×

Farrell keeps tabs on marketing empire

HE’S BEEN CALLED the Godfather of modern-day movie research. And ever since exiting NRG, the market-research company he founded with Catherine Paura in 1978, Joe Farrell has been playing the part of a semi-retired underworld patriarch: tending his garden while keeping a watchful eye on the business that he built from scratch.

His “garden” is FP Productions, the film production company he runs with Paura from offices in the Animation Building on the Disney lot. In three years, FP has yet to put a film into production, though Farrell says a few are at the casting stage.

As to the business he created, “underworld” may not be too piquant a term. Before they parted ways with NRG, Farrell and Paura ran a shadowy, monopolistic empire that changed Hollywood’s marketing landscape the way MCA once changed the business of agentry.

Farrell has always been an enigmatic and contradictory figure: a soft-spoken former seminary student with an avuncular manner who for years adroitly played the role of an all-purpose marketing doctor, making housecalls to all of the studios. He was, by all accounts, as adept at delivering good news as bad. As Disney chairman Dick Cook told me last week, Farrell and Paura “developed a way of giving you castor oil so that you liked taking it.”

But Farrell also had a ferociously entrepreneurial streak. He battled to prevent competitors like Variety‘s corporate sibling MarketCast from muscling its way into the field, even as studios began to question NRG’s heavy workload, thin staff and cookie-cutter research methods. Some say that in his heyday, Farrell served as the field’s unofficial executive recruitment firm, vetting job applications for top marketing posts.

FARRELL ARRIVED IN HOLLYWOOD at a time when marketing departments were considered the backwater of the studio system. Studio execs, Farrell recalled last week, “used to call (research) questionnaires idiot cards. They used to put up their finger wet to see which way the wind was blowing.”

Today, researchers are as indispensable to studio chiefs as pollsters are to politicians running for office. It’s no coincidence that Cook, Marc Shmuger and Jim Gianopulos are former marketing and distribution execs who were well steeped in NRG’s research culture before becoming studio chairmen.

NRG is no longer the company it was when Farrell and Paura left. Gone is Andy Wing, the VNU Media chief exec who presided over what some say was the acrimonious departure of its founders. With ownership of VNU passing to a group of private equity investors, the future direction of NRG and the rest of the Nielsen Research properties is anyone’s guess.

THE END OF THE NRG monopoly has certainly increased the cost of Hollywood’s market research, an industry that today is estimated to be worth at least $100 million. But it’s also injected new ideas into a field that’s grown more valuable as the media environment has grown more chaotic. “Arguably the break-up was the best thing that happened to NRG and the industry,” one research expert told me. “The end result is that we get better research today than ever before, and are now better equipped to make better business decisions.”

Farrell, who is now developing a slate of films through his first-look deal at Disney, told me last week that his late-career transition from research maven to film producer was harder than he expected. “I’m a little surprised,” he said, “what a struggle it is to put all the pieces of a movie together.”

But even though his primary role at Disney is producing, he keeps one foot in the research world. That makes him a valuable asset to Disney, which continues to employ him as a kind of inhouse NRG.

“Having done research every single week of every year for such a long period of time does give you a feeling as to what the public is thinking,” Cook told me. “Joe has been incredibly useful in letting us know why something was working or wasn’t working, and what we needed to do to make it work.”

So what’s going to work this summer? The Godfather of movie research wouldn’t handicap particular titles. But evidently the forecast is good. “‘X-Men’ just exploded,” he told me. “When there’s an explosion like that on Memorial Day, it’s a tremendous sign for the rest of the summer.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Tuva-Novotny

    Tuva Novotny Questions Monogamy in 'Diorama' Pic (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Actress-turned-helmer Tuva Novotny thrives on big challenges. Her feature debut “Blindspot,” Norway’s entry for the 2019 Nordic Council Prize, was shot in real-time in one take and illuminates mental health issues. Her sophomore mainstream Swedish pic “Britt Marie Was Here” –slated for a Sept. 20 U.S. release via Cohen Media Group –  [...]

  • Seizure

    Writer Megan Gallagher On Her Viaplay Supernatural Nordic-Noir 'Seizure'

    With outposts in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, Miso Film has become one of the most influential film and TV outfits in Scandinavia. On August 19, the company’s Norwegian arm lifted the curtain on its series venture, the supernatural police drama “Seizure” by premiering the show’s first two episodes at the Haugesund Film Festival ahead of [...]

  • Thoma-Robsahm

    World Partners Board “a-ha The Movie” as Helmer Tells It All (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Pitched at Haugesund’s New Nordic Films confab, Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm’s doc “a-ha -The Movie” won’t hit screens before November 2020, but an array of new production and distribution partners have already boarded the project. Clementina Hegewisch of Neue Impuls and Matthias Greving of Kinescope Film in Germany are now co-producing [...]

  • “@Chica-Chile-Norway”

    Miso Film Norway Unveils ‘Tainted’ Details, Drive to Target Youth Audiences (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Miso Film Norge, the Oslo-based arm of one of the most prominent of Scandinavian production outfits whose credits include “1864,” Warrior“ and Netflix’s “The Rain,” has part lifted the curtain on its latest scripted venture, the teen revenge-thriller “Tainted.” The TV outfit produced the 8×30 series in collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster [...]

  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

    Film News Roundup: Stephen King's 'Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon' Movie in the Works

    In today’s film news roundup, a Stephen King horror movie is in the works, “Downton Abbey” is seeing strong sales and a project about Revolutionary War soldier Deborah Sampson is in development. KING ADAPTATION Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” has been set up as a movie at George A. Romero’s Sanibel Films, [...]

  • Moviepass

    MoviePass Confirms Security Issue With Customer Records

    MoviePass, the struggling movie ticket subscription service, has confirmed a security issue may have exposed customers’ records. In a statement, MoviePass said Wednesday that the security lapse was recently discovered and its system was immediately secured. Reports of the data breach first surfaced Tuesday through the Tech Crunch site, which alleged that tens of thousands [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Matthew Modine Accused of Violating Labor Laws With Campaign Videos

    Matthew Modine has been accused by SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris of violating federal laws in his campaign to unseat Carteris. The production of three campaign videos for Modine by the for-profit New York Film Academy — on whose board Modine sits — has been blasted by Carteris for alleged violations of federal labor law prohibiting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content