Story and Audience Targeting

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The number one problem producers and pastors have in common is their ability to bring the right story to the right audience. Both have to target multiple age groups with a story that’s broad enough to touch everyone, yet only a percentage within the larger group will find that the story resonates with them.

To compensate, many pastors will tell several stories within their sermon to help demonstrate how the teaching applies to each generation. Filmmakers do the same thing by having some scenes aimed at Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z. The scenes must play well enough for all generations to accept it as a functional part of the film’s story, but the generation that the given scene is aimed at will find that particular scene speaking into their lives.

I wrote a screenplay titled The Professor that is aimed at a four-quadrant audience. Some scenes are specifically for Gen Z, while other scenes jointly aim at Millennials and Gen Xers, and a few scenes speak directly to Baby Boomers. The results are clearly spot on when my script is read by each generation. Not because each of my scenes work for everyone, but because there are specific scenes that speak into each generation’s life without detracting from the other generations reading the story.

To develop a story that speaks specifically to each generation takes a tremendous amount of work. The four-quadrant audience, which is broken out between old and young, and male and female, is the basis for each generational viewpoint. In other words, to speak directly into each guardant within each generation will take a minimum of 16 scenes. Those details are better shared over several chapters in some future book I might write.

For now, I’m going to share the three base drivers that must be used to target a story to the right audience. Since only one driver can be clearly used through the protagonist, I’ll use the hero model for my explanation.

Story is about change. The person who changes the most is the protagonist or hero (yes, there are exceptions, but I’m trying to keep this post short). The hero has a worldview that is driven by a core belief that can be categorized as lawful, moral, or ideological.

LAWFUL: The hero believes in institutions like government, religion, schools, and any other man-made system used to protect or grow our communities.

MORAL: The hero takes responsibility to make a difference when something goes wrong with our institutions or thinking. This might be a whistleblower, vigilante, or a (fed up) underdog.

IDEOLOGICAL: The hero believes in something that is overarching and sees each life as a small pebble in the greater scope of humanity. However, the hero also understands that each pebble might be the one that creates the avalanche, like the final straw on the camel’s back.

From these three vantage points we can quickly direct the perceptions of the audience as they follow the hero on his journey. Gen Z is all about the ideological and they want it in the form of what is real. They can see through the fake or the trumped up.

The Millennials and Gen Xers both relate to the moral and feel a responsibility to correct the wrongs put in place by the Baby Boomers. And the Boomers, well, they are all about the lawful and supporting the institutions that made their generation great.

Pastors find their words about the institution of communion and worship resonating with the Baby Boomers. Those pastors who empower church members to help those hurting in the community find their messages speaking to the hearts of the Millennials and Gen Xers. And, those pastors who talk about the actions we must take in order to participate in God’s overarching plan find Gen Z embracing every activity required of them to fulfill the big picture.

The pastor who wants to teach on prayer would tell Boomers to pray without ceasing according to the scriptures. He’d teach the Millennials and Gen Xers how prayer changes us and thereby changes our communities for the good. To Gen Z he’d teach the truth that some prayers go unanswered, but for the ones that are answered, they are only answered when they are prayed. For God’s overall plan to work, we each have to pray daily for our part in the matter and for others.

The filmmaker has to break things out in a similar fashion. If he is making a film that suggests we can’t be great living a life of apathy, the message must be contoured for each generation. A scene designed to resonate with a Boomer might include the hero learning the discipline of football basics. The Millennial and Gen Xer might be moved by a scene about the hero realizing that he must perform well at the game to earn a scholarship to lighten the financial load of his parents concerning his college tuition. The Gen Z scene could show the hero playing defense across from the starting offensive line to prepare them for the sake of all the students counting on a homecoming win.

By targeting each generation with the right portion of the story drives box office success. Films that only reach one generation must be all the more targeted in its marketing approach to draw the right crowd. By creating a universal story that can touch multiple generations, a filmmaker and a pastor can stir far more people with the right message than others who don’t target their story.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Timing is Important, but Story is King

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The motion picture industry understands how to time the release of a feature film. Studios block out release dates years in advance to make sure their blockbusters have little competition. Even independent films attempt to release during down screen times to minimize the competition. But there seems to be a group of filmmakers that are more concerned about the actual dates than the competition.

Faith-based filmmakers compete for release dates around Easter, convinced their audiences want to see a religious picture during the highly celebrated season. While that might be the case, past surveys consistently reflected that those who enjoy the faith-based genre are only willing to see 1.5 movies in a given month.

That means the first faith-based film released, with some level of fanfare during the Easter season, will take the audience out of the equation for other faith-based films. This year I Can Only Imagine released first and drew in $80MM, Paul, Apostle of Christ released second and drew in $17MM, and God’s Not Dead 3 drew in $5MM.

While a substantial consideration, it’s not always the release dates that make the difference. The above films happened to be released in order from best to worst story. Regardless, an overabundance of a genre’s films during a specific timeframe can quickly saturate a niche market.

Plus, the average moviegoer only watches four films a year. That means the person who watched I Can Only Imagine and probably watched Black Panther only has two more films left to watch. The faith-based film attender might hold off on another genre film to consider a summer blockbuster that their peers will discuss at the water cooler, and a Christmastime film for the entire family to enjoy.

