Writing for "An Audience in Mind" vs. "What an Audience Wants"

How is writing with an audience in mind different from writing what you think an audience wants?

Some ‘Hollywood Insiders’ will tell you the most efficient path to screenwriting success is to read the ‘trades’ (Variety, Deadline, Hollywood Reporter etc), see what the studios and production companies are buying, and write one of those, because ‘that’s what the audience wants right now’. But be quick, because ‘right now’ lasts about...oh, it’s gone already.

There are two things wrong with that advice. First – no-one knows what an audience wants – or there’d be a production company/studio with a 100% blockbuster success rate. Following the trades means following the pack, which never feels good, and rarely works, in fashion or in film. Second – this advice can force a writer out of their comfort zone. If you’re a really great comedy writer, and the studios are buying historical bio pics – do you hurl yourself into an unfamiliar genre and risk delivering a potentially inferior script?

The journey to being a writer in command of the craft requires confidence. Knowing what you’re doing, feeling good about the story, the characters, and all the rest is really hard, but necessary so you can be creatively adventurous and show us something we haven’t seen. Trying to write in an unfamiliar genre might be a fun exercise but by the time you’ve whipped your script into anything resembling good shape, we both know Hollywood will have moved on, leaving you with a script that doesn’t match the rest of your projects, and quite possibly a wasted year.

But ignoring deals being done does not mean ignoring the audience as you plot your next script. Audience is vital, and should always be an influencing factor in refining your decision making process.

Our recent LiveRead/LA Insider Alex Walton runs Bloom Media. They read about 3,000 scripts EVERY YEAR, and invest in less than 10. Alex says a big factor in their decision making is knowing the writer has a clear sense of who’s going to want to see the story being told. His team can tell quickly if a writer has thought about it, and is writing with an audience in mind, or whether they’re just exploring a topic of interest, and assuming an audience will follow.

According to Alex there is no shortage of money to make independent films right now – but there is a definite shortage of decent material.

So what does ‘writing with an audience in mind’ mean, and does it involve ‘selling out’?
Alex says – decide quickly if you’re writing to impress friends and family, or you’re hoping to sell your script. If you want to sell it, – imagine who will pay to walk into the theatre to see your script brought to life? Are they young, old, rich, poor, educated, culturally and ethnically diverse? Lovers of a particular genre? Give it some serious thought – if only for a few minutes. If, after that time, you’re telling yourself ‘this story is for everyone’ – then keep thinking, because that’s simply not true...not one film in the history of cinema has been loved by ‘everyone’.

We’re in an increasingly fractured entertainment environment. The major studios are focused on the comics, and tentpoles, not spec scripts by unknown writers. But the independent world is awash with cash. All they want is a script that has a clue as to it’s audience/genre/niche. Which makes sense. You’d want to know there was some chance of a return on your investment before you handed over cash, so why would film financiers be any different?

The good news – you can write whatever scripts showcase your ‘voice’, your interests, or your talents. Just have a clear idea of the people/genre you’re writing for, and be specific and honest with yourself. If your script has the confidence to know where it fits in our entertainment landscape – Alex Walton, a man with the means to make films like ‘Hostiles’ and ‘The Nice Guys’ says it stands a better chance of attracting attention. Assuming you’ve executed well. It’s okay to put a twist on an established genre – don’t be afraid to be creative – just keep an eye on who’s potentially filling the seats.

So relax, write, and don’t worry about trying to please the audience. Worry instead about who they might be.

To see all of Alex’s Q&A on how to get your Indie Script made and other useful insights, click here-

- Tim Schildberger, LRLA Series Director