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Five Things the Movies Can Teach You About Content

A great film captures our emotions and takes us into a world of its own. A good text can take advantage of some of the classic silver-screen strategies to do the same. We examine five principles you should consider when you want to put a bit of cinema glory into your next text.

The actor, director and producer Ben Stiller recently said in an interview with German magazine Süddeutsche Zeitung: "Today, there’s so much to see and click on – that’s what movies now have to compete with." He went on to express his disapproval of the short attention span of the modern audience, and lamented the fact that even Hollywood had responded by altering its preferred film formats. 

And although Ben Stiller is right and films have changed, the cinema inspires today’s audiences in a way that neither the Internet nor any other medium can match. Clearly, movies do face competition from the sheer volume of information the Internet provides, and it’s true that public response has changed too. Nevertheless, a great film still captures our emotions and takes us into a world of its own.

But what accounts for the success of a great film? And can these techniques also be applied to content? A good content strategy can indeed take advantage of some of the classic silver-screen strategies. Here are five principles you should consider when you want to put a bit of cinema into your next content piece.

1. Tell a story

Storytelling is probably the most common and best known (cinematic) device that can be employed to enhance a text. We are often advised to use content to tell a story, and many journalists regularly use this method to reach their readers.

Films are based on storytelling – because every film has to tell a story. And in good films, the story seizes our imagination and takes us on a journey of passion, pain, and joy. Most feature films deliver well-tried plots designed to offer a certain emotional appeal. Thus, in many movies the hero's journey always seems to follow a similar pattern, and over and over again, the same archetypal figures populate these stories. This usually involves the principal character overstepping a boundary and triggering an incident, a set of circumstances that must be put right or overcome throughout the course of the film, or other such tropes.

So films use fixed, predetermined methods of storytelling that help the audience to identify with the characters more easily and understand the plot better.

For your content that means:

Depending on the particular type of content, this device will also work with most articles. For your topic, find a protagonist who is faced with a problem he must solve, or choose a character who has been defeated by a certain issue. Provide your readers with dramatic stories they can identify with, sharing and experiencing every joy and pain. Though you may not end up describing a hobbit who throws a ring into a volcano, there are still dozens of exciting stories in everyday life. Most blog articles or reports can be easily upgraded to become a story well worth telling.

When required, employ one of the standard templates – a hero's journey or some other classic tale. These familiar patterns help the reader to understand a story, and many stories follow these same principles. Build your story using your chosen model, and you will capture the attention of your readers. There is an infinite amount of great material out there – more than enough for good movies and good texts.

2. Adopt a visual focus

Of course, movies are generally a purely audio-visual media and thus convey much of their message via images. Even so, a good text can and should create images and therefore be just as compelling as a good movie.

Among many devices, filmmakers use art work and ‘mise en scène’ to deliver messages to the audience. A perfect example is Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’, which many experts consider to be the best film of all time. Here, everything is exactly in place for every camera setting and brought into view at exactly the right moment. This helps to build and establish the relationship of characters, and even objects, within the story and give the viewer additional information.

For your content that means:

Try to use text to create images and stimulate your reader’s imagination. Work visually whenever possible, not only including photos and graphics but also using language to create ideas in the mind of your reader. Remember to always choose images that match your story and chosen topic.

Although using words to create pictures can often be neglected by copywriters due to everyday work pressures, it should still be regarded as an option to give your readers a treat. Weaving mental images not only makes your text easier to read, it also anchors the information you want to convey even deeper in the memory. Adopt a bolder style and don’t just write what you mean, but instead create a striking word picture.

3. Captivate your audience

Movies have different functions: they can generate fun, create tension, offer a warning, convey values, provide a cathartic experience, or stimulate the audience’s imagination. Depending on the genre and the filmmaker’s intentions, there is always some particular purpose in the foreground.

Regardless of why a film is produced, every filmmaker wants to engage the audience in his own way. Like any magician, he employs endless technical wizardry and many seemingly impossible tricks to create his own world full of magic, challenges, and stories. And what probably drives every filmmaker to fill his movie with passion and give great attention to every last detail is the desire to create a work that clearly conveys his values to the audience. Scenes that don’t meet this criterion end up littering the cutting room floor. Therefore, every setting, every scene of every film shows the world as seen by its director.

For your content that means:

The passion and dedication that is present in the best films is also the key to a good article. Content presented in stunning, imaginative, or innovative ways will always produce a successful article. Tell your readers about what you makes you burn. Become an expert and fill your text with passion and detail about things that are important to you. That’s the way to create the best texts to not only entertain and inform but also captivate your readers.

4. Cover your topic thoroughly, but keep it reasonably short

In his interview, Ben Stiller comments that a film like ‘Apocalypse Now’ tells a story of enormous breadth at a pace that is hard to imagine today. The film would be far too sprawling and slow-paced for contemporary audiences. At the same time, we see that countless series are currently being produced on TV. Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ enjoy immensely successful runs and gather huge fan communities, even though their respective narratives run through dozens of hours of viewing.

A good movie or TV series ventures only as deeply into a topic as is required. A good director illuminates each role in sufficient detail for the viewer to get a sense of the characters and understand their actions. Every camera-shot in the film has a purpose and is precisely planned in advance, so that superfluous camera perspectives or even scenes are a rarity. At the same time, the depth of the film always reflects its intended audience. Each film and every series has its own specific audience and is carefully designed so that the story is told to meet their expectations while avoiding boredom.

For your content that means:

Your content must be a good match for your topic, medium, and, above all, your target group. Illuminate the story or topic in your article with as much detail as is necessary. Convey new insights to your readers from different perspectives. Your article must address everything important without running on forever. Keep it short and listen carefully so that you’ll know when it's time for the closing credits.

5. Don’t think bigger – think passionately

The major Hollywood studios are not the only ones producing great films. Today, countless "small" filmmakers at modest film festivals, and even amateur directors on YouTube, have shown that passion and dedication can more than compensate for the lack of a large budget. Projects such as Spotlight are completed without the aid of millionaire donors, yet still manage to be very impressive. And many of today's star directors like Robert Rodriguez initially worked on low-budget productions. What they all have in common is that they have become successful by devoting themselves to their projects with great passion.

For your content that means:

Just as you don’t necessarily have to be a giant Hollywood studio to create great movies, neither do you have to be a major player like Red Bull or Coca Cola to create excellent content. Become an expert and approach your project with passion – then you’ll produce successful work.

And the moral of the story is …

Ben Stiller is right: The cinema is changing with the presence of new media like the Internet, but at the same time web content can learn a lot from film. Storytelling, visual language, fascinating content, appropriate narrative depth plus lots of passion and dedication can make your text a box-office hit – with a happy ending for you and your readers.


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