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…