Selecting The Best Story Angle

The Angle of StoryI have a friend that found an incredible story that’s worthy of being developed into a screenplay. When he first told me about the true events, he talked about it from the perspective of the children. After chatting on the phone with the family, he shared the story again, but this time from the mindset of the mother. When he introduced me to one of the children, I heard the story from the father’s viewpoint. It was clear that the real life elements, or story beats, were significant enough to impact everyone in the family, giving us several choices in how to develop the motion picture.

After analyzing the information presented, I broke the elements down by each potential story angle to determine which one was best for the film. The categories I used included emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and entertainment value for the audience. The weighting of each category helped determine from what angle the story would be told.

EMOTIONAL BEATS

Film is an emotional medium that requires a story with passionate and poignant twists and turns. While beginning filmmakers think the story must first drive home a valuable message, it’s the emotional throughline that earns the right for the filmmaker to speak a message into the audience’s lives through the B-plotline. Those who try to craft the message within the action plotline soon find their story meanders or falls flat. The action plotline must take the audience on an emotional roller coster ride to properly make use of the medium. The film should therefore be from the perspective that drives the main character through a series of actions that heighten the emotional appeal and the story’s consequences.

Some of the films with clear emotional beats include: Les Misérables, Star Trek 2009, The Blind Side, The Darkest Hour, Schindler’s List, and The Wizard of Oz. These stories were well developed and crafted for the screen. The films were visual and hit every story beat that takes an audience on a journey of exploration. The stories argued both sides of a specific message in a way that enticed the audience to side with the filmmaker’s beliefs.

HIGH STAKES AT RISK

The character with the most to lose typically finds themselves in circumstances that amps up the volume of the emotional beats. This is critical to drive the story to its climatic conclusion. While stories typically have comic relief or temporary lulls in the action, so the audience can catch their breath, the story must be driven by choices that turn into physical and visual action. A “talking-head” plotline, where the main character spews forth nothing more than teachable moments, does not move the story forward or raise the stakes. The throughline must overcome the rule of diminishing returns, which is only possible by raising the stakes.

The rule of diminishing returns relates to the weakening of the audience’s buzz. The college student who gets his first car is excited to drive a secondhand clunker because its his. When after graduation he gets a normal car, he finds it difficult to get excited if he has to drive a clunker again. After a wonderful promotion and driving his upscale company car, the newly married driver struggles to find the excitement in driving the minivan on weekends. With every increased excitement, comes the rule of diminishing returns that makes it harder to generate the same buzz experienced in past events.

P.T. Barnum was a showman who used the rule of diminishing returns to his advantage. Everything he did had to increase its shock value to draw in an audience during the depressed era. Curiosity drove the people to purchase tickets over and over again as Barnum kept increasing the amazing acts within his show. Film is the same way. The audience must be taken on a journey that continues to amaze. The good news is that a director can use techniques to reset the audience’s expectations before every emotional increase so his story doesn’t get out of control.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE

At today’s high ticket prices and costly cable packages, audience’s demand their monies worth. They want to be taken on a journey that they’ve never been on before or introduced to a character that they can learn about for the first time. To accomplish this goal all stereotypes must be dropped by the filmmaker. He also must find ways of allowing his unique character to directly impact the plot based on his or her choices. The audience must find the story fun in order to watch it a second time, or stirring enough for those who like to have a good cry. A great story with fantastic production values are always at the top of the box office list or award categories—due largely to the embedded entertainment value.

The Oscar nominated film, The Shape of Water, takes the audience on a alien-like journey in time during the Cold War. The audience is also introduced to a compassionate, mute woman. Her unique circumstances and personal drive grabs the audience’s attention, whether they agree or disagree with her life choices. While the film is a far left propaganda piece, it’s entertainment value drives curiosity among conservatives who may revisit their political views after watching the filmmakers perspective.

Developing a cinematic story with great emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and emotional value, earns the filmmaker the right to speak into the audience’s life. The result is consideration by the audience of the filmmaker’s argument, but only when the picture is properly developed using the above proven elements.

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Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

“Hard Faith” Film Releases

Generational_SinsThe Hollywood Reporter last week featured a story about Christian movies going blue. In 2012, Blue Like Jazz was a Christian film that tested the waters with drugs, sexual innuendo, binge drinking, and foul language. It caught the attention of many supporters, becoming the second largest Kickstarter funded movie at the time.

The filmmakers’ careers were blocked in a unique boycott situation after the film’s release. They were reportedly stopped from ever working on another Christian film. One documentary even had the filmmakers discussing the disdainful treatment that they received from other Christian filmmakers.

