Updated: 04/20/2012

Film, Radio and TV - 7





Appealing to

the Box Office




Hitting A Moving Target

>>Complicating the NPPA film ratings process is the fact that what's deemed acceptable changes every year—sometimes, it seems, every month.

Not to long ago the use of the words virgin and mistress in a film was not seen as acceptable—even for adults.  

Years later, Clark Gable's famous line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," in one of the most famous films of all time, Gone With the Wind, stirred major controversy. If you've seen the film, you know that this line signals a critical (and possibly long overdue) turning point in Clark Gable's character. For this reason the studio demanded that the line remain in the film.

Today, of course, it seems silly that such these things could cause such a major stir in a feature film. In terms of what's acceptable and what isn't, things clearly change with time.


Being Just Ahead of the Curve

>>The following drawing representing the direction of change in the attitudes of the general population will help explain how you hit a "moving target" in film content.

liberal conservative curve
>>First, you have to realize that against the backdrop of cultural ideas the general trend—with occasional pauses and short reverses—moves from old ideas to new ideas, as indicated by the large arrow.

This means that today's "radical" ideas (on the leading edge above) may well be "old hat" in ten years when the green area moves even more toward the right side of the drawing (but not to the right, politically). At that point, some of the old "radical" ideas will be accepted by the majority, and new "radical" ideas and concepts will have entered the picture.  

You need to remember that two-piece bathing suits, men with long hair, miniskirts, and married couples shown in a film sleeping in the same bed were all at one time radical—even unacceptable—concepts.

What's new and different is often exciting.  What's old and familiar is typically just that—old and familiar.

>>The problem is that if a film is too far ahead of it's time (on the right edge of the green area above), if it's not widely understood, or if it's seen as being too threatening to keyholetraditional, ideas and values, it will probably fail.

The key is to aim concepts safely in the green area—not too far ahead and not too far behind the times.  This is a major factor in hitting your target audience in TV and film.

Note that all this has nothing to do with period pieces, films that are set in the past. The Academy Award for the best picture in 1998 went to Shakespeare in Love.  Before that Titanic won best picture. But even though these films were period pieces, the treatment of the subject matter was close enough to the cutting edge to hold audience attention.


Tailoring Film Distribution to

Geography and Demographics

>>We are now seeing some changes resulting from the ability to tailor films and film distribution to specific target audiences.

For example, the film The Omega Code, which espoused Christian concepts and was produced by Trinity Broadcasting Network was mainly released in the conservative "Bible belt" of the United States. It did very well there, surpassing $2.4 million in its opening week. The film had been widely publicized in churches and on the TBN Christian network.

Many films target black audiences. Some, such as the "Shaft" films, featured black stars, but their appeal cut across race and demographics. Black directors, such as Spike Lee and John Singleton (Do the Right Thing, She's Got to Have It, Clockers, Mo' Better Blues, Malcom X, Boyz 'N the Hood) have also made a major impact.

Viewer preferences in television programming differ greatly in different parts of the country.  Series like "Touched By An Angel," with its religious theme, did better in conservative areas of the United States than, for example, either "NYPD Blue" or "Law & Order, Special Victims Unit," with their frequent sexual themes.

>>This brings us to the following findings on audience demographic differences.  

" Generally speaking, the acceptance of sexual themes in films and on TV is positively related to the educational level and the urban-rural background of audiences."

This means that an educated person who grew up in a northern city would tend to be more accepting of sexual themes than a person with less education who grew up in a small southern town. (Incidentally, over the last few decades, age as a factor has not always been a reliable indicator.)

>>Horror films do best in heartland states like North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska.  Comedy takes in 20% of box office dollars in the New England states, a figure that ends up being higher than in other parts of the country. writer

And if all this doesn't complicate things enough, they must remember from the "Moving Target" drawing shown earlier.

Even so, all of this represents just one of the many elements involved in a film's success.  Against this background there are such things as star power, the "chemistry" between actors, the story line, cinematography, special effects, editing, and, most importantly, marketing.


Predicting Success Is Not a Science

>>Finding the specific elements of success is much more of an art than a science.  As you know, there is often major disagreement among film reviewers (experts?) on how good or bad specific films are.Malena Movie

For example, the foreign film Melana was heralded as a triumph of filmmaking by some reviewers and it even won two Academy Award nominations. However, some reviewers panned the film as being one of the worst films they had ever seen. Even though the Academy members found the film worthy of awards, some reviewers were clearly uncomfortable with the adolescent sexual honesty.

Film studios, which lose money on eight out of ten films they release, obviously don't have a surefire system of determining success—even with tens of millions of dollars riding on their judgment.

Adding to the confusion, reviewers may pan a film, only to find it becomes the number one film in the country.  And many films that have gotten excellent reviews are snubbed at the box office.  In most cases, "word of mouth" carries more weight than what reviewers say. A good example is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which we discussed earlier.

Whether a film is deemed "successful" is based primarily on the first weekend's box-office results.  If the competition is weak, the film might do well; however, even exemplary film may appear weak if it's released along with a film with a bigger draw.  

Here is a list of the ten most financially successful films in history. These figures were compiled in February, 2007.

Not listed below is the film, Avatar, which as of February, 2010, had brought in a record two-billion dollars world-wide.  Even though the final figures were not known at that point, it was obvious that Avatar (in terms of 2011 dollars) is the most financially successful film of all-time.

By 1997, Titanic (see chart below) had grossed $601 million, but this did not include the reimaged 3-D version of the film that was released in April, 2012.

 1. Titanic $601 million - 1997
 2. Star Wars $461 million - 1977
 3. Shrek 2 $444 million - 2004
 4. E.T $435 million -1982
 5. Star Wars (Phantom Manace) $431 million - 1999
 6. Pirates of the Caribbean (Dead Man's Chest) $423 million - 2006
 7.Spider-Man - I $403 million - 2002
 8. Star Wars (Revenge of the Sith) $380 million - 2005
 9. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King $377 million - 2003
10. Spider-Man 2 $373 million - 2004

>>The effect of receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture has a great impact on a film's success. This chart below shows pictures nominated and the jump in ticket sales that immediately followed.

American Beauty
Shakespeare in Love
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
L.A. Confidential
Good Will Hunting
As Good As It Gets
The English Patient
Life Is Beautiful
The Cider House Rules
Jerry Maguire


3-D Films

>>As we've noted, various techniques have been used throughout the years to draw people to theaters -- introducing color, Cinemascope, stereo sound, using more risqué themes, etc.

For decades attempts were made to introduce launch 3-D in films. In fact, the idea of presenting images to audiences in 3-D dates back to the mid-1800s.

Although almost half of the top-10 highest grossing movies of 2009 were offered in 3D, relatively few people saw them in three-dimensions. It wasn't until 2010 and the film, Avatar, that audiences warmed up the idea in large numbers.


The futuristic 3-D spectacle about love and war set on a distant moon, took motion tracking (performance capture) and animated realism to a new level.

Using this technique, camera movements were recorded while the "real" human actors went through their parts and animated their respective computer generated likenesses.

Avatar was released in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D and relied almost entirely on computers and high-definition video cameras. Video projectors were used in many theaters that showed it in 3-D.

yellow dot This link will take you to more information on 3-D film and TV.

Meanwhile, there has been a shift from using film to using high-definition video in motion picture production. Today, the majority of theaters are equipped to show digital (video) versions of pictures. This not only greatly cuts the cost of making and distributing films but, as this article on Digital Cinema shows, it offers additional advantages to movie patrons and theater owners.

>>In the next module, "Movie Milestones," we'll take look at some of the notable films of the last century. 



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