Know your audience

After Jeff Lerner from Sony hired me to consult on the Russian soap “Poor Anastasia,” he and I had a conference call with the Russian producers and head writers of the project.  I had been given some of the translated material to get an idea of what the story was about and clearly Jeff and I considered it a soap opera.  In looking for an American writer for the project, Jeff called my agent, Jim Sarnoff, because Jim represented soap writers exclusively.  Jeff knew he needed a writer experienced in American daytime soaps to give knowledgeable help to the Russian writers.  When I read the material, essentially a synopsis of the story, I knew it was a soap: the Russians planned to air it five days a week (in primetime, however, not during the day), the central story was romantic, featuring twentysomething characters as well as strong families in conflict with one another.

However, during the conference call with my Russian colleagues (who I had yet to meet), I referred to the show as a miniseries.  Alexander Akopov, the executive producer of “Poor Anastasia,” leapt at on my description, agreeing that, yes, that’s exactly how they saw the project, as a miniseries.

Well, you can have a miniseries that’s still soapy and I didn’t pay as much attention to his enthusiastic endorsement of the show’s description until mid-way into the writing of the show.

In other post I’ll write about Jeff’s and my first visit to Moscow when it became clear the two male headwriters didn’t understand the soap genre and Alexander fired them and made me the headwriter.  (Although Jeff and I insisted he keep one of the writers, Yuri Belenki, who remains a dear friend.)  As the headwriter, I was responsible for the vision of the show, as well as story and character development.  The writers I hired, as I’ve written in another post, argued with me constantly about how I was telling the story, claiming it wasn’t Russian.  When I would exclaim, “the babushka in Minsk will love this,” they’d argue back, “The babushka in Minsk will never watch it!”  (Turns out she did; in fact half the country watched “Poor Anastasia.”)

What I came to realize is that my writers didn’t understand who their audience was.  They were all university-educated, smart, funny and verbal but they were all a bit embarrassed by the show.  It was too romantic.  Too soapy.  It was not a show they would watch.

Here’s a deep, dark secret: Given a choice, I wouldn’t watch soaps either.  Aside from “Dark Shadows,” which I loved as a kid, I was never a soap fan.  I wanted to write for the police procedurals like “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”  But somehow I found myself writing for soaps and being told to stick with the genre because I was good at it.  And while I may not have been the audience I was writing for, I understood I better know who that audience was and write for them!

Which is what I told my Russian writers.  I said we were writing this for every woman in Russia who was coming home from her stressful, low-paying job, who had to take care of her husband/parents/children.  That she needed to turn on the TV and watch a show in which she could forget about her problems, lose herself in the romance of Korf and Repnin competing for Anna’s love, while Anna hides the terrible secret that she’s a serf.  “You may not watch this,” I told them, “but there are millions of women out there who will.  If we understand exactly what they want to see.”

Whatever you write for, whether you like the genre or not personally, you have to know your audience and write for them.  Even if you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, you need to ask yourself, “Who do I want to read/watch this?”  You certainly shouldn’t write a sweet, tender love story if you’re hoping for an audience of teenage boys.    When I wrote “Killer Ratings,” I aimed for an audience who enjoyed light mystery but also wanted to know about what goes on behind the scenes of a primetime TV drama.  

Throughout, Alexander Akopov supported my point of view and encouraged me to never give in to my writers when they wanted to take conflict or un-Russian-like story twists out of the plot.  But, secretly, Alexander was still embarrassed by the soapy elements. The story Alexander wanted to tell?  Monetary reform!

It seems that in 1842 St. Petersburg, the finance minister Kankrin (Jeff thought his name sounded like a hemorrhoid medication)  urged the Tsar to revalue the ruble.  Nikolai I did and–yea!–the ruble was revalued.  Alexander felt this was a very important moment in Russian history that should be dramatized, and, suspecting I might disagree (after all, I took out all scenes in which the tsarevich provided his fiancee, Marie of Saxe-Coburg, skin cream for her psoriasis that my writers felt was necessary because “she really did have skin problems”) wrote and shot the scenes behind my back, only revealing them to Jeff and me when we were back in Los Angeles for a short break and unable to physically stop him.

Naturally, Jeff and I hit the roof but it was a done deal.  Alexander was the boss, he’s the one who hired Sony, and therefore me, to come to Russia and work on the show.  When the monetary reform story line aired, I asked a Russian-speaking acquaintance who lived in L.A. to check the Internet and see what the fans were saying.  She checked for a week and our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Masha (not her real name): Are you sure you gave me the right dates the story was airing?

Me: Yeah, why?

Masha: Because I don’t see anything about monetary reform.  No discussion at all.

Me: Are you sure?  What are they talking about?

Masha:  It seems Repnin and Korf had a duel over Anna.  That’s all they’re talking about.  They’re really angry that Anna ended up with Repnin, they want her with Korf.

See?  My audience didn’t care about monetary reform.  They were engaged in the romance, in the duel for Anna’s heart.  I also learned something hugely important: that the audience wanted Anna to end up with Korf (the bad boy) as opposed to Repnin (the good guy).  Isn’t that always the case?  My Russian writers would never tell me something as important as that (although some did alert me that monetary reform story was a bust).  But finding out about it, I used the second half of the series to slowly bring Korf and Anna together and found another love interest for poor Repnin.  Of course Korf and Anna didn’t really come together until the last episode of the show.  I wanted the audience to keep watching in the hopes Korf and Anna would be together at the end.

The funny thing is, while I wrote the show for those poor, stressed-out women, their young daughters started watching it with them, and even their husbands, and, yes, even Putin, who admitted to a journalist in some embarrassment that he watched the show two or three nights a week!

The Russians are so different from us in so many respects but there’s one thing we all have in common: We love a good story well told.

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