Saturday, 3 May 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #90: The Comeback Kid

While the calendar says it's Spring, and the weather feels like the arse-end of Autumn, the Summer has begun with a bang at the movies. The blockbuster season's first superhero flick IRON MAN has had one hell of a sweet opening, beating the expectations of analysts, and the cynics who claimed those analysts were too optimistic in the face of women ticket-buyers feeling weak toward superhero flicks and the arrival of Grand Theft Auto IV targeting the same demographic.

Now the experts are harping on how the film was a guaranteed hit because it's a superhero movie, and this and that, but they're all wrong. I can tell you exactly why the film is doing so well, and it's something I harp about regularly on this subject in almost every post.

Audience goodwill.

It's the element most movie marketing experts miss in their studies, and it can make or break actors and films alike. The folks behind the Iron Man movie understand this and have exploited it, but in a good way.

Here's how audience goodwill works.

1. The audience must want the star, or stars to succeed with the film. They respect hard work, determination, professionalism, a sense of humour about themselves and their fame, maturity, and quality of work. The days of getting by on a charming sly grin alone are over, people are just too savvy about image to fall for that. And don't rely on tabloid exposure as a measure of popularity either. Although they won't admit it, most tabloid media consumers don't do it out of admiration, but out of schadenfreude.

2. The story cannot insult, belittle, deride, or otherwise look down upon the audience itself or their fundamental beliefs or natures. They can accept works that challenge them with intelligent argument presented in an entertaining manner, but they won't accept a cinematic slap on face.

3. The film itself must be entertaining. The subject matter can be dark, racy, raunchy, lowbrow, high-brow, scary, silly, happy, sad, or whatever, as long as it's main function is to tell a story that will entertain the audience, they will feel good toward it. If they want a lecture, they'll go to a lecture, when they want a movie, they want entertainment. If you can do your thing in an entertaining way the audience will respect you for it.

And these three simple steps are not only a sign of a film that generates audience goodwill, but also of quality film-making. I know I'm going to offend a lot of auteur-theory acolytes with this statement, but I must: If you can't use goodwill to connect with the audience, you just aren't that good a filmmaker.

Now allow me to explain before they start burning me in effigy in film schools across the world. A filmmaker, any filmmaker has to consider the audience when crafting his movie, the exact same way a writer must consider the reader when composing a novel, etc...etc...

Now I'm not saying that commercial success is the true gauge of a film's quality. Public tastes are erratic tastes, and can swing from loving a movie like Gandhi one minute, to watching Porky's the next minute. And more often than not these days, films are poorly marketed and saddled with a dreadful release plan that prevents the audience that might like that picture from even finding it. Many times a lot of films aren't released at all in order to use their presence in arcane accounting schemes.

However, whether your audience is 20 or 20,000,000 if they don't feel for your film and want it to succeed, then you're film is a failure on just about every level.

Now back to Iron Man.

One of the keys to Iron Man's goodwill success is its star, Robert Downey Jr. He's the classic comeback story of a young and immensely talented actor being almost destroyed by the demons of addiction, a story played out too often in showbiz these days.

What made Downey different and his comeback possible?


People like him, they see his talent for any acting challenge that gets tossed his way, and his self-destruction was free of the schadenfreude and laden heavy with pity.

After hitting rock bottom and spending time in the clink, and not the usual celebrity sentence which is counted in minutes, he did what many thought was impossible.

He started a comeback.

Now it wasn't instantaneous. He didn't take the cheap route of reality television, or some other crazy attention grabbing stunt, he did it the hard way, and also the best way.

First he sobered up, and got into recovery for his addictions, he dropped the party scene, and the he started working, working, working.

It was a tough road, a lot of insurance and completion bond companies were uneasy about him, but thanks to the support of friends and his own work ethic his career got started again. He showed those virtues that attract audience goodwill like ants to a picnic, determination, professionalism, a sense of humour, quality of his own work, and a hell of a lot of maturity.

The audience began to root for him, they wanted to see him succeed, and he when the opportunity came for him to jump to the A-List, they rewarded his hard work with success.

Now if only the rest of Hollywood understood that and stopped acting like spoiled children who treat their stardom like a birthright.

It has to be earned from the audience, and you have to work hard to keep it.

It's just that simple really.

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