Why we want to like a film ☛
Not long back I was working on a film which had received the sort of notes you dread: notes from someone who just doesn’t like the movie. Sadly these notes were from someone we were not at liberty to ignore. Many of his thoughts fell into the category of “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here” – things about which we could do nothing. These included negative comments about bold style choices that everyone else had liked. Questions that others were prepared to gloss over, were for him sticking points. For whatever reason, he was just not on side. Tempting to say that it was simply a matter of taste, but it demonstrated for me the crucial importance of buy-in.
What do I mean by buy-in? Essentially the moment of buy-in is the moment we get behind a film; we decide we want to like it.
Often this comes before the projectionist has even set the film rolling. Trailers, posters and other forms of pre-publicity can get us to want to see a big event movie like Avatar, if only for fear of not being part of a conversation. If done really well, however, publicity can persuade us not only to see the film, but to want to love it too; and that’s worth more than gold (and unobtainium). Right now the build up that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has got a lot of people waiting with baited breath to see Scott’s return to the Alien franchise: they badly want it to be good. Stars too can cause us to buy-in: whether it be seeing a well-loved supporting actor given their first lead role or an old-timer returning to the screen after a long absence, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler; getting behind them means we get behind the film. Maybe we just love George Clooney and want to believe that he’s picked another winner.
But I’m more interested in the effect of buy-in within the film itself. If you’ve come to the cinema with neutral expectations – you think it will probably be worth the time and the ticket price, but you’re not expecting it to rock your world – then the film doesn’t have long to get you to buy-in. Just as Hollywood producers will often only read the first 10 pages of a script, an audience will often use the opening to decide whether they’re likely to enjoy the hour and a half that follows. This is one reason why movies are often front-loaded with goodness.
Getting the audience to buy-in quickly is an important job for the director. Sometimes this is done with a long and impressive developmental shot, as with Touch of Evil or The Player (here are some thoughts I had earlier on that subject). The Bond movies do this with their pre-title action sequence. This often has little or no bearing on the story; instead it assures us that what follows will have style, wit and action: hold on to your hats, folks! The greatest buy-in opening I can remember was in a film I saw on a whim at a pre-release screening. I hadn’t checked out the name of the director or the cast and had little sense of what the movie was about – no expectations. The film started with a deep dissonant chord played against a black screen, then an image of an arid hillside appeared as the chord grew in volume and intensity. The director had got my attention. There followed about 14 minutes of mysterious and compelling drama before we reached the first line of dialogue. Masterful visual storytelling – whoever directed this, they’d clearly done it before. They had me hooked, they could have taken me pretty much anywhere. The director was P.T. Anderson and the film was There Will Be Blood. So often it’s bold, confident directorial statements that persuade us to put ourselves in the hands of the filmmaker.
Good writing can get us to buy-in too. It could be the playful wit of the first scene in the ship in Serenity, where Joss Whedon convinced me very quickly to like his characters and get behind them. Aaron Sorkin had me hooked straight away by the initial exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend in The Social Network. (Interestingly both these scenes are run in continuous shots, the director getting in on the act.) But the writer’s contribution to buy-in doesn’t have to be dialogue-based – a film that opens with a beautifully inventive heist, for example, would convince its audience that here are characters who are on the top of their game and a storyteller who really knows their business.
Even title sequences can help get the audience on side. The animated sequence in Catch Me if You Can was smart and stylish, and I was better disposed to the film after seeing it than I had been beforehand. Se7en’s titles beat my head against the pavement and the film then found that it had my complete attention. Even the simple use of Windsor font, white on black to a trad-jazz soundtrack convinced me that Woody was about to show me another little gem (well, it had me convinced up until around ten years ago).
So, why is buy-in important? It’s not as if there will be mass walkouts if you haven’t won over your audience in the first ten minutes (although they might switch off if they’re watching the film on TV). It’s not just about getting the audience’s attention; it is about winning their trust. If they believe that they are in the hands of a confident and skilled storyteller, they will give themselves over to you. Plot-holes and logic bombs they will forgive and see beyond, stylization they will get behind and generally they will have a greater willingness to suspend their disbelief. An audience that’s bought-in is full of wonder, an audience that has not, can be skeptical.
But once an audience has bought-in they don’t necessarily stay bought-in. I remember seeing Hustle and Flow and being convinced in the first 15 minutes that this had the potential to be a memorable classic. Even by the half-way point my faith had long since faded as the film had failed to live up to its early promise and felt humdrum. How do you keep an audience bought-in? Simple: make a good movie. The point is, it’s always easiest to keep your audience if they’ve been with you from the start: if they’re going to be wowed they’ll expect that to happen from pretty early on.
I can’t deny that personal taste comes into the matter. Those tricky notes on which I was working were not down to any failing on the part of the director: the film had more panache than most. The film was quite simply not to the taste of the person giving the notes. If his comments had been possible to fulfill without reshooting half the movie, I doubt even then that he would actively have liked the new version. But the film has not yet been made that’s liked by every single audience member, no matter how profound or entertaining it might be to the majority (there are people who don’t like Casablanca).
Bringing an argument around to personal taste is a sure way of short-circuiting any discussion; supposedly ‘taste’ is that thing for which there’s no accounting. But if, as filmmakers, we’re to make the best films we can, we can’t afford to shrug our shoulders and say ‘go figure!’ We must strive to hone our skills in the hope that each elegant camera move, each whip-smart line of dialogue will help us hold our audience in the palm of our hand so that they sit looking up at the screen in wide-eyed wonder.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
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