“The unpredictability of audience taste is itself no myth.’nobody knows what makes a hit or when it will happen’, since audiences make hits ‘not by revealing preferences they already have, but by discovering what they like’.” (1)
Remarkably, there has been very little market research on modern cinema audiences, or at least research that is accessible by the public and not kept in-house by the major film distribution companies. Most audience research is based on audience response to a film they have already seen. Hollywood studios are always conducting test screenings to assess a film’s potential box-office success and they usually base their production decisions on recent trends and the current box-office attraction of the latest ‘movie star’. Predicting a film’s box-office success is always fraught with danger and Hollywood executives continually miss their mark by basing their decisions on past box-office performance rather than potential audience response. Just because audiences are flocking to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), does not necessarily mean they will flock to see the next Asian martial arts flick, although this will not prevent a stream of similar pictures being made in the near future and most probably by the Hollywood studios.
The high financial stakes of acquiring and distributing a film in Australia (or anywhere for that matter) makes it vital for distributors to have a better understanding of their audience’s tastes. Obviously, I am not suggesting that distributors only acquire films to meet the preferences of its audience. This will virtually destroy our film culture. What I am suggesting is that the tastes of modern cinema audiences are not predictable and that films that distributors believe will be ‘sure-fire’ hits almost always miss their target and even films that receive the most positively glowing critical reviews do not always perform accordingly at the box office. In a new book on cinema audiences titled American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing by Tom Stempel (2), the author conducts a survey of 158 ‘ordinary’ moviegoers in an effort to ascertain why particular films struck a chord with audiences and became box-office hits. His aim is to present qualitative research (personal opinions of audiences) rather than mere sociological or economic research, which is what most movie audience research has been in the past.
The author and researcher, Tom Stempel, is a film historian rather than a marketing researcher and while his book is essentially a flawed exercise and not as ground breaking as what Stempel would have you believe, he does raise many pertinent issues in regards to movie audience reception. The research analyses audience reaction to mostly Hollywood mainstream films from 1948 to the present and while box-office results are not obviously reflective of the quality of the film (Stempel is continually appalled at some of the films that are top grosses), it does reflect the preferences of the masses which, in turn, affects the films that are subsequently produced by the studios and the future of the film industry.
I must mention that while the book and this article focuses on and is limited to Hollywood films, there are obviously other films beside those from Hollywood. Independent and foreign language films are not represented by the study probably because their relatively limited box-office potential does not warrant extensive and costly research. Of course, this does not diminish their importance to the film industry and film culture. However, in the current state of the local film industry where such films have to compete with big-budget Hollywood mainstream films in local art-house cinemas, it is important to understand why audiences flock to these commercial films. Also, the recent mainstream crossover of low-budget and foreign language films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1998) and The Blair Witch Project (Myrick & Sanchez, 1999), proves that audiences are unpredictable and will see any film, despite previous movie-going habits, attitudes and opinions.
While Stempel’s bold research study is honorable in its intentions and provides a worthwhile addition to the limited literature on movie audiences, it is written in a frankly insulting tone to all other valuable participants in the film industry bar the audience. In his introduction, he notes that
Some of the film directors mentioned in the book may not like what the audiences have to say about them and their films. As may those academics who will be appalled that I have been talking to ordinary moviegoers rather than elite ones such as themselves. However, this is not a book about, or for, elitists. It is a little too earthy for that. (p. xiv)
To brand film academics as ‘elitists’ is, I believe, part of the problem that exists between film distributors/producers and academics/critics. The problem is that each of these participants has their own agenda and interests. Film producers want to get their films made, film distributors want to recoup their expenses and make money and film critics want to enhance and (hopefully) influence film culture. In the recent issue of Film Comment (Mar/Apr 2001), the editor, Gavin Smith, also referred to this misperception of ‘elitism’ in response to the magazine’s recent shift to incorporate more analysis of mainstream films:
We’ve changed in the past year, and we knew it wouldn’t please everyone. But as one reader put it, we “don’t see movie as a product but as a valuable art form.” That will never change. A few of you complained that we’re “elitist”. Maybe that’s true sometimes, at least to the extent that we often concentrate on films that aren’t easily accessible to moviegoers.. (3)
