Market Research & Testing: Reports from the Frontlines of Movie Advertising

This quarter, in the graduate seminar I teach on movie trailers, I invited a senior executive from Nielsen NRG (part of the Nielsen Group, famous for its ratings measurement and entertainment research) to visit our classroom and speak about the practice, process and marketing promise of research and testing of trailers and tv spots for feature films.

My students and I were shown a detailed, well-organized presentation of the services Nielsen NRG provides, the value of their research to producers and distributors and the sophistication and depth of NRG’s database and analysis. As a class, we were familiar with some of what the presentation covered, since among the readings for the course is an NRG report from 2008, prepared for the underperforming release, The Love Guru, and provided to me by Paramount for the benefit of my students. Clearly, Nielsen NRG has revamped and expanded its analysis, while endeavoring to improve its objectivity, accuracy and nuance.

Although I am not able to share either the report or the presentation in this venue, I did want to break out a few of the findings that struck me as most relevant to the objectives of this site as well as interesting in their own right.

First, the bad news: Movie going is declining, as measured both by number of movies seen as well as by box-office receipts. (A 16 year low!)

Compared to total population, though, moviegoers tend to be younger and more ethnically diverse.

As a general rule, Moviegoing incidence peaks among teens and declines with age. (There’s a reason that so much marketing and advertising is pitched to these audiences! It’s not just gerontophobia.)

Worrisomely, average movie going decreased across all age groups except for older moviegoers (aged 45 to 64.) Males and teens reported the largest declines from last year. (Whether this was a result of unappealing fare, greater competition from other entertainment/media options or both, is unclear.)

With respect to the source of movie information, Television remains, far and away, the most important, with a 76% mention among respondents. (This percentage was not broken down by whether the information came from an advertisement or from programming content, such as an appearance by a talk show appearance or segment on a news/entertainment program.)

Word of mouth came in second, with 46% of respondents describing this as their primary source of information and awareness. (I’m reminded of trailer maker Anthony Goldschmidt’s quip that “trailers have the first word, but the last word is word of mouth.)

Next, 42% of respondents mentioned that they learned about upcoming releases “in theater,” with trailers accounting for 83% of that awareness. More than half of respondents who got their news about a movie ONLINE, watched the trailer. In other words, 35% of respondents mention “in theater” trailers as their primary source of information and awareness about upcoming films. 25% of respondents mention “online” trailers as their source. These are important numbers, no matter how you parse them. Recall too that TV spots are the dominant driver of awareness among TV viewers.

Phew! It’s a relief to know that trailers and tv spots are still the “lead arrow” in movie marketing.

As to where people see trailers, in-theater viewing is dropping, while online viewing is rising. Sure, we might have predicted that, but it’s good to have the numbers. iPad viewing, in 2011, its first year, reached 5%, which was “already at the level of 2010’s Smartphone viewing” numbers. (So, thanks again Apple!)

So, moving from where and how audiences learn about upcoming movies, I wanted to conclude this post by a consideration of what I consider to be the most salutary aspects of this presentation: a confirmation that story, stars, genre and spectacle remain the fundamental appeals of movie advertising. It’s what I tell my students and probably the most intuitive claim we can make about these increasingly dense, visually exciting and aesthetically complicated short-form films.

Frankly, I’m extrapolating from the slides of the presentation and interpreting. But, since the “topline report” that a company like Nielsen NRG provides its clients with after a weekend of testing is a measurement of audiences response to Stars/Title and Materials, I’m comfortable with this claim about the fundamental appeal of stars and story.

On a later slide, the communications achievements of a given film are measured according to responses concerning: Hero/Heroine (characters), Journey (story and setting); Tone (Emotional engagement?) Originality (is it “fresh?”) and Resonance (Happy/sad ending?). When we talk about effective trailers in class and with industry professionals who guest lecture, I hear variations on this five-fold set of communicational priorities.

Characters matter. Visual artistry is all well and good, but without a point of identification and a reason to care, audiences won’t buy in. As Columbia chief David Begelman pointedly remarked, in a conversation with Ray Stark over where to spend money on an over-budget production, “at the end of the day, people only care about other people.” (Perhaps dogs too—especially if they can talk!)

Story matters: Call it a journey or a plot, but trailers and TV spots should make clear that there is one and it’s worth exploring. Tone or emotional engagement. Haven’t we learned from the recent proliferation of books about the human brain that reason and logic are ultimately servants of emotion and feeling? Aristotle identified it 2300 years ago: Catharsis and vicariety are critical to the experience of art and entertainment. Emotion is the engine of good advertising, branding and messaging.

Originality? Even if you think there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s a trailer’s job to make you believe, or hope, that there is. Same but different; original but just familiar enough to be assimilable. That balance is tricky but key. Finally, Resonance, or a way to answer the question, “is this my kind of movie.?” Given the expense of time and money involved in an outing to the cinema, audiences have shown that they want to know what they’ll be paying for.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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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One Response to Market Research & Testing: Reports from the Frontlines of Movie Advertising

  1. Natalie says:

    Great article, I was interested in finding out more about the quantitative side of Hollywood market research. People want that emotional connection, but the numbers we’re presented with in this type of research is as logical as we can get, isn’t it? Until we try to interpret them, that is!

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