Today’s Audience

Several years ago, I asked if the film industry knew their audience.  It’s a question that can be asked at virtually every level of the business as demonstrated last month during a panel discussion at the International Cinema Technology Association.

Of course, the presentation at the International Cinema Technology Association was primarily focused on exhibitor related issues.  Especially issues related to digital conversion, alternative content (for example, sports) and items at the concession stand.  For indie filmmakers, the second item might be the only interesting point.  After all, it’s not impossible (though it might seem to be) that a theater might host something like a Thursday night indie presentation.  Naturally, they would have to get distributors to loosen up on some of the strings attached to the standard first-run contract.  Unfortunately, most theaters would rather do something like the NBA playoff than indie movies  But it is a possibility.

There are other issues that go way beyond the exhibitors.  Heck, the whole foundation of theater distribution and exhibition is in the process of a massive radical change.  The exhibitors know this, and they really don’t have a clue about what to do.  I have no doubt that a recent post at about the possible strength of viewer engagement through non-theatrical digital presentation (for example, laptop) is going to receive  a rousing Bronx cheer.   The piece makes a compelling argument, but nobody in the theater business wants to hear it at the moment.

What they do want to hear, or at least need to read, is the 2012 Theatrical Market Statistics just released by the Motion Picture Association of America.  Though it is targeted for exhibitors, this annual MPAA statistical review is one of the few comprehensive guides to the American film audience, which is why it is also studied by the entire industry.

So what do the figures tell us?  Overall, movie attendance increased in 2012.  OK, the increase was barely 6 per cent, which means that attendance has scored a very modest gain over what was a notable slump in 2011.  So the attendance figures are closer to an over all break even mark.  But these days that looks good.

The cost of movie tickets has increased marginally (0.03%) from 2011.  Well, sort of.  As The New York Times noted earlier this year, exhibitors waited until well into the 4th quarter of 2012 before going after a steeper increase that is only half-reflected in the MPAA figures.  The current average ticket cost is $8.05 (standard projection) and rising.

On the other hand, movies are still a cheaper entertainment outing for a family of four (cost of $31.84) than such other activities as NFL games ($313.52 for four) and theme parks ($199).  Of course, these are just the ticket figures, and the MPAA always stacks the deck with big ticket items. A bowling night out might be a better point of comparison.  Once the family of four gets bushwhacked at the concession stand, you can easily add in an extra $50 to $70, and suddenly the MBL game looks cheaper at $107.92 (unless you live in Cleveland where they are starting to give tickets away).  Sure, the family could skip the concession stand, but then that would severely damage the theater business.  Hey, they don’t make their money off those tickets.

Mostly, the key figures suggest a soft market with a tiny glimmer of minor improvement largely produced by a few major successful movies (for example, The Avengers and three other films.  It could be seen as good news, but you don’t want to shout it from the roof.  A soft whisper in a small room will suffice.

The really interesting material is in the demographic section of the report.  In 2012, there was an increase in frequent moviegoers across all age ranges.  Three age ranges display very notable increases, though the MPAA assumes that the rise in the 40-49 age range is short-lived and only views the rises in the 18-24 and 25-39 ranges as meaningful trends.  Their reasoning has to do with the match between the relative size of different age groups and the frequencies of their movie-going habits.  For example, the 18-24 age range represents only 10% of the population but 21% of frequent moviegoers.  In the older demographics, size and frequency are reversed.

Yes, I know.  There is a self-fulfilling element at work here.  Most movies are made for the 18-24 range and the older audience often feels left out.  So the older audience goes less and they are then discounted in these type of studies when they do go.  Once in a blue moon, a movie is released for an older audience.  If it does well, everyone acts surprised and then goes back to chasing after the youngsters.  So this report does a neat job of reinforcing traditional wrong-headed thinking in the business.

Frequency by ethnicity is another interesting section.  Caucasians make up about 64% of the general population and they are 56% of all frequent moviegoers.  African-Americans are 12% of the general population and 11% of the population of frequent moviegoers. Hispanics are 17% and 26%, respectively, which suggests that a lot of Hispanics leave the theater just long enough to get back in line for another show.  The figures indicate that Hispanics are, long-term, a dependable audience.  You would think this reality would be more widely reflected the content and ethnic make up of film actors.  Largely, it isn’t.  Hispanics are like the older audience: there but easily forgotten.

Much the same is true of African-Americans and women. Ironically, women make up 52% of any given audience.  In fact, women make up the majority of the audience across all age ranges.  You wouldn’t know it from the young male structure of most major movies, but without the female audience, Hollywood would be lucky to get five fan boys in for a  matinee.

So inadvertently the MPAA is once again reminding us of the exclusionary nature of contemporary Hollywood cinema.  Lots of over-produced films designed for young male viewers that have to score big with an ethnically diverse pack of women aged 30 and up.

Is it just me, or is there something weird about this set-up?

-Dennis Toth Copyright (c) 2013 All Rights Reserved