Like most consumer industries, Hollywood focuses primarily on its highest value customers: frequent moviegoers. As the argument goes, frequent moviegoers can be counted on to reliably see films.
But moviegoing frequency is declining. While total box office receipts neared all-time record levels in 2017, total attendance, measured by the number of tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada, declined to the lowest total in 20-plus years.
And as recently as December, a PSB Research survey discovered only 62 percent of Americans ages 18-59 meet the industry’s definition of “frequent moviegoers” — down 15 percent just this decade.
The decline of the frequent moviegoer poses an immediate problem at the box office, but perhaps an even more insidious one for studios’ research departments. For decades, frequent moviegoers have served as the industry’s leading basis for knowledge about its consumers.
Moviegoing frequency is and has long been the chief criterion for participation in movie marketing research. In other words, positioning studies, trailer tests, focus groups and weekly tracking surveys measure the opinions and concerns of people who attend movies on a regular basis.
As the number of American adults that meets researchers’ standard frequency criteria has dwindled, studios have lost touch with a substantial portion of their potential audience. Millions of people who otherwise are solid candidates to see films in theaters are excluded from the research that helps decide what gets greenlit, what gets marketing budget and where TV spots get aired.
Although movie market research has evolved from the pencil-and-paper methods of its inception in the 1970s, basic precepts remain mired in the past. Legacy research standards, like the demographic “quad” audience segmentation, maintain concepts of audience demographics and moviegoing behaviors that are out of touch with present-day realities.
It’s little wonder that movie researchers are routinely flummoxed by the performance of films like “Wonder,” “Dunkirk” and “It,” each of which turned out the all-but-invisible infrequent moviegoers in droves. Similarly, the case can be made that some of 2017’s high-profile misses would have seen greater success at the box office had studios identified, interviewed, targeted and persuaded infrequents instead of just hoping that they might show up on their own accord.
In the past, studios combated attendance declines by redefining their conceptions of their audiences. For example, faced with the emergence of television and the decline of the adult, urban-centered moviegoing population in the 1950s, studios began targeting suburban teenagers via new technologies, genres and modes of advertising. Today studios are confronting a similar crisis as streaming services siphon the time and attention of would-be moviegoers, especially disruptive millennials.
Ironically, by considering the infrequent moviegoer studios might actually eliminate that very category of consumer. Yet, when viewed as a metaphor for the need to bring movie marketing research into the 21st century, 2018 is a year in which the infrequent moviegoer, from the earliest stages of creative testing up through prerelease tracking, should be at the forefront of studio research plans.
We must attend as closely to this growing population’s awareness, interest, and intent as we do to that of the dwindling number of frequent moviegoers. Beyond that, we must dedicate ourselves to understanding the myriad reasons why they do not attend movies in theaters more frequently. What are the bridges that draw them to theaters, and what are the barriers that keep them away?