Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

Reasons to watch movies

To go on an adventure (without personal risk).

To learn about a new culture or country; to see how other people live.

To have something to talk about with your friends.

To challenge your ideas or worldview, or to confirm it.

To laugh and have a good time.

To be scared.

To cry.

To feel understood.

To argue about something.

To escape the pain of your present life.

To participate in the culture, to be “in the know” or “in the conversation.”

To raise your status.

To develop taste.

To learn about fashion.

To rebel.

To be inspired.

To sit in an air-conditioned dark room for a while.

To distract yourself.

To share an experience with friends.

To have something to recommend to others (raise your status).

To be part of a group (“people like us watch movies like this”).

To connect with other humans.

To have something to talk about.

To have and accomplish a goal (“I’m going to watch all of the films of Ingmar Bergman.”)

To learn how to make your own movies.

To learn how not to make your own movies.

To find a new identity or a new way to live.

To watch an actor that you like watching.

To be completely engaged and lost in a story.

To remind ourselves to be more x or y.

To have something to hate or dislike or define ourselves against.

To critique or learn to be critical.

To give notes or help someone who is making the movie.

To understand someone else (through the movies they like).

To get turned on / in the mood for sex (alone or with partner(s)).

Catharsis.

Sturgeon’s Law

“90% of everything is crap.”

That’s a paraphrase of:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Counterintuitive because most people only see at most the top 10-15% of output from any given creative field.

And the inverse:

The inverse is obviously also true: if ninety percent of everything is crap, then even in areas that are generally considered inferior (such as soap operasdime novels or fan fiction), there must be ten percent that may be worth something.

— Various Wikipedia editors working asynchronously

From Wikipedia.

For a city to have a thriving arts scene

From Peak California:

For a city to have a thriving arts scene, you need some combination of:

1. Families or nightlife, both of which produce demand for reasonably educated workers who work non-traditional or variable-schedule jobs, either as babysitters or bartenders.

2. Cheap neighborhoods that aren’t unsafe. My current neighborhood, Williamsburg, fit this role ten years ago.

3. Upside, either in the form of selling out or marrying someone with a boring but lucrative job.

Is your film worth 8 cents an hour?

Oh man. Amazon is slashing royalties for video makers uploading to Prime Video:

For those that upload either episodic video shows or individual titles through Prime Video Direct, the program pays out royalties at set rates based on the aggregate hours viewed per title. In the U.S., Amazon paid between 6 cents and 15 cents per hour viewed in 2018; a similar sliding scale also exists for other Amazon markets the PVD program is offered including the U.K., Germany and Japan, according to a rate card.

Starting in April, Amazon is implementing changes to its U.S. rate card that will drop prices to between 4 cents and 10 cents per hour streamed, according to an email sent to Prime Video Direct account holders obtained by Digiday.


So let’s say you make an indie film and you get 100,000 hours of streaming (50k people watch a two-hour film) at 8 cents per hour. That adds up to $8,000.

It’s tough out on the long tail.

Withoutabox is dead.

Thanks to capitalist competition, Withoutabox has shuttered. Withoutabox was awful to use (although it had improved in the last couple of years).

I too cheer the success of FilmFreeway. I love the platform.

But I do wonder, in all the rejoicing, if anyone has stopped to think that…

FilmFreeway is now a monopoly.

Let’s hope they stay filmmaker-friendly. 

Screenwriting as a professional fascination

Screenwriting, as a professional fascination, is built on desires for personal approval that can be as fruitless and full of wish-thinking as gambling-addiction. Screenwriting is not filmmaking, it’s a part of filmmaking, it’s one of the blueprints, but it is not a good litmus test for the quality of a movie, clearly; Studios sign huge checks to great screenplays to then receive the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores in history. The Thunder Road Screenplay received multiple 3/10 ratings on The Blacklist. Yesterday, The Academy’s screenplay library reached out to have it added to their collection. The screenplay for Dunkirk is 70 pages. The only thing (Academy Award Winning Screenwriter) Diablo Cody knew about screenwriting when she wrote Juno was that “the dialogue is in the middle.” It’s ok to suck at writing screenplays if you know what will make a great movie and if you want to understand how people engage with movies in 2018, don’t study the script for Seabiscuit, get a Reddit Account like a normal person.

Jim Cummings

Shout it from the rooftops!

I really like what Jim has to say about independent filmmaking. It’s refreshing and intelligent.

The crap +1 fallacy

Another gem I picked up at Austin Film Festival: the crap +1 fallacy.

The fallacy is that you see a bad movie and think that all you have to do to succeed is write something a little better. 

It’s a fallacy because you can’t see the myriad reasons why the movie didn’t end up well–the missteps, the studio interference, actor problems, mistakes, and concessions that made a bad movie out of a good script. Your screenplay isn’t competing with the crappy final version of a movie — it’s competing with the good script that got mangled after it was purchased.

I get this completely, but I have seen films at festivals where I thought “oh, I can make something better than this” and that has been an effective motivator for me at times. 

The Not Actually Crap corollary: the movie was bad but made a ton of money. Sure, to your refined taste it was an artistic failure, but to the fat cat investors it was a resounding success.

Also known as You Are Not the Audience (YANTA). Hint: the audience is probably teenage boys or Chinese moviegoers.

Writing grants

grants.

i hate grants

i hate writing grant applications.

does anyone enjoy this?

did you like my thing?

are my artistic goals good enough?

do I have a good purpose?

do you like my carer trajectory?

is my art too safe or too risky?

am i saying the right things?

what are you looking for?

can I have some money? i would really like some money.

i hate grants

Everyone is writing TV pilots

One thing I noticed at AFF was that a LOT of people are writing TV pilots. It seems like every aspiring-to-be-professional writer I met had entered a pilot into the screenwriting contest or was working on a pilot or was trying to break into TV with their pilot. 

I had a conversation with a woman who was developing a pilot for a show that was an autobiographical story of how she found love later in life. I liked the story. I think it would be a good rom-com.

I asked her if it wouldn’t be better as a movie. As someone who lives in Austin, she has virtually no chance of that pilot getting made. First it has to be a great concept. I like the idea but it’s not like earth-shattering and the audience is somewhat limited. 

Second, she has to get the idea into the hands of people that can make it a reality, which is basically a few different studios or Netflix or Amazon or Apple. 

She doesn’t really have connections there. And it’s very rare that a first-time writer just gets a show made like that.

I told her that it would be much easier to make as a movie. You just have to find a producer that wants to make it. It’s much easier to find an indie producer than a willing TV executive, especially since there are so many possible budget ranges. You could do her idea for $200k, $500k, $1 million, or $20 million. 

It’s still hard; it’s still a longshot. I just see a better path there. And it’s her story. She wants it to be told. You can make a movie through sheer force of will. You cannot make a TV show that way. There are just too many factors outside of your control.

She could also write a play, a really funny play. All of these strategies hinge on the material being really good, although honestly, the indie feature route has the least reliance on having a good script.

A lot of the people with pilots in Austin were people that lived in not Los Angeles. It’s pretty damn hard to break into TV if you’re not in Los Angeles. I’m not really sure what their career strategy is. Maybe it’s submitting to contests, hoping to win one that gets them a manager? There are many ways in but I know that if my main goal in life was to write for television that I would have moved to L.A. years ago. 

I went to a panel with the director of filmmaker labs at Film Independent. She said that comedy features are very much underrepresented in their submissions for the screenwriting lab.

I think everyone who wants to write comedy went over to the pilot side, which in one way makes sense because there are more writing jobs in TV, but then again, there’s only a loose connection between the jobs and what gets you the job. 

Why not zig when others are zagging?





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