Audience Collaboration – An Overlooked Storytelling Force

In the film industry, they look on the audience as consumers, and box office receipts are the main barometers of a movie's success. Yet there is another measurement often overlooked, that of audience engagement. How deeply are they involved in the characters and their story? Were they entertained? Were they fulfilled with a truly dramatic…

In the film industry, they look on the audience as consumers, and box office receipts are the main barometers of a movie's success. Yet there is another measurement often overlooked, that of audience engagement. How deeply are they involved in the characters and their story? Were they entertained? Were they fulfilled with a truly dramatic experience and satisfying ending?

These questions relate most to how well the audience collaborates in the telling of the story. What role did they take in reflections, expectations, contemplating decision points and options, along with implications of the characters' intentions and emotions affecting the action? When the audience is intimately involved in the selection process, the story's plot and the character's choices, the audience cares and tunes into the pressing issues of the scene or the story. They keep asking that most desirable question, “What's going to happen next?”

Choices are the driving forces that make drama work. The audience is persuaded by them and they judge them whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. When the character's choices draw the audience deeper into the story they are no longer spectators, they become participants. They embellish and imagine things well beyond the technical capabilities of filmmaking and take the story to otherwise unobtainable heights. If they are truly invested in the story, they revel in this participation.

In quality films, the audience is always a participant for they add to the storytelling experience. Filmmakers use these time-tested dramatic techniques to generate a creative partnership, ones that encourage engagement. As spectators, they have little to do. However, as participants they are involved in the story, actively asking questions, making assumptions, searching for answers.

There are several reasons to seek collaborative arrangements. First off, the cost of producing story elements is much less when the audience imagines them and fills in the blanks. It would be too expensive to create every facet of the story. Beside, given the right clues, sounds and character reactions, the imagined visualizations have far greater impact than the renditions on the screen.

Another reason for collaboration is that when the audience is deeply entrenched in the story and its characters it is more likely to spread a positive word of mouth. When they invest intellectually and emotionally in the film, they champion its success. This marketing aspect is often overlooked, as it does not fit neatly into a numerical spreadsheet. Both the creative and marketing teams often ignore this storytelling force. In addition, to incorporate this entity, it must begin with story development and continue through assembling a creative team, straight through production, marketing and distribution. Every step along the way, one must keep asking how will the audience share and participate in the telling.

The most compelling reason for collaboration is that it ups the entertainment value of the movie. As participants, the audience shares in the telling, and their contribution rewards them. They become a part of the storytelling experience. They invest with their assumptions and intuitions and it makes that all-important experience, what's going to happen next, more satisfying.

Collaboration likewise adds value to the filmmaker's reputation as a provider of quality movies. With the purchase of a ticket, moviegoers assume they will be entertained for two hours. When they are not, they go away unsatisfied and may never know why. All they know is that something is missing. Sometimes it is the lack of opportunities for audience involvement. When the audience is bombarded with dialogue and music telling them what to think and feel, there is little room for speculation. By not being fully engaged in the story, the results are less than favorable. For the filmmakers and their creative team, addressing this issue is paramount to producing a quality product.

So how does one get the audience to collaborate as storytellers? There is no single answer. One must acknowledge that audiences react and interpret stories in personal and often unexpected ways depending on their individual background and circumstances. One can not predict exactly how they will respond. Some viewers will commit to narrative speculation, personal emotions, or philosophical arguments. Other viewers prefer linear narratives, coherent messages and music telling them how to react. The first group is participants; the second group prefers to remain spectators.

How a film opens reflects on the level of participation. The opening scene sets the tone and genre of the production, and informs the audience of what to expect the rest of the show. It also hooks the audience into the story and its characters. When the opening scene presents a pressing question, it gives the audience permission to participate. It activates their curiosity by asking a question.

Chip Houser's opening sentence to a story creates thoughtful speculation and unanswered questions. “She was right; the motel sign looked like a lollipop, and she was waiting naked on the bed-but she had not mentioned she'd be dead.” After such an opening, we want to know more.

How does one move the audience from being spectators to being participants? The general answer is, give the audience something to do. This requires tweaking the story, the acting, and editing to move the audience into the engagement mode. Speculation is a key factor. When there is uncertainty or multi-pathways in story directions, the audience speculates where it might lead. This absence requires space to ruminate in the audience's mind. It may be the character's indecision or contemplating options. This space could have a subtle eye movement or a deliberate pause. Another device is delaying options and resolving them in a later scene. Taking the time and space to weigh decent story points allows the audience to render its choice. It allows them to participate.

Another factor is the how much the audience cares about the characters and their story. When we feel and identify strongly with the struggle of the main character our involvements increases. Likewise, when the story has strong caring ingredients we are more likely to cooperate in its telling. These caring ingredients are sympathetic character (s) in heighten jeopardy earnestly struggling to reach a worthy goal against formidable opposition – winning or failing with a satisfying resolution. Caring about what happens next is a key factor to a productive collaboration.

