Posted by David Kalat on September 17, 2011
A few weeks ago, my post about Judex and comic book movies prompted an astute reply by Suzi about the extent to which contemporary film has been distorted by an emphasis on attracting an audience of teenagers. Her comment got buried by an ensuing debate about the proper role of women characters in comic book movies, and I was about to insert myself into the comments thread to pick that thought back up, but then I figured there was enough there to justify an entire post, not just a comment.
I let it wait, because the appeal of posting something about King Kong on the World Trade Center on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary was too strong to resist, but the time has come to dig into this whole teenage audience thing.
Let me establish from the outset that most of what I have to say this week comes from the work of Edward Jay Epstein, the so-called Hollywood Economist. He publishes this stuff in sporadic form in his blog of the same name, and for those of you who prefer to read things printed on actual paper, he has a genuine book as well.
On to the story:
It is in the living memory of most readers of this blog that a sizable percentage of the American population could be counted on to attend movies on a weekly basis. Go back far enough in time (let’s say 50 or 60 years) and that percentage was well over half of the country. This meant many tens of millions of people who formed a nearly default audience for Hollywood films as a whole. It was a naturally diverse crowd representing a variety of ages, educational levels, and socioeconomic standings.
Which is just another way of saying that it represented a mix of tastes. Therefore the natural business model to follow, if you were in the business of making movies, was to manufacture a variety of kinds of films, to cater to the various tastes of your audience. All you really needed to do from a marketing standpoint was explain why your movie was alleged to be entertaining, and then sit back and hope that a fair sized slice of the movie-going public eventually chose your film at some point during its run.
The explosion of competing media forms in recent years has had two profound consequences for movies, and I’ll address them in turn.
Number one: instead of roughly half of the country going to the movies as a regular weekly habit, now only 10% of Americans can be described as regular movie goers. And if you guessed that most of these are young folks, then go to the head of the class.
Now, that isn’t a sufficient audience to support the industry. If all Hollywood could count on were those regular movie goers, the whole thing would implode overnight (instead of imploding more slowly, which is what’s actually transpiring). However, that 10% is the core audience, whose tastes form the primary driving impulse of the whole enterprise. It would make no economic sense to make movies that didn’t appeal to the tastes of that core crowd of teens and twenty-somethings.
It costs money. Tons of it. And that money is spent on advertising.
The typical advertising budget these days is around $40 million per picture. I’m really hoping you spat out some of your morning coffee when you read that figure, but in case you’re kind of jaded and figured, “meh,” let me put it in context. The average amount of money a movie makes in its theatrical run is less than $40 million.
Have you spat yet? Ok, I’ll slice the numbers some more. That lucky rarity of a first run Hollywood feature that somehow miraculously breaks even and earns $40 million in ticket sales to off set the $40 million spent to promote it, well that’s just $40 million gross. Only a fraction of that goes back to the studio that made the film, and we havent even started talking about how much the movie cost to make in the first place.
On the face of it, it makes no sense.
Hollywood releases movies to theaters as a loss-leader intended to boost the eventual home video market for the picture, which along with international sales is where the real money is. (For the producers–the theaters make their money off concessions)
This was just a long winded way of establishing that when Hollywood spends $40 million to advertise a movie, it’s because they feel they have to. It’s in no one’s interest to be careless with money. The research shows that it takes about seven distinct exposures to an ad to have the effect of motivating a viewer to go see the movie.
So now the question is one of logistics. Where do you put your ads to best maximize the chance that your target audience sees them at least seven times?
I said earlier there were two consequences of the media explosion, and I only mentioned one so far. Here comes the other one:
Younger audiences tend to be more uniform and conformist within their peer groups about what shows they watch, and they tend to watch the advertising. Older audiences are more eclectic and idiosyncratic in their tastes, and tend to work at avoiding advertising. So, an ad placed on MTV is going to be seen by millions of teens, who have leisure time to spend and are already inclined to go the movie theaters. An ad placed on Mad Men is likely to be missed by the audience skipping ads on their DVR, and those who see it may just shrug, “That looks interesting, maybe I’ll eventually put that on my Netflix queue.”
Now, if you’re responsible for spending your $40 million ad budget responsibly, which would you rather be promoting–a comic book action film whose adolescent audience is easy to identify and relatively predictable in it’s responses, or an art-film whose audience prides itself on being hard to sell?
The demographics show that the teen audience of movies is about 50%, which means that the obsessive focus on appealing to teens misses half the audience. It’s not that older audiences aren’t sizable enough to count, it’s that they are so hard to reach it isn’t worth the bother of trying.
I read Epstein’s book last year and have spent the intervening year recommending his blog and trying to help disseminate his analysis, but until last week it was an academic exercise. I understood what he was saying, and I believed it, but it was on a conscious rather than a visceral level. And then along came Apollo 18.
On the morning of September 2, my son Max rushed up to me with a sparkle in his eyes and a breathless voice: “Dad, Apollo 18 opens today! Can we go see it?”
I was dumbstruck. This was the first time in my life a loved one had asked me to go to a movie with them that I had never even heard of.
If someone had asked me to go see a movie I hadn’t heard of that was some dry slice-of-life drama, then not hearing of it beforehand wouldn’t be so remarkable. But this was a low-budget science fiction fake documentary set on the Moon, made by the producer of the Nightwatch/Daywatch films. I love low budget sci-fi! I love movies set on the Moon! I love fake documentaries! There is probably nobody on Earth more likely to enjoy this movie than me–and from the responses I’ve been hearing since, I think I did enjoy it more than most people.
So, what went wrong that a movie so perfectly geared to my tastes would completely escape my notice?
And the answer is MTV. I don’t watch it, but Max does. He was bombarded with ads while he watched Rob Dyrdeck’s Fantasy Factory, and was hooked. Hey dad can we go see that? Meanwhile I was watching baseball games on the MLB “Extra Innings” cable package and Doctor Who on BBC America’s On-Demand, and haven’t seen a TV ad for anything in months. I read a lot, and I read magazines, but I don’t read about pop culture. I was theoretically the perfect audience member for this film, but I’ve made myself all but unreachable.
It’s a Catch 22. A more diverse population of movie styles cannot be offered until a more diverse audience makes itself a reliable base, and that diverse audience isn’t going to go to the movies that regularly if there aren’t a supply of movies that appeal to them. Loop back to the beginning.
I remember, back in the 1980s, my mom hated most of the tv shows I liked. To her mind they were stupid and vulgar and insulting (well, I agreed, but that’s what I liked about them), and she kept asking why don’t tv networks make shows for people like her? And I pointed out to her that she always left the room when the ads came on. She even openly admitted that she would refuse to buy any product she’d seen advertised on tv. I tried to explain that it was that very attitude that guaranteed no tv producer would ever want to make a show for her. And now I’m slowly turning into that myself.
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