Edward Jay Epstein
The Hollywood Economist
TEENS AND CAR CRASHES GO TOGETHER
After Hollywood lost its audience to television in the 1950s, it had to reinvent itself. If it could no longer count on habitual moviegoers to fill theaters routinely, it would go into the business of audience-creation. The means studios found to recruit audiences for each and every movie they released was national TV advertising. The tactic that evolved by the 1990s was bombarding a target audience with very expensive thirty-second ads. For this to work, studios had to find a demographic group that was both relatively cheap to reach and who could be induced by this blitz to leave the comfort of their home to see a movie. The audience that satisfied these conditions was teenagers. Teens have three great advantages over adults for movie studios. First, they tend to predictably cluster around the same TV programs on cable networks, such as MTV, which make them much less costly to reach than moviegoing adults who, if they watch TV at all, tend to be scattered among the most expensive programming in prime time. Second, once in multiplexes, teens tend to consume prodigious quantities of popcorn and soda, which is a powerful attraction to the theater chains that book movies for a wide opening. Third, teens buy electronic games, sports equipment, fast food, and other licensable items, which make them an appealing audience to merchandising partners with the capability of providing the multimillion dollar â€œtie-inâ€ that help publicize studio movies. By 2009, studios had become so proficient at finding, activating, and driving the teen herd into multiplexes that over 70 percent of the audience that went to their wide-release movies was under twenty-one years old. Even though the expansion of teen programming on cable and television networks allowed the studios to zero in on their target audience, they needed, as one marketing executive at Sony told me, visuals in a thirty second ad spot that would hook male teens. The movies that filled that bill were action films laden with special effects, explosions, crashes, and mayhem. Sony learned this lesson in June 2003 when it released its action movie Hollywood Homicide, with Harrison Ford, a $20 million star, against Universalâ€™s action movie 2 Fast 2 Furious, a lower-budget film without any stars. Hollywood Homicide featured images of Harrison Ford in its thirty second ads, whereas 2 Fast 2 Furious featured flaming car crashes. Even though Hollywood Homicide had done much better than 2 Fast 2 Furious in the pre-openings awareness polls, 2 Fast 2 Furious had a $50 million opening while Hollywood Homicide took in only $11.1 million. The Sony marketing executives could only conclude: Teens are more excited by car crashes than by big name stars, even one who gets a $20 million dollar paycheck. It thus became as important to cast car crashes and other violent stunts as stars in the teen-oriented remake of Hollywood.
THE MIDAS FORMULA
The studiosâ€™ Midas formula may have been perfected by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1980s but the innovator was Walt Disney. He put all the elements together back in 1937, when he made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The picture was labeled a folly by the moguls who ruled old Hollywood because it was aimed at only a small part of the American audience, children. They were wrong. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was re-released every seven years to a new crop of children, became the first film in history to gross $100 million. It also demonstrated to the studios, among other things, the propensity of children to see the same cartoon over and over again. The movie was also the first to have an official soundtrack, including such songs as â€œSome Day My Prince Will Come,â€ that became a hit record. More important, Snow White had multiple licensable characters (the dwarfs, the wicked witch) who took on long lives of their own, first as toys and later as...
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