How Entertainment Media Works
by Dr. Ted Baehr
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
− Philippians 4:8 (KJV)
“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you $10,000 for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul.”
− Marilyn Monroe[i]
“Jesus of Nazareth could have chosen simply to express Himself in moral precepts; but, like a great poet, He chose the form of the parable, wonderful short stories that entertained and clothed the moral precept in an eternal form. It is not sufficient to catch man’s mind, you must also catch the imaginative faculties of his mind.”
− Dudley Nichols, screenwriter.[ii]
Fact: America is the largest exporter of “direct culture” (movies, books, TV, music, newspapers and magazines) in the history of the world.[iii]
While most of the church is still using 16th Century technology to communicate the Good News, the adversary is dropping smart bombs down the cable systems and Internet connections into the minds of our children.[iv] It is not that 16th Century media such as books, plays and storytelling are ineffective, it’s just that some of the mass media are more effective than others in terms of converting, motivating and informing an audience. Of course, the effectiveness of the mass media pales in comparison with the most effective medium of communication, which is the Word of God.
What makes the entertainment media so influential? What causes us to laugh, cry and change our hearts and minds when we watch a movie, a television program or a video tape? If we understand how the entertainment media influence us technically, we will be better equipped to use it without being abused by it.
The play’s the thing
The story is at the heart of the influence of much of the entertainment media. The Bard said, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[v] The essence of the play, movies, television, and even computer games[vi] is the story, the most powerful genre of communications.
Jesus told stories called parables to help people understand the Kingdom of God. Hollywood tells stories through film, television, video, CD-ROMS, radio, and the other mass media. Although most of the mass media are used for storytelling, they can be used to transmit and disseminate other forms of art and communication. Some of the mass media can augment the power of the story with attractive images and captivating effects. Others can involve the audience with interactive play and feedback, but the engine that drives the newscast, the game and the movie is the story.
For many years the entertainment industry was so clear on the importance of the story that didactic communications were shunned. Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”[vii] Goldwyn’s bon mot ignored the fact that all movies and television programs, whether dramatic, news or documentary, communicate a message.
Most Hollywood producers, directors and executives do not intend to create art. An artist can live and die (as Van Gogh did) without having an audience. Entertainment moguls and talent produce games, movies and television programs to attract an audience so they can make money. Most movies and television programs employ art and craft elements only to attract an audience. Most filmmakers or television producers are not struggling artists, but court jesters, raconteurs, bards, and showmen, who entertain people, sometimes communicating ideas of importance and sometimes communicating ideas that tear at the moral fabric of society.
Neither the media nor technology produce powerful communications. Only creative, dedicated, industrious people communicate effectively, using whatever medium is appropriate or available. Shakespeare didn’t have a word processor. Yesterday, talented communicators used a pencil; today, television; tomorrow, virtual reality? Talent is the key to effective communication.
Many new technologies try to change what people do and fail. New technologies that help people to do what they like or need to do in an easier, more convenient way usually succeed. The music industry was revolutionized by the ease of buying and enjoying music using iTunes. Children and senior citizens who would’t know how to use a laptop computer spend hours enjoying tablets. Amazon has changed the way people shop.
Knowing how to use your medium of choice will not guarantee that a communicator will communicate effectively. Effective communication requires not only understanding the medium of choice, but inspiration, honest ascertainment and the application of the principles that govern the genre of choice. However, in the beginning is the story.
In the beginning
A good, strong, clear premise that irrevocably leads to an upbeat ending with strong realistic characters and exciting pacing resulting from a strong sense of jeopardy makes a story technically good and appealing to a broad audience.
Sex and violence are most often merely cheap lures. Without a powerful premise, sex and violence do not, and cannot, make an entertaining movie or television program.
Sex and violence are usually inserted to cover up a weakness in the script or as an ornament in a lackluster story. Sex and violence will attract a few viewers, but box office blockbusters[viii] must reach a broader segment of society by appealing to the audience’s deepest concerns and confirming their cherished beliefs through a powerful premise that drives a redemptive, moral story.
A story is a connected narration of real, or imagined, events. There are many types of stories, including: science fiction, romance, myth, fairy tale, tragedy and adventure. The full range of storytelling is limited only by the human imagination, yet there are key principles that apply to all stories. All stories can be classified in terms of different genres, categories or subgenre − depending on how they are constructed.
In the most basic categorization of dramatic stories, Aristotle purportedly posited that there were only four basic plots:
man against man;
man against nature;
man against himself; and,
man against the super- or sub-natural.