A lover of controversy, writer-director Spencer Folmar decided to follow in their footsteps. On October 6, 2017, his film Generational Sins releases in theaters. The film is PG-13 and has 32 profanities. Folmar is trying to coin the genre and is reportedly trademarking the phrase “Hard Faith” films.

Instead of getting boycotted, Folmar is getting a new level of support. The Dove Foundation, known for its family safe seal of approval, has started a new category of approval for those 18-years-old and up. Generational Sins has received the stamp.

Movieguide, a watchdog organization for family friendly and godly films, thinks the film should be judged on its artistic merits, not on its language. However, their position was not one of agreement as they wrote…

“There’s an underlying problem with the approach of looking like the world in order to reach out to it. It’s not how Jesus ministered, it’s not how the apostles preached, and it’s not how the Bible tells believers to live (Rom 12:2, John 17:15-18). What turns Christians off, and many others as well, is when believers, who are likely well intentioned, brag about the edginess of a particular choice because they’ve decided to mix it with Jesus. That doesn’t somehow make it cool all of sudden.”

There were thousands of movies during the golden age of cinema (1933-1963) that were real, morally healthy, and pushing artistic boundaries. Many of those stories were godly, well received, and worthy of the general public’s time and money. None of those films stooped to vile comments on the silver screen.

But the “in thing” today is all about the buzz of new faith-based filmmakers putting the gritty truth into their films in order to reach a more secular audience. The funny thing is that Jesus told stories to the secular public without profanity. Even his parable about a loving father dealing with a prodigal son was shared without being explicit.

Redemptive films, which I strongly support, rarely use any profanity, if at all. They are crafted to demonstrate the character’s repugnant lifestyle without drenching the audience in its filth. It only takes a couple quick scenes to express where the character begins his story arch, which ends in an uplifting place.

A good craftsman can create a story that reflects a raunchy lifestyle without immersing the audience in a bath of displayed evil. While I don’t feel all of the unsavory acts must be done off-screen, I wouldn’t for a moment suggest a director leave the audience feeling like they participated in the character’s depravity. After all, the goal of the film is to show the character’s transformation from an immoral lifestyle through to his redemption.

In the case of redemptive storytelling, the transformation is used to promote the film. In hard faith films, so far, it’s the edginess and profanity that’s being used to promote the film. The focus seems to be on debauchery rather than transformation.

This choice is forcing the film into a limited release schedule with only 14 theaters. In other words, the distributor is assuming the film will flop unless the controversy puts people into the seats.

So, my question is, does 32 profanities in a faith-based film entice you to the theater?

Copyright © 2017 by CJ Powers

Redemptive Films Change Society

RedemptiveMany have asked me to clarify why I’m passionate about creating redemptive stories. The answer rises from the depths of my soul, which I find myself contemplating time and again. The contemplation is not a form of second-guessing, as I’m firm on my position, but it’s about distinguishing the gap between the two.

I’m adamant about society being challenged by story to consider who they are verses who they truly want to be. United Kingdom writer Jeanette Winterson wrote, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

Great motion pictures always start with a character living their normal life, which gets turned upside down and explored from a new vantage point in the second act that fuels contemplation. The audience gets to watch the character explore how he or she faces life and its circumstances.

Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag said, “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”

The character is eventually forced into an emotional corner that requires a life-changing decision. Prior to the final moment, we see the character test out a few possible outcomes, but to no prevail. However, by the end of the third act, the character has chosen to live a new normal life going forward.

Art’s ability to force contemplation and change our viewpoint is of great value to society. Being able to create such media empowers the filmmaker to alter how people perceive society and how the people fit within that new world he presents. It’s no wonder those in power seek to master the media.

Frederick_DouglassFrederick Douglass, in his Pictures and Progress essay wrote, “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

But why are pictures, or more specifically motion pictures, so moving?

Douglass further wrote, “To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.”

In other words, there is an innate power within pictures to demonstrate what a better life can look like and how to embrace it from where a person currently stands on any given issue. That is why films start with the character’s normal life, moves him or her into an exploration of the roadblocks in life that force contemplation, and finally resolves with the character choosing a new normal life.

I would venture to say that a motion picture that doesn’t move the audience emotionally from their current place in life to a better one is void of art. The idea that art forces contemplation is an important one, as our society must learn how to change for the better, not to its detriment.

Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren said, “Art is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

Filmmakers, the best of our picture-making community, have been ordained to inspire society’s growth. There are no other animals around who can hold a torch to this appointed responsibility.

