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H’w’d revels in niche riches

Beyond teens and tentpoles, B.O. taps into diverse auds

We are a long way from “Gone With the Wind.”

At the start of the Great Depression, the average person went to the movies 40 times a year; in 1929, 4.9 billion tickets were sold. Ten years later, “Gone With the Wind” racked up 202 million ticket sales — nearly double that of “Titanic.”

Today, people have too many other leisure-time options to re-create such communal experiences. Even a mega-hit like “Spider-Man” ($404 million domestically) plays to no more that 10% of the population.

But the good news is that moviegoing consists of more than tentpoles. Despite conventional wisdom, studios are reaching out beyond the teenage-male demographics and are once again courting other niches in the filmgoing audience.

Demography, the unsexy science that fuels Hollywood, will come to the fore March 4 at ShoWest, when the Motion Picture Assn. of America releases its annual batch of attendance figures.

The results will no doubt be bullish. Admissions in 2002, after languishing for decades, hit a 43-year high at 1.5 billion tickets sold. And, according to preliminary figures, the demos are more democratic than previously thought.

Of course, studios do plenty of their own research, which has long confirmed the diversification of the audience. As a result, the hills are alive with the sound of niches.

The movie menu tends to be as varied as it was over Presidents Day weekend, when the top 10 grossers showed the fissures of the film biz.

Adults caught up with “Chicago” and “The Hours.” Younger males (and many of their dates) checked out “Daredevil.” Young females kept turnstiles spinning for “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

The formerly monolithic family audience diverged. Tots and parents saw the G-rated “Jungle Book 2,” while “tweens” exited the minivan for “Kangaroo Jack,” a former PG-13 summer action pic that was re-engineered to hit the PG crowd.

When the pic was screened for test audiences, the kangaroo was the biggest hit, producer Jerry Bruckheimer explains. Hollywood’s demo derby has grown intense enough that the film was completely reoriented. The filmmakers simply spent a little more money and added more kangaroo.

Other offerings over the Feb. 14-17 weekend included “Deliver Us From Eva” (a lure for African-Americans) and “Final Destination 2,” an R-rated option for 18-to-24s less enticed by “Daredevil” or “How to Lose a Guy.”

It is precisely this diverse inventory that helped push grosses to all-time highs in 2002, though average ticket prices verging on $6 didn’t hurt. Even if admissions are fairly flat in broad historical terms, the fact that movies have turned TV, videotape and now DVD to their advantage is a victory in itself.

“The fact that this weekend happened in February really says something positive about the state of the business,” says John Fithian, head of the National Assn. of Theater Owners.

American audiences pace the world in frequency. U.S. moviegoers average roughly five trips to the theater a year — more than twice the 2.3 visits of their European counterparts, according to Media Salles.

Theater circuits are reveling in the steady interest. Their vision of megaplexes playing to every demo collapsed under the massive debt loads of the 1990s. It is being resurrected today — even though some weekends a 20-plex functions like a fourplex, thanks to limited programming imagination.

The most recent MPAA numbers, covering 2001, point to children ages 12-17 as an increasingly avid segment. They went from 14% of yearly admissions in 1997 to 19% last year.

The teen demo is viewed as especially desirable for many reasons. They see movies multiple times. They are relatively cheap to market to, thanks to the also-fragmenting world of cable TV and the Internet, which offers an array of target audiences. Increasingly, movies that a large chunk of the population has never heard of dominate the weekend B.O.

“You can segment your audience with a laser,” marvels Revolution’s Tom Sherak, who cites “Jackass” as an example.

Alissa Quart, author of the book “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers,” admits to admiring “Jackass” for its relative “spontaneity.” She is more critical of the cynicism she sees lurking behind most of the come-ons.

“Marketing research has had a homogenizing effect on film narratives and generally made the whole business of entertaining teens and tweens to be far more mechanistic than it was even two decades ago,” she says.

Teens are also more vulnerable to word-of-mouth from older audiences. Thus, a film like “How to Lose a Guy” can be championed by over-25s and then ride a wave of curious teens.

