Words, Words, Words: The World Of Blurbs

It’s festival time in Melbourne. Actually, it’s always festival time in Melbourne. Arts, Film, Comedy, Fashion, Writers, Design, Stencil, Cycling, Jazz, Brass, Animation, Fringe, Moomba, Tap, Travel Writing, Italian, Scarf, Funk… and that’s just the first five pages of Google results. Melbourne has a festival for everything. But how do you decide which film to see? Which comedy show? Which travel writer? Which scarf?

In most cases your guide will be the festival program, and the description of each event. 150 words need to convince you to commit your time and money, to get off the couch and turn off those old tapes of Chances – “The best kabuki puppet western you’ll see all year!” “I laughed so hard I mislaid my socks!” “Gong Li is the most beautiful woman on Earth!”

Anne-Marie Peard wrote about the launch of the Melbourne Fringe Festival program a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about blurbs during the Melbourne International Film Festival. But what makes a good blurb? What needs to be in that magic paragraph to pull in the punters and let the sun shine in?

The Outland Institute assembled a panel of experts to address this deeply important issue…

They are:

Tim Richards, reviewer for The Age and former editor of theatre review site Stage Left; Emma Westwood, who edited the Melbourne International Film Festival programs in 2006 and 2007; and Toby Sullivan, Associate Director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Tell us, expert panel, how important are the program blurbs?

TIM: The very first thing you have to do as a punter is to figure out what to see. This means wading through hundreds of brief show blurbs. Sometimes you know something about the director or performers, which helps. Sometimes there are impressive quotes from earlier reviews. But often you’re in the dark. So it’s vitally important that the blurb grabs your attention.

EMMA: Vague blurbs just blend in with the rest of the guide, which makes it hard to attract an audience… blurbs should really ‘define’ what the show is about. Bad blurbs make the show/film sound like everything else.

TOBY: It’s nice to get a sense of the “personality” of the show you’re going to see, and sometimes just one adjective or sentence can be enough to tip off the reader that something’s going on here.

TIM: The best blurbs are intriguing to read, but also give you a sense of the style and genre, and some plot elements without giving away too much. A tricky balancing act!

What should the aspirant blurbist include and avoid?

TIM: I think the biggest mistake made is going solely for effect without giving any indication of what the show is about, or its genre. Something like “A man. A cat. The taxman collides with the art of tai chi” sounds arty and intriguing, but gives the punter no sense of the show. So he flicks on through the program.

EMMA: A bad show/film states the obvious – a comedy festival show should not be described as “funny” because that’s what the audience assumes about all the shows… However, if a critic says “this show is so funny I wet my pants twice”, that’s good to include because it’s an outside observer ‘proving’ that the show is funny.

TOBY: Include credible quotes from mainstream media. I’m sorry artist, I don’t actually believe anything you say. I require a mouthpiece of the Fairfax empire to validate my choices. I don’t believe you when you tell me you’re “hilarious” or “confronting” or “darkly humorous”. However, a statement like “this show is about my cat” is empirically provable and goes directly to any concerns I might have regarding cats.

TIM: Nothing says “keep turning those program pages” faster than supposedly amusing fake quotes (“Gags of mass destruction” – George Bush).

EMMA: This might have been funny once, but everyone does it – it now sounds really lame and is a waste of word count… so don’t do it.

TOBY: Wacky. Why do people write wacky blurbs? These shows are rarely wacky in the flesh, and since when is wacky something you want to be, anyway? No one’s ever gone to a show and declared “I wish it was wackier.”

Finally, do you recall any good or bad examples?

EMMA: I really liked Rod Quantock‘s blurb from the 2007 Comedy Festival, which was really amusing and played on the fact that everyone knows him because he’s always at the fest. It went:

The Peter Garrett of comedy, Rod Quantock, is back for his seven hundredth Comedy Festival appearance and a new show blah blah blah global warming blah blah blah water blah blah blah Iraq blah blah blah Paris Hilton blah blah blah he told you so.
(Warning: Show may contain words)

TOBY: The worst was the Next Wave 2008 Special Event, Nightclub:

Oozing into the spaces in and around The Men’s Gallery, Nightclub 1: Pure Pleasure investigates the ways in which the social and architectural environment of this very loaded space feeds ideas of gender and sexuality into the world at large, and invites artists from across disciplines to consider how they might be reimagined. The regular flow of genders and behaviours around The Men’s Gallery are temporarily diverted and rechanneled into newly-imagined possibilities and encounters.

What the fuck is this? Like, what is it? What is actually going to happen if I go to this? Is it a show? A disco? A band? A barbeque with bonus Sondheim quiz after desert? A musical colonoscopy? Taking a wild guess, I imagine that what it should have said was this:

Oozing into the spaces in and around The Men’s Gallery, Nightclub 1: Pure Pleasure invites you to pay a fiver to stand around awkwardly for 6 hours while a variety of walking cod-pieces (stuffed with ill-advisedly awarded funding dollars) thrust in your face to techno music. No seats, no food, if you don’t enjoy it, it’s your fault and you’re a reactionary Howard lapdog. By the way, the gyrating pansexual strippers gyrating in the name of deconstructing sexuality recognise they are gyrating on the traditional lands of the Kulin nation and pay their respects (and those of their nipple tassles) to the elders both past and present.

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5 Responses to Words, Words, Words: The World Of Blurbs

  1. Narrelle says:

    I hate aggressively self-deprecating blurbs for comedy festival shows. “Come and see two people act badly in stuff that their mum told them was funny. It’s crap. See it anyway.” Actually, self-deprecating comedians, I won’t. It’s the one time when I actually believe what you wrote about yourself, because it’s actually likely to be true.

  2. Louise says:

    I hope to eventually make my way through every arts festival in Melbourne (it’s nice to have a longterm hobby). Next Wave is the only festival thus far to really disappoint. There’s nothing like ineffectual self-importance to put a dampener on a nice festival vibe.

  3. syms says:

    I still love that picture – and will hold that in my memory rather than the actual memory of the MIFF fesival lounge.

  4. outlandinstitute says:

    Yes, it’s impressive what a very long shutter speed can achieve… And thanks to Gina Morley again for playing the difficult role of “woman reading”. She’s ever so good.

    I had an idea of doing a project where you tried to go to every festival in Melbourne for a year and wrote about the different audiences at each. But that would require funding of some sort, so it remains a dream…

    And worth repeating from that other piece about blurbs, my favourite festival blurb of all time was for Stewart Lee’s Pea Green Boat, at the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe. His complete description:

    An owl wakes up at sea in a pea green boat.
    It is accompanied by a cat, its natural predator.
    There is some honey.
    What chain of events led to this dangerous situation?

  5. Dan Cardone says:

    it is a VERY good photo. such pretty colours, i like them so…

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