Allow me to clarify, right upfront, that I did not go to film school. My education was in classical theater. I’m writing this article because there have been countless moments in my career where I’ve identified a problem that my film colleagues assured me was of no concern, only to discover I was right when the production fell apart in precisely the manner I had predicted.
When this happens, I think it’s polite practice to let my colleagues simply chalk the problem up to bad luck… before I haul myself right out of that relationship. Once a mistake has been preemptively identified, letting it happen anyway is a form of sabotage. No thank you.
In this article, we’re going to cover the three tools most responsible for my flashes of seemingly prophetic insight. Overcoming impossible obstacles has become a vital part of my brand, simply because I am relentless in maintaining the habits and practices that keep my career sustainable. If you need some specific details against which to check my credentials as an authority on “making it from the ground up,” then I recommend taking a look through the other blogs I’ve written for Stage 32. At the bottom of this page, I’ve listed everything I’ve written to date.
My point is that learning and mastering the disciplines I’m outlining here will give you the same insight that protects me from the “bad luck” that runs so common in independent film. When people claim that nobody knows what makes showbusiness work or not work, it’s usually because they haven’t developed the habits it takes to manage their environment - and understandably, they don’t want to be held accountable for the work or lack thereof. If we drilled these three subjects into our film school graduates as hard as we drill them on camera blocking and editing, at least half of Hollywood’s creative and financial problems would vanish as a result.
Despite how hard some people fight it, our actors are the core of everything we do. If we take everything away from cinema, and strip it down to the most bare and necessary elements, what we have is black box theater. When an actor performs an action that’s:
a.) too personally important to ignore, even for a second,
b.) too urgent to put off, even for a second, and
c.) so overwhelmingly challenging that our characters will have to reinvent themselves, to grow in radical ways, to see the mission through…
...you have something to watch.
From the writers to the designers, everyone in cinema is working to support the actor, justify the actor’s choices, or communicate the actor’s performance to the audience. In my article on WHY I PASSED ON YOUR SCREENPLAY, I explained that 93% of the coverage I write is on the difference between active and passive screenwriting. If screenwriters studied scenework, and if they learned their structural habits from playwrights instead of from novelists, they’d be smelling their own passive writing before it even hits their brain that the text doesn’t work. Getting these habits into our bodies means we don’t need to find the problems analytically. Our “unconscious competence” winds up doing the work for us.
In my article on HOW TO GET LEGENDARY PERFORMANCES FROM ACTORS, I talk through some of the most basic fundamentals of casting and rehearsal as a means to duplicate my so-called “extraordinary luck” when it comes to directing performances. Is “luck” really the best explanation these people have for my success, when it comes to building good performance work? Yes. Yes it is.
Listen, I’m not an actor. You won’t see me taking a cameo in my films, and that’s because my actors deserve better support in their scenework than I can provide. With that said, I possess the craft to know great acting when I see it. I know how to empower actors to discover a performance and make it their own, rather than asking them to deliver the performance I see in my imagination… and I feel safe doing this because I know how to hire actors who are better at their jobs than I am.
Please, study the craft of acting. Never stop studying it. Specifically, put your trust and your focus into classical scenework. If you’re going to take some other writer’s work and beat it into your brain, make sure it’s one of the greats.
Did you know that the history of showbusiness is an actual field of academic study? How shows were produced, why shows were produced, and the lives and perspectives of the people who produced them are collectively referred to as “dramaturgy.” If someone is talking to you about “market trends” and “what it takes to succeed in showbusiness,” either that person is a dramaturg or they’re making it up as they go along.
Our industry’s most basic and fundamental market forces did not take shape with the invention of the motion picture camera. Personally, I’d argue that we pretty much had “the system” and “the formula” down cold when Shakespeare was producing plays in the early 1600’s. Since then, we’ve pretty much just been refining it.
