Many years ago I was considering getting an advanced degree in screenwriting at UCLA.
I was invited to sit in on a class and I was glad I did because it was during that visit I realized UCLA was not the right place for me.
The first class of the semester started with the instructor — an older screenwriter with lots of teaching experience, but not much commercial success — dramatically producing a tiny gnome from his pocket and placing it in the middle of the table for all his students to see.
The gnome, tiny and ugly, was sitting on a stump with a crossed leg and an angry head resting on fist.
“That,” the experienced instructor said, “is your audience. They’re angry. They’re waiting. They dare you to entertain them.”
The students oohed an ahhed over this revelation that the people who were paying good money to see the movies they wrote were angry, tiny, people with every limb crossed across another — and I could not help realizing in my bones just how wrong the idea of that UCLA gnome was when it came to creating good writing and establishing a relationship with your audience.
I was propelled back to my Columbia University graduate school days:
I am reminded of a former graduate school professor of mine at Columbia University who was a publisher in the theatre book business and he just hated the fact all the major Broadway shows in New York City provided free tickets to all students in the program.As a publisher, he was offended that a $200.00USD ticket was being given away for free and these “student reviewers” would sit there in the audience and make haughty judgments and pronouncements about what was and was not good theatre while never wondering about how the paying audience felt about the same experience.
My professor felt that was not a realistic experience in that if nothing was wagered — the price of the ticket — nothing was earned: An honest experience in the theatre where you were vested as an interested party in the outcome of the performance.
If you spent your hard-earned money on a theatre ticket — even $3.00USD instead of $200.00USD — you had a stake in making the show work. It was important to you if the show was pleasing or not. You started out as a member of the audience hoping for the best, praying for a winner and wanting your evening to turn out right and to not be wasted.
As I sat in that UCLA classroom, I knew what was being taught was right for the students — screenwriters are angry and cruel when they read and watch the work of their colleagues — but wrong for the real world.
That instructor was also the same person who wrote a book on screenwriting based on his class who, in his forward, quoted hairstylist/producer Jon Peters as inventing the phrase — “God is in the details” — instead of architect Mies van der Rohe, but that’s another story for later.
Let us remember together the Lesson of the UCLA Screenwriting Gnome: Your audience is not your enemy.
Your audience is not sitting there with crossed arms saying, “Show me.”
Your audience is with your by default because they invested $15.00USD or more to be entertained by you — and for you to then see them as distrustful, or not on your side, is precisely the problem with modern Hollywood.
Movies today are only made to entertain the angriest lowest-common-denominator instead of the fully invested person who yearns for a connection with the silver screen — and the geniuses behind the scenes — to co-create a meaningful and passionate moviegoing experience that demonstrates human magnitude and doesn’t play to a sad little pocket gnome still sitting angry somewhere on a UCLA desktop.