800 lb Gorilla?

At the risk of offering an obvious observation, let me start by remarking that whether a film is conceived as a commercial entertainment or a work of cinematic art, finding an audience—finding the right audience—is a critical component of the process.  And typically, marketing rigor is directly related to budget and box-office expectations: the greater the financial stake, commitment or risk, the more likely it is that resources will be expended to control the outcome, from beginning to end of the process.

Of course, an indie director with a low budget project can devote him or herself to distraction over marketing and commercial considerations, but it takes significant resources to conduct the market research—both before a film is made and after trailers are cut—that most wide release movies enjoy.

The reason for this brief foray into “scientific market research” has to do with my enduring interest in Audience Desire and the presumption by movie marketers in general—and trailer makers specifically—that they are able to discern—using social science methods and analysis– what film goers want and then fashion an appeal to those desires by way of the trailer, a short audio-visual advertisement made largely from the materials found in the film.

Until the late 1970’s, movie marketing was a subjective, intuitive, common-sense enterprise, derived from experience and developed by trial and error, insight and innovation.  Trailermakers were filmgoers who also happened to be filmmakers and who assumed—rightly more often than not—that the qualities that appealed to them in a given film would be similarly attractive to John and Jane consumer.  I don’t want to minimize or denigrate the importance of training and skill and advertising genius that characterizes so much of the history of trailer making, just to point out that “objective,” “quantitative” and “analytical” assessment of intentions, approaches and results, did not emerge in a meaningful until after Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” for which NRG founder Joseph Farrell was hired to test the marketing materials.

Now, at least for bigger budget studio fare, we have film concepts tested before the scripts are written, and often during the production of the still “dynamic,” script. Then, marketing materials for those films are produced and repeatedly tested until they achieve audience reaction scores that promise requisite box office performance in the real world, where the “finished” trailer and the movie it heralds are ultimately tested.

Of course there is something inherently subjective about audience research—people asking people their subjective impression of an unrendered trailer or film fragment in a cubicle at the mall, for a small payment—but the numbers of respondents and the application of a consistent methodology is designed to minimize the “margin for error” or “objectify” the subjective.  And, presumably it works, or how would Hollywood justify it expenditures otherwise?

All of which is to say that for studio release, while there may indeed be artistry, innovation, individual expression and extreme creativity—there should not be accidents, whether of omission or commission.  What is in the trailer, is there for a purpose and can be explained by recourse to research, whether about what audiences are presumed to want from their filmed entertainment choices, or from their reaction to the trailer that was shown to their peers weeks earlier.  It is just this obsessively designed quality of the movie trailer which justifies critical, scholarly and sustained attention, which is, itself, premised on the idea that these exquisitely constructed artifacts can be analyzed for their choices, their objectives, their logic, the structure, their meaning and their coherence.

One consequence of that recognition, is the subsequent realization that what may be objectionable from the standpoint of film art, logic, reason, good taste, plausibility, coherence, “truth,” may be perfectly justified in terms of its impact on a test audience and its satisfaction of desires that they may not even be able to articulate, much less acknowledge.

I’m told by a reliable and authoritative source, that among social-scientists, the “research methodology” of most entertainment market research efforts is held in extremely low regard.  (“laughable” was the term used), chiefly as a result of the extremely “unscientific” quality of the surveys/polling, but also owing to the impossibility of controlling such research or finding “uncontaminated” audiences.   And yet, the multi-billion dollar movie industry is driven by such research.

All of which is enough to make one wonder whether we are delivering “lowest common denominator” pleasures, amusements, nourishment, etc. to the mass audience, thinking it’s what they’ve been asking for, when in fact, it’s what we’ve trained them to want?   Now wouldn’t that be a vicious cycle?

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About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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