The ARKOFF Formula, Part 5: 'Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for'
'The ARKOFF Formula' was a model B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) designed all his films around. This old post by Bill Cunningham brought this paradigm to my attention, and it has great value for microcinema filmmakers. This is another part in a series of articles elaborating on this formula. Also see Part 1, 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy', Part 2, 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of', Part 3, 'Kill Colorfully and Often', Part 4, 'Tell the World about Your Picture!' and Part 6, 'Foreplay is as important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'.
'F' is for Fantasy
It's no mystery that one of the biggest reasons people watch movies is to escape from their own lives. Cheaper and much less damaging than drugs or alcohol, movies provide a portal to another world, and where you teleport the viewer is limited only by your creativity. If you look at the top grossing films of the past few years they are all about fantastic adventures in otherworldly locales. Star warriors, pirates, a funny ogre, a kid wizard, and a guy who shoots webs dominated the box office in the past decade. People want the fantastic, the unreal and the amazing. There's no reason we can't give it to them, even on a small scale.
Don't Forget the People
Whatever your story, remember that it's ultimately about characters in danger. Let your audience get to know your people, and you've got them by the short hairs. Hugely scoped movies such as Star Wars and The Matrix focused on a small cast that we got to know and care about. No one cares about effects or plot without a soul to root for. Get your viewer to relate to that person on the screen and they will hang around to see what happens to them.
Use Special Effects Sparingly
Just because you choose fantasy or sci-fi doesn't mean you need to go overboard on visual effects. This will take some restraint when writing your script, but remember your budget (whatever that is) and write accordingly. Can your story be near future on earth instead of far future on another planet? Also remember that special effects work easily looks fake if not done correctly, and can quickly cheapen your production. While I like watching the big budget stuff, little films like Pi and Primer are impressive in that they tell imaginative stories without hardly any eye candy.
Take them Somewhere 'New'
Since fantasy doesn't have to be based in reality, open your mind and go crazy. I admit that there are really no new ideas, but take your favorite films (or books), and be inspired. The current script I'm working on contains influence from movies like Total Recall, Dark City, and The Terminator. I don't have to rip those films off, but take good ideas and rework them into a new story with different characters. If you believe many authors out there, once you get writing the script starts to write itself.
Stick to Your Universe
Once you have set up the world in which your creations inhabit, don't stray. Nothing is more betraying and frustrating to a viewer than to learn what the rules are, then watch them be broken. If bullet-firing weapons exist, don't bring in laser guns. If your story is a quiet tale, don't turn it into an action movie. If you're villain is a really bad guy, don't let him go good. And whatever you do, don't let it all be a dream. People won't be able to throw your DVD out the window fast enough.
Folks don't want to be reminded of their own hum-drum lives. This is why soap operas are still on the air. They want to get away, and you can give that to them for the running time of your movie. Dream big, but focus, and create a story that is both incredible and producible.