There is a clear distinction that I’ve noticed between average and above average films. Most audiences pick up on the vibe, but can’t put their finger on the “why” behind the flat performance of an average film. Add to this the convoluted approach to look-alike pictures and it’s easy to understand the drop off in theater attendance.
The director is first to blame when a motion picture falls flat. While some might choose to direct a bad script, most directors that kill films do it instinctively. These directors are typically not immersed in the art form, which causes their natural gut instincts to be diametrically opposed to the requirements of telling a great story.
I remember a series of summer workshops that I conducted on writing and directing. In one arts conference I coached a class on how to write an award winning short film. We carefully crafted the story to include several key beats that made an emotional impact about the human condition. The final script was so amazing that I wanted to pony up a few dollars and make the film.
The script was then given to my director’s class. I taught on how to develop the story for shooting, and how to pick shots and blocking that would extenuate the beats. We even had detailed discussions on each character and the motivations that would drive their actions.
The individuals who signed up for the production workshop, which didn’t have a professional at the helm, shot a few of the scenes using a director from my earlier workshop. The next day everyone from the writing, directing and production workshops got together to watch the dailies. The excitement waned as we watched the flat clips. Disappointment eventually turned into an amazing conversation.
The screenplay had four very specific beats that were necessary to make the story clear and emotionally powerful. The director decided to experiment with the script and made artistic changes that unknowingly erased the story beats. He also gave up the helm, in the name of education, to other would-be directors and let them all have a shot at directing the scenes. None of them even knew what the story beats were.
The interpretations and experimentation were so far from the original script that it played flat and had no forward movement to the story. Nothing in the footage held the audiences attention or took them on a journey exploring the human condition. Even the dialog that the actors “improved” missed the focus of the story. Not one piece of footage looked like the award-worthy script.
Only directors immersed in the art form and focused on the story beats can bring a clear awareness of the human condition to the screen. Their gut instincts are well crafted to the medium and developmental process that turns great stories into great films. The sheer focus of a director on the story beats will transform and upgrade any film by an extra star or two.