If you want to talk to me about market trends, please be prepared for a discussion about why “Hamlet” obliterated Chris Marlowe’s Faustus play at the box office so thoroughly. Marlowe’s play was literally all about sex and violence, and was written to be an unrelenting crowd-pleaser... and there’s a reason it couldn’t keep up financially. My point is that other than the technology involved, literally nothing has changed since those two plays opened against one another.
Trying to build a stable, sustainable, successful career in film without a strong dramaturgical background is a lot like trying to land a plane in fog. Maybe it’ll work. Certainly, you have all kinds of information at your disposal that can help… but if you just learn where the runway is, you won’t have any problems.
If you’ve been reading my blogs, you know that I keep saying there’s only two things you need to succeed in showbusiness. One is the strength of your craft. The other is the strength of your community. If you spend a lifetime devoted to cultivating those two strengths, then you will find your way into success. Want to know how I know this stuff? Want to know why I seem so certain about everything?
Dramaturgy was a big piece of my theater education. At the time, I didn’t appreciate those classes for what they were. In hindsight, I can see that my dramaturgy professors taught me all the mistakes that showpeople make, as well as all the things that have ever worked since Athens was the center of Western Culture.
If we give it a chance, dramaturgy will be the thing that saves Hollywood.
From the first show I ever worked in high school, my friends and I have been responsible for our own box office. Selling tickets to things is something we all had to get good at, because failing to sell tickets meant we had to start producing plays that were easier to sell. Taking care of our audience and building a strong sense of community has always been a huge part of producing the shows I want to work on.
With time and experience in box office management, the whole creative process stops being about our needs and my interests. Instead, it becomes about our relationship with the audience and how we can serve them best. Building and maintaining the audience’s trust is about taking the right risks, it’s about making myself necessary to those around me, and it’s about good communication. Marketing is an important part of good communication, for sure… but when somebody tells me that marketing is the key to a film’s success, I already know that person’s got “bad luck” coming their way in the form of preventable accidents.
Every film school should have a movie theater that’s open to the public, where the students screen their films. While there should definitely be a professor in charge of overseeing the space, the kids should be responsible for the theater’s financial health. Encouraging and incentivizing students to produce films that sell tickets, working together to build a slate of content that meets the needs of their community, and helping that community grow should be things these kids are learning hands-on.
Too many people in Hollywood think of the work it takes to build a relationship with the audience as someone else’s job. If you’d like to know more about how that process works, check out GET THAT “BUILT-IN” AUDIENCE. For now, I’ll just say that leaving the ticket sales to the studio makes them the gatekeeper between yourself and your audience… and that’s not how you want things to be.
While box office management isn’t a skill set you can learn from a book or a class, you can definitely learn it. Volunteer at a playhouse. Work at an indie movie theater, and get to know the operations. Make a personal investment in SELLING. TICKETS. Make selling tickets your job.
Rationalizing a way out of the work I’ve described here is very, very easy. So many people in this industry came from backgrounds outside of showbusiness, that this training is actually hard to find, particularly among industry leadership. Already, I can imagine the comments overflowing with long-winded declarations that the box office isn’t relevant anymore, that we have new business models, that we don’t have to be stuck in the past anymore…
...which if you’d studied your dramaturgy, sounds like a very familiar argument. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Chris Marlowe was saying, the night before he opened “Doctor Faustus” against William Shakespeare. And we all know how that turned out!
We do all know how that turned out, right?
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 40 projects. Currently, Stead is best known for writing an edgy film industry satire called Making the GAMP for director Michael Wohl, as well as a dark future gladiator tentpole film called Atlas Uprising for Endgame Entertainment. In collaboration with producer Lucinda Bruce, Stead is writing and directing a female-led, sci-fi heist movie called Quantum Theory. When Stead is not writing and directing feature films he’s doctoring screenplays, working in the Los Angeles theater scene, developing content for gaming and transmedia, and blogging for Stage 32. Here’s a list of the articles Stead has written for the Stage 32 community:
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