This is the fourth interview in Chapter 5 in my new book, Designing Media
Colin Callender, February 2009
As a founding member of HBO’s pioneer programming group and the President of HBO Films, Colin played a central role in turning HBO into a powerhouse. He believes that the role of a film or television producer should be to safeguard the integrity of the content, create protected working environments in which talented people can do their most brilliant work, and deliver onscreen the vision that has been articulated and agreed on by the people responsible for the content. He points out that people want to have their emotions and imaginations engaged when they are watching, and he derides much mainstream material for failing to invite the audience on a participatory journey.
I like his example of the opening sequence in Slumdog Millionaire, where the audience is taken on a hectic run through the slums of Mumbai, an invitation for the audience to accompany the characters on a journey that continues throughout the film. The majority of mainstream film and television has not engaged the audience in such a manner. It does not treat the audience with respect or understand the way in which people want to participate. Instead, it tends to serve up predictable material with no demands or surprises. If you’ve seen the preview for an episode, all too often you’ve enjoyed the most engaging moments in advance. Colin believes that this notion of the emotional connection is central to how we need to look at the audience and the creator. According to him, "If you hear producers talk about network television dramas or comedies, they will tell you that for success they need to signal the audience in advance about what is going to happen. I think that’s why the networks have lost their audience—because it’s boring, it’s predictable, you know where it’s going, and the audience is ahead of the storyteller. That is why certain shows like Lost and 24 have been so engaging, because they have turned that idea on its head."
The impact of The Sopranos was that it took the gangster movie genre and said to the audience, We’re not going to give you any clues. You just need to come on this journey with us. Some of it will be familiar, some of it won’t, but stick with us. We’re going to constantly surprise you. We’re going to kill off characters. We’re going to have the characters you love do terrible things. For example, one of the principal characters kills somebody while on a trip with his daughter to visit a college, leaving her in a motel while he commits the murder. As the Internet has grown, along with accessible and inexpensive tools for creating content, the idea that audiences want to interact with their entertainment has taken hold. It’s assumed that people no longer want to sit back and passively watch television at home; now they either want to create or actively participate. Colin thinks that people still do enjoy sitting back in a movie theater or at home to watch, but he thinks they also want to engage, but in a more subtle way than interacting with a computer or do-it-yourself videography. He believes that people want to use their imaginations to embark on an emotional journey as they watch, feeling that they are sharing in the experience. Colin makes us understand how challenging and complex it is to make successful film or television and why it is so expensive and time-consuming. In order to achieve the goal of letting the content appear to be king, we need producers like him, who believe that their job is to enable the directors, writers, and actors to deliver the artistic vision. When the vision is supported, the audience can fill in the blanks, feeling a sense of participation and engagement.