In fact, Douglass said, “Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”

Redemptive stories are created for society. Its movies start with the character’s normal life, moves them through demonstrable roadblocks, and forces him or her to make a life altering decision that brings the character into a new normal life, which adds to society’s growth.

Creating stories that make a direct impact on society is what I’m all about. That is where my artistic appetite thrives and that is why I’m passionate about making redemptive films.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Directors Pull in Summer Audiences

popcorn-movie-party-entertainmentDecades ago the major studios drew audiences to the silver screen with big extravagant pictures. A few decades later movie stars became the biggest drawing card to pack out film houses. But recently we’ve seen a shift to a new role that is drawing in millions to the box office—the director.

The audience is no longer willing to sit through a star driven movie just because their favorite actor plays a role in the film. Over the past few years, films that had Bruce Willis in its trailer or on the one sheet poster disappointed many. Why? Because the films weren’t really Bruce Willis type films. He was just in the movies for a paycheck.

This summer we saw a lot of film actors fail to deliver audiences to theaters like Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell and Rough Night, Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, Charlie Hunnam’s King Arthur, and Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

But it was the directors that brought the solid draw as social media buzz surrounded the filmmakers, not the stars. The successful films used lesser-known actors in leading roles under the guidance of strongly directed vision. The box office successes included Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.

Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group told Variety, “To be theatrical, you need to be distinctive now. That’s what Spider-Man and Baby Driver have in common. Even though they are as different as night and day, the audience can feel both are distinctive, and so theater-worthy.”

Director Alex Kendrick, of the faith-based Kendrick Brothers, has carved out a niche for himself that draws in enough audience to generate about $60MM every time he releases a film. While Sony has rarely understood how he does it, they have acknowledged his distinctive films. In fact, there have been many who have tried to follow in Alex and Stephen’s footsteps, but all have failed to replicate their distinctive style.

One of the reasons I study a lot of film is to make sure I create something that hasn’t been done before. A director’s style coupled with his writer, DP and Production Designer choice makes for a uniqueness that is seldom replicated. The heart and soul of his vision must come through in order to create a successful title that will storm the box office.

There will never be another Christopher Nolan or Alex Kendrick, no matter how often a budding filmmaker suggests he offers a similar style.

I’ll never forget listening to an interview with Phil Vischer, of Veggie Tales fame, before he became famous. In the interview he was likened to Walt Disney, which surprised me since I was familiar with both artists. The two were highly creative and did the voices for their primary animated characters, but their styles and audiences were very different.

The thing I remember most about the interview was how quickly Phil’s distinctive style was getting lost behind the Disney name. Don Bluth, known for The Secret of NIMH, had the same problem differentiating himself from Disney. It takes a strong director to carve out a niche for his own style that is memorable and draws an audience to the box office.

So who’s your favorite director?

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Movies Bring Hope and Direction to Society

Behind the Scenes with CJ PowersSince the Great Depression (1929-1939) the motion picture industry understood their lot in life was to bring hope and direction to society and dove into mass production. This was confirmed and continued during World War II (1939-1945). Even the post war rebuilding years (1946-1952) were palatable thanks to the movies, which only cost a few coins to attend. By the time our country was back on its feet in 1963-64, the cinema’s role in America was labeled the Golden Age of movies (1933-1963, some sources use 1927-1964).

The Hays Motion Picture code was enacted during these early years to make sure films for the general public were appropriate, respectful and encouraging. After all, hope and direction were important causes worth monitoring. But by 1964 the committee that managed the code and approved scripts that made it to the silver screen was pressured by its denominational headquarters to leave the “ungodly world of Hollywood.”

While some films continued to bring hope and a wholesome and unifying direction to Americans, other films brought the opposite. Freedom of speech was challenged beyond what was wholesome. Directional bias toward liberal and aggressive thinking rose in power. The movies moved into a period known as post-classical cinema followed by the angst and spectacle periods.

Today, America is in need of a new hope and a new wholesome direction. It’s the movie industry’s job to provide it, as it did during the Golden Age of cinema. Unfortunately most producers today are looking for message films to support their politics or their religion. Few care about making the types of films that will bring hope and a healthy perspective to the general public.

The more polarized our communities become, the more important it is for the movies to help bring a sense of unity back to the people. But who will heed the call?

Until artists of today find a way to bring unity back into the lives of our beloved characters, stories will continue to divide the population. It’s the duty of filmmakers to reach the general population with new ideas and unifying stories that can emotionally move the audience from our old destructive path to a new thesis world filled with hope.

