Spectatorship and Audiences


The film industry is interested in studying the tastes and opinions of actual audiences through empirical studies, such as surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Because the film industry is a moneymaking enterprise, it remains successful only by producing films that make a profit over and above their (increasingly sizable) budget and marketing costs. The industry needs to bring in as many viewers as possible and therefore must keep close tabs on what types of stories will appeal to the greatest number of viewers at any given moment. The industry cannot afford to bank on hypothetical concepts of the film viewer but must seek out real audiences, both through research and through marketing in order to ensure that financial investments pay off. However, audiences shift over time in accordance with cultural tastes and trends.

The composition of film audiences has changed significantly over the course of American film history. Film content has largely mirrored the tastes of its audiences, which is a direct result of the industry's increasing proficiency in adapting to changing audience preferences. Film first emerged as a popular medium within the context of working-class and immigrant audiences who could afford the ticket prices at nickelodeon theaters. Despite the disdain of the middle and upper classes, who still preferred the entertainment of the legitimate theater, films during this period were attended by 26 million people a week. However, the evolution of film from short kinescopes to feature films in the mid-1910s significantly narrowed economic gaps, with film becoming a form of entertainment that slowly but effectively brought the working and middle classes together as one audience, increasing attendance significantly. Once film gained this wide audience, the newly established studio system targeted certain segments of the population over others; these demographic groups tended to be conceived along lines of age and gender rather than class. By 1922, 40 million film tickets were sold per week. By 1929 this number had increased to 90 million tickets per week.

However, historical events took their toll on film attendance. For instance, the economic repercussions of the Great Depression ate into film industry profits. In 1931 theater admissions dropped off by 12 percent to 70 million per week, and just one year later to 55 million per week. Over the course of these two years 4,000 theaters went out of business. And with the onset of World War II, audience composition changed dramatically: with a significant segment of the male population off at war, Hollywood films targeted a predominantly female audience. This contributed to the rise in the 1940s of female film genres such as woman's pictures, which appealed to the female audience of wives, girlfriends, daughters, and mothers of men who were deployed.

When the war ended and the troops returned home, the film industry was forced to compete with the increasingly prevalent new medium of television. Many middle-class American families were moving to the suburbs; along with the newfound emphasis on the domestic sphere of home and family, the flight away from urban centers, in which movie theaters were traditionally located, forced Hollywood to struggle to find its audience. Hollywood reached its peak in attendance in 1946, with some 100 million tickets sold per week, but by 1955 this number decreased by more than half to 46 million. Along with this trend away from the urban theaters was the rise of a new suburban audience of teenagers who were passionate about rock 'n' roll. The film industry recognized this new audience and acknowledged its spending power, making films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Blackboard Jungle (1955) specifically for them.

In the 1960s a series of studio flops and vast overproduction drove the industry into a deep recession. Because of the breakdown of the classical studio system, Hollywood grew increasingly out of touch with the changing nature of its audience. As the threat of deregulation and the growing popularity of television grew even more powerful, the new teenage audience was not enough to sustain the film industry in the 1960s. The success of Easy Rider in 1969 was dramatic evidence of the changing makeup of the film audience, which was now younger and at the same time more sophisticated, showing interest in films that more accurately reflected their own lives. A survey sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1968 revealed that 48 percent of the audience for that year were between sixteen and twenty-four years old. As a result of the popularity of youth-oriented and more experimental films in the late 1960s, such as Easy Rider , Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and The Graduate (1967), the 1970s was one of Hollywood's most artistically promising but fiscally inconsistent eras, with more independent, European-influenced films produced. It was only with the success of blockbuster films like Jaws (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which led to the Indiana Jones franchise, that Hollywood was lifted out of one of the most financially challenged periods in its history. As a result of these box-office successes, since the 1980s the film industry has relied on consistent formulas and franchises to bring in audiences.

An ongoing debate throughout film history concerns the degree to which film content can influence its audiences' thoughts and behavior. In response to accusations of immorality and depravity, primarily owing to its depictions of sex and violence, Hollywood early on developed a system of self-regulation to fend off government pressure and threats of censorship. The result of this self-regulation was a system of self-censorship known as the Production Code that influenced film content from 1922 to the mid-1950s. The Production Code technically remained in effect until 1966 but became increasingly difficult to enforce in the 1950s. In 1968 the MPAA established a ratings system that categorized films based on their age-appropriateness and that remains the current system of regulating audiences. As in the 1950s, preteen and teen audiences have proved to be extremely important as a target audience with disposable income to spend on entertainment. The introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1983 forced the film industry to make films that appeal to audiences of multiple ages in order to realize the biggest profit on their investment. R-rated films have been seen as riskier investments because their restricted age group eliminates this young audience, one of the most lucrative segments of the population.

Leaving nothing to chance, the film industry does its best to ensure a film's popularity and success by incorporating the audience into the production process. As a result of the blockbuster successes of the 1970s during an otherwise gloomy financial period, studios implemented pre-production market research to ensure a film's audience before its production. This was a significant change from the classical Hollywood model, in which an audience was found after a film's production. In addition, once a film has finished principal photography and a rough cut of the film is edited together, it is screened for a test audience who provide both quantitative and qualitative evaluations. Film studios go to great lengths to ensure that test screening audiences are made up of the widest possible range of the population so that they are able to assess what demographics the film appeals to and why. After the test screening, the studio evaluates the responses to the film and often will alter it considerably to eliminate overwhelmingly unpopular parts or to change the film's emphasis. The studio may even order reshoots to achieve what production executives think will be a more appealing movie.

There are many examples of films that were dramatically transformed after test audiences did not respond

Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987).
well to a particular aspect of a film. One of the more well-known and interesting examples is Fatal Attraction (1987). In the original ending, Alex Forest (Glenn Close) committed suicide while listening to the opera Madame Butterfly . But this did not sit well with test audiences: because Alex was a menacing character whom they saw as crossing the line into unacceptable behavior, the test audience wanted to see her punished for her crimes against Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and his family. For a cost of $1.7 million, the studio reshot the ending according to the test audience's wishes, with Alex being shot to death (after appearing to have drowned) by Dan's wife, Beth (Anne Archer). This ending proved box-office gold for Paramount Studios, as Fatal Attraction went on to gross over $100 million in four months.

Marketing departments of film studios have found new and creative ways, often unrelated to a film's content or quality, to attract audiences. Merchandising inspired by the film, such as action figures based on a film's characters or the licensing of film concepts to fast food chains, increases the public's awareness of a film. In addition, promotional tie-ins with television shows, radio stations, and magazines as well as popular-music sound-tracks (with accompanying music videos featuring scenes from the film) create a "buzz" around a particular film that can attract audiences who might otherwise not know about it. With the rising influence of the Internet and movie-related Web sites, audiences can learn about the type of reception a film is getting at test screenings or, in the case of smaller, independent films, on the festival circuit before it is even released in theaters.

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