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Understanding Your Audience

By Michael Schilf · November 1, 2010

Recently, I was a guest speaker at a high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, and although the information I presented was topical and my delivery was engaging and dynamic, I bombed the big fat one. To put it lightly, if there were rotten tomatoes in the audience, I surely would have come home as tomato soup.

But how could I have upset so many people? It wasn’t because of a lack of preparation, nor was I trying to speak out of my area of expertise. And based upon the interaction of those listening, I clearly was not boring, not confusing, and not digressing. No. My crime was much worse.

I stood in a room full of people, yet I failed to recognize my audience: they were teachers, not students. And as an educator myself, they were my peers… but I lectured them. Talk about guest speaker suicide. Ouch! Eventually, after a brave sole spoke up with a defensive position for the masses, I saw my mistake, and after some listening, conceding, and quick thinking, I managed to salvage the rest of the hour and a little bit of self respect. As a result, I’m sure the experience was memorable for many, just not for the reasons I had intended.

But what does this little anecdote have to do with screenwriting? I’d like to think everything. You write not just for yourself; you write for an audience. The audience is your lifeline. They are the people who buy the tickets and the reason you have the opportunity to write a movie at all. So you better not disappoint. Sure, you can write a script, but if it has no audience, it has no home.

There are movies for everyone, but not every movie is right for all of us. The audience changes drastically depending on the genre, and as a writer, your first job is to understand and embrace the triangle: writer, subject, and audience. Imagine, you write a romantic comedy, yet you surprise us with a tragic end: “As the couple embrace with a final kiss, they’re pulverized by a bus.” Fade Out. Sure, it might be funny, but not to the romantic comedy crowd. Nobody goes to see a rom-com to be surprised in the end.