Browse through the movie offerings on Crackle, Netflix, or Redbox and you’ll likely find dozens of movies you’ve never heard of before. Despite the fancy artwork and teasing headlines, most of those movies are simply awful, especially the cheap horror or science fiction flicks that involve mutated sharks. What’s the problem?
First, the problem is rarely the idea. Every idea can be good or bad. What makes the difference is the execution. A great idea poorly executed will sink that great idea. Far too many people think the idea is important to the point where they jealously guard their ideas as if ideas are precious, rare, and one of a kind.
The truth is that ideas are easy, cheap, and readily available. The idea is important, but the execution of that idea is far more crucial. Take the failed comedy “Sex Tape.” The idea is that a couple accidentally leak a sex tape of themselves on the Internet and have to take it down before anyone they know sees it. That’s a great potential idea because the idea itself implies the conflict. Yet the story itself came across as unrealistic, loaded with plot holes.
Now take the movie “Zootopia.” The premise of this idea is that animals of all types work and live in a world where everyone gets along. That idea doesn’t necessarily grab you as much as the “Sex Tape” idea, but the execution of “Zootopia” was far superior. Instead of just focusing on jokes, “Zootopia” focuses on jokes within the context of prejudice and intolerance. Suddenly a seemingly dull idea becomes far more important because it touches our own life.
That’s where “Sex Tape” failed. Its execution focused exclusively on manipulating the characters to make us laugh. “Zootopia” focused on telling an interesting story and making a point about intolerance while making us laugh at the same time. “Zootopia” strived to do more and succeeded. “Sex Tape” strived to do far less and still failed as a result.
If your story is simply trying to make us laugh, scare us, or tell a real life story, it’s not enough. Your story has to emotionally engage us and to do that, it needs to be relevant to our own lives somehow. When we watch Luke blow up the Death Star in “Star Wars,” we’re not just watching a character. We’ve seen this character gradually change over time to the point where we can fantasize that we’re actually the hero. The story is no longer about watching someone else but about feeling the experiences of someone else as if they were our own.
To make your story more emotionally engaging, you must:
- Show your hero gradually changing into a better person
- Make each change emotionally crucial so we feel it and not just watch it
- Tell a story that’s relevant to our own lives right now
“Zootopia” starts off with an optimistic bunny who wants to be the first police officer and gets turned into a meter maid instead. While few people have ever experienced that disappointment, we have experienced disappointment before. What makes this moment funnier is when the bunny starts facing angry people whose cars have received parking tickets. With so much hatred directed at the bunny meter maid, we suddenly understand because we’ve all been angry at receiving a parking ticket so we can relate to other characters getting angry at the bunny meter maid too.
When the bunny meter maid bangs her head on the steering wheel and keeps telling herself that she’s really a police officer, it’s a fun moment that shows both the hero’s despair while making us laugh at her plight too. We’re not just laughing because it’s funny but because it also relates to our own life in dealing with parking tickets.
Another excellent scene in “Zootopia” involves the bunny’s visit to the department of motor vehicles that’s run entirely by sloths who move extremely slowly. The bunny trying to speed things up is funny enough, but our own experience with the government workers makes this moment even funnier. By tying the story into real life, the moment is more memorable and emotionally engaging.
Find similar moments in “Sex Tape.” Even though few people have ever experienced the trauma of leaking their own sex tape on the Internet, the actions and comedy of the story focuses solely on the characters themselves and fails to make us feel it’s part of our life too. Instead of being emotionally engaged because we can relate to each moment, we’re simply left watching characters run around like puppets. We never really learn to care about who these characters are or what they want and why, so it’s like watching strangers interact. Even if they do something funny, it’s not as emotionally interesting as watching people we care about interact in comedic ways.
So the key is to make your story relatable to your audience. That’s why foreign films often have trouble in overseas markets because audiences in America may not understand why characters in an Asian or European film might act the way they do since it’s too rooted in a specific culture. The key is to appeal to basic human emotions: fear, love, anger, embarrassment, etc. The more you appeal emotionally to the audience and relate the story to their own lives, the more emotionally engaged the audience will become with your story, and that’s the main difference between a good movie and a bad one.