I just finished listening to an excellent podcast about one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. It was part of The 20/20 Awards, a show on Kiro Radio in Seattle, WA that re-evaluates the Oscar nominees from twenty years ago. A neat concept to be sure.
Listen here: Episode 9 – GROUNDHOG DAY
I was struck by one of the commenters’ statements about target audiences and his point is worth repeating: Writers should NOT define the target audience for their work until it is complete.
This sounds radical given today’s market-driven society but put into historical context makes perfect sense. Only recently has Hollywood sold out to the marketing bean counters. In years past (think Hitchcock or anything before the early ’80s), writers, directors, producers, and actors simply tried to make the best movie they could. Pixar does this now but everyone else tries to define their story in terms of target audience near the beginning of their creative process. On a side note, I suspect this has something to do with the change Brian McDonald noticed in movies released after about 1984. That was probably when Hollywood integrated marketing ideas into key positions in the movie creation process.
This is a mistake for several crucial reasons:
First, it takes the focus away from trying to craft the best story possible. Instead the creative process is restricted and pigeonholed by whatever the writer “thinks” their target audience wants.
- Teen boys are only interested in muscular heroes, scantily clad girls, and exploding helicopters.
- Older women only want romances set at the turn-of-the-century, during the civil war, or in Amish country.
- The only Science Fiction stories that people watch involve zombies or vampires.
Secondly, can you see the stereotypes developing here? Everyone knows that stereotypes are to be avoided yet identifying a work’s target audience at the beginning of a project seems to encourage their use.
Thirdly and worse yet, if every writer is doing this then every story from every writer will start to sound the same. Isn’t a lack of originality already a problem in stories these days? You bet and defining the target audience too early encourages this practice too.
Fourthly, it seems to lead to bad idea generation. I’ve heard several different story ideas over the past several years about crossing Vampires with Zombies (but that’s usually as far as the ideas get):
Bob: Hey Joe! I’ve got a great idea! Since teenage girls love vampires and zombie movies are hot right now too, why not mix the two? We could make a fortune writing the next Twilight about Vambies! Or Zompires! Or both!!!
Joe: Awesome idea! We’ll get an Oscar for sure! And let’s add in werewolves! We can call them Werepires and maybe Werebies. Err… What would you call a werewolf half-breed?
Bob: It doesn’t matter. We’ll make a fortune!!!
Please note that these are roundly considered “bad” ideas but note where they originate. They come from thinking about the target audience at the beginning.
Finally, related to the problems of originality and stereotyping there is a sort of lowest-common-denominator dynamic at work. Instead of writers trying to best one another with better and better stories, the focus has shifted to who can wring the most money out of the public with the least amount of effort. It’s a race to the bottom. Such systems are unstable and short-lived. They tend to favor the worst in quality and always encourage the use of base motivators like fear, sex, and greed. We can do better.
Again, defining your target audience early is a flat-out bad idea. The great directors of the past were always trying to make the best movies they could. We should emulate them and not fall into the trap of trying to market a product that doesn’t yet exist. From now on, focus on writing the best story you can. If anyone asks, your Target Audience is Everyone. You can always redefine it later. Better yet, since most writers don’t possess marketing degrees, leave that decision for the marketing department to figure out.