Friday, October 2, 2009

"The Audience Contract" by Roland Zag

“Sometimes you want to upset an audience so you can change them. I’ve done so-called Hollywood films, and I know that it’s all about wanting the audience to feel upbeat, give them a happy ending. But they also like complete stories. If your story’s complete it doesn’t have to be a happy ending.”
Morgan Freeman

We can always tell whether a film moved us or left us cold, but we can hardly explain why exactly this was the case. A German book about emotional screenwriting proposes a detailed framework to describe universally (for western audiences, that is) comprehensible emotions in stories. It is based on analyses of a wide array of successful films, not just Hollywood blockbusters with happy endings.
Should the book ever become available in English, the animation industry would certainly benefit from it.

Analysing the emotional impact of movies has always been of great interest to me. I even did my master thesis on David Lynch’s sound design (after being told that analysing color schemes of animated features was not a workable concept). But all those tools we usually associate with creating emotions in a movie – music, color, sound design, even acting – are merely artistic devices to emphasize emotions that are already in the screenplay. Sometimes they do work on their own, but that’s not what I’m after here.

Whenever there is a discussion about recent animated features, the term “heart” is used excessively. But people hardly ever manage to explain what they mean by “heart” or “emotional maturity” other than admitting that they fought tears during projection. So the basic question is: what conditions have to be fulfilled within a story to be able to cause emotional response from an audience?

German script doctors Roland Zag and Norbert Maass have been researching that topic under the premise that in order to be successful beyond the first weekend (which heavily depends on marketing budgets) a film has to generate word of mouth recommendation. In order to do so, it has to be emotionally accessible to people with different personal experiences.

In his book “Der Publikumsvertrag” (“the audience contract”), Roland Zag presents us with guidelines for emotional screenwriting based on what he calls “the human factor”. I’m usually very skeptical of these kinds of manuals because many of them try to sell you the secret of success based on very narrow normative assumptions by their authors. However, this one is not concerned with formal story structure (like plot points or three act theories) but with the actual content of stories: characters and their relationships.

Zag explains the subject matter of the “audience contract” as follows: In return for a leap of faith, the audience expects stories whose conflicts, which are more or less difficult to resolve, undergo more or less successful coping strategies. The author then presents detailed categories of interhuman relationships based on the empirical analysis of 200 feature films. Zag is always aware that box office success is no indicator of artistic quality, instead he attempts to explain why films and not only blockbusters are successful.

Some of the most important factors that trigger socially conditional emotions are: affiliation to social groups, commitment and an imbalance in give and take. Of course, emotional plausibility is also an issue, but never taste or artistic concepts. Unfortunately, the book and the accompanying blog where Maass and Zag continue to do market analyses of current films are only available in German. There is a general summary in English on the blog, though.

There are no animated features among those 200 films (a market analysis of Up! can be found on the blog), mainly because the author takes it for granted that animated family films depend almost completely on the human factor. Several examples have shown, though, that its basic rules have been violated which led to less successful films compared to production and marketing costs.

What the book ultimately provides us with is a framework that enables us to talk about the creation of emotional stories in more or less clear categories. They also serve as a set of useful tools to analyze any given movie or screenplay concerning emotional resonance and audience response. Of course, success is also dependent on other factors, but on a large scale, without “the human factor” there is little chance.

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