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Preaching To The Converted? 6 Of The Best — Drama

Your Honour, members of the jury: we are gathered here today to discuss the impact of feature length dramas on an audience… Though drama is indeed my favourite (yes, possibly even above my beloved Horror), it has long been my belief such fare has no impact whatsoever in changing the attitudes of their viewers. Why? Because the very viewers such films attract already possess the beliefs and values explored by the drama in question – hence the audience watching said dramas in the first place: like attracts like.

But don’t take my word for it; I will demonstrate. [Box Office Figures thanks to Box Office Mojo]. Please note: we are talking SOLEY about feature-length drama destined for the silver screen and not TV drama; also, the films listed here are not necessarily my favourite films; I have picked them for the sake of the debate, so when considering your verdict, please take this into account and do not base your decision on emotion, as in all good courts of this green & pleasant land. I thank you.

Now ladies and gentlemen, I draw your attention to–

EXHIBIT A: American History X. Arguably Edward Norton’s breakthrough film pre-Fight Club, this film tells the story of a Neo-Nazi who undergoes a miraculous transformation in prison when he is incarcerated for the premeditated murder of a black man: Norton’s character emerges peace-loving and regretting his heinous crime. It’s this certain naivety that appeals about American History X: the more cynical amongst us will no doubt think it somewhat trite, yet the writing is good enough to make us *think* it possible… Until *that* ending where Norton’s efforts with his own brother come to nothing, underlining the notion perhaps that whatever this character does, it’s “too little, too late”? Whatever the case, whether the ending jars with you or makes perfect sense, it all boils down to this: it’s a film about a reformed Neo-Nazi. Who is going to watch that, apart from people who have never been Neo-Nazis and most likely are anti-racist? This is perhaps echoed by its worldwide domestic gross at the box office: a disappointing $23,875,127 – made all the more by the fact its production budget was apparently $20 million. Ouch.

EXHIBIT B: Harsh Times. This is an interesting case dear jurors, for it proves even an A List Hollywood star like Christian Bale and a stellar-structured script appear to do little to attract the crowds, for Harsh Times grossed just $5,964,768 worldwide at the box office. However, box office figures do little to establish a film’s quality as we all know; however, like American History X we are invited to see the downfall of an anti-hero in effect and there is a part of us that says “I told you so” — right? Because most of us actually watching — if not all — have never been (nor ever will be) in that anti-hero’s position. It is a voyeuristic fantasy to those of us who bother to watch – and thus does little to impact on our existing beliefs and values.

EXHIBIT C: Alpha Dog. Again huge stars of yesteryear like Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone did little to make this baby float at the box office — and even an appearance (surprisingly good at that) by Justin Trousersnake failed to bring in the teens and tweens… Though to be fair it kicked Harsh Times’ arse with a worldwide box office gross of $32,136,209. A dodgy script compounded this drama’s misery, though there was *something* about it — perhaps the heartfelt performances, the inevitability of the resolution and the arty, slick direction. Whatever the case, again the audience are reduced to voyeurs as events get out of hand: there is no way an average person would do what the lead does… And in fact, why does the lead even do it? Whilst making a point about the futility of life, the audience has their existing beliefs and values confirmed once again.

EXHIBIT D: This Is England. Perhaps the jewel in the crown of UK screen agency involvement – both Screen Yorkshire and EM Media funded This Is England. Nevertheless, This Is England only managed to scrape up $8,069,240 at the box office worldwide with only $329,379 of that at home, meaning 95% of box office sales (approx) were ironically outside of England. As I’m always quick to stress, poor box office returns do not reflect a film’s quality – but we do have to ask ourselves WHY audiences are quick to reject even such well-drawn fare as This Is England. Was it the fact it was low budget, with no recognisable faces bar Eli off Emmerdale? Were the people watching those who already disagreed with racism, like those who watched American History X? Ladies and gentlemen of the court, we must wonder.

Sweet Sixteen. The poster boy of nihilistic 90s drama, Ken Loach exploded into the noughties with this equally depressing fare — yet I must admit to having loved every minute of it. Regardless of my feelings however, Liam’s sister’s last words on the phone, “What a waste” sum up perfectly the theme of the film and takes away any remaining hope for this lost boy — just as this happens in real life, every day, to children across the UK and the world. There is a part of the viewer which relates absolutely to Liam and his journey, despite his animosity, violence and general hate. Unlike Harsh Times or Alpha Dog, the viewer is not a voyeur – but involved completely. And yet for the same reason as Harsh Times and Alpha Dog, audience members’ views are not changed or even challenged, but confirmed once again. Interestingly, there were no foreign sales for Sweet Sixteen: it grossed just $316,319 in domestic sales.

