Friday, March 29, 2013

Using Advertising in Your Script

(Spoilers: Casablanca, Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, Cinderella Man, Little Miss Sunshine)

In screenwriting advertising is a term for a technique where you build anticipation in the audience for an upcoming event. I didn’t invent the term, though I haven’t heard it used often. But it’s a technique I find very helpful for a variety of reasons.

First, advertising can help build up something you want to be important. One common example is the advertisement of a character before they are introduced. For instance, in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) we see people refer to Rick several times before his appearance.

When Strasser arrives in Casablanca, Renault tells him they’ll arrest the man who robbed the couriers at Rick’s that evening because, “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” Strasser then replies that he’s already heard about this Café and Rick. Then, at the bar, a customer asks if Rick will have a drink with them and is told Rick never drinks with the customers. These bits of advertising tell us that Rick is an important person that we should pay attention to – all before he appears on screen. Victor Laszlo is advertised in a similar way, discussed frequently before his actual appearance.

Another great example of advertising is the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). The ten minutes or so leading up to his entrance is all about people telling Clarice how dangerous Lecter is and the safety procedures that must be used in dealing with him. She’s even shown a photo of what he did to a nurse who didn’t follow those procedures. This is matched by the visuals as we see Clarice led ever deeper in the psychiatric prison, passing numerous checkpoints and a room filled with guns, until she’s brought to a dungeon like hallway. When Lecter is finally revealed, standing primly in a neat cell, and greets her politely, we’re already terrified of him. Imagine the movie without that build up. Would Lecter, a middle aged, intellectual, slightly pudgy man in a cell, seem remotely threatening?

This technique also works for building up events. In The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the power and abilities of the agents are advertised well before Neo’s big climactic fight against Agent Smith. Trinity is terrified of them in the opening, and Cypher tells Neo that if he encounters an agent he should do what the rest of them do – run. It’s made clear that a person can’t possibly beat an agent. And because of this, when the fight between Neo and Smith actually occurs we’re prepared for it to be an epic challenge.

Similarly in Casablanca the regular flight out of the country is advertised from almost the very opening of the movie when refugees look longingly up at the plane and say perhaps someday they’ll be on it. Throughout the movie this flight is held up as an elusive and desirable thing. By the time Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo and Louie are at the airport for the big climax, the question of who gets on the plane has taken on enormous significance.

This is a particularly important technique for sports movies. If there’s going to be a climactic game or race or match, we have to understand how it differs from the other games or races or matches we’ve seen up to that point. Cinderella Man (story by Cliff Hollingsworth, screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman) offers a good example in the form of a scene where Braddock is forced to watch films of Max Baer’s fights where Baer’s opponent died. This is the culmination of considerable advertisement of what a powerful and dangerous fighter Baer is, making the final fight a battle of life and death rather than just another boxing match.

Advertising helps your story maintain forward momentum. By reminding the audience of upcoming events, you build anticipation. This can be particularly helpful if your story threatens to become episodic. Road movies often have this problem. It’s a good idea to remind the audience of the final destination every so often so they don’t lose focus on why the characters are on the journey in the first place. Throughout Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) there are scenes of Olive practicing for the pageant and discussions of whether beauty queens eat ice cream. Though the journey has little to do with the actual pageant - it's mostly about the family's dynamics - we are reminded that a pageant is coming and look forward to seeing what will happen.

You should certainly plan your advertising as you outline, but often advertising is something you’ll need to add in the rewriting phase to fix problems of focus and momentum. In any case, figure out what you want the audience to be anticipating and paying attention to, and make sure you let them know how important those things are.

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