Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » The Hollywood Studio System in 1940-1941 - The Major Studios, METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER, WARNER BROS, 20TH CENTURY-FOX, PARAMOUNT, RKO

The Emergence of Market Research

audience gallup industry ari

Owing to the growing uncertainties and instability of the prewar marketplace and the increased emphasis on high-stakes, high-end product in 1940-1941, the Hollywood studios substantially upgraded their market research efforts. This involved not only improving the studios’ own internal research operations but turning to outside research firms as well, and in fact the 1940s would see motion picture research emerge as an important ancillary industry.

Before 1940, most movie research had been conducted either by the Big Eight’s trade association, the MPPDA, or else on an ad-hoc basis by individual studio-distributors or independent producers. The MPPDA’s figures were geared to the industry as a whole, providing data on weekly attendance, annual box-office returns, the number and size of the nation’s movie theaters, and so on. This information rarely was gathered by the MPPDA itself but was culled from various federal agencies—for instance, the Commerce and Justice Departments, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Census Bureau. Although comprehensive, these data were notoriously vague and inaccurate and were frequently challenged by the fledgling independent research firms in the early 1940s.

While the MPPDA traditionally provided general information on the industry and its audience, individual studios developed their own methods of gauging audience interest in—and thus the marketability of—particular pictures or performers. Besides routine analysis of box-office returns, these methods included the occasional use of sneak previews and test screenings, analysis of fan mail, and various efforts to elicit and evaluate  the opinions and preferences of exhibitors. Such studio-based research efforts were haphazard and quasi-scientific at best, but through the 1920s and 1930s they had been adequate to the industry’s needs. In that era of block booking and virtually complete market control by the Big Eight, more reliable or systematic research simply was not necessary.

Moreover, top motion picture executives, particularly those in New York with their fingers on the financial pulse of the industry, preferred to base their market strategies and sales policies on their own intuition and business acumen. Many of these executives had backgrounds in either distribution or exhibition and were reluctant to yield their decision-making authority to research experts or outside firms. Market research may have been making strides in other U.S. industries, but movie executives prided themselves on their knack for showmanship and taste-making and their perceptions of audience interest.

By 1940, however, the studio powers recognized the need to develop more sophisticated and accurate means of market research in order to respond to the massive challenges and changes facing the industry. This realization coincided, interestingly enough, with the rapid emergence of public opinion polling as a viable form of social research, primarily as an offshoot of consumer research by advertising firms. The pioneer of public opinion polling in the United States was George H. Gallup, whose research efforts would have tremendous impact on motion picture audience research throughout the 1940s. Trained in scientific sampling, Gallup had joined the New York ad agency Young and Rubicam in 1932 as vice president in charge of research, concentrating primarily on consumer and radio audience research. In 1935, while still with Young and Rubicam, Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, which gained considerable notoriety for its accurate prediction of the 1936 presidential election. Also in 1936, and again with Young and Rubicams support, Gallup began the informal (and unsolicited) study of movie audiences, an effort he continued throughout the late 1930s.

In 1940, with the Gallup poll now a fixture in the American press and Gallup himself the acknowledged leader in the growing field of market research, Gallup created the Audience Research Institute (ARI) (later Audience Research, Inc.), devoted exclusively to the study of the movie industry and its audience. ARFs first major client was RKO, which signed an exclusive one-year deal with the research firm in March 1940. In 1941, ARI expanded its commercial operations and began providing its services to a number of studios and to independent producers. That year also saw the emergence of ARI’s chief competitor, Leo Handel’s Motion Picture Research Bureau (MPRB), along with various other (and less significant) firms.