According to the MPAA, 54% of 12-17-year-olds call themselves “frequent” moviegoers, meaning they go to the movies at least once a month. That was up from 45% in 1997.

It is no surprise, then, that “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” have led the B.O. pack of late. The effects-laden films resemble amusement-park rides for the core audience, which lines up to see them again and again.

In a probably related note, about 27% of respondents to a 2000 AC Nielsen EDI poll reported choosing which film to see “at the last minute.”

Other age groups are stirring to action, however.

The Baby Boomers have proven that they’ll show up at the multiplex if given quality fare like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Chicago.” Amid all of the talk about teens, it is worth noting that more 30-39-year-olds go to the movies than any other age segment. The group comprises 19% of the total audience.

(Older auds also are giving some hope to the ailing music biz: Norah Jones, Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen flexed surprising commercial muscle as fickle teens spurn the trends forced on them.)

“This is a pivotal generation — and I say that as a member,” says Terrell Falk, VP of marketing for Dallas-based exhib Cinemark. “They are accustomed to the visual medium, having grown up on TV. They have very distinct likes and dislikes.”

The appetite for data means the MPAA is not the only entity tracking moviegoing behavior. Studios also rely on NRG, MarketCast (owned by Variety parent Reed Elsevier) and financial research firms like Mintel, Dodona and Harris.

Past studies by Yankelovich & Partners, Veronis Suhler Stevenson and Youth Intelligence shed some light on who goes to the movies, how often, and why.

Most studios and exhibs use the MPAA data as a baseline and then supplement with their own numbers. The AMC chain, for example, often polls the 2.6 million members of its MovieWatcher loyalty program.

However, the data collected by exhibs doesn’t typically influence the separate film buying arm of whatever exhib. Instead, marketers of each circuit use it to better tailor the theater experience to the customers. (Which begs the question: How accommodating can you be if you’re an exhib stuck showing “Pinocchio”?)

Studios remain fixated on tracking and research pursuant to specific properties. In other words, they want to gauge awareness of “Mission: Impossible 3” more than they want to assess the moviegoing public’s wishes as a whole.

Yet the ability to build film slates on serious research dwarfs that in almost any other entertainment segment. It is instructive, for example, to look at what is transpiring this month in television, whose high-stakes “sweeps” periods are dictated by shamefully fuzzy Nielsen math.

A few demographic trends bear watching:

  • Regionalism

    Unlike in radio or publishing, consumer appetite changes considerably from market to market.

    The racial and ethnic mix of the fast-growing Western sprawl cities buoyed pics like “The Fast and the Furious” and “8-Mile.” Football-loving, God-fearing Middle America, meanwhile, made “Remember the Titans” a hit.

    That is why Hollywood execs travel one or two hours away to test films in exotic locales like Simi Valley or Irvine. Otherwise the more cosmopolitan tastes of the city might predominate.

  • Homevid boost.

    Rising DVD sales, curiously, do not seem to be a threat to theatrical revenue. Like television and videotape, the DVD is simply becoming one more revenue stream.

    “XXX” is an example. It was a solid, late-summer performer in the U.S., racking up $141.2 million. On DVD, it grossed nearly that amount in a week.

    Demographically, it is the younger crowd — the same ones clamoring to see their favorites multiple times in the theater — snapping up titles on DVD.

    The trend is not a surprise to anyone who noted a 2002 survey by U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, which found that the average teen spends $136 a week in both their own money and parents’ money. That was a 23% spike from $110 a year ago.

    A 2001 survey by Mintel found that 75% of moviegoers aged 18-34 agree with the statement “I enjoy video/DVD rentals, but they don’t replace movie theaters.”

  • Cloning

    Filmmaking is an industry built on ego first, demographic trends later. Production cycles are lengthy and just when everyone wants to jump on the “Greek Wedding” or “Harry Potter” bandwagon, the tide shifts again. It’s no accident that accurate teen trend forecasters in the fashion biz are paid so well.

    “The beauty of Hollywood is that when it isn’t imitative, it’s creative,” says Jack Foley, distrib chief at Focus. “After imitating and imitating, the business always comes along with something fresh.”

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