The Audience is Smarter

Ron HowardI was in high school the first time I talked to Ron Howard on the phone. He shared a handful of Easter eggs with me and it permanently changed my perspective on directing. I’ve since taken time to learn from every director I meet, as each one has something of value for my utility belt.

The one thing that I’ve heard from many big box office directors that I haven’t heard from independents can be summed up in one of his quotes…

Ron Howard said, “Trust the audience is with the story.”

In other words, the audience is smarter than what we think and we need to present things to a intelligent audience, rather than dumbing down our material. Personally, I hate films that spell everything out for me, as if I’m an idiot.

Dr. Jenkins, my journalism college professor, agreed with my sentiment when he said, “Television and the news is written for the average 14-year-old, which is probably why big stars only do motion pictures.” Years later, television has become more complex and interesting, while sports, horror and faith-based films are still aimed at a sixth grade mentality.

Film is also an emotional medium, which must play at the appropriate emotional age level or the audience will be lost to the story. Unfortunately, many independent producers do not see film as the emotional medium that it is. Instead, they force facts and information into the story, destroying the very structure of the emotional format.

Ron Howard said, “When I was acting with John Wayne and I was talking to him a lot about (John) Ford…Ford had told John Wayne, ‘Don’t ever cry on screen. A good movie provides two thirds of the emotion and allows the audience to complete the other third themselves,’ and, sort of experience it themselves. If you do it all for them they just sit there, cross their arms and watch.”

The idea of hinting at a plot point in such a way so the emotional tone of the film plants the idea into the audience’s perception is valuable. It allows the audience to perceive or come up with the idea on their own. This in turn strengthens their sense of ownership of the idea that they just thought up.

I don’t remember who shared the idea, maybe it was Robert Zemeckis or Steven Spielberg who said, “The goal of film is to have the audience come up with your idea for themselves.”

If the message is overt, the audience has no recourse but to cross their arms and not consider your idea. However, a message that is subtly sprinkled into a film allows the audience to come up with the idea for themselves and own it.

The only reason this is possible is due to the intelligence of the audience. They are indeed smarter than most independent filmmakers give them credit for. Or, put another way, a filmmaker has to be pretty arrogant to dumb down their story and overtly put it into the faces of their audience.

Film is an art form that requires finesse. The more subtle the message, the more the audience must work for it and the longer they will deeply hold the message that “they came up with.”

The best way to leverage the medium of film for getting a strong message into the hands of the audience is to trust that they are following the story and don’t need to be hand fed. Then, and only then, shall the intelligent audience find ways of implementing the message into their own life.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

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