Selling a balancing act.
What does "commercial" mean in a film making context? The word is strange, since enjoyability is subjective, and there are examples of supposed "non-commercial" movie that have done well, while there are a thousand more examples of supposed "commercial" movie that haven't. "Commercial" is an odd word to try and pin-down.
The direct definition, at least in the terms we're talking about here, is a product that is created with the sole purpose of making profit. In that sense, in a way at least, most every movie is commercial. But that's not strictly what people mean, is it? When people talk about a commercial property they don't mean something that has been made solely to generate a cost, they mean something that has been made with the best possible chance of generating a cost.
In terms of genre, and specifically horror, then, Ari Aster's new movie Midsommar would likely not be considered a "commercial" property, while the upcoming Child's Play remake (ugh) or the new instalment of The Conjuring Universe, Annabelle Comes Home, would be.
Looking at the differences in the styles of these properties we can sort of begin to see what "commercial" means to studios and movie producers. It means mass appeal. It means genre tropes. It means predictable and cliched. It means jump scares. It means "safe". Not only are the two examples of more commercially viable movies built on already existing and proven to be successful properties, they also feature well worn aesthetic, stylistic and structural beats. Darkness, kills, spooky yet iconic villains. They also both happen to be about killer dolls, but that's not really relevant to the discussion and just sort of a weird coincidence.
Compared to Aster's Midsommar, then, which doesn't follow a normal structure in the strictest sense, plays with tropes but in an unusual way, takes its time building dread rather than bathing in jump scares, doesn't feature an overly iconic or clear villain, is set almost entirely in bright sunlight, and never really feels all that "safe" in the choices it makes, we can see that commercialism as a concept is actually limiting.
For me, at least, making something that hits the right "commercial" beats is less interesting than making something that connects.
Regardless of what you think of the examples given above, I don't think you can argue with the analysis. You might think Midsommar is wank. You might find it overlong, boring, predictable and incredibly pretentious. And you're not wrong. But you can't deny it at least does something different to what's on offer elsewhere.
When I write, my main focus has always been on what I want to see. I've never really done much thinking about an audience, beyond what the best way to make them feel super uncomfortable is. This has been raised as something of an issue in terms of distribution, so more recently I've been trying to look at ways to take the ideas I love, the movies I connect with and the stories I want to tell, and give them a more "commercial" spin.
How do I successfully achieve what I want to achieve while also looking for mass-appeal? It's a question that I struggle with. Every time I put pen to paper (or... finger to keyboard as it mostly tends to be these days), I quickly find that I've veered off the track. It stopped being "commercial" about 250 words ago, and I've not even finished the second act!
It's a challenge, and one that I'm determined to meet in some way. But it's also something I'm not entirely used to. I'm sure I'll strike that balance eventually, between the interesting and the appealing, but as it currently stands I'm at a loss as to where to go with it.
At the risk of sounding like a pretentious douche, I like to tell stories that mean something to me. I'm not necessarily all that interested in getting acclaim or reaching a massive audience. Maybe I should be, and don't get me wrong, those things would be super nice, but it just isn't what I tend to focus on. I have things I want to say and I want to say them. Commercialism doesn't really factor in to the process. I'm trying to make it a part. I'm trying to rewire my brain. I need to sell these things to people in the end, so of course I need to consider how I plan to do that.
I guess I'm just not much of a salesman. Not really. I'd rather let the work do the talking (there's that pretentious douche again). Striking the balance, at the moment at least, remains a mystery.