Each of these plots can be the basis of any of the many different genres, which include: action adventure; animation; biblical, religious and Christian; biography; juvenile; comedy; detective; docudrama; documentary; drama; fantasy, sword & sorcery and science fiction; film noir; historical; horror; kung fu or martial arts; nature and wilderness; musical; musical comedy; mystery; romance; spy; war; and, the Western.
Each genre has its own rules and distinctives, yet each can utilize the various styles and categories common to all of them. People react to different genre differently at various stages of cognitive development.
No matter what category or genre, stories have an internal logic driven by a premise acting through characters in conflict to move the plot from a beginning point of attack through one or more crises to a climax that resolves into a resolution.
The premise, a succinct, summary statement of what the communication intends to prove, is the engine that powers the story. Characters in conflict prove the premise dramatically. United with attractive images and presented with exciting effects, the dramatic power of the premise is irresistible.
In every movie, television program and play, the premise can be found by analyzing the story. In the STAR WARS trilogy, the Evil Empire is taking over the universe. A young man who is full of goodness, perseverance and integrity is forced to fight the Empire. He wins. “Good triumphs over evil” is clearly the premise.
Every one of Shakespeare’s plays, every good story and even every commercial has a clear-cut premise. KING LEAR proves that blind trust leads to destruction. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT tells us that love gives life to the beloved. Toothpaste commercials often claim that they give us the girl, or boy, of our dreams. The next television commercial you see, try to find and state the premise.
The elements of a premise are: a subject, an active, transitive verb, and an object. The verb must be active (love conquers hate), present tense, not future or past tense, to give direction to the story. If the verb is intransitive (love is wonderful), the script will be a static photograph with no direction, not a dynamic movie. If the verb is past tense (he loved me), the goal of the story has been achieved, and there is nothing to prove. If the verb is future tense (he will love me), then the premise is purely speculative.
Many well produced films, television programs or other media communications fail not because of the quality of the production, but because of an unclear premise, double premise or another defect in the premise.
A premise is not always happy. The premise for GONE WITH THE WIND was “selfishness destroys relationships.” Though the movie remains the biggest domestic box office success of all time (adjusted for inflation) it did not have a happy ending.
In a good script, the environment or setting in which the action takes place must be defined in detail. The environment must be made real, even if it is far, far away in time and space. The environment and the laws that govern that environment create the illusion of reality in the story.
The style of the story must fit the premise, the environment, the characters, and the subgenre. The style, rhythm and tone is as important as the plot. A satiric or low ironic style may be appropriate for a detective story, but not for a historic portrayal of Jesus’s ministry, unless the author is attacking the Gospel or has chosen Judas Iscariot’s point of view.
Here is a concise guide to styles:
In the mythic style, God triumphs or the hero triumphs, because of an act of God.
In the heroic style, the hero triumphs because he or she is superior.
In the high ironic style, the hero triumphs because of an quirk of fate.
In the low ironic style, the hero fails because of a quirk of fate.
In the demonic style, the hero is hopelessly overwhelmed by evil, which may be human or supernatural.
Within a style:
to shock, the script must make the incredible credible;
to create irony, the audience’s assumptions must be contrary to the outcome;
to create a paradox, logic must be contradicted by fact;
to create satire, the normal is exaggerated; and,
to create suspense, withheld information must confront the desire to know.
In a good script the characters must be well-defined. The script may have two apostles, two tax collectors or two thieves, but they must be different. They must contrast with each other so that they will move the story along. The contrast between them must be inherent in their character, which is revealed through their dialogue and actions. As the story progresses, each character grows along his or her character arc.
Orchestration is simply creating well defined, strong characters who are in conflict and therefore move the story along. Through this conflict the characters will grow and the story will develop, proving the premise.
To be effective and exciting, action, not contemplation, must prove the premise. Thus, the story must show that good triumphs over evil, not just put those words in a character’s mouth or thoughts.
The protagonist, who is not necessarily the hero, is the driven, driving subject inherent in the premise who forces the conflict that moves the story to its conclusion. He or she knows what he or she wants and will act to get it. Not only does the protagonist want something badly enough to act, but he or she will go after what he or she wants until he or she has obtained it or been completely defeated in the process.
The antagonist is the person the protagonist must oppose to fulfill his or her goals. The antagonist reacts against the action of the subject. Depending on the outcome determined by the premise, he or she must change for the protagonist to reach his or her goal or the protagonist must change in the face of his or her opposition.
To capture an audience, a story must have the right point of attack. The right point of attack is that moment in time and space when the protagonist is at a critical turning point where he or she must act to achieve his or her goal, thereby initiating the action of the premise. Rather than ramble, looking for a place to begin, the story must start at the moment when the conflict starts, when the protagonist acts to achieve his or her goal. This moment occurs when circumstances and motivation force the protagonist to act. He or she acts out of necessity because something extremely important is at stake, such as love, survival, health, or honor. This point could be where the protagonist has made a decision, has reached a turning point or where something important is suddenly at stake. Whatever precipitated this moment has already occurred when the story begins.