When I’ve talked to producers of faith-based films, they’ve made it clear that they never consider secular competition. This is a peculiar situation since avoidance of thought never reduces the number of actual competitors vying for box office dollars. And, everyone in the industry knows that PG-13 films, which are typically aimed at some form of family, are watched by members of all faith groups.

Movieguide’s annual report to the industry points out how family-friendly films, with elements of faith and patriotism, always bring in more box office dollars than the competition. This has been consistently true since I’ve tracked it over the past 20 years. In fact, when the audiences of successful blockbusters are looked at closely, people who live by faith are the ones that make a significant uprise in the box office.

One could surmise, yet no one has taken that bold step to publish a thesis on the topic to date, that those who live by faith are the determining factor in a film’s box office success. If that is the case, then faith-based filmmakers should become masters of the craft in order to drive their films’ successes. And, those who live by faith must be educated in how their ticket purchase determines what films succeed.

Now, I’m not talking about forcing change by purchasing up tickets for bad faith-based films to spur on the genre. I’m talking about faith-based filmmakers learning how to tell great story. The audience will always promote a film with great story. Consider Black Panther as a perfect example of a great story that took off.

Some might say it was the black community that came out in droves to support the film, but I say that’s foolishness. Anyone tracking Tyler Perry’s career knows that he regularly draws the niche black audience, which doesn’t look anything like the audience watching the Black Panther. The story was great and therefore pulled in a great audience.

I’ve heard that there are 12 faith-based films attempting to position their release for next Easter. The one that will win the box office is the first best story released. The others will have dismal results. This begs a new question—Why aren’t the 12 faith-based films releasing one a month throughout the year?

The answer suggested to me last month by a faith-based producer went like this… “Faith-based films preach; they don’t tell story, so none of them can stand on their own without the churches pushing people to attend.”

While the producer sounded cynical, I’m pretty sure his comment has some merit. Film is a story-based, emotional medium that does not handle preaching well. Radio, on the other hand, is an ideal medium for preaching. Finding the right medium for the right message is crucial to reaching an audience.

Independent horror films use similar production processes as faith-based films. Instead of focusing on preaching, horror films focus on generating screams or startlement. Both typically generate about the same expense to box office ratio and few of either genre put story first.

A Quiet Place is a horror film with a message on parenting that is driven by story, not scream gimmicks. Because of its focus on story, the film should soon cross the $150MM box office mark. The key to the film’s success wasn’t being timed for Halloween, since it was released this spring, but the fact is the story was king, focusing on parenting children in a hostile world.

Release dates are important to avoid too much competition, but without story being the key focus, timing won’t matter.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

Launching a Story With an Inciting Incident

Most stories open with an attention-getting beat that reveals something likeable about the main character or the evil of the uber bad guy that he’ll face. This is followed by a series of scenes that demonstrate what the main character’s normal life is like. But audiences won’t hang on too long when it comes to emotionally flat experiences, so within a short time the storyteller must launch the main story using an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is a dynamic event or fully developed moment that radically upsets the main character’s status quo. The clear and obvious trigger throws the main character’s life out of balance. This action-based circumstance can either happen to the main character or be an unexpected ramification of a decision he makes.

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The inciting incident can be simple like receiving a letter, diagnosis, pink slip, or phone call. In Star Wars, the inciting incident was a hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. Luke Skywalker was intrigued by her plea and decided that he was going to help her.

A successful inciting incident, not one that is stagnant or vague, drives the main character to make a decision that will change his life forever. The specific event places him on a story path of obstacles that turns his weakness into a strength. The event also raises the central question of the movie for the first time. In the case of Star Wars, the question is, “Will Luke help or save the princess?”

The single event must also cause the main character to clearly see that his life is now out of balance for better or worse. He must not only react to this positive or negative change, but he must respond as well. In other words, the incident must arouse a desire in him to restore the balance in his life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—or all three.

The main character is therefore compelled to pursue his new goal of rebalancing his life. This stimulation becomes both a conscious and a subconscious desire. The subconscious driving force comes naturally for a complex character and shows up in the form of him suffering from an intense internal battle, especially if his conscious desire is in direct opposition or conflict with his subconscious desire.

Some writers refer to this internal battle as reflecting the character’s wants versus his needs. Many times the human condition causes us to chase after our wants, only to learn that we got what we needed instead. This righting of the unbalanced internal desire presents itself in a plot twist on screen—allowing for a realistic ending, while still pleasing the audience.

The key to developing an inciting incident is to make sure it launches a compelling character goal that will hold the audience’s attention and drive the story. The goal must be something that the main character can’t discard, because if he does, lots of innocent people will suffer—developing empathy within the hearts of the audience.

The trigger must do more than make the main character care. He must take action. If he merely cares, the story will fail to cause the audience to care, hindering the film’s box office results. This makes the inciting incident an important factor in developing a feature length story. Unfortunately many independent filmmakers treat inciting incidents as an insignificant piece of the story and wonder why their film doesn’t keep the audience’s attention for its duration.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers