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.

Add marketing to the list of things you need to know

Just when you start thinking “I’m really getting a handle on this movie-making thing” there’s another whole field of study and skill to learn.

I’m working on a marketing plan for my (still unnamed) feature film. It’s really hard, despite the fact that I’ve been working in ‘marketing’ as a day job for the past ten years or so. Or so I thought.

I realized, while reading Seth Godin’s new (and fantastic) book This is Marketing, that I haven’t really been marketing. I’ve just been working on tactics. SEO, paid search, advertising, analytics.

In the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking about the story of the film, how to talk about it in a way that resonates with people, that creates tension and makes them want to see it. And about the stories that my target audiences tell themselves, how they view the world, what they care about, why they choose to watch one movie or another, and why they tell their friends to watch a movie (or not).

The irony is that I think about that all the time when writing screenplays, how to create suspense and tension and create the feeling of “what happens next?”. It’s weird how bad we are at applying what we know in one domain to another.

Making people move

Rewriting the script today.

We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.

And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…

I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.

I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.

Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.

And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.

 

Writing better headlines

I came across this Buzzsumo post during my reading for my day job in digital marketing: “We Analyzed 100 million Headlines. Here’s What We Learned (New Research).”

No, I don’t have to write clickbait articles at my job but I do have to write ads and compelling copy to help sell a product that I happen to think is pretty great. And it occurred to me that I don’t often enough utilize the skills I have from my day career in my filmmaking career and I almost certainly don’t put enough thought into headlines I would write for say a trailer I’m posting on Facebook.

Anyway, this article might be interesting to you if you’re a filmmaker and you need help convincing people to watch your videos and get interested in what you have to say.






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