After reading countless screenplays in the course of many years in “the biz” — looking for projects, giving notes to people, doing script doctoring, etc – perhaps the most recurring thought I have both during and after a read is “Who does the writer think really wants to see this?” It’s a tough and painful question to ask yourself, particularly with a pet project, but before you start your first major rewrite, ask yourself this question:
Does the audience really want to sit through your story on a Friday night after a long week at work?
Think about a coal miner who may see one movie a year. What does he want to see? There’s a reason The Hangover does a lot better than a documentary about, well, coal mining. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t write something daring or different or dramatic. Then the question is, “Can you tell this particular story in an entertaining way?” There is a reason movies such as Schindler’s List, The Help, Million Dollar Baby, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty make over 100 million dollars. The filmmakers took difficult subject matter and found a way to make the stories entertaining. And, yes, even Schindler’s List is entertaining in that it tells a compelling story about a complex character that is suspenseful, energizing, at times witty and continually keeps the audience leaning forward. The movie going public consistently surprises the studios with its ability to see new and original movies… if they are entertaining.
I’m not saying you can’t write your personal pet project about a difficult subject. Not every movie has to be The Hangover, a movie I absolutely love. Not every movie needs to make 100 million dollars. That’s not what I’m saying. But even an indie feature shooting for small distribution needs to engage some part of the movie-going public. The most difficult of stories have to keep the audience leaning forward. Otherwise, you shouldn’t ask people to spend precious time and money watching your story.
Keep the audience in mind!