where the puck will be

Where The Puck Will Be – The New Age of Storytelling

where the puck will beAbout two years ago I started to notice some big goings on in the business of our art, began to profess:  “the times they are a changin”, and began advising anyone who would listen what skills they needed to be developing in order to be ready to grab onto opportunity. It was not the first time this type of shift has happened, definitely not the last, and I was not the first person to notice.

I was, however, as it turns out, correct.

This isn’t a ‘told you so I know what’s what’ article, promise.  It is, though my prediction of ‘where the puck is going to be’, which as any Good Canadian Kid knows is the secret to success of all Great Ones.

We are at the dawn of a new age of storytelling. There is opportunity in front of us that has never existed ever ever ever before in history.  I’ll get to that. Where we are going, I believe, all started about two years ago around the time I began to point out where the puck is right now.

At that time, Netflix and DirecTV were beginning to create original series and cast them in Canada.  New players in the market were entering the game at a level that hadn’t existed before.  That meant an increase in demand was on the horizon.  A battle for the attention of the viewer and consumer was coming and the ammunition for that battle is content.

I was (and still am) in the habit of pointing out a growing polarization in what audiences are seeking – effectively the extremes of either ‘poke you in the endorphins’ sensationalization (extreme game shows, “reality” television, pornography, freak show type stuff), or extreme real humanity or rather sensationalized presentation of real humanity. Watch Peter Saarsgard in his final episode of The Killing, Bryan Cranston when he decides not to roll Jane over in Breaking Bad. Or, a little closer to home, Michael Eklund’s guest role on Alcatraz, Ben Cotton’s wonderful work on The Killing.  Just to name a few.

 

Audiences want HUMANITY, the real stuff, in their entertainment.

 

This isn’t an accident. It’s a product of the times.  Entertainment always is. Entertainment is merely a flashy word for ‘Engagement’. It’s the audience’s engagement that is sought, and it’s what everyone saying anything to anyone is fighting for – their engagement. The ‘rules of engagement’ continue to evolve, and are a product of competition, which is why it’s so damn noisy out there. When a world consists of people who are under constant attack, demand, and coercion for their attention, the means of acquiring their engagement seems to go in two directions:  hyper sensory or hyper real.

We are connected and yet more lonely than we have ever been.  I am way way too late to be the first person to point this out, but it’s true, and it bears repeating: we live in an age of artificial compensation for our fundamental human requirements of companionship, proof that we are not alone,  – Connectedness.  Not “networked” – CONNECTEDNESS.  That ‘Hey I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re not alone, here’s life happening with us right now’.  Connectedness.

As I have already stated, I believe that truly experiencing this sense of connection is a fundamental human requirement.  Without it we are not well, and without it we grab on to ideas and ideals to compensate for it.  That’s what’s been going on with us, and it’s been accelerating for decades.  Ever since Lee Harvey Oswald got killed live on television, that ‘even better than the real thing’ jolt of humanity has been getting stronger and stronger and going in the two distinct directions.

Here’s a great video that’s been going around that shows how social media has helped push things along:

 

At the present,  both due to societal circumstance and the increased content demand that is created by the battle of the providers, there is huge opportunity for actors who are the most expert in bringing real humanity forth into their work.  More than ever before, it’s about the ‘who’ and not the ‘what’.

The people in the industry who are the current experts at bringing out the ‘who’ are in demand  and those who are not are falling by the wayside – or rather to the middle of the divide in the entertainment chasm that we’ve been creating.

If two years ago or more you were paying attention to the factors I mentioned at the top of this article, then you’re one of these experts, you are right in line with supplying what is being demanded and opportunities are opening up for you. Co-incidentally, intuitively, or logically, you knew where the puck would be, you are receiving the pass, and you have a clear shot at your goal.  If you’re not in that position right now, you have some catching up to do, but more importantly, in addition to that catching up (mining your own humanity, and brining your life to your acting through PRESENCE) you need to set yourself up to where the puck is going to be next.

We are living through what promises to be the biggest shift in acting  since moving pictures came on the scene.  We are hurdling forward into a new age of storytelling, a new golden age, and (perhaps ironically) we have technology to thank.

There’s a video (below) that’s been going around lately with Kevin Spacey recounting how his Netflix Original Series (a phrase we can expect to hear more and more in the next few years) House of Cards came to be.   In particular, he discusses the fact that he, David Fincher, and the team could not shoot a pilot for the series.  To do so would have undermined the type of story they wanted to tell – one in which the characters were slowly revealed.

 

The rules of pilots negate  the possibility of that type of story telling.  Pilots are basically an increasingly inefficient market research/marketing campaign for a series.   There’s a ton of money at risk in ordering a series, and those whose money it is (the current networks – Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS etc etc) want to risk as little as possible – of course they do, that’s the goal of business:  highest reward for the smallest risk.  They make a ton of pilots, get advertisers behind them, measure the audience response, based on that response they scrap it or , order a season and based on audience response of the season continue or cancel. This model puts pressure on the story crafters to play toward holding an audience, and it’s the reason that historically there has been less diversity in shows, and  increasingly over-sensationalized stories forever. Networks want to make what they know will sell.  Businesses do not want to fail, they want to succeed.