There is a hungry world waiting anxiously for such films. They long to embrace them, but can’t find any in our noise filled market. Someone must step up and kickoff this new trend that is sure to be supported by people from various walks of life. Where is the first filmmaker ready to take the risk and cross over? When he or she steps forward, will you support that new breed of film? If so, you’ll be a part of bringing a new hope and direction to our society.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Leveraging the Creative Subconscious

CreativeAfter watching a dozen documentaries about screenwriters, designers, directors and editors, I’ve come to the conclusion that these artists, at least the good ones, know how to leverage their subconscious. The art they create not only has a footing in reality, but their perspective is greatly enhanced by a highly creative filter from deep within the right side of their brain and their heart.

The most exhilarating creative ideas that pop into my head come early in the morning or at times when my mind is off playing or well rested. The pros take advantage of those moments to strengthen their work and bring new entertainment value to bear. This same moment allowed me to write this blog in the fraction of time it normally takes.

To leverage this strength, my friend David did creative work in the morning and analytical work in the afternoon when logic ruled his mindset. That’s not to say he was never creative in the afternoon, but the level of creative play was typically reduced after hours of exploration and work.

There are three commonalities among professional creatives that are worth understanding.

PLAY

Deadlines and pressure never increase creativity, but the opposite magnifies the creative flow. The strongest fuel of imagination is play. It’s made up of the same elements we explored as children and allows our inner child to come out to have fun. It can’t be taught or demanded, it can only be given a safe environment in which to let go so the creative can be free to pretend.

Play allows hearts to touch or bond without being romantic, which non-creatives don’t get, as they’re convinced something more has to be there, but its not. Play also allows passion to rise and solidifies why a work of art is important. Without it, people can’t understand what the artist saw in the work.

PROCRASTINATE

Non-creatives who have watched the procrastination process of the artist assume the person is lazy; not realizing their mind is going a million miles per hour. The percolation process is what gives flavor to the creatives’ work. A long bought of what appears to be boredom turns into aggressive workflow that can easily go late into the night or until the creative has to flop onto his bed.

Many creatives will plan ahead for their moments of procrastination by determining in advance the item they want to ponder. Most find their breakthrough by morning or in the drifting of their mind. Harnessing this natural phenomenon gives professionals an added benefit of what appears to be a secret weapon of the imagination.

OBSERVE

The best writers I’ve met or learned about through blogs and short films take time to watch a movie every day. They also peruse scrapbooks, magazines and other mind stimulating products. Not only do the myriad of observations fill them with ideas, but it also helps them to know what to avoid because it has already been done.

The most fun is watching others live their lives. People have the funniest idiosyncrasies that inspire. While some might suggest these oddities are a sign of the person’s weakness, the artist sees it as their humanity emerging in a unique fashion. These peculiarities make the person wholly them.

Being able to leverage the elements that feed the subconscious, the creative can explore matters of the heart like no one else. The more this process was protected by society, the greater was the renaissance of the time. It’s no wonder that most movements were birthed in the church, which at one time was a protected place for many hearts before the decades of judgment that ensued.

Over this weekend, as America celebrates its Independence, find time to play, procrastinate and observe. See if anything arises within your soul that must be reduced to some form or expression of art. Take this weekend to determine if being more creative will give you insights into humanity and a wisdom found by few.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

2016At the beginning of every year I like to set a direction for the New Year. My first step in the process is reviewing the previous year. So let’s get started.

Reflecting back on 2015, my 7th year of blogging, I found that the most read posts were not from the current year, but the year I wrote my book – Notes from the Napkin: A Director’s Cut on Filmmaking. That’s not to say my current writings didn’t get a lot of readership, it did. But, the top five most read posts were all written two years ago.

According to the analytics I received, this is the third year in a row that my writing had “staying power.” In other words, what I write would do well in a book that can stand the test of time to some extent. The information or stories are not timely flashes of ideas, but shared thoughts that endure.

There are about 31,000 of you, my dear readers, from 142 countries. You enjoyed all the categories of posts I wrote, but the top two categories were posts on filmmaking and my life experiences. You also passed my posts on to an additional 472,000 unique readers through social media, ezines and republished articles.

These numbers would be hard to grasp if it wasn’t for the encouraging emails I’ve received from so many of you. The personal contact makes all the difference and helps me know who I’m writing to.

Now for 2016…

I’ll take a week or so to figure out what I’ll be writing about this year, but I think it’ll be something I can roll into a book – Just like I did two years ago. And, since the majority of my readers prefer a topic on filmmaking, I’m sure it will have something to do with experiential hands on steps in making a film.

If you have any thoughts on what you’d like me to write about, please make a comment below.

Have a great 2016!