M y family and I do movie night on Fridays. One weekend last year we watched Despicable Me. An aging arch villain tainted by a lack of mommy love falls for three little adopted girls. His heart melts and his evil plan to steal the moon becomes meaningless. It’s an adventure in space but it’s really a love story for a child and home. And the minions are hilarious.
Later in our home, space adventure adopted on a different twist with the inaugural showing of Star Wars (episodes 4-6 of course). An epic tale of adventure plays very well to latter year elementary kids with emerging wanderlust. Young man leaving home is on a mission to save the world. (If your child is a real explorer, try Close Encounters.) Of course it’s a different story altogether for feminine relational interests. Maybe the lead character falls in love… Oh wait, that’s Star Wars too. The bad one.
I appreciated Despicable Me, and Star Wars was once magical, but what about now that I am past forty? Is there still a space adventure story out there for me? Adventure has different appeal when your primary concerns are little ones upstairs in a bunk bed. Fortunately for me, space adventures make good home stories, too. Apollo 13 isn’t about going to space as much as it about returning from the adventure to safety.
Each of these films was successful because it understood its target audience.
Each film knew exactly what it was trying to say and to whom it was speaking. Target audience is a defaced term because of bad marketing connotations. But its premise remains valid. If you don’t know to whom you’re speaking, your story won’t matter.
Let’s further consider Apollo 13. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (who later penned the script for my all-time favorite movie, Cast Away) may have been tempted to tell the story differently. The focus might have been on the adventure of traveling to space, or the special effects, or the disappointment of not touching down. But they knew exactly what they wanted to say, and to whom they were speaking. Crafted in the late 90s, the waning years of the space exploration era provided a perfect setting for a coming home tale for maturing Baby Boomers.
Further, Apollo 13 is a procedural movie, which may be terribly boring to a wanderlust youth but is perhaps compelling to a grown up who stepped out into the world a long time agpo and now finds fascinating detail in ordinary daily concerns. To the workaday adult, the intriguing life story is not the first epic adventure to space, but the later question, is it possible to go home?
In other words, to connect to people with your story, you’ve got to ignore people. Most people, that is. You’ve got to know to whom you’re communicating, and why.
Now, if you do this well, the irony about any great story is that when it knows its target audience, the story expands. When it tries to be all things to all people, it falls into an illusory hole and touches no one. It misses its altogether. When it perfectly targets and hits a specific audience, then it grows and touches other audiences, too.
The counter-intuitive nature of storytelling is that in order to reach many, you must ignore many and focus on a few. The story you tell depends on those to whom you tell it.