes in our movies – personal, moral, and emotional – that truly make the characters and their journeys matter to the audience.

Movies with high stakes draw the audience in, make us care, and keep us engaged in the story. We root for the characters, share their triumphs and defeats, and feel satisfied when they overcome their challenges – both external and internal. 

So, Hollywood, if you’re listening, it’s time to raise the stakes once again. Let’s take storytelling risks and give audiences something to really care about!

Interested in movies? Check out these helpful articles:

What Is a Plot Twist? 7 Tips to Fool Even the Sharpest Readers

Studio Indie Films vs True Indie Films: Is There A Difference?

Why Movie Audiences Still Matter! [Tips for Hollywood]

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