One immediate effect of the research efforts by Gallup, Handel, and others was to indicate how difficult it was to generalize about audiences and moviegoing. As Handel himself would note in 1950 after a full decade of audience research, there was still “no agreement as to what constitutes a ‘moviegoer,’” let alone the moviegoing audience at large. 50 In 1940, Gallup put ARI on the industry map by leaking information (while under an exclusive contract with RKO) that industry figures on weekly attendance were grossly overinflated, and that the percentage of non-moviegoers was increasing. MGM responded with outright disdain for any and all efforts to gauge weekly attendance or the size of certain audience segments. Where and how, asked MGM, did ARI or the MPPDA come up with attendance figures when ticket sales for MGM films varied up to 300 percent from week to week on different pictures?

The debate about audience figures persisted, and indeed it heated up in March 1941 after ARI completed its one-year deal with RKO and Gallup went public with his claims about the MPPDA’s inflated figures on weekly attendance and the like. At that point, Gallup was selling ARI’s services industrywide, and without question his selective disclosure of valuable—and controversial—research data was one way of promoting his firm. In his first trade press interview in July 1941, Gallup openly challenged the industry’s research figures, touting the detail and precision of ARI’s more “scientific” methods. His boldest assertion in the interview was that weekly attendance was only 54 million, versus the habitually cited industry figure of 80 million. He also noted that 65 percent of moviegoers were under 30 years of age, and he recommended that the studios increase their output of big-budget films targeted at the 19-25 age bracket. Just over half (51 percent) of the audience was female, said Gallup, although the proportion could vary up to 75 percent for both sexes depending on the specific film. He also noted that women tended to prefer romance and serious drama, while men preferred action and comedy.

Efforts to gauge and subdivide the moviegoing audience continued, as did the debates about the nature and size of that audience. In fact, virtually all motion picture research tended to center on the audience, in an ongoing effort to assess the size, behavior, and general attitudes of “the moviegoing public.” This research was done with increasing precision, parsing the audience demographically in terms of age, gender, income, education, and so on; in the process, a number of long-standing industry assumptions about audiences steadily eroded. Chief among these was the assumption that the majority of moviegoers were women; that idea was challenged by a 1941 study conducted by MPRB indicating the following attendance frequency for New York City, the nation’s largest and most important movie market:

In the same study, Handel found that men were more likely to be non-moviegoers than women (24.7 versus 20.6 percent), but that overall men and women attended movies at about the same rate: men averaged 3.7 movies per month, and women 3-75. 53

Both ARI and MPRB advocated research conducted on a film-by-film basis. As Handel himself described it in a book-length study, Hollywood Looks at Its Audience (1950), this type of motion picture research developed throughout the 1940s along the lines of what he termed “the structure of motion picture concerns”—that is, the production, sales, promotion, and exhibition of individual films. Production research involved preliminary (preproduction) tests of audience interest in story ideas, titles, casting, and so on. During production, research involved test screenings of films or individual scenes in rough-cut and included an array of methods (and mechanisms) for gauging the response of spectators. Postproduction research used the same methods in test screenings and added sneak previews. At this stage, research was designed not only to gauge the audience appeal of a film but also to facilitate its promotional campaign. Advertising and publicity research assessed the potential audience for a film (geared to a “want-to-see” index), measured the “publicity penetration” of ad campaigns, and even conducted test screenings of movie trailers (previews).

Not surprisingly, this kind of research was geared to prestige and A-class pictures and thus was utilized almost exclusively by the integrated majors and by major independent producers. Among the more vocal supporters of ARI, in fact, were Sam Goldwyn and David Selznick; producers of their stature clearly had the most to gain from the market research strategies being developed in the early 1940s. Goldwyn, in fact, used ARI not only for market research on his own productions but also as a means to publicize his out-spoken condemnation of double billing. Double billing his A-class pictures with lesser product cost Goldwyn revenues and critical prestige, and in a larger sense, in Goldwyn’s view, it demeaned the industry. 55 This view was scarcely shared by others in the industry—nor by a good many outside it. Indeed, the debate about B pictures and double billing, which had been brewing throughout the 1930s, reached the boiling point during the turbulent, uncertain prewar era.

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