Success in the moviemaking business is never a guarantee and really what ever is? But we can work toward creating success within the popular American movie system, i.e., Hollywood. This is also essential for indie filmmakers working outside of Hollywood. The reason being that, in this country; audiences, producers, financiers will expect a certain structure which is tried-and-true to the American movie viewing experience.
Filmmakers are entertainers. Furthermore, there’s a proven structure we can use to better ensure our feature films can entertain and satisfy our audience.
We have the opportunity to tell stories through the most unbelievable and comprehensive medium at our disposal. Many artists from different disciplines have turned to film. Andy Warhol realized he could do and say more with his art through film. We’ve heard forever “a picture’s worth a thousand words” then a moving picture must be worth a million.
Many filmmakers aspire to be successful with a striving career reaching audiences the world over with their films. I, definitely, include myself in that category.
We are entertainers. Through my previous experiences, I’ve come to really understand my responsibility in the medium. I’ve learned I need to create engaging stories that make audiences feel emotions related to the story, never boredom.
Audiences feeling boredom is poison to a filmmaker’s efforts. Hollywood studios, mid-majors and even indie companies don’t want to hear that. Seriously, these projects cost too much to make.
A mistake I made on my 2009 feature debut, Buena Gente (Good People), was not making it entertaining enough. I’ll clarify this observation shortly.
I believe many new filmmakers, including me, want very much to make a strong film while delivering a powerful message. It’s why many filmmakers are writers/directors. You feel a powerful emotion related to something you experienced or learned about and wish to share that through film. It may offer a great life lesson or call attention to a worthy cause. While it’s an admirable pursuit, we have to keep in mind audiences want to be entertained. So we need to find a balance between engaging audiences and showing them a good time.
Luckily movie tickets are still, relatively, inexpensive – when compared to a Broadway show, sporting event or even a nightclub. In some NYC bars, a movie ticket price might get you a decent drink. Anyway, for their $12, 13 tickets, moviegoers want to be taken on a ride away from their reality for a couple of hours. A martini can only do so much.
Whether it’s escaping to Hogwarts to join Harry Potter and friends (those films are great moviemaking) or envisioning yourself being kissed and loved while watching that new romantic-comedy. People want to feel strong emotions while sitting in that big darkened room surrounded by others who all want the same thing. Excitement, thrills, arousal, sides-hurting-from-laughter, anger, euphoria – all will do, just not boredom.
Back to that mistake I made. My film was a gritty, Latino-themed coming-of-age drama. It dealt with a young man who deceived his girlfriend, loses her then after finding out she’s in a deadly predicament answers the call to save her. My error was in taking it all too seriously. Each scene had conflict or a point to make, but I didn’t allow for enough breathers. Audiences need moments where they can get a break from serious stuff and smile at an amusing gesture. A sense of humor takes the edge off a tense atmosphere. Since then I’ve learned more about pacing a film.
Alfred Hitchcock utilized this principal in all his movies. Many times, tense scenes were followed by humorous ones. I truly believe Hitchcock knew audiences, and how to affect them, better than anyone in the history of cinema. Plus, he was a master marketer. Could you imagine him today? He’d be on Twitter and Facebook making witty remarks, posting videos, promos and his movie plugs would move people in droves to the theaters.
I think we, as mostly independent filmmakers, try very hard to make a statement and may forget the big picture. The big picture is to reach audiences with original, entertaining stories that speak to the human condition. But before we can make our statement, before we share our message – we must elicit emotions from our audience which relate to our films. Think of horror movies; people go to be scared. If it’s cheesy or not believable – it won’t do anything for that moviegoer and they’ll feel cheated. Simple, right?
Let’s check out a film’s structure.
Here’s the proven nine-step, three-act structure which has been used for many years by American big studio and smaller company movies.
1) Opening: Show something interesting which sets us up for what we will see and makes us want to get into this film. Think about the cool fight sequence at the start of The Matrix, didn’t it totally hook you?
2) Inciting Incident: Something happens to the protagonist which is big enough that they are challenged and need to take action. It makes us wonder what they’ll do about it.
