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7 Things Filmmakers Can Learn from Rocky

Michael Maher

The story of Rocky – the movie franchise, not the character – is a great source of inspiration and wisdom for anyone interested in making films.

Top Image: Sylvester Stallone on the set of Rocky IV via MGM

Creed, the seventh installment of the Rocky franchise, is about to hit theaters. Let’s take a look at how one small film used new technology, great music, and incredible editing to create one of the biggest film franchises ever. Here are 7 things filmmakers can learn from the Rocky franchise.


I. Montage and Propaganda Are Powerful

Rocky: Montage and Propaganda are Powerful
Image via MGM

The Rocky films had a huge impact on making the modern movie montage. The first film set the tone with an iconic training montage that went on to be replicated in countless films, including nearly every sports film made since. Rocky went on to win an Oscar for Best Film Editing.

Outside of the first film, Rocky IV is known for an incredible amount of montages. Heck, 31.9% of the entire film is just montages, and the movie is still awesome. The Rocky IV montages tie closely to the original Soviet Montage Theory.

Sergei Eisenstein first developed the intellectual montage in Battleship Potemkin. The film was a propaganda piece designed to influence an audience with a tertium quid, or a third thing people associated with two elements. In the infamous Odessa Steps sequence, the audience would see soldiers firing among a crowd and immediately feel helpless and oppressed. That feeling of oppression is the tertium quid.

Rocky IV is an incredible piece of American propaganda. The film features Rocky training in a cabin out in the wilderness, while his opponent trains in high-tech facilities with a whole team of scientists. Those two images give American audiences a feeling of perseverance no matter the opponent, a tertium quid of strength.

You may think that a montage is cheating, but it really is a great technique to use. You can control your audience’s emotions with a powerful montage. It’s all in the edit.


II. Embrace New Technology

Rocky: Embrace New Technology
Image via NPR

When Rocky director John G. Avildsen wanted to film part of the original training montage, he wanted the audience to move with Rocky. To accomplish this, Avildsen turned to camera operator Garret Brown. Brown had recently created a new camera stabilizer, which he called the Steadicam.

Garret Brown had recently used the device on two other films, and the footage had absolutely blown everyone away. Rocky was one of the first films to use the Steadicam, which has since become a standard piece of filmmaking equipment.


III. Budget Size Does Not Determine Success

Rocky: Budget Size Does Not Determine Success
Image via United Artists

The production of Rocky is as much of an underdog story as the film itself. Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor with a few background character roles under his belt. While broke and unable to find work, Stallone started writing a script in a spiral notebook. He had the first draft of Rocky completed in only three days.

The script did find plenty of interested buyers, but no studio was willing to let Stallone star in the film as well. Eventually, Stallone would strike a deal with United Artists. The deal let him star in the film, but the films production budget was cut dramatically. The entire budget was just under $1,000,000.

Stallone took the deal, and the movie was shot in 28 days. After its release, Rocky went on to be the highest grossing film of the year — pulling in $225 Million worldwide.


IV. Think on Your Toes – Don’t Be Afraid to Make Changes

Rocky: Think on Your Toes - Don't Be Afraid to Make Changes
Image via MGM

Rocky’s limited budget required the crew and Stallone to work as quickly as possible, which would eventually lead to some minor production issues. For example, the team making the banners for the arena reversed the color of Rocky’s shorts. With the budget they had, there was no way to either fix the banner or even change the fighter’s actual shorts. In a quick moment, Stallone simply added a line to the script making fun of the situation. He did the same when Rocky’s robe was delivered oversized.

The film also called for a date scene between Rocky and Adrian. Originally they would go to a popular rink and ice skate. The sequence called for hundreds of extras — which the production couldn’t afford. Instead, the crew filmed an empty rink and added a scene where Rocky bribes a janitor to let them skate after hours.

The point is, something unexpected will happen. Don’t try to fix everything, not every problem needs to be solved. A quick fix is often better than losing days or weeks trying to fix a minor issue.


V. You Will Make a Bad Film – Go Down, But Not Out

Rocky: You Will Make a Bad Film - Go Down, But Not Out
Image via United Artists

Rocky V Enough said.

Honestly though, it’s bound to happen. There may be a film you are completely satisfied with, but the audiences don’t like. There are also plenty of times the whole film will be a disaster, and you’ll have to salvage whatever possible. Either way, just finish a project and move on. Every film offers something to learn from. Once this happens, you will then know how not to make a film. 


VI. Music Sets the Tone

Rocky: Music Sets the Tone
Image via United Artists

Admit it. You saw this picture and the song already started playing in the back of your head. Bum-Bum-Buuuuum Bum-Bum-Buuuum.

Music is a huge part of storytelling, and that should be obvious with this whole franchise. From the original compositions of Bill Conti to the popular radio hits, the Rocky films have always embraced music for montage.

Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now is an iconic song in its own right. It has not only become synonymous with Rocky, but with the story of every underdog. The film’s score was a massive hit, and Gonna Fly Now charted on the Billboard 200 for five weeks. Gonna Fly Now earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Original Song.

This wasn’t even the only time a song from a Rocky film was nominated. Eye of the Tiger by Survivor also an Oscar Nomination for Best Original Song for Rocky III.

Shameless Plug: Did you know this is also a production music site? Just sayin’…


VII. Your Work Will Leave a Lasting Impact on Someone

Rocky: Your Work Will Leave a Lasting Impact on Someone
Image via MGM

It’s been 39 years since the first Rocky hit theaters. Sylvester Stallone had imagined that Rocky Balboa would be the final chapter in the Rocky saga. Then he was approached by up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler.

Coogler had grown up on the Rocky franchise, his father watched the films repeatedly. His father would even play scenes from the movies,

The scene he would always show was where Rocky is in the chapel of the hospital and Burgess Meredith, in the character of Mickey, comes in and tries to motivate him to get him out of whatever funk he’s in. Even as Rocky’s bent over, his wife is in a coma and he just had a son he hasn’t even held yet. Rocky doesn’t say anything in the scene. He just sits there and listens. Burgess Meredith goes through the gamut of emotions from frustration, to yelling. It’s a beautiful, beautiful scene, and that’s the scene that my dad always would play to get me fired up. – Deadline

Coogler turned to Stallone and asked him about continuing the franchise. The upcoming Creed takes the series in a whole new direction, as the aging Rocky takes on the role of mentor and trainer to the son of Apollo Creed.

The true legacy of any artist’s work is the impact it makes. Most of the time, the creator will never even know that they’ve changed someone’s life. That is part of being an artist. Creating work for others, with the hope that what you make will live on. In some way, each project you work on will be a memory for someone. That’s why you should make the best of every project. You never know how you will truly impact others.

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