The story builds through rising conflict, which is a series of conflicts, each building in intensity on the previous conflict until the climax is reached and the premise is proved. Each conflict moves the story forward through action and reaction, attack and counterattack, which cause change, growth and new conflict until the premise is proved.
In order to attract an audience, storytellers must appeal to people’s needs. Needs are expressed by desires. There are several categories of needs: physical needs, such as the need for food, clothing, shelter, procreation, or survival (THE MARTIAN); security needs which are concerned with personal protection from danger, deprivation, or accidents (AVENGERS: ENDGAME); social needs, such as the need for love, community, or home (FROZEN); self-esteem needs, such as the need for respect, productivity, or recognition (THE INCREDIBLES); self-fulfillment needs, such as the need for success or accomplishment (RATATOUILLE); and, most of all, spiritual need, which can manifest itself as the desire for any or all of the above mentioned needs, but, in fact, is a desire for communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for “man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4)[ix] (THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, CHARIOTS OF FIRE and OVERCOMER).
Even so, pandering to people’s needs alone will not make the story good or entertaining. All the elements of good storytelling must be in place or even the most expensive action entertainment production will fall flat on its face.
As Lajos Egri, the author of the quintessential book on dramatic writing, said:-
“A play [or movie] can be judged before it reaches actual production. First, the premise must be discernible from the beginning. We have a right to know in what direction the author is leading us. The characters, growing out of the premise, necessarily identify themselves with the aim of the play. They will prove the premise through conflict. The play must start with conflict, which rises steadily until it reaches the climax. The characters must be so well drawn that, whether or not the author has declared their individual backgrounds, we can make out accurate case histories for each of them.”[x]
Telling your story
The best way to understand the emotive power of a story is to write your own story. First, write the premise of your story. If your premise works, your story will work.
A good way to choose your first premise is to go to the Bible, pick out a parable, extract the premise, rephrase it in your own words, then write your own story based on that premise. For example, look at the parable of the prodigal son. The major premise can be stated as: “The love of God the Father forgives the transgressions of his children.”
The protagonist is God the Father. It is His love that solves the plot problem which is the transgressions of His children. In the parable, God the Father is represented by a human father. This is incarnational theology, and one of many ways that this premise can be realized. Of course, the antagonists are the transgressing children, which includes both the son who squanders his inheritance and the son who refuses to love his brother.
Note that our premise has the active verb “forgives.” If the premise had an intransitive verb, such as “is”, then the story would be static — a portrait and not a story. For example, if the premise was stated as “God is love,” it would express something important about God, but it would not tell a story.
Now that you have extracted the premise, rephrase it and write your story. If you need more help, you may want to purchase a book on scriptwriting, such as my book HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) which guide you step-by-step in how to create powerful communications for the mass media.
Try some variations on the premise. Try different categories, genres and types of story.
For example, make your story a commercial. Note that the rule of thumb is that one page of script equals one minute of screen time. Most commercials run one minute or less. Since commercials bring together all the elements of dramatic writing in a concise form, they can serve as manageable exercises for learning the principles of storytelling.
This process of writing your own story is invaluable for developing a critical understanding of the stories that you find in the entertainment media.
Later, you can produce your story on video. We live in an age where the average person has a far better video camera in their pocket than major television production companies had in their studios for many decades.
Beyond the fringe
The images in the visual media and the special effects help to capture and influence an audience. For movies and television programs success depends on premise, image and effect.
The visual and audio work together to create an image in mass media. People remember about 60% of the visual and 40% of the audio.
In research on the relative influence of the visual and the audio, the producers of SESAME STREET showed a test audience, made of people of all ages, an animated short about an ant and an elephant with the sound track informing the audience that the ant could not grow to the size of an elephant because the ant’s external skeleton would not sustain such weight, while the animated picture showed the ant growing to the size of the elephant and then exploding. After watching the short, the test audience was asked if an ant could grow to be as big as an elephant. Over 90% of the test audience said “yes” because the growth of the ant was portrayed in the visual animation, and the visual was so much more powerful than the audio.
Image includes not only the pretty people and interesting characters in the production, but also the environment in which the story is set. The environment has an immense impact on the audience. Because every communication excludes what it does not include, its omissions create powerful secondary messages in the mind of the audience.
