Two people walk out of a movie theatre as the credits roll. One says to their friend, “Well that was a complete waste of money.” There’s a slightly longer pause than they expect before their friend says, “I actually loved it.”
The Last Jedi is released. One Star Wars fan praises it as the best film of the entire franchise. Another despises it and claims it’s destroyed Star Wars, and that he’ll never watch another new Star Wars film again.
Avengers: Infinity War was just released this past weekend. Some people have called it soulless trash. Bland, boring, repetitive. Other people, myself included, found it a gripping, moving experience. So whose wrong?
You can probably guess by now what this is going to be about: audience subjectivity. It is one of the most fascinating things in the world to me. In particular because in my years of obsessively studying storytelling, I’ve come to find there are definitely universal principles and structures behind good storytelling. These are the rules and forms of effective storytelling that we have discovered over thousands of years of telling stories to each other, starting with the flickering light of the campfire, and now with the flickering light of a giant screen. And yet it is actually impossible to tell a story that every single person will love, particularly when it comes to cinema. One person will walk away convinced they have seen one of the greatest films of all time, the other that they’ve seen the worst. And both will shake their heads at the other, completely baffled, wondering what is wrong with the other person.
I saw The Avengers opening weekend when it was released. The cinema was packed. And in particular packed with people who were so stoked to see this film. It was amazing, the audience laughed, gasped, cheered and leaned forward in their seats at all the right places. I went and saw it again a couple weeks later. The cinema was maybe half full. The jokes fell flat, the shocks weren’t as shocking, the drama less engaging. What happened? Have you ever watched a comedy with a group of good friends and found yourself laughing so hard you thought you’d be sick? And then watched the same film on your own and you didn’t laugh anywhere near as hard? There’s a simple principle at work here: the audience and environment you see a film with can massively change your response to the film. We are in many ways pack animals, and our unconscious mirroring of each other and our environment will subtly change how you respond to a film. The best possible way to see a film is in a cinema, with a packed audience who are stoked to see it. With your phones, laptops and every other distraction away, able to give yourself over completely to this communal experience. Audience and environment can make or break your experience of a film, completely separate from any merits the story may have in it’s own right. Opening night of The Last Jedi: Luke throws the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks off. The whole cinema roars with laughter. Every time I saw it afterwards: nothing. Barely a chuckle. And my laughter was much more subdued, and I started to wonder if it really was a funny moment. What’s going on? Audience. Environment. They can change everything. And being aware of this dynamic and how it can affect you is a very useful tool when it comes to understanding how you and others have responded to a film.
A recently came across a person employed in the video game industry who went to see Ready Player One. They stepped out of the cinema and composed a massive 15 tweet long thread about how they didn’t like the film because they don’t think the Oasis as presented would really work as a game. Now to me, this is a spectacular example of completely missing the point of storytelling. But here’s the thing, I only feel that way because my background is completely different to this person. Our areas of interest and expertise will completely change how we respond to a story. My background is a decade now of both studying and working in filmmaking. And in particular obsessively studying storytelling and how it works. So of course I think that response is missing the point, because I actually have a framework for the basic concept that storytelling has a point. That there’s a reason we go to the movies and love them, and seem to have an insatiable appetite for stories of all forms. But I’ve only arrived there because it’s my thing. I’ve invested hours and hours thinking about this and studying it in my own time. This other person hasn’t. They possibly have never even stopped to even consider why they watch films and engage with stories. They just do. So of course they responded differently. Their background, their worldview, their area of expertise and education, is vastly different to my own. So they see things completely differently to me. I’ll breeze past details in a film that to them are literally the most important thing in the world.
Which brings me to some kind of a point: never tell someone they’re wrong, or dumb, or any list of defective qualities or insults you can come up with, because they liked a film you didn’t. Studies have shown we associate negativity with intelligence, so that would explain the air of superiority you sometimes get from people who seem to, as a rule, dislike anything popular. But the truth is, the list of factors that can play a part in shaping how a person responds to a film are ENORMOUS. And because I can’t give each individual thing that can change an audience’s response it’s own paragraph, here comes a list. Not a conclusive list, but it will start to build a picture of just how subjective all of our experiences are. So take a deep breath, here we go: history of relationships, family dynamics and structures, employment experience, individual traumatic experiences, specific childhood experiences and places, religious beliefs, political beliefs, expectations of the film, history with a particular actor, history with a particular director, bad projection/sound, comfort of the chair, noisy people in the cinema, having an argument in the car on the way, the potentially dodgy curry consumed at lunch, how much sleep had the night before, anxiety over future events/past events, bladder control, expectations and assumptions about what a good movie is, self-image, wanting to seem intellectual or smarter than others, getting texts/emails/any number of notifications you should probably just switch off anyway. Books currently being read, songs listened to, what was thought about in the shower that morning, should you try and kiss your date on the way home, the air conditioning is too cold…..and the list goes on. All of these and so many more, from the serious to the mundane, can dramatically alter how an audience member experiences a film. And every item on that list has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the story on the screen. This is without even beginning to discuss the actual dynamics and complexities of good storytelling.
So yes, that person may actually be objectively wrong about their response to a film by saying it’s complete trash. And you might be able to prove them wrong with a heated six thousand word essay. But what they’re trying to say is they didn’t like it. And if you’re actually interested in and love stories and films, the next question should be “why?” It should be seeking to understand what connected with them and what didn’t. Because you will learn so much about that other person. One of the things that really made me fall in love with studying this and writing about it was realising that in talking about films and stories, and in the writing of stories, we end up talking about all of life. So that person that hated that film you loved? They’re not a bad person. Or an idiot. They’re just different to you. They may express their hate in way too angry and violent ways. But there’s a reason behind that too. And the way we start learning to understand each other better, and understand stories better, is to stop and ask “why?” And not in that tone that says “You’re a complete idiot for feeling that way.” It’s a “why” that is genuinely seeking to understand. Don’t understand someone’s response to a film? Start a conversation. And listen. Don’t just half listen while you construct your counter argument. Didn’t understand a film? Do some research. Find out who the director was, find out what their intent behind it was. Do some interior work and try and locate the moments where you disconnected and were lost. Talk to other people about it too and how they responded. This is how we actually start to get something out of stories more than just a passing experience. And this is something that can start a thousand conversations about our own lives and experiences and world-views.
Andrew Stanton, most well known as the director of Finding Nemo, said in his TED talk that there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story. And this is one of the most vital aspects of the power of storytelling. They create empathy. They create understanding. And this journey can continue past the story itself, and carry into our discussions about it. The beginning of better storytelling is listening to and understanding each other. It’s empathy. And because when we talk about stories we talk about everything, that’s also the beginning of a better world. So when you’re writing a story, relax if it doesn’t connect with everyone. You can absolutely nail it from every objective measure and standard of great storytelling, and still have a whole bunch of people hate it for reasons that have nothing to do with your ability. And if someone hates a film you loved, don’t start an argument. Start a conversation. Listen. And hopefully they’ll listen to you afterwards. And one of you might end liking a film you didn’t before because you learned there was a gap in your understanding and experience. Because you’re a human being and it is impossible for you to understand, experience and learn everything. Someone could change from hating something, to liking something, and I think that’s a very good thing. And if we keep on doing that, listening and seeking to understand each other, someone could change from fighting an opponent, to talking with a friend. And I think that’s an even better thing.
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