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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.”

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