Thursday, November 17, 2005

Considering the audience

Interesting article (the internets are full of them) from IndieWire, one passage of which deals with the concept of different versions of a film being cut for different audiences. A clip:

Prior to the release of Joe Wright's "Pride & Prejudice" in the U.K. two months ago, the film's producers, Working Title, decided to shorten the original romantic ending of the movie, apparently feeling it was a bit too sappy for British audiences. Focus Features on the other hand, which opened the movie over the weekend in the U.S., kept Wright's original ending, releasing a different, slightly longer version of the film in this country. In a statement to indieWIRE Wednesday, a Focus spokesperson explained that in the U.K., "audiences prefer a less overtly romantic wrap-up, so the filmmakers had prepared the movie accordingly." Standing by their decision to release the film with the more romantic coda Stateside, the Focus spokesperson added, "What's most gratifying is that, wherever in the world 'Pride & Prejudice' is being shown, critics and moviegoers are enjoying this classic love story." Such decisions, reiterating how audience reactions are anticipated and accommodated ahead of major film releases, are increasingly commonplace in Indiewood, as a panel of insiders discussed Monday night at a New York Women in Film and Television seminar.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, it's a foolish filmmaker who ignores the audience and chains himself to his auteur pretensions. That way lies madness, and movies like this. For my own currently-in-prepro HD short, whenever someone reading the script came upon a bit they found confusing, I'd ask them straight-up, "What do I need to do to make that less confusing?" And that process continued until those criticisms stopped. Filmmaking is like any other art form: you have to communicate ideas meaningfully.

But there's something about the way Hollywood will focus-group a movie to death that smacks of treating them like kitchen appliances. Here's the red one for people who like red, and here's the one without the built-in can opener for folks who don't like all that clutter. When you tailor a movie to perceived audience tastes, are you make the best decision for the quality of the movie? Or are you just trying to pander to boost whatever meager profits you stand to make anyway?

And — most importantly from my point of view — are the filmmakers being consulted about these changes, or are they all marketing and studio driven, without respect for whatever the director's and screenwriter's vision for the story might have been? It wouldn't be anything new to see directors having their films taken out of their hands and chopped to pieces due to some whim of a studio exec or marketing survey. It's a shameful Hollywood tradition going all the way back to Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. If changes are inevitable, the best thing producers and studios can do is trust their creative talent. In the case of Pride & Prejudice, it sounds like the director was okay with all of this, so that's fine. But if he hadn't been, I can easily see the studio thumbing their nose at him and saying, "Well, we're doing it anyway." And perhaps they would have been right, perhaps not. The danger any artist runs into is that you get so close to the work, you can't often take the detached perspective needed to see what would be best for its ultimate success. But on the other hand, sometimes you're completely confident in what you want, and you have to fight idiots who want to vandalize what you've worked so hard to create.

There's not a smart director alive who doesn't want his film to be embraced by a large audience, even the ones who cop the auteur attitude. A good director appreciates a producer and marketer who wants to work with him on maximizing his film's potential. Because in the end, everyone wants the same thing: a popular movie.

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