Those rules would have made it possible for Spacey, Fincher et al to get their series made, but only at the cost of the type of story they wanted to tell. One in which characters were slowly revealed over time.  Hmm – one that’s more like ‘real life’ perhaps?  In the (soon to be old) model of the pilot system, due to financial risk and uncertainty, this type of story telling isn’t possible.

But… WHAT IF…..

What if…. there was a way to know who would watch what?  What if you could say with a huge degree of certainty what shows would be watched by whom for how long? What if a the story crafters had the amalgamated real time user data of every 40 million viewers and counting?

Well, that would launch us into a whole new era.

Thanks Netflix.  Here we are.

Netflix is the first company in the new era of the business end of the financial decisions that decide what stories can be made. Netflix was able to get behind House of Cards because they were able to see risk vs reward factor as favourable where others couldn’t.  Why is that?  Because they have better information.  This is just the beginning.  The model is being flipped around before our eyes.

The model is only going to become better, more efficient, and as that happens, entice new players (already a few out there) to adapt, evolve, and embrace.  The model will become the standard.  As the risk factor is diminished, certainty is increased, new stories, and new types of stories will be freed to be told.

Stories that are created knowing that they unfold over 12, 36, 65 episodes will come into existence.  Subject matter that would never have been created previously will come to light because it will be known who will watch and why.

Those actors who continue to mine their full humanity and the skill of making it available to the character and story, but more importantly those actors who understand how to take a character through these prolonged, slow-reveal arcs we’ve never seen before in history will be where the puck is, and will be set to be standing, waiting for an unobstructed pass and clear shot.

This is the new age of storytelling, and your opportunity is to become a pioneering expert.  May I suggest that if you don’t have one, get a Netflix account, now.  Pick a series and watch it, analyze it, start to finish.  Then watch it again and reanalyze it.  Pay attention to how the story unfolds, and how the characters are revealed.

My favourite of late (yes look out, here comes Mr. Original again) is Breaking Bad.  I think it, along with House of Cards will be viewed as the key work that crossed us over into this new age.  Masterful work, of a slowly revealed arc with a finite end to it. I’m presently re-watching the series for the 5th time, this time watching entirely from the POV of Hank Schrader, and how Dean Norris’s work is so instrumental in pushing the overall arc forward.

But that’s just one of many that are out there.  Right now, today, there exists for you like me, an opportunity to become a leading expert in a new style of story telling.

Get ready for huge assist that’s coming your way.

4 comments

  • Greg M

    Hey Jeb, love the article and you’ve made a lot of great, and very true points about the direction of storytelling and what audiences are connecting with these days.

    If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to check out Captain Phillips. We all know Tom Hanks is brilliant, but there’s a point in that film where he reaches into depths that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor so truthfully reach. It was stunning, and beautiful.

    I absolutely crave those moments as a fan of film. I don’t care what genre, even what the story is ‘about’. I want the people in the film to take my breath away. Take “Silver Linings Playbook”. From a plot perspective, it is a typical romantic comedy, but the film reached the heights it did because of those moments of truth were there and they were authentic. Robert DeNiro in tears as he tries to reconcile with his son, Bradley Cooper’s meltdowns etc. Never reaching for comedy, always for truth, authenticity and humanity.

    Anyways, great article and I was very glad to come across it.

  • Jane Avery

    Jeb, what do you think the future of comedy series looks like on networks like Netflix? Assuming that Netflix and the like will be the medium of consuming television in the future, and comedies don`t have a slow reveal over the season like the dramas,”Breaking Bad”, The Killing, House Of Cards do, what , if anything will change for sitcoms or comedy series`? I suppose “The Office” could have been an exclusive Netflix type of show. …

    • Jeb Beach

      Hey Jane, I’ve been thinking about this allot. As we’ve been running comedy pieces in the Back to Booking class, and we’ve been referencing contemporary and historical television comedy, I think what I see emerging is more honestly tragic/helpless characters who allow us to have a laugh at their very real stuff.

      I think that Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on The Office was most recently huge one of these. That poor fella who was just lonely, and was desperate to be loved. Adam Sandler in Funny People, Zach Galifianakis, in The Hangover, Jonah Hill in Superbad, Ty Byrell in Modern Family – all brining very real humanity as the motivators behind the action.

      Sandler’s work in Funny people is more biopic and real, but I think a great study in the pain-funny connection.

      I think to large extent, the function of comedy is to make us less alone in our sense of alienation but allowing us to connect with it in a safe, fun way that reminds us not to take it to seriously, reminding us that we’re not actually alone, and it’s actually going to be ok.

      I have more thinking and research to do in terms of how the extended season change affects comedy. I’m inclined to think that the effect will be an indirect one born of how it needs to/will stand out in contrast to dramas AND how it will complement or ride in the changing tastes – my gut says that on one end of the scale, we’re going to see continued integration of character arcs (Michael Scott is probably the best example in recent history – he achieves his goal by the end of the series), and on the other end of the scale we’re going to see short and short-lived Funny or Die type hits.

      Still thinking on this one, will keep you posted – interested to hear your thoughts too!

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