Every year in late February, those who can stand it find a couch to share or a party to crash, and drink their way through the three hours of misery also know as The Academy Awards. Yes—it has perks. The men are hot, the women are hotter, and goddamn it—someone might just surprise this year with their clever mocking of the official script! Thank GOD there are no reality-TV movies, and therefore no reality TV hosts to SABATOGE the Oscars the way they did the Emmys. At least Gil Cates has the good sense to keep hiring back Jon Stewart…
But here’s the thing—the Oscars reinforce the idea that the most important character in a movie is the HERO or HEROINE—the “Best Actor” or the “Best Actress.” This concept of the leading man and leading lady is reinforced in screenwriting classes and books, and the guiding principle in writing screenplays these days is think FIRST about how one’s hero should act and what information he or she should FIND OUT as the screenplay progresses. Once you’ve shaped the hero, the idea goes, all the other characters and character problems can be wrapped around this leading figure.
I suggest another approach.
Yes—the leading lady and/or leading man is important. They will guide your story, and getting them RIGHT on the page is hugely important. There is one person (or group of people), however, who are even MORE important to your screenplay’s success:
Yes—the VIEWERS. Or in the early stages, your READERS.
In this day of actor-financed movies and Oscar-vehicle screenplays, writers have focused less and less on the AUDIENCE, and more and more on attracting the movie stars that will get their scripts greenlit. And while I see the allure and practicality of this approach, the result has been a batch of recent movies that feel more like high-caliber acting reels than well-rounded films. Just watch Changeling, Seven Pounds, or Revolutionary Road to see what I’m talking about. All of these scripts provide ample room for actors to ACT, but have numerous flaws that could have been avoided had their creators spent more time thinking about the REAL central character of any movie: the people WATCHING it.
When I start into a script, I try to think about the audience AS THOUGH IT WERE A LITERAL CHARACTER. And in the same way that I shape reveals, withhold information, and design emotional highs and lows for my LEADING CHARACTER, I do this first and foremost for the AUDIENCE. The AUDIENCE is the character that matters most, and if writers treat the audience like the LEADING LADY it really is, more attention will be paid to DESIGNING the audience’s experience, and hence increasing their involvement and excitement in the movie.
Before you can write for your audience, however, you need to figure out exactly who your audience IS. Just as you’d flesh out the details for the hero of your screenplay, you need to know as much as possible about your audience. Watch other films in your genre, and if possible, analyze the marketing and packaging of these films. Are they targeted to 18 year-old boys, or 55 year-old women? An urban population, or folks in the Midwest? Once you know the demographic of your audience, try to imagine the IDEAL person sitting in that sitting movie theatre. Is it a college-aged male with a middle-class background who just broke up with his girlfriend? Or a 48 year-old single mom who thinks it’s too late to find new love? Getting as specific as possible will help you write to your audience’s emotions, and satisfy their expectations.
Finally—when starting a new screenplay, I suggest you prepare a “knowledge arc” for your audience in the same way that you’d create character arcs for your central cast. Moving scene by scene through your beat sheet, try to be as detailed as possible in deciding what you want your audience to KNOW, what misdirects you want them to BELIEVE, and most important—what EMOTIONS you want them to be feeling. Good screenwriting is all about manipulation—try to get as specific as possible about what you want your desired audience to be THINKING and FEELING at any given moment. When I’m moving through this process, I’ll often end up augmenting my beat sheet once I’ve finished with this knowledge arc—and only then do I start into the actual writing.
So give it a whirl! Some actor-centric movies work beautifully—The Wrestler and older movies like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon are great examples. But too often, screenplays are written without enough thought paid to the audience’s experience, and it’s a trend that has grown stronger in recent decades. I’m not suggested that writers create weak leading roles--on relegate their heroes to second fiddle. But I do think that the greatest leading characters work BEST when their stories are balanced against the equally-fantastic emotional journeys of their audience.
So—recast your leading lady and leading man! Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet are no longer your first priority. Focus on the audience, and you’ll end up with a script that feels less like a complex monologue, and more like a cohesive movie.