11 September 2009

Scary History & Bad News - How to Get People to Watch


My mild-mannered secret identity and my vigilante creature of the night occupations (non-profit exec and indie filmmaker) have a significant thing in common.  I tell people bad news in both of them.  As my filmmaking output thus far has largely been historical documentaries centered around the bad news I tell people at the day job... well, you get the picture.

The point is - how do I successfully market bad news?  It's not pleasant stuff.  It's stuff people would rather forget or relegate to crazy-ville.  My music documentary,  Gather 'Round the Mic appealed to me because I could actually tell a story with some heart to it, and show people having fun - as opposed to the historical drama and twisty turns of yesteryear.

I have a few simple rules.

Rule #1 -  I do not sensationalize things.  Too many documentaries centered around the Kennedy assassination and assorted controversial aspects of history tend to either over-sentimentalize or sensationalize the event.  This does nothing except turn people away and make the viewer feel as though they're being screamed at.

The short version: Get off your damn soapbox.

Rule #2 - Just because they died 40 years ago and are generally thought of as nothing more than skipped pages in history textbooks, we have to remember that these were living, breathing people, and they should be treated as such.  I add a modern day human interest story as well.  The Fourteen Minute Gap  and Withheld In Full were both historical documentaries, but they had the modern element of "one man's journey" mixed with the historical story.

The short version: Make characters, not cardboard cutouts.

Rule #3 - Goes a bit with Rule #2, but is it's own beast also.  I'm not here to give you a history lesson from a lecturn.   Many historical programs tend to keep the audience at an arm's length, like this is something sacred, hidden behind 10-inch glass with a sign saying "do not touch" and a vicious wiener dog guarding it.

Basically, they're nothing more than survey courses of a huge event - "One Hour Kennedy Assassination" answers, etc.  You can't answer anything in an hour, especially with something as massive and labyrinthine as the JFK Assassination.

So I only tell one story.  The Fourteen Minute Gap was a story about an erased tape and a researcher trying to get the story into the media.  Withheld In Full was the story of a CIA agent who compromised an investigation, and a modern-day journalist's attempts to get to the truth.  Both happened to be set in the milieux of the JFK Assassination.  But that was merely the setting.

The short version: Tell a story, and tell it well.  Then get out.

How do you market bad news?  Tell a story, tell it well, don't sensationalize it, and give it a human element.  No heartstring-pulling, no pining for "what could have been."

Tell a story and tell it well.  End of story.

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