Movies, television and the electronic audio media are more prone to willful distortion of the real world than other media because such distortion is easy to affect, and because the tampered product appears to be the truth. Editing, close-ups, shadow shots, reverse shots, and other conscious camera techniques can distort the meaning of a scene.
The State University of New York researched the impact of television on children and found that the background environment of a television program had a tremendous impact on the worldview of the children. One little girl said she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. When asked why, she did not answer that that she felt called to heal or help others; rather, she wanted a big house with a pool, a yacht, and to travel. Her image of doctors was conditioned by the environment in which they are placed on television, not by the reality of medical practice.
Since a camera excludes everything beyond its field of view, television journalism is technically biased in its reporting, yet the viewer will interpret what he sees as the truth. During my junior year at Dartmouth College, there was a small student take-over of the administration building. In the middle of the night, a friend woke me to say that the National Guard was evacuating the administration building. The landscape was empty except for a few observers, a handful of National Guardsmen, the thirty students who had occupied the building, and the television news. However, the next day on the news, the operation looked like a major military maneuver. Frightened alumni and parents from all over the country phoned the College. The TV news team had shot the scene so tight in the midst of the small crowd that the event looked larger and more important than it actually was. The camera had completely distorted the real environment where the protest had taken place.
Gerry Mander approaches what is the real world on television from a humorous perspective:
“There is a widespread belief that some things on television are `real’, and some things are not real. We believe the news is real. Fictional programs are not real.
Talk shows are real, although it is true they happen only for television, and sometimes happen some days before we see them.
“Are historical programs real? Well, no, not exactly.
“Our society assumes that human beings can make the distinctions between what is real, and what is not real, even when the real and not real are served up in the same way, intercut with one another, sent to us from many different places and times and arriving one behind the other in our houses, shooting out of a box in our living rooms straight into our heads.”[xi]
How many Americans during World War II realized that much of the war footage they saw was shot in Hollywood? How many people in Great Britain in WWII realized that an actor was voicing most of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s most inspiring speeches over the radio.
A PBS documentary, THE EUGENICS CRUSADE, explains how Hitler’s master race propaganda and his extermination of those he deemed “unfit” was done based on ideas imported from America. Americans even funded Hitler’s early laboratories. Many significant events in history are not presented in school or general media because history tellers wish to limit public awareness for political reasons.
To understand how the mass media influence us, it is important to understand that each medium has its advantages and disadvantages over the other media. To communicate how something looks, an oft-quoted, ancient Chinese proverb tells us that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If, however, we want to communicate the true nature of some person, event, or thing, then a few words, such as “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,”[xii] says more than a thousand pictures.
Each medium can be seen primarily as a communications tool,[xiii] capable of accomplishing one or more communications functions. A tool is neither good nor bad. That is determined by how we use it. When we use a tool to perform a function for which the tool is intended, it performs well.
For instance, a screwdriver is very useful for driving screws; it is of some value in scraping paint off the side of our house; it is of very little value when used to hammer a nail; and, it is of no value in gripping a nut (under normal circumstances).
The screwdriver is neither good when used to repair a church artifact, nor bad when used to stab someone. Rather, it is the person using the screwdriver who is responsible, and the same is true of the various media of communications.
Each communication medium has certain functions it performs well, others to a lesser degree and many not at all. To develop media literacy you need to understand what functions each medium performs best, and how well each medium performs a particular function. Keep in mind that the ability of a medium to perform a specific function depends on:
the nature of the medium.
the nature of the genre.
the nature of the audience.
where the audience lives.
the size of the audience.
the cost of the medium in money, time and energy, compared to its ability to accomplish the function, and compared to the cost and effectiveness of the other media.
Every medium has a specific audience, or market, it reaches under normal circumstances. Comic books, Christian television and rock music radio reach different audiences with some overlap. Some media reach markets and demographic groups also reached by other media. Television reaches many groups who can be targeted by other media, such as news magazines.
As author John Berger notes:
“Compare the cinema with theatre. Both are dramatic arts. Theatre brings actors before a public, and every night during the season they re-enact the same drama. Deep in the nature of theatre is a sense of ritual. The cinema, by contrast, transports its audience individually, singly, out of the theatre towards the unknown.”[xiv]
The genre will affect who is reached by a particular medium. Research shows that television comedy will reach and impact teenagers more effectively than game shows or news programs. These same teenagers may be more interested in reading sports magazines or romance novels than humorous novels. Certain media are better suited to communicate certain genre. Poetry works well in print, but seldom succeeds on television.
