Recently I watched ‘Love is Strange’ (2014) starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a long-term same-sex couple forced to live apart. Thoughtfully directed and beautifully performed, this indie film was well-reviewed. For those who haven’t seen it I won’t disclose what happens suffice to say that in the third act I was perplexed by an offscreen plot twist so unsettling it felt as if the film had thrown itself off a cliff. For me it was a stark reminder of the importance of the contract between the maker and the audience which, once broken, can never be repaired.
As work on this film progresses the idea of the contract is uppermost. At this writing I don’t know who the likely audience for ‘Voyageuse’ might be. What I do know is its off-grid storytelling doesn’t lend itself to easy categorisation. It’s not a drama or a drama documentary, nor is it a typical arthouse or an artist’s film. The term ‘experimental’ I resist because it’s a lazy shorthand and a potential turn-off.
I’m not convinced labels are useful in an overcrowded market where most films don’t get a theatrical release let alone make a return on their investment. They certainly don’t mean much to an audience that only wants to see a well-told, well-crafted story, whether as spectacle and escapism or a means of identification and empathy with the characters on screen.
Apart from the perennial run of blockbusters, it seems cinema is drawing an increasingly older audience with an appetite for rich narratives. Ironically these type of films are nigh-on impossible to finance because they tend to be independent and hence low budget and no one gets a decent pay day out of a low budget film. According to the how-to advice on making and selling films, knowing your audience is the key to success though I would argue that this theory only works if the audience wants to know you.
Years ago my partner and I wrote a visionary blueprint for a digital film studio. In our business plan we prefaced the Executive Summary with a quote from David O. Selznick who once said that the only kind of films that make money are the very cheap and the very expensive. Certainly the former is true for a select few YouTubers who, with no overhead other than a camcorder, build massive followings and fortunes. Anything more cinematically ambitious is a little more complex and harder to pull off.
Off the back of my last blog post, I was contacted by Pat Kane who, writing in ‘The National’, bemoaned the low level of Scottish film production. However the trouble with most filmmakers is that they can’t shake off production orthodoxy. Recently on my way to the shops I spotted a group of people at the end of my street gathered round a DSLR on a tripod. I counted at least 10. The slate was a giveaway so I asked what they were shooting. ‘A short film,’ came the guarded reply. I looked at the guy in front of the camera, the only actor involved, but even I couldn’t work out why a run-and-gun shoot with no lights, grips or props needed so many bodies. Subtract the director, the camera op and the sound recordist and I reckon the other six were redundant though I’m sure they all had job titles in lieu of wages.
Of course, the quest to find an audience begins long before the camera turns over. During recent discussions with my lawyer I learned that a previous spec screenplay I’d written was read by one of his colleagues who remarked on it not as a ‘script’ but as a ‘property’. There’s a huge difference. Flattered as I am to have my work elevated by the real film industry in London, it only underlines the challenge of reaching an audience when one’s script is judged not for its solid, original premise, a novel plot, zingy dialogue or a set of compelling characters but rather, on brand value/recognition, scope for casting, story-structure trends and sales potential in the international marketplace. This is not, I suspect, why people choose to pursue a film career.
In all the talk about new distribution platforms there’s little mention of audience metrics, making the task of knowing who’s watching what even more of an inexact science and therefore harder for content producers – i.e. the likes of me – to determine what kind of stories are worth telling. This statistical void also raises questions for cinemas and festival programmers looking for diversity. For all I know people over 65 are glued to porn and martial arts movies in the comfort of their living rooms and not giving a damn.
So who is that elusive audience we’re supposed to target? At every stage a writer/director has to get their work past a script reader, development executive, executive producer, talent agents, cast, sales agents, distributors, financiers, festival programmers and exhibitors. Only then does the paying audience matter.
So before I talk myself out of the task I’ve set myself – as if – as winter approaches I have a crucial task – to capture the spirit of the script with – as luck would have it but subject to contract, of course – my very first choice of actress from my original wishlist. Until then discretion applies.
The above image is a group photograph taken at Newnham College, Cambridge in the early 1950s. Erica is pictured in the back row.