Film might never reach its potential if it is constrained by path-dependent notions. Perhaps certain notions and ideas are only accidental habits. Perhaps in the fullness of time, those ideas might constitute the evidence of an art form that was in its infancy.
One such idea is that a film must side with one particular character, in the singular; that the story should be told from the point of view from of one protagonist. Whose story is it? Robert Mckee argues that:
The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between audience and character.
McKee’s premise is that film only has a limited amount of time to work with. The more characters, the more diluted our involvement with each character. But isn’t this merely a technical challenge? Isn’t it possible for a writer to use time more economically in the same way a poet uses words sparingly? Think of the ambitious buildings throughout history, unprecedented structures which challenged the elemental and unchanging forces of nature. The engineer devises new methods to enable the construction.
William Goldman suggests that a script with too many characters frustrates the demand of movie stars to play a lead role:
You simply cannot have that many characters in a movie today. It’s confusing, it’s a turnoff, and in terms of movie storytelling, it’s just wrong… Even worse than the number of characters was this: there was no star part.
Perhaps this is the only legitimate reason for writing fewer characters: to make a script more appealing to movie stars on whose participation the financing for the film may rely. It’s a short-sighted reason, but a practical one. I don’t think audiences are easily confused or turned off by stories with dozens of characters. A number of acclaimed TV series have featured a large casts and complex interweaving narratives. If anything, I find the runtime of those acclaimed TV series a turn-off. I wish they would distill those stories further, into a single two-hour movie.
How do we know what cinema is capable of?
How will we ever know if we let assumption constrain its ambition?