Secrets & Lies. You will often find the word “comedy” listed with “drama” when looking at reviews of this film and I’ve always wondered how the hell that happened, for there is very little that is actually funny-funny to me in Secrets & Lies. Yet Mike Leigh has drawn together a intricate web of people’s lives, motives and beliefs — bringing them together in a fantastic crescendo at the end with Timothy Spall’s moving, somewhat theatrical speech. A little long at 2 hours and 16 minutes, perhaps this accounted for its lack of foreign sales, bringing in $13,417,292 domestic. Whilst this might seem rather good in comparison to Sweet Sixteen, its production budget was apparently much larger -$4.5m. Yet was there enough points there to challenge an audience’s beliefs? Or was it another case of drama confirming an audience’s existing beliefs and values, otherwise they would have turned on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider??

So: to sum up–

Is feature drama really about challenging views to make a point — or is it simply about reflecting and confirming what a smaller, niche audience ALREADY think? From what we have seen today, I believe strongly it is the latter, not the former – accounting for drama’s poor returns at the box office and prodcos’ considerable lack of interest in their marketability, despite the fact these movies I have just discussed have attracted awards, critical acclaim and are good examples of their category for aspiring writers, regardless of whether said aspiring writers actually like them.

In that case then, can we only make points that will challenge audiences by writing genre film? By dressing up philosophical notions, political points and moral messages amongst serial killers, vampires, space ships and governmental conspiracies??

Only you can decide, ladies and gentlemen.

We await your verdict…

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17 thoughts on “Preaching To The Converted? 6 Of The Best — Drama”

  1. Hmmm… my knee-jerk reaction is that the lack of box-office success for these films has little to do with the message, and more to do with audience impact of the story. They’re all ‘downer’ films, and that sort of kick-in the gut ending does little for word of mouth. I’ve seen them all, but saw none in the cinema – I’d be interested to see the figures on how they’ve fared in rental/sale/tv markets later, they’re great films but they can hurt to watch, so my feeling is it takes longer for the audience to prepare itself up for the experience and as such the long-tail kicks in as they gain audience over time.

  2. Well you know my feelings on Alpha Dog Luce – ARSE! But I promise not to bring personal feelings into this court, sooooooooo…

    This member of the jury finds the movies discussed GUILTY of only appealing to a small amount of peopel. Why watch “downer” films when you can watch something happy? That’s not to say stuff like American History X is not good, but why would I want to watch Ed Norton kick ass when I can watch some Transformers do the same completely guilt-free? Why??

  3. I think starting to look at box office takings and budgets is misleading as, with all things statistical, it's difficult to tell the whole story. Secrets & Lies opened in 4 cinemas in the US. 4. Out of 1000s. This is England opened on 1 screen. It peaked at ~150 screens.

    As such, asking why people don't go and see it may have an answer as simple as "it wasn't showing on a screen near them".

    Harsh Times, in contrast, opened on about 1000 screens which, for a film with a budget of only about $2m is huge. A return of $5-6m is fantastic for that.

    It's also difficult defining drama: American Beauty is very much a drama but is also a tragi-comedy. Shot for $15m, took $130m. Peaked (twice) at 2000 screens on distribution. Million Dollar Baby – budget $30m, opened in the US on 8 screens, took $100+m.

    Far more thoughts abound regarding this – especially with the politics of sales and distribution and the challenges facing independent dramas. Many thoughts regarding the entertainment value in moody, depressing and thought-provoking drama too.

  4. Hmmm.

    So from that comment the court must garner you believe there is a certain echelon of viewers who watch drama, thus the moral message or point actually repels “floating watchers” who may have watched a story had it not been so overt in trying to make a certain point?

    Is that correct, juror Evil?

  5. Oooh goodness, Draconian One – you were commenting when the court was. Careful I don’t hold you in contempt.

    Whilst statistics do not tell the whole story, the court wonders what your “many thoughts” are on the point of “moody, depressing drama”: would you care to elaborate?

  6. I believe that evidence is inadmissable at this time although a subpoena is outstanding. Juror Evil has neatly summarized it though.

  7. The court believes it is being sidestepped, a heinous felony in itself Draconian One. On that basis, you are sentenced to ninety days in prison, no chance of parole plus the attentions of a gruff male in your cell who has manly love in mind.

    Take him down.

  8. I’ve had a hard day at work. I come home and the kids are playing up. By some miracle we’ve managed to get the mother-in-law to come and babysit.

    Through sheer force of will and dogged determination we manage to herd the kids into bed and rush to the local multiplex.

