What Does It Take to Draw Audiences to the Theater?

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by Fin Wheeler

Earlier this month, Derek Thompson from The Atlantic wrote a piece about the Screen Industries’ inability to predict audience tastes and migrations: “2016 is on pace to be the worst year for movies, by tickets bought per US adult, since before the 1920’s. What’s going on?”

Research shows that while going to the cinema used to be a regular weekly event for many in the past, these days most Americans only go to the cinema four or five times a year. While that’s still more than they attend sporting events, it’s significantly down on past viewing patterns.

While the box office for East Asia and the Latin markets has grown by $6 billion in the past five years, the US and Canada have only increased by $1 billion (due mostly to costly 3D and premium ticketing options).

And this smaller, more discerning audience needs wooing. In 1980, only 20 cents on each dollar was needed for advertising; these days 60 cents needs to be spent on advertising for every dollar earned.

That makes each movie a much, much bigger financial risk.

Somewhat predictably, studios have been hedging their bets with sequels, remakes, and reboots, but even they have proved to be fallible. The New York Times in a piece about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel notes that seven of this year’s batch of sequels (TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Zoolander 2, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Barbershop: The Next Cut and Alice Through the Looking Glass) have “disappointed or flopped outright.”

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There are still the superhero movies. While the latest Batman outing failed to reach predicted heights, it did well enough that the next installment is already in the works.

Twenty years ago only .69% (less than one percent) of all box office revenue was from comic book adaptations. Of the 371 movies released so far this year, four superhero movies have racked up a massive 29% of all takings.

The skyrocketing costs of filmmaking and marketing, plus the thinning audience numbers, have everyone in the industry at a loss. Network and cable television have been experiencing similar reductions. And things aren’t entirely golden for streaming services either. They are in serious competition with each other.

So what does all this flux and chaos mean for screenwriters, and who on earth is our demographic? How can we identify and write for an audience when the best researchers in the business are still trying to comprehend and accurately predict trends?

Studio 60 was Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes one hour drama focused on the Head Writer and Producer of an SNL-like television show. The two lead characters were in a constant power struggle with the President of their fictional Network, Jack. During one of their many arguments, Jack reveals that he’s just bought a sizable chunk of a tech company that’s developed hit drama show-writing software. He wants to do away with Creatives, because the show runners are too expensive and they cause him too much grief. He spends five million on software that he hopes will automatically write all his shows for him.

In the real world, more production companies announce each week that they’ve invested in software that identifies online trends. Software that tells producers the theme and content of their next hit shows.

Does this mean the end of all screenwriters?

No. A non-writer can look at every successful film ever, but they can’t accurately deconstruct a script, nor can they allow for the variables of pre-production, production, post, and marketing that also contribute to the success or failure of a project. Increasingly, world events also play a part in the way a movie is received. No computer program can insure against unexpected real-world incidents. For proof, see the recent AI-written short, Sunspring.

While a researcher/programmer can certainly identify top trending topics, there’s not necessarily going to be a way to parlay that into a more long-term profit package. Take the blue or white and gold dress, or the Chewbacca Mom. Sure, Ellen had them on her program and showed the viral clips, extending their viral celebrity a week, but rom-coms or movies of the week based on a photo or a 20-second viral clip? Execs are having enough trouble turning a profit from their more conventional screen projects.

Executives are panicking. Previously, it almost always helped to throw more money at a problem project, but the explosion of social media has changed all that. In the past, when a studio was having doubts about a movie, they could know with some certainty that upping the advertising budget would, at the very least, improve opening weekend numbers. But now, that’s just not happening.

In some ways Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are little more than publicity outlets for the entertainment industries. When we click to follow a certain movie or studio, we are signing up to get sent every bit of publicity about their latest project.

A decade ago, clicking “follow” would’ve basically guaranteed money in the bank for the studios, but these days that expected/assumed loyalty is just not translating into ticket sales. And what’s even worse for executives, when they throw money (more advertising) at a target audience, it’s still not motivating potential movie-goers, and executives can’t understand why.

Personally, I know when a sponsored ad for a movie pops up in my Instagram feed, my first thought isn’t that I should go see it. My first thought is that the movie must be in trouble if the executives are throwing more advertising dollars at it.

Customer loyalty has changed and evolved. So have attention spans and expectations.

So, if even the studios and production companies are floundering, how can a screenwriter expect to prosper in this environment?

Four centuries ago, Shakespeare and his fellow English playwrights also faced seemingly insurmountable problems. All the theatres were closed more often than not due to the Plague, then later, due to a major change in religious beliefs. Writers, performers, and producers worried that they would no longer be able to tell their stories or earn a wage. Things turned out.

Humans have a longing in their soul for genuine stories. No matter how sophisticated we get, or how scattered our viewing loyalties become, we still crave authentic storytelling. Just look at the projects collecting Tony’s, Emmys, and Oscars. The storytelling gongs don’t go to the big expensive popcorn movies, they go to projects that started life as an indie passion project.

If you write authentically, with all your heart and all your craft, there will always be a place for your screen stories.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

One thought on “What Does It Take to Draw Audiences to the Theater?

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  1. Fin, this is an interesting article and well written. It seems like we are moving towards more of a view at home movie experience. Maybe except for Disney moves and family movies that kids go too. Movie tickets and popcorn drinks can be expensive for a date. Almost as expensive as a reasonably priced dinner.

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