Tuesday, August 2, 2011

You Are Not the Target Audience

Another day, another round of drama over the summer box office. Yesterday Hollywood was holding its breath as "The Smurfs" and "Cowboys & Aliens" were neck and neck in box office receipts for the weekend, both bringing in an estimated $35 million. The final Monday numbers revealed that "Cowboys" edged ahead by about $1 million, but it's not much of a victory considering that the $36.4 million total is well under all the estimates for what the picture should have made. "Cowboys & Aliens" had multiple big-name actors, was directed by Jon Favreau, and had a slew of well-known producers and writers attached. That doesn't mean it wasn't a crummy film, which it was, but it should have been easier to sell than "The Smurfs," which had even worse reviews and was one of those CGI revamps of classic cartoon characters that everyone over the age of eighteen hates with a passion, right?

If there's one lesson, one mantra that any movie-loving box-office watcher needs to learn in order to stay sane, it's this: more often than not, you are not the target audience. Why do horrible, awful films constantly make so much money? Usually, because they have found a way to appeal to a specific audience that wants to see a certain type of movie. In this case, it's little kids with no prior experience with "The Smurfs," and their not-too-picky parents. "The Smurfs" was made for the youngest segment of the audience, and in the absence of any other prominent movie aimed at this age group available right now, it's the obvious choice for families. "Cars 2" is almost gone from theaters, the last "Harry Potter" is too dark and scary for anyone under ten, and Disney ran a terrible ad campaign for "Winnie the Pooh" that positioned it as a nostalgic throwback instead of a fun children's movie. "The Smurfs," on the other hand, had a lot of visibility and everything about it reads as safe, harmless, brightly-colored, and cute. If it keeps the tots occupied for eighty minutes, who cares who directed it?

Movie geeks may despair, but let's be honest here. There have always been films made for children, and most of them have been terrible. We dragged our parents to lousy children's films in the past just as the kids of today are dragging us to "The Smurfs" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks." Nostalgia may make the old days seem better, but outside the wondrous realms of Disney and Steven Spielberg, there was a lot of drivel out there. Those old "Smurf" and "Chipmunks" cartoons, which were among the earliest bits of television programming I can remember, are practically unwatchable today. And of course they are. They were made for kids with undeveloped noggins, just like the new ones are. Kids like loud, obvious humor, repetitive stories, broad characters, and a lot of chaotic excitement. We did too, when we were that age. So I don't begrudge "The Smurfs" its success, even though I think it's remarkably lazy for Hollywood to keep recycling older characters like this. On the other hand, there have been a few bright spots in the 80s revival - some kids' properties like "My Little Pony," and "Thundercats" came back better than the originals.

"Cowboys & Aliens," for all the big names involved, actually alienated the young male audience it was targeting. According to the LA Times, the viewers that turned out for the film were predominantly older. There have been various theories as to why this happened, such as younger audiences being turned off by high ticket prices, the unfamiliar Western elements, or that they actually listed to reviewers for once (yeah right). Whatever the reason, by missing its target audience, "Cowboys" was left high and dry. The marketing campaign hadn't bothered trying to attract women or kids who might have helped to boost the film's numbers, a tactical error made too often when the studios forget that young male viewers are often as much a niche as anyone else. This isn't the first time this year that the young adult demographic has proven to be unreliable, and some have suggested that it might be indicative of a more monumental shift in the makeup of theatergoing audiences.

Does this mean fewer films like "Cowboys & Aliens" aimed at the teens and twenty-somethings? Will fewer young men going to the movies result in fewer films made for them? Possibly, but what's certain is that studios are going to be more careful about how it spends money on films for this audience in the future. "Cowboys" cost around $160 million, and while there are no official numbers for "The Smurfs," similar films usually cost about half as much. Animated family features have proven to have much better returns than geek-flavored action movies lately, especially overseas. Heck, adult-oriented prestige pics did better business last year, and nobody's supposed to go see those anymore. Hollywood might not be culturally inclined to change its ways, but financially they can't ignore the trends. Targeting the traditional summer movie crowd of young men only doesn't work anymore.

So get used to hearing those words, fanboys: you are not the target audience, and you may be even less so in the future.

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