    Do we:

    A. Watch some depressing slice of real life with a socially important message


    B. Watch some Hollywood genre piece that entertains us and makes us forget the mayhem of real-life that exists outside the darkend theatre?

    The answer is… B!!! For God’s sake! It’s what any normal person do!

    I love the Hollywood message of the good guy always wins, the boy gets the girl, etc.

    Do I believe it? Do I 8#@k!

    But I willingly, nay gladly, even joyfully put aside real-life for 90 minutes and enjoy the fake ride.

    Long live genre flicks! 🙂

  9. Am I missing something? Or are you missing something?

    How does a lack of box office returns prove a theory that dramas only “preach to the converted”? What does the relative lack of box office success of a film like This is England in a feelgood multiplex film culture tell us about anything?

    And how can you move from talking about half a dozen box office returns to sweeping generalisations about “dramas”? (And what film is not a drama anyway?)

    How do these current films fit into your theory:

    Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, The Wrestler, Gran Torino..

    Or these of slightly older vintage: Rain Man, Good Will Hunting, A Brilliant Mind, Forrest Gump, Green Mile, Monsters Ball, Million Dollar Baby….

    What happens if you compare that list to a bunch of straight to video or undistributed slasher films, or vampire flicks that make no money? Genre is dead??


  10. The Court would like to remind the glorious Bingethink sweeping generalisations and tenuous links are at the very heart of British Law… Plus The Court has seen very few of the films he mentions… Probably ‘cos they’re too depressing. ; )

    Frank A – whilst the notion of *not* wanting to watch a downer movie when one has had a hard day is understandable, the court’s original point was “are the only people who like depressing movies the ones who would agree with the socially important POV in the first place?” The court posits: is it not more important to target those who never thought of the socially important point – and in which case, would another genre actually manage this?

    You will both be joining Draconian One in jail. And while we’re at it, let’s send Evil Twinz as well just for good measure.

    My word. Is. The. Law.

  11. This juror suspects the films mentioned were made for love, not money. And/or made up any losses at the box office on DVD.

    (Please don’t send me to jail too, I’m a single mother – the Court will have to pick up the bill for childcare and it will be steep)

  12. I suspect the same Anya, but the Court is looking to kick ass on a point that can’t possibly be proved in this completely unscientific scientific study.

    Anyway, what are you talking about, I can’t send you to jail?! I got you all BANG 2 RIGHTS – arf.

  13. If I may intercede your honour?

    If I understand the case for the prosecution then the issue is whether it is better to make a worthy film that hammers home a message (so only those that agree watch it)or make an entertainment that slips the message in while the audience sits transfixed?

    Personally I would place this juror’s vote with latter. Get them through the door and then whack them with a nice subliminal.

    And if you are entertained on route then do you really mind if the road ends up at the door of the big bad wolf instead of nice little red riding hood?

    The Killing Fields is as dark as you can get but I was happy to spend my precious student cash to watch it. OK it had a sort of happy ending but I don’t think you can really call it upbeat.

    I think I rest my case but I reserve the right to open it up again to get my cheese and pickle butties.

  14. After a little consideration I think that bringing box office figures into the discussion is like a lawyer manipulating statistics – it sounds meaningful but really has nothing to do with the point being made. The real issue on the table is whether ‘message films’ are only ever watched by an audience who already agrees with, or is highly receptive to that message. If that statement is true, a message film’s success is dependant on the pre-existing popularity of that message, and as such box-office takings could be seen as a reflection of societal values. I don’t, however, believe that to be true. A film’s success is dependant on many more factors than the message it carries, and a popular message is no guarantee of success. To me, the key phrase of your case is that “such fare has no impact whatsoever in changing the attitudes of their viewers” – which, almost irrelevantly I actually agree with – film, and most art, rarely changes attitudes once they’re established and shouldn’t be expected to do so. In reality, once the attitude is established it’s usually already too late. I believe the power of message films is in raising awareness and influencing attitudes when they’re initially formed. Trying to get in there first, so to speak. And to return to the original point, do message films have a market outside those willing to hear the message – it depends if the message is tempered with entertainment, and the greater the balance tips towards entertainment the broader appeal. Even 99% entertainment movies usually slip a smidgen of message in as well.

  15. We buy tickets based on what we think we're about to see, not what we actually see – that is, ads and trailers are awfully important. If you pitch a movie to punters as a thriller/romcom then more people will go and see it than if you pitch it as a challenging slice of real life. Then deliver on the thriller-romcom front, and you'll get good word of mouth.

    So I'm absolutely of the 'sell the pass' school. It generally means better films too, as it adds a bit of heft to genre entertainment – Casablanca, The Insider, About a Boy. Even Avatar, tho I can't stand it.

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