Movie Marketers Will Pick Up The Audience In Pieces For Months To Come

Michael Cieply
·3 min read

What a great time not to be a movie marketer. Theaters half-closed, with COVID-19 again rising. Pipeline dried up. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asking, in a survey that was due last week, how the pandemic is affecting your craft. Or what’s left of it.

But movie promoters on the whole are an optimistic bunch. (The most optimistic I ever met was the late publicist Howard Brandy; by the lore, a little bit of Howard was designed into the discouragement-proof cartoon character Dudley Do-Right.)

So they are surely looking over the horizon, trying to figure out how films will be sold when the box office is finally more than just another headache for the county health department.

What’s already clear is that recovery will be a patch-work. It will occur in bits and pieces that fall into place, and sometimes fall out again as one zone or another drops back into the theater-free, coronavirus danger zone, as Riverside County did on Tuesday.

And the jigsaw puzzle won’t just be a matter of geography, with New York suburbs in, but New York City out, Los Angeles County closed, but San Francisco or Atlanta or Miami open enough to make the film Academy’s list of six cities in which a release can qualify a picture for Oscar consideration.

Well into the future, audience demographics will also be another kind of crazy quilt.

Ethnic groups, for instance, may return to the movies at different rates or in proportions that don’t match the pre-virus patterns. That sort of disruption is virtually impossible to quantify in advance. But for months market analyst David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research has cautioned that Black and Latino/Hispanic audiences—if indeed those populations have been particularly hard-hit by coronavirus—may be held back by a resulting, disproportionate economic burden.

For now, that’s an imponderable. But soon enough, an army of marketers will have to go looking for the Hispanics who were 24% of the audience for Avengers: Endgame or the African-Americans who bought 21% of The Lion King tickets. Is their disposable income intact? Does advertising in a faltering venue like sports television reach them, or are new approaches in order? Has the lockdown experience affected their tastes or behavior any differently than other groups?

Sort the audience by age, and potential differences in post-viral behavior may loom even larger. It’s a fair guess, for example, that moviegoers over the age of 60 will be slower to return than will younger viewers for whom the risks in exposure are generally less severe. I love movies. But I’m over 60, and I won’t be visiting even a half-filled theater as quickly as will my son, who is less than half my age.

If others feel the same, how deeply will that bite into the 15% audience share that currently comes from the 60-plus crowd? Will the erosion undercut the sophisticated, awards-type movies that often take root with older viewers? Have those viewers jumped to streaming, or are they just channel-hopping on the cable box, altogether lost to the market for new films?

On the opposite end of age spectrum, similar questions will affect the very young. They seem not to be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. But parents are protective, and children are hard to control; so the 10% audience bloc between ages 2 and 11 probably won’t be staging a lot of birthday parties at the multiplex, especially, as in San Francisco, where concession sales are barred.

In fact, reopening will mean learning to sell in a market that behaves very differently from the one that closed last spring.

Eventually, executives and publicists will build new models and invent new methods (and maybe that Academy survey will even help). But for many months to come, they’ll be getting reacquainted with the audience, and picking it up in pieces.

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