“You and I know that basically the audience is stupid” these were the words of a client I once worked with.
It was not the only time I’d heard this sentiment; I don’t get to hear it much, but when I do it usually comes from someone who’s been in the film industry for thirty years or more. Is it the wisdom of years, a final acceptance that the public for whom they have been making films for most of their lives are, frankly, a bit dim? Or is it born out of a mixture of frustration at being misunderstood and intellectual pride?
I’ll spare you the game, for I believe my readers to be as smart as the cinema audience. And that’s plenty smart.
My experience in the cutting room is that when you show an early cut to someone who is as intelligent, well-educated, and as cine-literate as you could hope to find, it’s not uncommon that they will pick up on the subtlest hint you planted in one place, but manage to miss the most obvious, heavily sign-posted plot point somewhere else. “How can they be so smart and so dim at the same time?” you think. Simply put, communication is a two-way street: if the audience doesn’t understand something, that’s almost always because somehow you haven’t expressed it clearly.
Here are some common causes of audience confusion:
- Missing information. There is one key piece of information that you failed to provide at an earlier point in the story. Without that fact, what follows will never make sense, no matter how much you underline it. Sometimes the information isn’t actually missing, but it’s been hidden, perhaps in an…
- Information cluster. It’s agreed to be good practice to get the audience all the information they need early on in the story. That way you can get on with the business of telling an engaging, exciting tale, without having to stop the flow every now and then to feed in new information. However, if you give the audience too much crucial information all at once they can feel overwhelmed and some of that information will be missed.
- Information dilution. Sometimes the writer has been so keen to show off the world or the characters they’ve created that they furnish the audience with information that tells us more about their fascinating backstory but is in no way germane to the actual story. Again, overwhelmed by too much information, the audience fails to take in something on which the story relies.
- Failure to engage. In this worst-case scenario the film proves not to be sufficiently interesting to keeps the audience’s attention. It might even be that the story is fine, but the lead actor is a plank of wood. Either way, the audience have bought out. Whatever is putting the audience off, if they aren’t interested there’s a good chance that their minds will wander when the crucial fact is mentioned.
For me, the great champion of respecting the audience’s intelligence is Aaron Sorkin. He usually writes characters who are in the intellectual top 1% – certainly far above the average IQ of most audiences – and these characters often operate in specialised fields of knowledge. So, how does he allow the average Joe to keep up with Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Molly Bloom and the upper echelons of the Bartlett administration, while those characters discuss software design, poker and constitutional law?
Simple: he makes us care about the characters. Once we are emotionally invested in them, we will want to understand what has got them mad or made their day. Sometimes we don’t fully get it: certainly there are episodes of The West Wing where I watch and think “Toby’s striding down a corridor and he’s mad as hell that a thing might happen. Now Josh is telling him not to worry about it, it probably won’t happen. Now CJ is telling him that even if it does happen, it won’t really be a problem. Okay, they’ve got to a TV set and discovered that the thing has just happened. Everybody now changes their tune – now that the thing has actually happened, they realise that Toby was right all along”. What the thing actually is we don’t need to know. It’s all about how the characters respond to it.
In Molly’s Game, Sorkin ups the ante. Rather than stop and explain the rules of poker to us, or any of the slang of the game or the world, he throws us in at the deep end. He forces us to learn from context and make guesses. Humans are social creatures and as such are naturally adapted to learning social customs and norms on the hoof. We are forced to think, to work stuff out, and we do so in order that we can spend time with Molly and know what the hell she’s talking about. And the result is that we come out feeling smarter, feeling that we’ve learnt something.
Commercial filmmakers will often argue that the audience doesn’t want to think or to be educated: they want to be entertained. It’s true that audiences for different films will want to be challenged to different levels. And an audience, commercial or otherwise, does want to be entertained; but that doesn’t have to be a passive process of lying back and being fed entertainment. The truly immersive experience does not lie with 3D or Virtual Reality, it happens when the audience becomes involved in a story. Who’s this guy? Where’s he going? Is that a gun he’s holding? Is he going to shoot that guy? Why? These are all intellectual questions that the makers of action movies, commercial thrillers, and horror movies commonly require their audiences to ask of the story. Sometimes the reveal will come quickly; sometimes we’ll be made to wait.
Are audiences stupid? Only if we make them stupid by talking down to them. A story can dance or it can plod. It can only do the former if it treats its partner, the audience, with due respect.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2018
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge