The 3 A’s of Story Movement

When I was a child, my dad told me that a motion picture was about movement. I said, “dah!” But later I realized he was profoundly right. I’ve seen too many films that were not about movement. I’m not talking about the physical motion you see on screen where either the camera is moving or the actor moves, although that is present in film.

I’m speaking about story movement.

Every great story has the triple A’s of story movement: Anticipation, Action, and Aftermath. It is no different than the beginning, middle and end, except for one small factor: It’s about building a question in the mind of a viewer that must be quenched by watching more of the show.

ANTICIPATION

The “what” of a story is typically known by the audience before watching the film. The key is to make sure the audience doesn’t presume the “how” of the story before it unfolds. However, to create story movement the director must build anticipation in the audience to see if things play out in the expected way. While the ending might turn out close to expectations, how the story unfolds must be new and unique.

Blog_AAA-1My picture of a character reaching for a flower is symbolic of anticipation. It causes the audience to wonder if the character will caress the flower and smell it, or pick it. Both possibilities have been seen before, so how it’s done tells a new story worth watching. Not knowing how things will play out causes the audience to anticipate several possibilities. The audience is compelled to continue watching to see the outcome.

ACTION

Blog_AAA-2The flower being picked confirms the anticipated event to be new or what was expected, but done in a fresh way. It also raises another question. The audience now wants to know what will happen to the flower. The action drives the viewer to seek the end of the scene. They need to know if the character will hand the flower to someone, put it in a vase, toss it over the neighbors fence, or maybe realize that picking it killed the poor thing and grieve. The possibilities are endless.

AFTERMATH

Blog_AAA-3The aftermath isn’t always negative, but many times it is, except for the midpoint and climax of the film. But it’s always emotional so the audience shares the experience and desires to know more about what will happen in the next scene. Many writers speak about this moment being critical to moving a story forward using a consequence or conflict.

Every scene must have the three A’s to drive the audience’s desire for more story. Without it, the film falls apart. The magic of the three A’s is that it works every time, keeping the story moving and raises questions in the audience’s mind about what comes next. Great stories compel the audience to watch every subsequent scene until the film’s resolving climax and epilog.

© 2016 by CJ Powers

Story — Endow Experience with Meaning

CFD81E31-5644-4EE4-A744-32C46B021CC0Persuading a person to your perspective is ascribed to two forms of communication: argument and story. Film is considered both an argument and story. Yet, many independent filmmakers never try to argue their point to a mass audience or share a story that’s saturated in experience and meaning. They simply want to create something cool, which adds to society’s noise.

The number of independent films, both short and feature, hit its peak and started to decline last year. The main reason for the drop was due to filmmakers leaving the industry. Many cited their inability to “break in” to Hollywood, as the reason for exit. When asked what changed perspective or infused meaning they had hoped to give their audience, none were able to answer. Their response suggested they had all been a part of the noise.

One filmmaker stated strongly that he didn’t make his film to persuade the masses, but instead created it to encourage like-minded people that agreed with his philosophies and ideas. He was asked a follow up question, “What meaning did you attach to the character’s experience for the edification of the audience?” His response was, “I had lots of lessons in the film.”

Having talked to thousands of independent filmmakers, I can tell you that a person who says they’ve put lots of messages in a film, has failed to provide the audience one clear understandable message. The film becomes a conglomerate of noise.

Story is a gift that allows us to turn meaningless activities into art filled with purpose. Without purpose, the artistry of a story fails to appear. It’s only when a single purpose or vision is conformed by artistry that a memorable story survives the test of time. When watching great story, audiences catch and embrace the meaning as their own, much like watching a good friend work through a crisis to success.

If you felt the need to label the outcome, we would call it a testimonial of the main character. After the hero overcomes his greatest obstacle, he is able to testify to his success. He lived through the painful process and not only landed on his feet, but also demonstrated to the audience a solution they can implement in their lives as well.

In other words, stories that stand the test of time are those that show a main character who attaches meaning to his or her experience. It is also a story that is easily shared with the masses because of its universal appeal. Whenever meaning is attached to a character’s activities, the story is of great interest to all viewers.

One benefit of losing filmmakers who don’t endow their experiential stories with meaning is the reduction of noise in the market. The less noise producing filmmakers, the easier it is for audiences to find the filmmaker who produces great stories.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

 

They Got It Backwards

I love the juxtaposition of talking with a horror filmmaker and a faith-based filmmaker over the same weekend. The former asked why I sometimes wrote about faith-based films. She couldn’t comprehend why I’d even broached the politically incorrect subject of religion. The later questioned me on educating horror filmmakers who bring evil into the world. He rebuked me for not separating myself from “the likes of them.” I chuckled at both perspectives.

Filmmaking is an art, which both people had forgotten. It’s also a craft that requires thousands of hours to master. Since I’ve worked several features and 300 plus television episodes, I’m willing to share my knowledge and hope to learn something new during the exchange of ideas and craft secrets. I’m a people person, what else can I say.

The conversations opened my mind to just how backwards both filmmakers got it. Let me start with the faith-based filmmaker.

There is an interesting trend in the faith-based market niche. Churches have gotten so good at entertaining that its congregations are dropping off. Millennials aren’t interested in a polished presentation in their services, but instead in an authentic person sharing how to do life. They also want to sing during worship, but the loud music and professional singers leading the congregation stops them from sharing their untrained voices in song.

Christian filmmakers are creating films with authentic stories that are real and rough around the edges, the exact thing Millennials want from their services. But, they don’t want that in their movies, instead they long for highly entertaining and professional films. The church and Christian filmmakers have it exactly backwards from what their audiences demand.

Horror filmmakers also have it backwards. The genre started out as a tool to launch great, unknown filmmakers into the mainstream movie making system. Those with good stories rose in the ranks and transitioned to thrillers and later to action films. Today, most horror filmmakers aren’t concerned about story. Instead they focus on the latest FX to make mutilation more realistic.

Without a story about characters you learn to care about, the scary aspects of horror films hold little fear in our heavy CGI based world. The lack of story makes the film appear campy, just like unprofessional faith-based films. In fact, the relationship between horror and faith-based films is so close that I’m surprised no one has done a high quality Christian horror film that causes the audience to consider their own mortality.

The bottom line is that genres only work well when done in the way the media demands. Since high quality technical equipment is now readily available to both genres, storytelling becomes critical to sort through the noise of the thousands of bad films. Even TV has hit a glut of programming and most people aren’t aware that over 400 new series were released last year. The support of an audience is still critical to the health of a series. Without the right audience the shows get cancelled or make little to no profit.

It’s time our churches give up the professional entertainment for the authentic sharing of life. Our faith-based films must also turn around by creating professional and highly entertaining universal stories. And, our horror films must get back to the core work of storytelling, as movies without stories are a waste of everyone’s time.

Let’s turn around these backwards trends.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Supporting Your Why

WhyStrong leaders know that passion motivates their team and produces high returns on their products/services. This passion is the heart of the company or the reason why the company does what it does. It’s the one filter that everything being worked must be analyzed through.

I recently reviewed a film script that was being produced by an Atheist and a Christian. I found it fascinating that they set their religious differences to the side in order to make a great story. I was also eager to see how the film turned out due to the diverse passions they brought to the table.

However, the screenplay had some major flaws in it. I asked both men how they’d deal with the hole in the plot and they both instinctively knew how the story needed to end, but couldn’t understand how to get there. So I asked if they’d like my input and they agreed.

I asked one question: Why are you making THIS story?

They both answered in almost perfect unison, “To show the audience that people can change with every choice they make including the decision to show a weaker person kindness.”

Here is how I responded…

If a person is going to change, it needs to be the protagonist. (Although other characters can also change.) Therefore ACT 1 must show the unchanged protagonist in his normal flawed life. In ACT 2A, the protagonist must be introduced to the possibility of change or at least the contrast between his current life and his possible life. In ACT 2B, the protagonist must battle through his internal and external obstacles to overcome whom he is to give room for who he can become. In ACT 3, he must look at his flaw from a new perspective and turn it into the thing that catapults him through the change into his new life.

The restructuring of their story based on their agreed “why” drove a dynamic rewrite that made the story award worthy. It also drove their shared passion into the story itself. The rewrite was simple when they filtered every thing through their powerful why.

In the independent filmmaking business, the number one thing that kills great stories is when the writer loses track of the why. Writers are naturally drawn down interesting rabbit holes that take the story in a significantly different direction. The only way to stay true to the story is to understand why you’re writing it to begin with.

When I created Tried & True with Guy Cote and Anthony DeRosa, I started the story with the following why: To help people realize they are trapped in a comfortable, false freedom and need to break free to experience a true adventurous freedom that is available to all who seek it.

Unfortunately we didn’t use the why as a filter during the writing process and ended up having a different story with each draft. Each version would make a great film, but there would only be one version that matched our passion – The one we had neglected to write. It became clear that one more run at a rewrite was necessary to birth the version that we could all passionately get behind.

Filtering everything through your why will keep you focused and headed in the direction you originally intended. Everyone has a why to follow, whether in business, among family, or in creative endeavors. And, everyone can shine brightly in a profound way that the world needs when their life’s output reflects their why.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

5 Steps that Create the Middle of a Story

© ktsdesign - Fotolia.comOver the weekend, I coached a couple of young filmmakers in a Google Hangout. Their goal was to create an award winning short story that could be produced as a film. They had a beginning and an end, but struggled to know how to get from one to the other in a plausible fashion for the audience.

I shared five story analysis steps to guide them in how to fill out the middle of their story:

  1. Review the Logline.

I asked what the film was about and they weren’t able to answer within two sentences, which suggested clarification was needed on the core story. Our first step was writing down the logline to make sure they understood their story and its key elements including protagonist, antagonist or obstacle, setting, and protagonist’s goal.

  1. Determine Character Development.

The writer and director knew who the protagonist was in the beginning of the story and the end, but didn’t know how to move him through his character development transitions. In this case, the hero starts out selfish and ends up selfless. A simple response could’ve been the following progression: Selfish -> Disinterested -> Apathy -> Selfless.

However, the excellent conflict between the protagonist and antagonist throughout the story suggests the development should instead be based on the character’s relationship. This perspective led to the following progression: Selfish -> Acknowledgment -> Respect -> Selfless.

More information about the process can be found here.

  1. Make the Scenes Visual.

Motion pictures are about motion and emotions. Something needs to be moving and stimulating. This forces the story to be visual, which opens the door to symbolism, metaphors and allegories. We indirectly discussed what the film would look like if there were no sound, just action.

While the writer feared that the success of the picture would rest solely on the actor’s visual performance (facial reactions), those visualized moments would catapult the story to award winning levels at festivals. Projects that rest on the dialog to tell the audience what’s happening depower the story’s impact.

  1. Find the Symbolism.

Finding symbolism within a story and attaching it to a physical object for visualization makes for a powerful story. This short story was about a precious commodity that the hero holds dear. The physical element quickly emerged as a symbol on its own merits once the story was sound. Having a key visual element tied in to the story as a symbol always turns the heads of festival judges and most audiences appreciate the added depth brought to the screen.

  1. Test the Story.

By writing down a sentence or two for each of the story beats, the writer and director can create a mini treatment that will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the story. Making alterations at this stage is simple compared to reworking several pages of script.

By reviewing the above five items, an obvious outline of the story emerged for both the writer and director to work from. By adjusting their perspective when reviewing each element, more potential scenes came to mind for exploration. This process makes it easy to create numerous scenes from which the best can be selected for the middle of the final script.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Abandon the Faith-Based Label

The Passion of the ChristThe Hollywood Reporter printed a guest column by Mark Joseph. The title was “’Faith-Based’ Is Not a Film Genre” and the column opened with a quote from the author. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the label is both untrue and unhelpful, and should be abandoned.”

Joseph is a marketing expert that has worked on the development and/or marketing of 40 films including, The Passion of the Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, I Am David. His article opposes his success stories being lumped together with the myriad of bad Christian movies that, based on its significant volume, created the Faith-Based label.

I understand his concern, since in Hollywood the term “Faith-Based films” is synonymous with “bad Christian movies.” When a producer approaches a distributor and presents a Faith-Based movie for consideration, the distributor immediately tells him not to expect any revenue from the limited release. The shoddy contract supports the statement.

However, Joseph’s article fails to mention that marketing must label product in order to properly promote it. This is why most Oscar winning films are genre specific, which is easier to market. It’s not possible to market a film that is “sort of this and kinda like that, with a twist and biblical message.”

The real problem isn’t that the large number of Faith-Based films forced Hollywood to group the movies into a single label that preempts the audience with its consistently bad storytelling and lack of artistic prowess. The real problem is that those making Faith-Based films actually think what they’re making is high quality and they see no reason to improve their craft.

