Film Fund-amentals: Do You Know Your Audience?

In a recent interview, Clint Eastwood referred to the current generation of young Americans as a pack of teenage twits. That may or may not be a fair opinion. Clint may simply be cranky. However, Eastwood just summed up the audience that Hollywood is desperately trying to woo.

The teenage twit audience is out there, and much of Hollywood is on a mad quest to squeeze them for every dime. Want to see Jim Carrey do the Dickens thing? Okey dokey! Want to see the entire planet blow up? Come on in! Waiting for James Cameron to unload a world full of silly-looking blue meanies? The wait is almost done.

Too bad there aren’t enough teenage twits to go around for these films (and yes, I am predicting failure for Avatar – With its budget, how could it not fail?). Meanwhile, the current battle for the box office is taking place between New Moon (not exactly a surprise) and The Blind Side (a total sucker punch from nowhere). How did this happen? Simple: these two movies have audiences that Hollywood does not even seem to know exist.

As far as studio executives are concerned, the only audience worth pursuing is white males between the ages of 12 and 25. Everybody else can just drop off a cliff. The reason they are solely focused on this group is as simple as Megan Fox. Most studio executives are white men with the mental capacity of a 16-year-old, and they are quite willing to spend enormous sums of money and resources on the kind of movies they would like to see. It’s all about that mirror on the wall.

Unfortunately, most of the audience is not made up of white male Hollywood executives with a severe case of arrested adolescence. An ever-growing share of the audience is not white. Over half of the audience is not male. A huge and ever-expanding chunk of the audience is long past their 20s. So basically, over two-thirds of the potential audience is being shut out from the get-go. So Hollywood is spending more and more money to go after the smallest part of the audience. And if they are pressed on the issue, they will always point to the big opening weekend numbers as  vindication. Whatever you do, don’t look at the second weekend numbers (where gravity takes an awesome and ugly toll).

The reason for the second week drop is because teenage boys don’t go back to the same movie twice. They’re done. It’s over. Let’s eat. Only teenage girls go back multiple times. When they like a movie, they stick with it. They can watch that sucker until the film wears out. Of course, most studio executives don’t want to deal with teenage girls (unless they’re Megan Fox). Heck, they can’t even deal with women, let alone girls.

Which is where you get the next major (and often missing) audience: adult men and women. You know, people who might actually remember the last five presidential administrations. A few might even remember Ike. They are a vast range of people who have been completely written off as film viewers. Sure, there are reasons why Hollywood ignores them. The first is because they don’t go to movies that much (OK, this is kind of a chicken-egg situation). The second is because they want movies with strong story lines and well-developed characters. In other words, they want a movie, not a stupid jazzed-up video game on a big screen.

Although these demands are pretty simple, few people in Hollywood can grasp what this audience wants (except for Clint Eastwood – this is an exact description of how he makes his own movies). But when they find a film they like, they will go to it. This is the audience that made a huge hit out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This is also a large chunk of the audience attending The Blind Side (I suspect some couples are dropping off their teenage daughters at New Moon and then sneaking into The Blind Side). They actually do go to movies, but they only go to movies that they want to see. No wonder Hollywood executives find these folks so frustrating.

Then there is the rapidly expanding non-white teenage twit audience. Throughout the West and Southwest, there is a large Hispanic audience (a fact that was acknowledged over 25 years ago when Blade Runner was advertised in parts of the Southwest as starring Edward James Olmos). Likewise, the African-American audience is large, poorly served, and treated as an invisible presence. In Hollywood, this large (and socially diverse) audience is largely labeled urban and is occasionally targeted for gang-banger sagas. Otherwise, these people don’t exist to the studios.

Which also means that the average studio executive has no clue as to the wide-ranging and often unpredictable taste of this audience. Heck, a lot of these execs have been thrown by the success of Tyler Perry’s career and the popularity of the film Precious. But these are all easy calls if you actually know your audience. Even urban life in America is not all about gang-banging.

How eclectic is this audience? A long time ago I went to my favorite urban theater to watch a new movie. It was the kind of packed house that would, years later, make a hit out of Menace II Society. Before the movie, the place was packed with a sassy urban crowd that promised ample comments about to be yelled at the screen (some of which would be better than the lousy dialog they were drowning out). Midway through the movie, I realized that the theater was dead quiet. By the last half hour of the film, I could hear the street thugs sitting behind me stifling sobs. By the ending credits I practically expected to see the Bloods and the Crips giving each other hugs in the hallway. The film was Edward Scissorhands.

People do not really go to movies simply to see the world blow up in 3D while Megan Fox prances around in her underwear (though I’d better copyright this idea right now). They go to movies that touch them at some primal, emotional level. They go because the movie means something to them. This is what Hollywood has forgotten.