Consider the difference between a stand-alone movie and a series created for Netflix or Amazon Prime. The movie takes a protagonist through a single story to prove a premise. The series must be written to propel an audience through many episodes and possibly seasons. Each episode requires hooks that will make viewers hunger to see what will happen in the next episode. The length of the story is determined by the popularity of the series. The stand-alone movie and the big television series require very different approaches by the screenwriters and result in very different expectations from viewers. Even the financial goals are different. The movie is seeking audiences willing to buy a ticket and hopefully encourage family and friends to do the same. The streaming service series is created to get people to subscribe and continue their subscriptions for years.
Our previous discussion of the cognitive development theory gives us some important questions to consider when reviewing the influence of any medium. These are known as ascertainment questions since they help us to ascertain important distinctives about each medium:
How well does the medium in question communicate physical “P” experience to the audience?
As noted in Chapter I, P experience is important with regard to behavioral modeling and information, but deficient in providing cognitive growth.
How well does the medium in question communicate logico-mathematical “LM” experience to the audience?
As noted in Chapter I, cognitive growth is necessary in order to develop higher thinking skills or LM education.
How well does the medium in question capture the audience’s attention?
How well does the medium in question enhance the audience’s concentration?
How well does the medium in question allow internal review, reaction and reflection on the part of the audience?
How well does the medium in question promote creative imagination on the part of the audience?
How well does the medium in question promote delayed gratification on the part of the audience?
How well does the medium in question influence the audience?
How well does the medium in question convert the audience?
How well does the medium in question motivate the audience?
These questions are not exhaustive and are dependent on many variables, not the least of which are your media literacy skills and your use of the medium in question. Therefore, you should undertake to understand and analyze each medium that you and your family uses or consumes by asking the right questions to discern the strengths and weaknesses of each medium and its influence on you and your family.
As you determine the effect and influence of the medium, you should determine the influence of the particular genre on you and your family. In this regard, you need to be familiar with the unique principles which constitute the “grammar and rhetoric” of each medium and genre and how that grammar and rhetoric influences and impacts you and your family.
One of the best ways to understand the influence and effectiveness of each medium and genre is to produce the story you previously wrote in various media such as video, a short story or a live play at home. By getting “hands on” experience with these media, you will develop a much deeper level of understanding, discernment and media literacy. After learning about the medium, practical experience will help you to really know each medium and understand how that medium influences you and others.
Research on children who accept whatever they witness in the mass media shows that they will start to be critical of what they are watching or hearing once they learn how to produce effective stories for the mass media. One study showed that teenagers who were emotionally involved in movies with prurient sex learned to be objective and critical of such movies after learning the principles of storytelling through the media.
Therefore, an excellent exercise is to bring together several children and have them produce their own video commercial. Take them through each stage of the process and have them ask all the pertinent ascertainment questions to determine the influence of the video on them and their friends. There are several books on how to do just that. A book that I authored, HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) will specifically help you and your family to undertake these types of exercises.
As media maven Marshall McLuhan said:
“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world.”[xv]
Editor’s Note: The article was excerpted from Dr. Ted Baehr’s HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL). Please read the entire book and take the HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) or your wallet filmmaking class.
[i] Monroe, Marilyn, quoted in MOVIEGUIDE® Volume IX#2: 940117
[ii] Nichols, Dudley, “The Writer and the Film,” Theatre Arts (Oct. 1943), quoted in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (1993).
[iii] Wattenberg, Ben, editorial, The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (7/5/92).
[iv] Outten, David, THE 21ST CENTURY PULPIT, MOVIEGUIDE® Volume VIII#12: 930607.
[v] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act 2.
[vi] See Baehr, Ted, “Behind The Myst: An Interview With The Creator Of The Most Popular Computer Game,” MOVIEGUIDE ® Volume XI#13: 960617.
[vii] Samuel Goldwyn was a Hollywood film producer and one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His Western Union statement is quoted in the article “Lost in the Cosmos,” Newsweek (December 10, l984), p. 94.
[viii] USA TODAY listed the top grossing movies of all time after adjusting for inflation on August 19, 1996 and found that almost all of them were family movies, mostly G and PG, which had strong moral messages.
[x] Egri, Lajos, THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING (New York: 1960), p. 263.
[xi] Mander, Gerry, Four Arguments for Elimination of Television (New York: 1970), pp. 250 – 254.
[xii] John 1:14, KJV.
[xiii] Also note that each medium is composed of one or more tools from pencil and paper which compose a note to the sophisticated cameras, recorders, editing machines, satellites, and other hardware and software which are necessary to produce and broadcast a television program.
[xiv] Berger, John, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” in Expressen (Stockholm, 3 Nov. 1990) Reprinted in Keeping a Rendezvous (1992).
[xv] The International Dictionary of Thoughts (Chicago: J.G. Ferguson Co., 1969), p. 148.