I’ve had several opportunities for funding that required us to add a handful of elements to satisfy the religious investor, which would destroy the storyline and artistic expression of the film. Having a history of making artistic story rich shows for most of the major networks, my integrity didn’t allow me to accept the terms and I  suffered the consequences of not being funded. Several fund worthy friends had similar experiences and we’ve all scratched our heads wondering why bad films are funded and great ones are not. This made me wonder if investors don’t truly understand how great story in film impacts society.

Some producers tried to re-label their Faith-Based films for a general release, but because the investor funded elements were present, the story was destroyed and the film received the unwanted label – Forcing the film’s failure in the marketplace. Not only did the films fail as predicted, but it also positioned the producers as liars.

Today, the only way to avoid the Faith-Based label, which alerts the audience that a film is bad, is to make a universal story picture for the general public. As for the biblical message, it can be lightly salted into the theme, where based on the art form, would have the greatest impact. This will also push the film to the largest number of people in each market, placing the message before millions worldwide.

Now, I understand that there is one other way to change the Faith-Based label to something meaningful that draws a new audience, but it requires those who participate in Christian films to judge and categorize each film’s actual level of quality. Bad films have to be called bad and compared to the good films, which must be called good. And, for those few great films, they too must be called great. Then, and only then, will marketers be able to clearly articulate the differences between Faith-Based films, recreating the meaning of the label.

Since most Christians don’t want to suggest that a film carrying a message from God is bad, this will probably never happen. Instead, the funds will eventually dry up and Faith-Based films will disappear until the next generation can find a way to make the films self-sustaining. I’d wager a guess that within the next ten years a new breed of filmmakers would step into the limelight and change the definition of Faith-Based films forever.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Finding Your Style

Social media requires branding to successfully promote a product (film) or person (director). The packaging of the brand comes from the artist’s style, which he or she might not understand. Style is the essence of who the person is professionally as displayed over the long haul of a career (or season, in the case of those who rebrand or reinvent themselves).

Last Friday, I bumped into two young people who were talking about their future from a sterile vantage point. The black man talked about rising above his blue-collar job to management and the white woman shared how she positioned herself with her B.S. and Masters degree to become a social worker.

It was as if two stereotypes sat in front of me, so I asked a few questions and was amazed at the answers. There was one specific truth that I learned in those shared minutes that continued to echo in my head every day since: Artists can find their style by participating in three part impromptu sharing sessions.

SHARE WORKS IN PROGRESS

The man revealed his real interest wasn’t in management, but in music. While he wasn’t classically trained, he was confident that his music rose from his soul and could touch the heart of others. I asked him to sing a sample and we were all amazed at the tone and quality of his voice.

My eyes saw an hourly wageworker trying to make ends meet, while my ears heard a professional singer waiting for his magical break. More importantly, it became very clear that he had a new style that hadn’t yet been exploited within the entertainment industry and it was worth the listen.

He didn’t realize that he had a style, but it was clear to all those who gathered around as his voice attracted passers by. Can you picture the tone of a Sinatra mixed with the passion of a JLo? His style broke all stereotypes and was refreshing.

CREATE OFF THE CUFF MATERIAL

I asked the man if he could create something on the fly. He asked me to give him an example. Not being a singer, I asked if I could share a story. He shared his love for stories and asked me to proceed. After getting from him who the main character was and where the story took place, I started the story.

It was more fun watching the growing audience’s expressions than it was making up a story on the fly. The man was so amazed that he participated with emotional responses, as the main character experienced various conflicts. The audience also started to gasp and cheer appropriately.

I’ll never forget the disappointment on the man’s face when my story was cut off due to the circumstance at hand. He wanted more and I learned a lot about myself in those few minutes, as I got a glimpse of the style in which I shared the adventure.

DISCUSS EVIDENT STYLES

The audience and the woman witnessed two men with two distinct styles emerge in a short conversation. While time didn’t allow for it, each person was capable of sharing and discussing the styles that were evident in the presentations. That type of feedback helps an artist to focus on whatever rises from their heart for a future performance.

Discussing the styles also helps the artist let go of preconceived misconceptions, which I’ve personally struggled with. But I’ve learned that it’s not the style that makes the artist, but the artist that gives rise to a style. In other words, I firmly believe that depending on where we are in life, our style will shift and sway to reveal our heart whenever we create or perform.

My experience last week proved that artists can find their style by participating in impromptu sharing sessions that are broken into the following three parts: Share works in progress; Create off the cuff material; and, Discuss evident styles. The acknowledgement of what comes from the experience drives the artists to find his or her personal style.

Copyright © 2015 CJ Powers