A Brief Guide to Losing your Audience ☛
My last piece about Buy-In – the thing that makes us want to love a movie – provoked some questions on online discussion boards. Some folk asked about my thoughts on exactly the opposite subject: they wanted to know what causes the audience to fall out of love with a movie? How do we lose our viewers? For symmetry’s sake I’ll call this ‘Buy-Out’.
While the director often deserves the glory for persuading the audience to buy-in, when it comes to alienating us from a story the culprit is more often the writer. That might sound unfair, but I can think of very few films that were so badly directed that I completely lost faith in them. It’s not that screenwriters are less able than directors, far from it: I think the writer’s job is a lot more difficult than that of the director, and there lies the problem. Part of their task is coming up with a coherent plot, consistent characters and a credible world; the audience sees these as minimum requirements. Creating a compelling and meaningful story they see as a bonus. Anyone who’s ever tried to write a screenplay will know that getting these basic requirements right is more difficult than it looks, especially if you have your eyes on writing a script which is more than just a basic, functional story. Audiences are naturally equipped with a mine-sweeping capacity to sense characters and situations that don’t ring true: if they detect a logic bomb, they’ll instantly draw back and be less prepared to trust the story they’re being told.
Since writing my previous article I saw the film, the very skillfully managed publicity campaign for which I gave as a good example of how an audience can be persuaded to buy-in before they’ve even entered the cinema. Sadly, the actual movie provides even better examples of what causes an audience to buy-out. You’ve guessed it: I’m talking about Prometheus. Like many people, I went in to see the film wanting to love it, despite the murmurings of discontent from those who had seen it before me. For the first half hour or so I remained determined to enjoy. I overlooked the fact that when the ship braved turbulence most of the clunks were coming from the dialogue. I accepted that the 3D specs would have no effect on the 2D characters. I tried to believe that the confusions were in fact deliberate mysteries that would be revealed further down the line. This was the power of buy-in, but it didn’t last.
Credibility gaps are a big cause of buy-out in any genre, even sometimes action movies. While an audience will suspend their disbelief to extraordinary lengths during the plot set-up, depending on the genre of movie, stretch credibility too far once those parameters are established and people will start laughing at you rather than with you. One critic put this perfectly in a review of Godzilla (1998), commenting that the audience are prepared to accept that radiation could cause a reptile to grow to the size of a church, but they will not accept that the US army could lose track of such a creature in Manhattan. There’s a crucial difference between asking us to suspend our disbelief and insulting our intelligence.
Shaky characterization can cause us to part ways with a movie too. Audiences can tolerate absurd bending of the laws of physics – gun clips that never empty, heroes who can jump impossible distances or cling on to moving aircraft whilst so heavily wounded that they really should be in hospital eating grapes. However, bend the laws of human behaviour more than a little and your audience will buy-out fast. In Batman Begins, when we were originally told that Rachel (Katie Holmes)had become District Attorney, despite not looking old enough to buy cigarettes, I raised an eyebrow but went with it. Later she demanded to be let through a road-block on account of being DA; when the weather-beaten old cop accepted without hesitation that she was who she said she was, I bought-out. The cop was behaving as people do not. This reveals an interesting fact about how we read stories: a coherent internal psychological world is more important to us than a coherent outer physical world.
But buy-out isn’t only caused by jumps in credibility; problems with pace and structure can also cause us to fall out of love with a film. For me there’s a good example of this in Apocalypse Now: Redux. The French plantation scene, excised from the original release version, at first fits in with the odyssey structure of the story. It’s another thematic set-piece, an obstacle that Willard has to get past. It’s a road movie, but with a river. However the romantic subplot that briefly appears in the French plantation succeeds in distracting Willard from his quest: he loses his objective. Without Willard’s grim determination to reach his goal, there’s nothing driving the film and it lies dead in the water. Luckily he regains his purpose before long, but not before viewers have looked at their watches and asked the fatal question “just where is this story going?”
Much like buy-in, buy-out isn’t necessarily permanent. After I recovered from my incredulity at the DA moment of Batman Begins, I got back into the film again and overall I enjoyed it. In that instance, little hung on the credibility gap and the film had impressed me sufficiently to make me feel a bit generous. Usually, however, once the audience have bought-out, you have to work twice as hard to get them back. You’ve cause them to lose trust in you; an audience that has bought out is no longer willing to accept the story on the terms on which you’d have them take it. Once I’d lost faith in Prometheus, I started noticing plot-holes every few minutes. Before long, I found myself actively looking for inconsistencies. The film had made an enemy of me. The result was something like this (SPOILERS ahead):
A final word of warning to screenwriters. While filling credibility gaps and defusing logic bombs is all good work, it can be distracting. You can spend a lot of time doing this sort of work, only to find that by fixing these things you’ve changed the nature of your story, perhaps even made it blander. To quote Woody Allen “We’ve worked out all the tiny details, now if we can just come up with some main points we might have something.” No one wants to see a story that makes complete sense but has nothing to say. Make your story moving and compelling enough and the hypnotic spell that is a great movie won’t release an audience until the end-roller clicks its fingers and they wake to the surprise of having to exit the cinema at all.
Edited by Dr. Sara Lodge.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
To be sent my articles as they come out, hit ‘follow’ under the photo of my happy smiling face at the top of this page.