An article in this past Sunday’s NY Times strikes me as required reading for any screenwriter who has ever attempted to answer the question, “What does the audience want?”
Perfectly Happy Even Without Happy Endings, by Carrie Rickey, explores what Lindsay Doran (who produced Sense and Sensibility and Stranger Than Fiction, among many other films) has learned from her extensive research on how movies work upon our emotions, and from the teachings of Dr. Martin Seligman, a “catalyst of the positive psychology movement” who has identified the five essential elements of well-being as: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Analyzing hits and critical favorites, Doran confirmed what she’d intuitively suspected about what audiences responded to in movies that worked:
She broke down their emotional components, isolated the elements of mood elevation and tested her findings against those of market researchers. She concluded: Positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings; their characters’ personal relationships trump personal achievements; and male and female viewers differ in how they define a character’s accomplishments. Ms. Doran had long been drawn to “funny dramas and comedies that make you cry,” she said. Now she knew why.