Contract with the audience

Today, at the Hamptons International Film Festival, I saw four feature films, each wildly different in every way from the other three. One was a tongue-in-cheek metaphysical inquiry into narrative, another was a non-fiction thriller based on the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Italy, a third was a revisionist documentary about Marilyn Monroe based on her very thoughtful writings (unearthed only after her death), and the fourth was the Tim Burton stop-motion film Frankenweenie.

I enjoyed all of them, although I found the two serious films to be far more satisfying (think “meal”, as opposed to “dessert”).

But seeing such different movies back to back really brought home to me that a film is, at heart, a contract. In particular, the filmmaker is contracting with the audience to assert and then maintain a very specific alternate reality — a world that has much in common with ours, but with key and well-defined differences.

A good film must bring the audience in on this contract quickly and cleanly. The film can contain mystery, but it cannot contain fuzziness. And a bad film is one in which the initial contract is either not clearly made, or else is betrayed at some point between the start credits and the end credits.

Even if viewers do not consciously know what the contract is, they always know whether it is a good one or a bad one, and whether it has been violated.

This is the reason that a beginning author is often advised to “kill your children”. If you fall too much in love with a particular scene in your story, then you will be tempted to keep that scene in no matter how much it tears the larger narrative out of shape. So you need to be prepared to be ruthless in throwing out good material — even great material.

In fact the only thing that ultimately matters is that contract with the audience. If you make a good contract and stick to it (admittedly not an easy thing to do), your tale will be a success.

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