People go to the movies for the characters.
Pretty elementary, right? Oh, sure, you have the occasional viewer who just wants to see what your digitized Tyrannosaurus Rex looks like up close, but for the most part, people go to the movies because movies tell a story, and stories are about characters. It doesn’t matter if your film is billed as high art or a special effects extravaganza; if the audience doesn’t like the characters and can’t find some way to bond with them, they aren’t going to like your flick.
All stories—whether told through writing or on a big screen—are about people facing problems. These problems may be as simple as winning a kids’ soccer game, or as important as saving the world from an alien invasion. The bottom line is that everyone has issues, but you want your audience to forget about theirs and care about the ones your characters face. That sounds like a pretty tall order, considering the state of the economy and the troubles many people are facing, but remember: your audience is watching your movie because they want to forget. You’re already preaching to the choir—just make it a good sermon.
The men, women, children, animals, aliens, and the occasional insects are what drive a story. The recent surge in exciting and exotic special effects—often accompanied by quick camerawork and creative editing—sometimes come at the cost of a movie’s characters. Development is cast aside in favor of a big explosion, and any background or history is often kept to a bare minimum.
Big studios can get away with this at times, as they still have millions to spend on advertising and creating slick-looking trailers. The budget filmmaker, often working without a giant marketing scheme and with limited resources, often chooses to focus on his “people,” rather than clutter up the screen with more razzle-dazzle.
That’s not to say your characters need to be bastions of love and adoration. Movie protagonists run the gamut, and may feature corrupt cops, drug dealers, vampires, and even the mean kids that you hated in high school. Some of them are more ambiguous than good, and others are outright antiheroes. But they’re the people your audience has come to see, whether they’re based on real individuals or figments of your imagination. Yeah, it’s always nice to be transported to a far-off planet via a high-quality, effects-laden flick, but why stick around if all we have to look at is the vegetation?