3) By page 10, we know what the movie is about: Usually, by this point we know what kind of film we’re watching. You’ll hear many industry people use the word tone. If it’s a light comedy, we won’t expect to see someone violently beaten. That would throw us off and make many viewers uncomfortable.
4) First turning point at end of Act 1: We can say this is the first twist in the story. The protagonist has set out on a journey or accepted a challenge and they are different than when we first met them. We see this won’t be an easy challenge either.
5) Mid-Point: Something big has happened to the hero and his/her pursuit of the goal. Maybe they just got a big assist or maybe they just suffered a setback.
6) Second turning point at end of Act 2: Here we witness the second big twist in the story and the protagonist is having a tough time. It seems like the plan failed and they’re done. Bad guys party at our hero’s expense.
7) Crisis: The hero must make a key decision in order to move forward. And that decision is never easy. This is where we may say to ourselves: “wow, what would I do?”
8) Climax: This is the big conflict scene/sequence. We cheer the hero on – like in The Matrix when Neo manhandles Agent Smith.
9) Resolution: The final outcome should tie up storylines, answer major questions and leave us satisfied that we have completed the story. At times, some questions may be left unanswered and up to viewer’s imagination. But usually all major situations are resolved.
Although there are some American-made movies which may deviate somewhat from the rules, this method has garnered success for many movie industry professionals past and present. Check out enough films, especially the classics, and you’ll see this structure reveal itself.
I hope this has been helpful.
In closing, creating entertaining and satisfying stories begins with solid writing. If I may, the biggest source of my writing improvement has come from online classes through ScreenwritingU (www.screenwritingu.com).
I decided to include a structure breakdown using the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic. By the way, it was recently released on Blu-ray.
Tumbleweed travel through woods and LA streets. The “Dude” Jeff Lebowski, in robe and slippers, appears at a supermarket to buy milk and pays $0.69 with a check. Clearly, the “Dude” does things his way as we’ll further see in the movie.
2. Inciting Incident?
Two goons meet and rough up the “Dude” at his place to collect money for a gangster. One of them pees on his beloved rug and threaten him. But he’s not the Lebowski they were seeking.
3. By page 10 (usually)
We know what the movie is about.?Lebowski hires Dude to deliver ransom money in exchange for his missing wife, Bunny.
4. First turning point at end of Act 1?
Walter invites himself to accompany Dude to drop off the money. Walter conjures up a plan that backfires, the drop is never made. Later, Dude’s car with the money is stolen.
After being threatened by nihilists, who supposedly have Bunny and want the money, Lebowski’s daughter, Maude tells Dude those are Bunny’s friends. Dude gets his car back minus money, finds homework assignment and goes to speak with kid they suspect.
6. Second turning point at end of Act 2?
Dude is taken to porn businessman Jackie Treehorn. Jackie wants to know where Bunny is because she owes him a debt. Dude agrees to help Jackie recover his money, but his white russian’s been spiked- he passes out.
After being drugged and finding himself running on street, Dude’s arrested for disorderly conduct at Jackie’s place. He gets thrown out of cab taking him home then finds his place has been ransacked. With Maude’s help, Dude learns Lebowski doesn’t have any money and it’s all a set up.
After bowling practice, Dude and friends walk out to Dude’s car being burned by nihilists who want the money. Dude tells them they never had her. The nihilists demand whatever money they have, but Walter beats them up. Donnie has a heart attack.?
Dude and Walter pay last respects and scatter Donnie’s ashes from a Folger’s can. The two friends go bowling.
Fabian Baez was born in Springfield, Massachusetts to Dominican parents. Raised by his mother in New York City, he earned a BA in Film & Broadcasting from St. Francis College (Brooklyn, NY) and a MA in Physical Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. His feature debut, ”Buena Gente” (Good People), was independently produced in 2009. It premiered at the Maysles Cinema and, recently, screened at the first-ever Dominican Film Festival in New York and NewFilmmakers Spring Fest. The film is available for sale on Amazon. He completed a 10 episode web series titled “Career and Life.” He considers himself a dynamic filmmaker committed to initiating opportunities. Baez aspires to become a breakthrough creative hyphenate stimulating the advancement of cinema and media while helping people to leave the world a better place.