IN HOLLYWOOD, the closest thing to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is to drop Joe Farrell’s name to a group of filmmakers.

Farrell is a cerebral, seemingly harmless fellow who specializes in the arcane field of movie research, hardly the sort who’d strike fear in the hearts of fierce-tempered film directors.

Nonetheless, when I muttered “…Joe Farrell” to a non-scientific sampling of filmmaker types this week, I elicited some startling responses: “He’s become Hollywood’s Elmer Gantry,” snapped one producer. “I sometimes feel that I work for him, not the other way around,” snarled a studio chief.

What has Joe Farrell done to draw this ire? The answer is that Farrell and his research have become a flashpoint in the ongoing struggle between “the money” and “the artists.” The people who run the studios are determined to turn out product that audiences will embrace, and they want to do it more economically.

That’s why one major is experimenting with a program whereby directors who complete their films on shorter-than-usual shooting schedules will be rewarded with bonuses and also guaranteed time for reshoots. It’s also why studios are resisting filmmakers’ demands for final cut and other preemptive creative rights. The studios are weary of “auteurs”– they want bread-and-butter filmmakers.

“There’s too much riding on each film,” says one top director. “Too much money and too much ego.”

It was inevitable for Joe Farrell and his National Research Group to become intrinsic to this battle. Since filmmaking is steeped in creative unknowns, research gives the illusion of providing something concrete, something scientific. And Farrell’s company dominates the field: Every studio except MCA depends on Farrell, and rumor has it that Farrell is about to annex that company as well. One competitor has hired an attorney to examine whether Farrell has effectively carved out a near-monopoly.

THE FARRELL FACTOR is one of Hollywood’s great leveling experiences. It makes no difference whether a filmmaker has directed 50 pictures or only one, whether he was paid $ 5 million for his last effort or guild minimum.

Whatever his standing, when the lights go on at the end of a screening, the director finds himself numbly standing there, listening to Farrell’s data-laden incantations and watching the studio exex reacting eagerly, all but panting to execute his every conclusion.

Not long ago, a studio chose one ending for a film over the version preferred by the director because Farrell’s data indicated a three-point difference in audience reaction.

Concedes one production chief: “We’ve all become such slaves to research that we’ve forgotten that data can diminish creative vision. Suddenly we’re all reacting to numbers, not to our gut.”

Farrell, a smooth-talking researcher with a Harvard law degree, professes to be aware of the potential tyranny of research. Indeed, I have heard him gently remind one filmmaker to “follow your instincts.”

At the same time, Farrell has a lucrative business to run and, at age 56, he finds himself in a unique position. When he speaks, some of the world’s most obstinate and opinionated people stop to listen. That’s an ego trip that even surpasses yelling “action!” on a movie set.

How accurate are his numbers? Farrell’s critics charge that his organization is occasionally slipshod in recruiting demographically correct audiences. “I was told I’d see young people at my screening, and instead I saw my middle-aged butler,” says one veteran producer.

Some filmmakers prefer to take their films to a paid preview audience in a regular theater, rather than inviting audiences to test screenings on the lot, because they want to study moviegoers in a “real” environment.

“People don’t walk out of studio screenings,” says one exec. “They don’t get up to buy popcorn if the film gets dull.”

The studios themselves seem ambivalent; Paramount likes to test on the lot, but Disney feels audience reactions are skewed by being so close to the Magic Kingdom.

SOME TYPES OF MOVIES demonstrably resist the research process. Well-intentioned films about important social subjects or stories about people with afflictions tend to rate highly at invited screenings. But those same people who say they would recommend the film wouldn’t pay to see it at a theater.

Audiences like to take the high ground; they don’t like admitting they are entertained by films that seem vulgar or arch, like “The War of the Roses.” A picture like “White Men Can’t Jump” may not score well on research tests, but will nonetheless do terrific business.

As research occupies a more godlike position in the industry, filmmakers are instructing their lawyers and agents to demand ever-greater autonomy. They want the right to make their own creative decisions, not to be at the mercy of Joe Farrell.

These battles are being fought every day in the offices of business affairs vice presidents at the studios. But even as the arguments rage, the most direct confrontations continue to be played out in the screening rooms all over town. That’s where the studios continue to marshal their data as the filmmakers stand by, trying to explain their vision. And then, night after night, as tempers rise , someone will utter those magic words: “Let’s ask Joe Farrell.”

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