In the end, despite everyone’s valuable contribution to the film industry, in Stempel’s own words, “the audiences may not always be right, but they are the audiences.” (p. xii)
The main problem with Stempel’s research study of moviegoers is that it merely states the reasons particular audience members saw a particular film (each citing their own personal reasons). Stempel does not delve further and make any concrete conclusions as to why these films affected so many people and influenced them to see it. While some of the moviegoers’ responses are slightly humorous and some are even illuminating, the bulk of it is mere fluff and dispensable. For example, I don’t think any audience research is enhanced when one viewer’s “most memorable movie experience was actually screwing my girlfriend in my car at a drive-in that just so happened to coincide with the love scene in the movie!” (p.37)
Having said that, the book’s main strength and value is as a historical reception study as it traces the attitudes and opinions of audiences over time. It is interesting to see particular moviegoers change their opinion of films they had seen many years ago. One viewer notes that she went to see Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) and “it became our anthem. Seeing this film was akin to a religious experience for us. I’ve seen it once since then and it seems painfully long and dated. The endless improv in the New Orleans cemetery seemed so intense and relevant then.(but) seems inane now.” (p.79) Audience opinions, tastes and movie-going habits change over time and a film that was a box-office success only a few years ago may not necessarily be one this year. Even film critics change their opinion over time and some even over a very short period of time as Adrian Martin bravely admitted when he reassessed his review of Heat (Michael Mann, 1995) only a week after his initial review.
While Stempel likes to preach how his book is dedicated to offering the opinions of ‘ordinary’ moviegoers, this does not prevent him from scattering his own opinions throughout the book. This tends to devalue the research study from a worthwhile endeavour to simply a personal viewpoint. In his disrespectful reference to Martin Scorsese he writes that “Raging Bull was one of Scorsese’s most acclaimed films and later considered by critics to be the best film of the eighties (which tells you more about the critics and the eighties than it does about the film).” (p.148) He further notes that Raging Bull was out-grossed by “even Bo Derek’s Tarzan, The Ape Man” (p.148) as if that is a useful reference to the film’s worthiness. If that isn’t enough, Stempel further denigrates the director by saying that “with respect to his audience, one problem with Scorsese’s films is that he gets so inside both his own vision and his own directorial techniques that he forgets how the audience is actually going to take the film, as opposed to how he thinks they should.” (p.148)
Although Stempel’s above remarks about Scorsese are ludicrous, he does raise the pertinent issue of the all-too-often disparity between the opinions of critics and the audience. While the job of critics is not to reflect the opinions of the mass audience, distributors – especially art-house/independent distributors – are increasingly reliant on positive critical reviews to create a positive awareness of the film and to be able to use such positive reviews as valuable marketing tools in the film’s advertising. While many films that receive a generally positive critical response do perform well at the box-office, there are many that don’t. Why this is often the case is the million-dollar question and one that Stempel does not even attempt to answer even though he raises the point several times throughout the book. It would make the life of the distributor a hell of a lot easier if all great films were box-office successes but, unfortunately, this is not the case. It is even worse when mediocre films that you may have passed on as an acquisition performs contrary to what you thought they would.
In the end, I don’t think any Hollywood studio, distributor or market researcher knows what the audience wants. The audience itself does not even know what it wants. To survey moviegoers in an effort to ascertain their preferences for what they like in movies is often a futile exercise. While many viewers may have a preference for a particular genre or movie actor, this does not guarantee they will like all similar movies. Moviegoers will know what they like after they have seen it and not before. This is possibly a main reason why there has not been much research conducted on movie audiences as many films continue to be surprise box-office hits contrary to any research or opinions of distributors, filmmakers and critics. Therefore, the reason many distributors give as to why a particular film has not been released locally – that ‘it will never find an audience’ – doesn’t really hold true.
What does hold true is the financial risks involved in releasing a film theatrically in print and advertising costs and that is the gamble that all distributors face when dealing with an art form such as film. Stempel concludes his study by claiming that “audiences have more influence on Hollywood than the other way around, because Hollywood has more at stake in the relationships between audiences and movies.” (p.253) While Hollywood likes to think it knows what audiences want by giving them endless remakes and mind-numbing sequels ad nauseam, they often discover after a $100 million dollar loss that they were wrong. Second guessing the audience is risky especially when the audience itself does not know what it wants.