Tuesday, 19 July 2016

ENGAGING WITH THE AUDIENCE

Just a short post as I've started work on another script today when really I should finish the last one I was working on. 

But that is the nature of ideas. You can never know where they're going to come from, or when.

Okay, so I was going to post about something different, as the title of this post suggests - but I'll touch on creating ideas quickly....

Last night I watched an awesome episode of The Black List. 

So what I did was write down the episode beats in their generic form. When I had the episode broken down in general terms I worked with that as a basis to create another story.  

In the episode there was a clever reversal - where a 'bad guy' was taken into custody and then gives information in exchange for immunity. 

But it turns out that was just a play - and it was mis-information that was given, sending the police on a wild goose hunt. 

I thought that beat - allowing yourself to be captured so you can deceive the enemy - was a great idea. So I flipped it - and asked what if that character was the 'good guy', the person we're supposed to get behind? 

From there I've spent the last 24 hours outlining an entire new film which I'm really pleased with. 

Why do I tell you this? 

I thought I'd share the technique of coming up with a new idea. 

Take an episode of your favourite TV show. Write down the beats of that episode in its generic form - i.e - instead of writing the character's name - write their function. So in this instance instead of Elizabeth Keen - the character's name - I wrote - FBI agent. Etc... etc... 

I found this process a really good jumping off point to create a fresh story, yet doing it in a familiar way. Something that the industry badly wants. 

Familiarly unique. 

That's what hollywood wants. 

Okay... moving on...

Engaging your audience.

I just watched the first 27 minutes of the cop thriller film - 999 or Triple Nine.

It stars some great actors. In fact I love all the actors in this film, but at the 27 minute mark something happened and I had to stop watching. 

There will be spoilers from here on - so be warned.

Let's first look at the budget of this film - it cost $20m to make and made $20m at the box office. That's a huge loss. 

Why is that a loss? Because of that $20m budget the producers would be lucky if they got $10m back from the cinemas. Then on top of that - the $20m budget doesn't include P&A - prints and advertising - or publicity and advertising.

Typically if a film cost $20m to make, a minimum advertising campaign would be $10m. And that is absolute rock bottom. 

Take a film like Blair Witch. It cost $15k to make. Was bought for $1m. Then had $19m in advertising before it went to cinemas. 

So a $15k film suddenly become a $20m film. 

Same thing happened with the film UNFRIENDED. It was shot on $1m but had at least a $20m marketing budget. 

So it's safe to say that 999 made a huge loss. In the tens of millions of dollars. That makes it a financial flop.

WHY IS THAT?

Watching the first 27 minutes of the film - there is not one single empathy beat for any of the characters. 

We watch a bunch of crooked cops perform a bank heist, then deliver the safety deposit box to the wife of a Russian mafia king pin, who demands that they perform another job or they won't get paid for the first job. 

There is not one moment where any of the characters do anything that makes me like them. Some of them even have negative empathy beats. 

Casey Affleck's character is cold. When he exits the car for his first day at the new precinct, it's his son that says I love you dad. And how does Casey reply? He fist bumps his kid. 

That's it? Your kid just said I love you - and you fist bump him? There's no empathy in that. That's an ice cold reclusive father. 

So you have an ensemble film (ensemble films 99% of the time never make money) - where none of the characters are likeable. 

That's mistake #1 there. 

And it's a huuuuge mistake.

Had the producers and the writer gone about creating empathy for the characters then the audience would have been much more connected to the story. 

Remember - EMPATHY ENGAGES YOUR AUDIENCE.

Now - what's the next HUGE thing that engages your audience? 

INNER JOURNEY.

What is an inner journey? I hear you ask?

It's simple. It's when your character has a FLAW - something wrong with their personality that stops them from being their absolute best. Something that holds them back in life. 

Almost none of the characters in 999 have a flaw.

Paul Aaron's character does - he doesn't think things through. He makes a mistake during the robbery that causes a problem - but you know what? - there is no significant consequence to the problem. 

When you have a flaw that doesn't cause any significant consequence - that flaw isn't really a flaw. Not in the story sense. 

For a flaw to be a real story flaw it has to really hold you back from achieving your goals. Now had his flaw meant that the robbery was completely botched - then it would count. But the robbery goes off - pretty much fine. They get what they came for and it's delivered and no one is hurt or caught. So, to that end - it's not a proper story flaw.

So here you have a film where you have an ensemble cast of characters who don't have any significant story flaws. 

What's the next main thing that engages your audience?

CLEARLY DEFINED GOALS.

Once they've done the heist there is no goal -- until -- the Mafia lady says you have to do another job or no payment. That's a new goal - but the problem with that is do we care enough about that goal?

The answer is no.

GOALS that are motivated by making money illegally in a nefarious way aren't goals that your audience typically revere. So, to that end, you're not going to engage your audience. 

Take the goal in PRISONERS. Get his daughter back alive at any cost.

That is a goal that any human can get behind. Why? Because it's a primal goal. 
We all have loved ones we would kill for. As parents it's in our DNA to kill to protect your offspring. 

Going back to the goal in 999 - their motivation is - do the second job to get paid money. Now that goal COULD work if they needed the money for a noble cause. 

But there is nothing noble about any of the character's motivations. 

OKAY... moving on... what's the next thing that engages your audience?

STAKES!

What will happen if your characters don't achieve their goal.

Looking at PRISONERS again - the stakes are his daughter will die if he doesn't find her. That's some pretty damn big stakes right there. 

Look at 999 - what would happen if they walked away from the second job? 

Well, we're told that they would be 'hurt' by the mafia. 

But they're cops. Dirty cops, and you haven't given me any reason to care for them, so, you make your bed you lie in it. 

What's the final thing that engages your audience?

URGENCY.

In PRISONERS - they know that if the daughter is not found within 72 hours - the chances of her turning up again becomes almost nil. She can only survive for that long without food and water. Any more and she's dead.

The ticking time clock keeps your audience engaged. 

In 999 - there is no urgency. None that I could discern from the first 27 minutes that is. Perhaps urgency comes into it later - but if so, that's a screenwriting mistake #101 - you should always have urgency in every one of your scenes. Especially in the first 30 pages. 

Urgency doesn't have to be dooms day is coming urgency - it can be as simple as being late for work, or a meeting...

There you go folks... 

GOALS
STAKES
URGENCY
FLAW/INNER JOURNEY
EMPATHY

Five key ways to engage your audience.

Don't make the same mistake that 999 did.