Another consideration is the ambiguity / clarity aspects of the character's intentions and emotions. Not all story characters are up front about what they want or feel. This ambiguity sets up questions, possibly suspicions. Are these characters honest or do they have hidden agendas? On the other hand, when the story and its characters are on point, revealing everything truthfully and literally, there is little for the audience to do. Such a presentation creates minimal dramatic inertia, as there are no undercurrents, no secrets to unforgettable. On the other hand, when questions arise, even minute ones, engagement will increase. Likewise, when questions concern the survival of a sympathetic character in a do or die situation, involvements jumps dramatically. Thus caring ingredients, character duality, speculations, and delaying solutions are all factors that invite audience collaboration.

Questions invite collaboration and when we weigh good against evil in the inevitable contest, we have the ultimate question, who will win. This love-hate relationship polarizes our emotions, especially when there is formidable opposition and even matched opponents. In an epic contest, the tide swings back and forth with each opponent taking the upper hand. This tittering exit creates deeper involvement. In addition, when special skills or a variety of strategies come into play the match becomes more appealing. That's because the outcome is contested on several levels, on strengths, special skills, and strategies. The audience is thus engaged both intellectually and emotionally.

Another device is the lead or lag in telling of the story. For instance if the audience is led to believe the evil culprit will be getting his comeuppance in the next scene they become co-conspirators in rendering the punishment. They're taken inside of the story and will likely react with glee. On the other hand, if the hero is suddenly arrested without explanation, we will stick around and seek out the answer why. While most stories a re told in an active tense, often mixing in the lead or lag device will up the collaboration.

Quality films can also change how we feel and think, especially on hot button issues like race, war, and religion. When a movie challenges our belief system, our assumptions, we began questioning ourselves. This creates a self-evaluating type of collaboration. Films can also inspire, inform, and take us to fascinating new worlds. They can also allow us to live vicariously in the worlds and lives of people beyond our reach. Pursuing these filmmaking opportunities invites deeper participation.

In comedy, audience collaboration flourishes. Here content encourages vocal responses in the form of laughter. In addition, laugh facilitates more laughter and makes the humorous aspects stronger. The audience becomes participants in this celebration feeding on their own exuberance. However, good comedy does not come easily. It requires a much more disciplined, stylized, and precise style of acting. This is also true of the writing, directing and editing. For the audience to share in this humor, it requires manipulation in an almost formulaic way.

Many of the same collaborative principles apply. For instance, in the opening scene some sort of business, behavior, or dialogue should reveal that what follows would be comedy. In addition, confirm that the audience is knowledgeable about the subject matter. If they do not understand it, it's unlikely they will comprehend the humor. Comedy, at its best, comes out of the dramatic truth of the situation. A character has an obstacle to overcome, a connection to make, or a need to be satisfied. In addition, when it's expressed, clearly, emphatically with conviction, the laugh will fall into place.

Humor has a rhythm and pacing that sets up the gag, plants vital information, and climaxes with a surprise ending. When the audience tunes into this rhythm they qualify the payoff. Emphatic deliveries and well-placed pauses tell them what is important and where to laugh. There is space for them to comprehend and appreciate the joke and while manipulated, the audience becomes highly motivated cooperators and willing participants.

In the Smarter Brother's routine where Dick is scolding Tommy about blindly following advice from others, Dick questions Tommy, “Would you jump off a bridge if they asked you?” After a well-placed pause, which allows audience speculation, Tommy replies, “Not again.” The pause, the unexpected answer and Tommy's gullibility make this humorous bit work.

In selecting a creative team, seeking people respectful of the audience and its collaborative powers should be a key consideration. Applicants should have knowledgeable answers when questioned about the audience's response or desired response at various points in the story. Is the applicable awareness of various means that invite collaboration? In addition, have they shown in past projects the ability to seek out audience participation? While these hits apply to writers, directors, and editors, actors, in particular, should be resourceful in this area. The ability to portray the thoughts and feelings of the character along with creating dramatic questions are essential attributes. In assembling such a team, collaboration may appear a minor arousing consideration. Yet, it could lift the mediocre film to a quality breakout film, one that does well at the box office.

Audience collaboration in film presents a problem in that the movie is completed well before there are any public screenings. As such, the creative team must project what will invite collaboration. As mentioned earlier, this is an ongoing process from script development, to production, on through editing, marketing and distribution. When both the creative and marketing teams are knowledgeable about audience collaboration, decisions can be made that bring this storytelling force into the process. If overlooked, it may be too late to correct once the production wraps.

While this article covers this subject matter in a minimal way, it shows how the audience can enhance the story provided there are engaging elements, space, and payoffs. By exploring these opportunities, benefits, and collaborative means, it opens the door to producing better movies.