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.

Michael Fassbender’s worried reaction to the “Prometheus” script

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.

Katie Holmes, barely legal eagle in “Batman Begins”

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

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6 thoughts on “Buy-Out

  1. Excellent points! Credibility is a tremendous issue to most moviegoers, and as you had cited, it may be regained after a gaff but requires much more effort to win back the viewer. Aside from losing the audience during the film, there is the aspect of losing them before the movie or right after it begins. I’m talking about sequels. The idea of bringing back a character the audience has become attached to or a premise that has provoked interest can be much more challenging than one imagines. The idea of JAWS 2 and JAWS 3 (3-D) are not only improbable, they are preposterous! I believe successful sequels might have been made if the focus were placed on the remaining characters (ie:Chief Brody, Mayor Vaughn,Matt Hooper) and the situation involved a different type of crisis (ie: toxic medical waste washing up on the beaches with politicians looking the other way; schools of sharks infesting the waters after a fish cannery opens which employs dozens of residents; a murder of a prominent member of the town that has been made to look like a shark attack; etc.) The odds of another gigantic Great White Shark attacking the same community are ridiculous. I understand that the huge maneater may have appeared to be the star of the 1975 movie, but if you calculate the screen time of the creature compared to that of the cast it becomes obvious that the viewer is compelled by much more than a fleeting glimpse of a mechanical shark. It helps to have one of the greatest directors behind the original project as well.

    I recently saw MEN IN BLACK III and as much as I wanted to like the movie I couldn’t help feeling that I had been misled and ultimately disappointed. It may be nostalgia that drives some of us to see sequels to movies we enjoyed but it becomes a much larger responsibility for the moviemakers. The audience wants a taste of what left us wanting more at the end of the first film, but we also need a new direction to draw us in rather than skim over eye candy. There are few sequels that have left the viewer completely satisfied. The GODFATHER PART 2 is an excellent sequel to a good movie, many people believe it surpasses the original. LETHAL WEAPON 2 reunited the original partners and moved ahead with a completely fresh premise and criminal presence. Bringing us back full circle to ALIEN and ALIENS. ALIENS was able to justify the return of the heroine by advancing the situation and entering a different genre than its predecessor (the monster horror movie of the first was replaced by an action adventure movie with the sequel). PROMETHEUS may have payed homage to ALIEN after Scott determined to minimize the film’s relationship as a prequel, but he was still obligated to respect the audience whether they were devoted followers or curious new viewers.

    In the end, we all want to be entertained, suspend disbelief, and feel satisfied yet still yearn for more. Sometimes not only is more less, it forces us to impose the distinction when we refer to the “original” and not the terrible sequel(s)!

  2. Hey,guys, one major aspect that consistently gets overlooked in these discussions and posts, and when seen from this perspective, it all makes sense.

    Hollywood films, like American cars, are made by ACCOUNTANTS, not filmmakers. What to you might seem a clunky illogical plot hole, to accountant, it makes perfect sense, whether from the standpoint of we’ll save a lot of money not to do it right or more often, the last three top-grossing films had this actor/director/plot element/poster design (almost never a writer, unless the script was truly exceptional), so why risk something that’s tried and true?

    As long as you go into a tentpole/blockbuster/high budget Hollywood picture with raised expectations, I’m afraid you’re going to have the same experience the aptly name Charley Brown suffers every fall at the hands of Lucy and her football.

    1. Thanks, Charles. I hear what you’re saying about accountants, and you’re right that the power of the bottom line should not be underestimated. I think you’re right that this power was at least partly responsible for the problems with Prometheus, but not, I believe, in the way you describe.

      I don’t agree that many, if any, of the plot holes or logic bombs were there because they were saving anyone money. This was not a production that had to worry too much about budget. The only money that needed to be thrown at these problems was enough to pay for another draft (or two) of the script, and that’s small beer compared to everything else.

      I think that the unfortunate effect of blockbuster culture is that a big movie, like any dominant corporate entity, just doesn’t need to try very hard. Prometheus had a strong opening weekend and the marketing has been so powerful that people are going to see it despite the appalling word of mouth. It will make its money back no matter what. The script was sloppy, one of the sloppiest of any blockbuster I can remember, because nothing was motivating anyone to try that hard to get it right. It just didn’t matter. Like some big bank, these films are insulted against the consequences of incompetence and that’s never likely to produce good work.

      1. You’re absolutely right, same basis different perspective. From the accountant/marketing,CFO standpoint, “Let’s see, we can spend $1m fixing the script and final film so people will want to see more than once and recommend it to their friends, or we can spend $1m on a first weekend advertising blitz.” Hmm, no brainer.

  3. Department of Synchronicity.

    As I was saying yesterday, and today I came across this. I’m glad science has validated at least a portion of my viewpoint.

    Physicists Predict Success of Movies at the Box Office Based Solely On Advertising Costs

    ScienceDaily (June 15, 2012) — A group of Japanese scientists have surprised themselves by being able to predict the success or failure of blockbuster movies at the box office using a set of mathematical models.

    The researchers, publishing their study June 15, in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society’s New Journal of Physics, used the effects of advertising and word-of-mouth communication to create a model that turned out to be successful in predicting how each movie fared once it hit the silver screen.

    The only data the researchers needed to put into the model were the daily advertisement costs of 25 movies that appeared in Japanese cinemas.

    Their model was originally designed to predict how word-of-mouth communication spread over social networks, applying it to conversations about movies in particular, which was a success; however, they also found that when they overlapped their predictions with the actual revenue of the films, they were very similar.

    They now intend to apply their model to other commercial markets, such as online music, food snacks, noodle cups, soft drinks and local events.

    The researchers, from Tottori University, used their model to calculate the likelihood of an individual going to watch a movie in a Japanese cinema over a period ranging from 60 days prior to the movie’s opening date to 100 days after it had opened.

    Recognising that word-of-mouth communication, as well as advertising, has a profound effect on whether a person goes to see a movie or not, whether this is talking about it to friends (direct communication) or overhearing a conversation about it in a café (indirect communication), the researchers accounted for this in their calculations.

    The daily number of blog postings for each of the 25 films was also collected from the internet as a means of comparison for the researchers’ calculations.

    Lead author of the study, Professor Akira Ishii, said: “If a person is reading and commenting on a friend’s blog, we consider this as direct communication. If a person happens to come across a blog through a series of web pages and links, we consider this indirect communication.”

    The result was a set of graphs outlining a person’s intent on watching movies such as The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spider-Man 3, Transformers and Avatar, based on the daily amount of money spent on advertising the film and word-of-mouth.

    When overlaid on the actual revenue from these movies whilst screened in the cinema, they appeared to match very well, meaning the calculations could provide a fairly good prediction of how successful a movie could be even before it is released

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