Film Fund-amentals: Seeking the Ideal

Who exactly goes to movies these days? It’s an important question, and the current answer is a tad murky. It is especially murky when you are trying to pinpoint the modern representative model for the movie audience.

More than fifty years ago the answer seemed pretty straightforward. It was primarily a Midwestern, middle-class white family (husband, wife, 2.5 kids and a dog waiting by a white picket fence). This was the early days of the Baby Boom generation, and the only question was the .5 kid (a statistical generalization that covers the third child in some of the families — I know; I am a .5 kid). Yep, these were simpler times when Eisenhower solved political problems while playing golf, and the only man in women’s clothes was Milton Berle.

The reality was dramatically different, but the model was kept this simple for a very long time. But this model is dead. Kaput. Gone and mostly forgotten. As recently reported on NPR, numerous studies are discovering that the contemporary movie audience is moving into a variety of different, divergent models. What once was viewed as a “mainstream” culture has given way to a network of “sub-cultures” that sometimes merge in viewership and at other times scatter into more narrowly defined areas of interest.

This change is not exactly obvious, based on the most recent MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics Report (which is the main study used by both the theaters and the studios). The approach taken in the study by the MPAA largely focuses on gender and age and mostly confirms that a lot of men between the ages of 18 and 24 go to movies. This is the one part of the report that the major companies in Hollywood have ever bothered to look at. However, if you start playing with the MPAA figures, you suddenly discover that the older audience is much larger, and the female audience is equal to (and often greater than) the male audience. Basically, the average moviegoer is actually a woman between the ages of 15 and 40. By comparison, the male audience is significantly lower through almost all of the critical age ranges.

The MPAA avoids the issue of race and possible racial preference at the movies. But a recent study by BET manages to gather some strong impressions of African-American film habits. The results in their study aren’t all that surprising. A majority of African-American moviegoers tend to go to the standard Hollywood fare. What is interesting is that they appear to be bigger repeat viewers than is currently the case among the average white viewer. They also go more frequently in general. Most studies indicate that the same is true of the Latino audience, though the variations are wider in parts of the American West and Southwest. Add in the gender split from the MPAA study, and suddenly the average model of a modern moviegoer will be a black woman between the ages of 15 and 40.

There is one major difference between the average white film viewer and the black audience. The black audience has no problems going to movies with either few or no black characters. The average white American viewer is not so relaxed (as shown in a recent study in the Journal of Communication) when it is the other way around. In a sense, the study could be viewed as optimistic. Acceptance of black performers in major movies has risen, but it is also still extremely limited, and the minute you get into the leading man zone, look out. Personally, I think this is still in a process of change, which is strongly suggested by another recent study on current American perceptions of beauty. The traditional archetype of the blond American rose is rapidly moving toward a biracial (black and/or Latina) model. The evidence suggests that it is already moving in that direction so quickly that in a few more years the average moviegoer will be a biracial female (between the ages of 15 and 40).

Now let’s throw another monkey wrench into this model, sexual orientation. To be honest, I cannot find any current studies on gay American viewing habits. Most studies have been focused on gay viewing of gay-themed movies, which isn’t the kind of broad-based viewing study I need. Heck, there is currently a major debate among surveys attempting to even figure out how many gay Americans there even are, with current estimates running from 1.5 percent (obviously way too low) to 25 percent (sounds a tad high to me). At the moment, the data is almost as nonsensical as it is important. So I will have to fall back on anecdotal information.

Over the past decade, I have worked with and known a lot of gay men. Most of them go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. A few of them spend so much time in dark theaters that they are in danger of turning into mushrooms. Many straights I know haven’t been inside a theater in the past three years (I know some straights who still think that most movies are in black and white). So I am of the suspicion that movie-going is more prevalent among gays than straights. I have little to support this theory apart from the chitchat I’ve heard over the past decade. But I have a hunch that I am not too far off the mark.

So I am willing to suggest that eventually the average model of a moviegoer will be a biracial, bisexual woman (between the ages of 15 and 40). Of course, this is a good moment to remind everyone of what Mark Twain once said (“There are lies, damned lies, and statistics“). The worth of any statistical model is nowhere good enough to get you a decent cup of coffee at a cheap coffee house. But the half-screwy model I just created is probably more sound than the current mainstream model used by Hollywood (which is basically white males between the age of 12 and 25). Everything that can be gleaned from current studies overwhelmingly indicates that the Hollywood model is pitched toward only a fraction of the real audience. At best, the Hollywood model barely covers 35 to 40 percent of the actual audience.

So yes, Hollywood is out of touch with the American moviegoer. Likewise, the American audience is fragmented in so many different ways that I doubt if Hollywood can easily get in touch even if they tried. This is one of the reasons why the market is beginning to split and evolve into a niche marketing structure that is more advantageous for indie filmmakers.