Know Your Audience

Many years ago, shortly after I took over ScriptShark, I came across a script whose writers swore to me was going to be the next big Hollywood hit. The problem? The screenplay was written – as the scribes proudly told me – for what they called the Paul Newman generation. Newman, who was very much alive at that time, was the youngest character in the script, which was a meditation on our changing times and the process of aging. Every Paul Newman fan will run to see the movie, the scribes promised me.

The challenge? My grandmother is of the Paul Newman generation. She is an amazing woman but at this point in time, she goes to the movies about once every two months. Many of her friends have given up going to movies altogether unless they are bringing their grandchildren or great grandchildren along. While the scribes dreamed about writing the next Hollywood blockbuster, in reality they had written a movie for a demographic whose movie going behaviors leave much to be desired. This would not have been a problem, had they not estimated their film’s budget to be in the neighborhood of 50 Million Dollars.

The proof? 2012’s Academy Award nominated Amour. The movie had everything going for it, except for – had he still been alive – Paul Newman. Still, it received an enviable 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Box office revenue? 6.6 Million. This does not mean that the film – about aging and in fact deteriorating and dying – should not have been made. It does, however, speak to the fact that it targets a very specific demographic who can identify with the protagonist and is emotionally invested in the subject matter.

The question of demographic and/or audience comes up often. Many talented writers I work with write their projects enthusiastically, only to get stumped when the question about who would want to see their movie comes up. Some writers write material for an audience that is within the same demographic as themselves. Others, venture outside of their demographic into a world that speaks uniquely to them. For movie-going audiences, the leading demographic is 18-24 year old males, followed by by females ranging in age from 24-32. In TV, everyone wants to make a show that will attract the hard-to-get under-49 audience.

As a rule, a movie about children and teenagers should not garner anything above a PG or PG-13 at best. Adults tend to stir clear of material about young(er) people (The Perks of Being a Wallflower being the exception here), while a more adult rating compels parents to keep their children home. Fantasy-driven movies that are more humorous tend to skew towards youth; Blood and gore are reserved for young adults who can walk into an R movie without approval.

In order to make a compelling case for your material, you need to know not only the story that you are telling, but also have a clear understanding of who would willingly shell out upwards of $12 per ticket to see it, or tune in when it’s on TV. To put it simply, if you don’t know who would want to see your movie or tune in to watch your show, the producers, financiers and development executives considering the material will likely be stumped by the very same problem.

This doesn’t mean that we have not see some projects cross over into new demographics, bringing in new and often unexpected audiences. Many like to think back to Cocoon but more recent examples can be found in such movies asCalendar Girl and Wreck It Ralph which started out with a specific audience in mind, then extended their reach and crossed over based on word of mouth.

Therefore, it’s important that you ask yourself the question: Who will go to see this movie? Who will tune in for my show? Is it suitable for males? For females? Under 25? Over 25? Sure, everyone wants to have a project that can be aptly marketed to the 4 quadrants, but that is not always going to be the case. If you look at a sample from current box office, G.I. Joe: Retaliation was marketed primarily to young men, while Oz: The Great and Powerful was marketed towards an older audience, skewing towards families and females who are likely to respond better to the romance associated with the nostalgia encompassing the original Wizard of Oz.

The importance is not that you find a specific answer that will satisfy and compel the executive, agent or manager considering your project. Instead, it is that you are prepared with an answer, know your audience, and are ready to make a case for your project. Not sure how to do it? Look at other, similar project, investigate their numbers in the box office, and read as much as you can about their engaged audience. It will help you come up with a concise answer that will hopefully, in the right circumstance, assist your work in moving forward.