Do you know what genre – story congruency is?
It’s a term that reflects the importance of meeting the expectations of the audience.
Genre – Story Congruency: Backstory
Snow White and the Huntsman recently opened at #1 and has a sequel is in the works, whereas the competitive Snow White project Mirror Mirror opened at #3 when it was released at the end of March.
There are lots of reasons why certain movies perform better than others, but if we pay attention to how these movies with similar subjects were pitched to the audiences, we can learn a key lesson about pitching.
In the epic action-adventure Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White is the only person in the land fairer than the evil queen out to destroy her. But what the wicked ruler never imagined is that the young woman threatening her reign has been training in the art of war with a huntsman dispatched to kill her.
Compare this with how the concept of Mirror Mirror is pitched:
A fresh and funny retelling of the Snow White legend, Mirror Mirror features Snow White as she fights the evil Queen to reclaim her birthright and win her Prince in this magical adventure comedy filled with jealousy, romance, and betrayal.
In my opinion, the pitch for Snow White and the Huntsman is much better because it has something the other pitch doesn’t: genre-story congruency.
For example, a writer I worked with recently has a project that is inherently dramatic but was pitching it as a romantic comedy because he thought it would reach a broader audience and be more attractive to buyers. In fact, (as I told him) the opposite is true.
When an executive listens to a pitch, one of the things that is easily determined is whether the story fits the specific genre. Another way to say it is that spy thrillers should be about spies, comedies should have comedic premises and funny characters, and heist movies should involve something valuable being stolen.
In other words: will the story live up to the genre expectations of the audience?
This notion of genre-story congruency seems obvious but it’s one of the most common pitching mistakes even among established professionals—and I believe one of the reasons Mirror Mirror hasn’t succeeded as the studio intended.
Let’s look at these two Snow White pitches and analyze them for genre-story congruency:
Snow White and the Huntsman
Genre: Epic action-adventure
Story Elements: Snow White gets trained in the art of war by the Huntsman, an assassin dispatched to kill her; Snow White threatens the reign of the evil Queen.
The story elements of being trained in the art of war by an assassin and fighting an evil Queen match the genre. This pitch has genre-story congruency.
Genre: Magical Adventure Comedy
Story Elements: An evil, ruthless Queen; Snow White fighting to reclaim her birthright; jealousy and betrayal.
There’s nothing funny about the story elements. This conflicts with the description of the movie as a comedy.
Consider the Queen
Both movie pitches highlight the “evil Queen.”
Here’s how A.O. Scott describes the Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman: “furious,” “terrorizes her subjects,” “a woman with a legitimate grudge against a male-dominated world of sexual violence….”
Manohla Dargis describes the Queen in Mirror Mirror as “self-amused; a pathological narcissist suffering from possible delusions.”
The Queen of Snow White and The Huntsman is truly an evil Queen. The Queen of Mirror Mirror is not. She’s a narcissistic Queen, a delusional Queen—but hardly evil. In other words, “evil Queen” works better as the description of the antagonist for an epic action-adventure as opposed to a magical adventure comedy.
What can we learn?
A good pitch has genre-story congruency.
Snow White and the Huntsman mined the source material and created story elements that matched the original tale’s ominous tone. Mirror Mirror, in contrast, feels like a dark story that is fighting against the comedic elements that are superimposed on the project.
When there isn’t genre-story congruency, potential audience members get the sense that “something feels off.” When there is congruency, a film is more likely to succeed.