Do You Trust Your Audience? A Lesson from a Great Movie


Do you trust your audience?

Before you answer “Sure!” make sure you watch the famous “Sam the Lion” monologue from the Oscar-winning movie The Last Picture Show. In just four minutes, Director Peter Bogdanovich offers a lesson on earning the trust of your audience, one that applies to any content marketer.

The scene focuses on Sam the Lion, an older denizen of a small Texas town, who fishes with two boys, Sonny and Billy, on a modest pond known as the tank. After the three idly shoot the breeze, Sam reminisces about a passionate affair from his past, a fleeting relationship that has remained strong in his heart as he ages.

And that’s all there is to the scene: Sam (played by Ben Johnson) sharing a fond memory with Sonny (played by Timothy Bottoms) and the mentally challenged Billy (played by Sam Bottoms) on a lake. No gunplay. No massive fist fights. Not much of anything — on the surface at least. And yet, the scene is beloved by movie critics (it was a favorite of Roger Ebert’s), and Johnson’s performance won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1972. Why? Because the moment reveals poignant truths about longing, regret, and growing older.

The monologue unfolds naturally. Sam makes small talk about fishing and turtles. He takes in the scenery of the pond and the mesquite trees, which triggers a memory of an affair between Sam and a woman.

“I brought a young lady swimming out here once,” he muses. “It was after my wife had lost her mind. And my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess.”

Sam discloses that he and the woman shared moments of crazy passion on the pond, skinny dipping and racing each other on horses in the water.

“Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway,” he says, before telling Sonny that the affair ended. And then, the payoff: “Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do,” Sam muses. “Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Getting old.”

Last Picture Show (1971)

The scene succeeds because Bogdanovich trusts the audience to appreciate quality of the writing (by Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich) and the strength of Johnson’s acting. For instance:

  • Notice the absence of music. There are no syrupy strings to overplay the movie’s hand, no audio cues to tell us, “You’re watching an emotional moment. Time to let the tears flow.”
  • Similarly, the camera work does not overplay the scene with excessive close-ups to hammer home the emotional content of Sam’s monologue. The camera caresses Sam’s face through a slow build that permits the audience to drink up the scene instead of being hit over the head.
  • The characters are natural and authentic. Throughout the movie, Johnson portrays Sam as an aging man who carries himself with quiet integrity, and during the monologue, Johnson stays true to the character he has built. He does not lapse into showy emotion. And the boys act as boys do. Sonny is at turns bored and somewhat curious, while Billy watches at the water. The boys do not cock their heads in awe, as a director in a lesser movie might choreograph a scene. You know the “cocked head” moment in a movie, right? It’s that scene we often see in noble, well-meaning movies when a director tries to lead the audience by the nose.

You don’t need to be a Hollywood director to learn from Bogdanovich. Content marketers can apply his lessons in many ways. For instance:

  • When you select topics for thought leadership (whether for white papers or blog posts), choose ideas that will teach your audience instead of hyping your own services and products. Trust your audience to understand the difference between self-promotion and thought leadership, and to reward your thought leadership with positive word of mouth and even potential business.
  • Don’t clutter your writing with excessive adjectives and hyperbole. When you share an insight, trust your audience to draw its own conclusions and appreciate the value of your idea. Flowery, overwritten language is the equivalent of a movie scene that hits the audience over the head with music that grasps at the heartstrings.

Finally, earn the trust of your audience by being authentic and believable. Sam the Lion’s monologue worked because all the collaborators involved in the scene created a moment that was believable and true to the essence of the movie. When you trust your audience, you earn its trust, too.

Do you trust your audience?