Monday, January 25, 2016

Making sense of Your Creation through the Eyes of the Audience

One of the problems of the creative energy moving from Theatrical Movies to TV is that there are valuable parts of the process of making a movie that get lost in the development of a TV project. One step of the develoment process is watching your finished movie in front of a test audience. I've always believed that a professional filmmaker/screenwriter can learn a lot of valuable things about their project when it is screened in front of a test audience. 
Yes, I know that a lot of film directors hate test screenings. However, there are others who love them, especially comedy filmmakers that get to see how jokes or routines play out on the screen in front of a live audience, and then go away and tinker with a cut to make it better (or even reshoot). 

The TV equivalent is what Executive Producer Chuck Lorrie goes through during a production of one of his sit-com shows. During the performance being filmed in front of a live audience, if something doesn’t get a big enough laugh or plays flat, Lorrie will stop, gather the writing staff, and they will busily work on writing something better and then try it again in front of the same live audience.  

This process is not an option for TV Dramas.  
I know there will be people who will read the above and think that the new “test” audience for TV shows is Internet feedback. 
I don’t believe it’s the same thing. 
Often times the people who write about shows on the Internet are not an accurate cross-section of the audience that will be (or should be) watching your show. Whether I’m right about that or not, I do firmly believe that those who write on the fan sites are definitely more observant, and that is more to the point I’m about to make. 

I watched the premiere of the third season of "Black Sails" Saturday night, and enjoyed the show in about the same way I’ve enjoyed the previous two seasons of the series. I love the outstanding production quality of the show which is right up there with the best on TV. 
Every episode has a theatrical studio movie look with production design taking center stage, whether it is a big action sequence or an interior scene with actors trading lines of dialogue. I also appreciate the outstanding quality of the CGI work (used to establish the period locations/and of course the scenes of the ships at sea). Of course, the budget of a TV series always forces the filmmakers to pick their spots when to showcase expensive battle scenes at sea, or other similar sequences on land, but when these scenes do appear on "Black Sails," they are always wonderfully shot and post produced.  

And yet for me watching the last two years of “Black Sails” has been only a “guilty pleasure” due to the consistently poor writing. 
Before I get to my major criticism of the scripts, I feel it’s worth mentioning another problem area afflicting the writing -- the series has rarely engaged on an emotional level. 
The one huge exception was the payoff to the nearly two-year character arc of the show’s main character, Captain Flint.
There is no need for a spoil alert because I won’t be revealing anything for those who seek to watch the show. But I totally acknowledge that the final episodes from season two were very well written, and did indeed payoff on a plot line consistent with everything preceding the back story reveal. The high level of emotional engagement was even more shocking because up to that point in the series, essentially all the storylines, plots, and characters had been handled in a way that was sadly so superficial. 

Believe it or not, there is an even bigger problem with the writing on the series. It has everything to do with how the writers of the series handle their story bible, and their consistently unclear and incoherent way of delivering the plot machinations that lie behind the storylines to the audience. Clarity has even been a big problem not only on a season arc level, but many times during single episodes of the show. I spend a lot of time when I watch the show asking myself, WTF is going on… or simply not caring about plot lines because it seems like the writer of an episode/staff of writers on the show don’t care enough to use any storytelling skills to engage their audience in the story they are trying to tell. Any viewer who thinks they can skip the first two seasons and jump in with the Season three premiere, God help you, because last night’s episode was no different than what has gone on before. 
And this is why I bring up test screenings. The writers of "Black Sails" should be forced to watch an episode of their show with a test audience who will then fill out a questionnaire, and be involved in a discussion group afterwards. The writing staff would discover (what I discovered when I was involved in a test screening of movies I had either written or produced) – that it is often surprising, even shocking, how many critical points in the plot the audience either misses or does not understand. The viewers for top shows are definitely more sophisticated than any previous audience in the history of TV. Therefore, no one producing a show wants to be guilty of spoon feeding their viewers, but it doesn't mean that everything that is happening is understood by the audience because what is up on the screeen is polished and beautiful to look at. 
For Professional Screenwriters and Filmmakers, remember that you live with your work for weeks... months... perhaps even years during the writing, development and production of your project. However, your audience comes in blind when experiencing the storyline and can easily become lost as they take in the story. I believe this point would never be forgotten if all filmmakers at least once observe the look of viewers who watch their production with glassy-eyed confusion because they don't know what the hell is going on.