Tuesday 17 January 2012

Audiences and happiness

The originator of the hottest theory in Hollywood today is Lindsay Doran.

Who's that, you ask?

Production executive on This Is Spinal Tap and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Executive producer of The Firm, Sense and Sensibility, Sabrina, Nanny McPhee, and Stranger Than Fiction. President of United Artists Pictures. And, these days, an independent producer.

She comes from a Hollywood family. Her father was a studio executive for nearly 50 years, who worked on films like Sunset Blvd. Her mother typed scripts for Preston Sturgess. Her brother was the publicist on 2001: A Space Odyssey. She says she "grew up listening to people talk about story. There was always the sense that the story was the thing that mattered, and that was always the thing I loved most."

After reading the book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, by Martin E. P. Seligman, she began watching films with one eye on what Dr. Seligman calls the five essential elements of well-being”: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. 

She analyzed critically-acclaimed movies on the American Film Institute’s favorites lists and discovered that these five factors were embedded in films as far-flung as Ferris Bueller's Day Off (characters who displayed positive emotions throughout), The Godfather (characters fully engaged in what they’re doing throughout) and The Karate Kid (a character completely focused on accomplishment).

She says, “It’s no surprise that American movies specialize in stories of accomplishment. When Jennifer Grey finally dares to make the scary leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, when the Karate Kid performs the impossible kick that wipes out his opponent, or when King George VI gets through his wartime speech without stammering — those accomplishments are among the great pleasures of cinema.”

But when Lindsay Doran consulted a veteran market researcher about the five elements of well-being, he told her that audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory, but the moment afterwards, when the winner shares that victory with someone they love.

Rewind the concluding scenes of these “accomplishment” films: Jennifer Grey leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze at the end of Dirty Dancing, and after that she reconciles with her father. Jaden Smith performs that impossible kick at the end of The Karate Kid, but afterward makes peace with his opponent and shares the moment with his mother and trainer. Colin Firth conquers his stammer at the end of The King’s Speech, and then shares his victory with his wife, daughters and the crowds cheering outside the palace. The film closes with a title card that reads that the king and his speech therapist remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Some of the most elevating movies are about people desperate to achieve something that they do not get to achieve. (George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t get to travel the world, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t win an acquittal for his client.) Many of the greatest romances (Roman Holiday, Casablanca) are about lovers who can’t or don’t remain together. And in many movies, accomplishment is accompanied by incalculable loss. Obi-Wan dies, Dumbledore dies, Gandalf dies, 1,500 passengers on the Titanic die, thousands of Pandorans die. The protagonist may be happy at the end, but that happiness is mingled with a sense of loss.

What this suggested to Lindsay Doran is that “the accomplishment the audience values most is not when the heroine saves the day or the hero defeats his opponent. The accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”

The thing that makes a film memorable, and might make people go back to see it a second time, might not be winning. It might be not winning, but finding something deeper, something that means more than victory. An ending in which a character survives loss might be the more inspiring, the more commercial, way to end a movie.

Gender differences
Lindsay Doran says that relationship movies are gender-specific. In movies aimed at men and boys, there is the goal, the thing the hero is trying to accomplish. Then there’s the relationship, usually with a woman, child, friend or father. Usually at the end the hero realizes the relationship is more important than the accomplishment. In most movies geared toward women, the relationship is the accomplishment. 
“Some would say that this is patronizing to women,” Ms. Doran said, but she saw it differently: “Maybe it just means that women have figured it out.”

Her conclusion: Positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings; their characters’ personal relationships trump personal achievements; and male and female viewers differ in how they define a character’s accomplishments.
See: Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings, by Carrie Rickey, New York Times. 
        Interview with Lindsay Doran, by Melissa Silverstein,  Huffington Post.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

“Positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings; their characters’ personal relationships trump personal achievements; and male and female viewers differ in how they define a character’s accomplishments.”

Pithy analysis of big ideas. Thanks, Henry.