The Old Lady In The Fifth Row

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The Old Lady In The Fifth Row

One afternoon, I went to a showing of Casino Royale on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was full of neighborhood residents in their 70s and 80s. They talked throughout the movie, commenting on events as they unfolded. After the lights went on, they sat there discussing the whole film! Fascinated, I did what any good writer does: I eavesdropped. The words I heard most often were, "I didn't get why…" and "I didn't like…"

I'm sure these moviegoers see whatever is playing in the neighborhood, regardless of genre, just to get out of the house. It's a chance to meet their friends and have a social outlet. They probably knew James Bond wasn't their cup of tea when they bought their tickets, but they were still disappointed. Like all moviegoers, they had wanted to like the movie.

Becoming attuned to audience reaction is an important part of your job. As a writer, you're a people watcher, so put those people-watching skills toward your education. Go to a movie you've already seen, but this time place yourself in the very front row, off to one side. Instead of facing the screen, turn and face the audience. Notice the expressions on their faces during a tense scene. See where they get bored or where they lean over to their friends and hiss, "That would never happen!"

Watching an audience watch the movie will teach you the most important lesson you can learn: your job as a screenwriter is to involve the audience every step of the way. Do this exercise with movies you love as well as movies you hate. Do it with high-concept blockbusters, indie hits, even obscure Iranian political dramas (hey, you never know what you might learn). Do it with movies like the ones you aspire to write or in genres you work in. Who is the audience for these films? Are they younger, older, male, or female? Are they intellectuals, average folks, or a cross-section of the population? See the same movie in different theaters, even in different cities if you get the chance.

Then let this little study in human psychology inform you as you go back to your own script. You can't please all of the people all of the time, so don't even try. But after you hear a sweet little old lady in the fifth row exclaim, "I just didn't think this James Bond was very nice," I bet you bring a different understanding of the audience to your work.



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