MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

The Audience is Listening

Many moons ago for reasons that have been lost to time, I was attending a film festival in Montreal. While I can still vividly remember some of the selections, I cannot remember the name of the event or its stated gestalt. The program was very alternative with selections from the likes of Werner Schroeder and Michael Snow.

About three days into the rigors of the festival, a buddy called me at the hotel with an offer I could not refuse. There was a midnight screening off campus at a local rep house that sounded intriguing. It was called Night of the Living Dead and it was developing a cult following. It seemed like the perfect, inane, diversion from the type of movies we’d been viewing.

It did indeed provide a stimulating alternative to the day’s fare. However, what I remember just as clearly as the haunting monochromatic images and visceral thrills is the audience that turned up that night at the Cinema Outrement. They got the picture _ laughing and shrieking at all the appropriate moments and enjoying the hijinx to the fullest extent. Director George Romero couldn’t have order up a more appreciative crowd.

Most of us have comparable memories of a night at the movies where an auditorium of strangers made the experience at least a bit more enjoyable. In some instances you’d want to gather up those particular patrons and put them in a bottle to be uncorked for another screening. In theory at least there’s an ideal, hip crowd out there that shares the same cinematic sensibility that have informed your likes and peeves on the big screen.

Of course the reality is generally quite different. Though composed of a not necessarily homogeneous quilt of individuals, the crowd experience can turn us into a single voice. It can also be an entirely surreal experience as the peripheral sounds of hysterical laughter or a sea of sobs leaves you with the somewhat perplexing question about why you aren’t sharing the prevailing emotions in the theater.

I’ve seen the same film with an audience that responded vociferously on one occasion and on another conveyed their indifference in no uncertain terms. Same film, same actors, same cast and crew but with a new set of eyes or nays.

I’d invited a filmmaker named John Wright to a conference to talk about working with actors and one evening screened his first feature, The Visitor. The low budget film had been a great success with audiences at film festivals but on this particular evening one could sense that the people in the room weren’t connecting to what was in screen. About 20 minutes into the projection, he quietly snuck out and a couple of minutes later I also choose to exit the room.

John was sitting in the lobby with a perplexed look on his face. When he saw me approach he said, “I see all the picture’s faults tonight. I don’t think I’ll watch it again for some time.”

We talked for a while and he observed that in the 50 or so times that he watched the movie with an audience there had been five or six other instances in which the film played poorly. We had no idea why a picture that seemed to work for the crowd most of the time would have such a poor response in a minority of situations. The only significant factors that separated one screening from another were the physical location and the composition of the viewers. There wasn’t a cultural disconnect for the people inside as sometimes occurs with American films when they cross borders, so what contributed to its failure that night?

One can dismiss it all to the vagaries – some might even call it tyranny – of an audience. I’ve never seen a study addressing the composition or dynamic of the “audience.” I’ve been at screenings where a distributor has papered the crowd with people one would assume to be most ideally responsive to the material. On one occasion I watched as a wrangler attempted to drum up enthusiasm among youngsters that were having no part of it.

Nonetheless, it does seem entirely plausible that an audience could be manipulated with shills planted in the crowd. We’ve seen things like that occur at political rallies and union meetings, especially as dramatically portrayed in the movies.

In small screening rooms I’ve felt the displeasure of a single person that grew and migrated into the entire room. I can’t recall a comparable situation at a regular theater, but I suppose it’s possible that someone with a demonstrative personality sitting in an undefined but pivotal spot in an auditorium could transmit his pleasure to others and set off an emotional domino effect for the audience.

We don’t know and I’m not at all sure any of the myriad market research outlets have even addressed what has to be something so difficult to define or quantify.

It’s common practice in America to do preview screenings of movies in an effort to see how a picture plays to an audience. The guinea pigs will be given cards to fill out and a small portion may be asked to stay on and participate in a focus group where further probing occurs.

These lab situations usual have some effect on the ultimate shape of a film’s release. Scenes deemed to slow down the picture’s momentum are tossed out, roles are expanded or reduced, music is changed or whatever. In extreme situations additional scenes may be filmed to clarify plot points or a picture might be totally reconceived. Or, in very extreme cases a movie is shelved or given only a token release.

Some filmmakers find the process essential; others say they learn more from the audience during the screening than when they’re asked to become temporary critics. But by any objective standard, it’s an imperfect measure. There are horror stories about test screenings in areas of the country where the subject matter or content was unlikely to find a receptive crowd. Additionally, the recruiting methods can be imprecise and the questions asked in cards or during the focus groups sometimes have an inappropriate bias.

It should come as no surprise that films that had repeatedly scored poorly in tests wound up huge box office hits just as highly rated movies turned out to be commercial fiascos. If one had access to the data and the subsequent releases, there’s a very strong suspicion the average variance would be greater than what would be considered an acceptable statistical margin of error in market research for other industries.

There are other factors about the contemporary movie audience that are bothersome to theater owners and the people that make movies. At the recently concluded ShoWest convention National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian was asked a rather all-embracing question about “rude audiences.”

He said he considered talkative crowds and the intrusion of ringing cell phones as real, valid and that it had to be addressed and reversed. He and others noted that the problem was not specific to movie going and had evolved into an annoyance that infects all areas of daily life. Fithian was frankly confounded that a slice of the audience appeared incapable of separating from portable communication devices for a couple of hours and were it not for FCC regulations, he would block signals in theaters to resolve the problem.

Frankly, ringtones are personally the lesser evil in this scenario. Far more engrained and disturbing is the pervasive aspect of people that carry on a dialogue throughout a screening as if they were the director’s commentary on a DVD. The theater becomes their movable living room and their relationship with the small screen at home spills over into the multiplex. For many there is no separation in the way they conduct themselves in these two venues and that’s a cultural habit that’s evolved and won’t be easily reversed.

That thing called an audience hasn’t been going to the movies as often as it did last year or the year before that and the year prior. It’s a glacial erosion but it is an erosion that even reversed by a momentary spike is more likely a trend than an anomaly. The dominant entertainment diversion is television and once color TVs attained a significant household penetration in the early 1960s all hope for movies being any more than the favorite household escape had to be abandoned.

In addition to the nature of the beast of today’s audience, the negatives that contribute to veering clear of a movie theater range across the spectrum. It encompasses such things as the menu of available movies, the sticker shock element and to some extent the not always subtle impact of a society that’s been told it’s under potential siege from terrorist threats, especially at venues that attract a lot of people.

Those elements have to be weighed against the event aspect of seeing a film when, at least for the moment, it’s only available at a movie theater in a format and of a quality superior to the home experience. Many reviews are now couched with the advice to wait until a production is released in ancillary formats.

A number of things have sustained movie going at a relatively consistent level in the past four decades. Certainly among the factors that have contributed to that are such things as the perception that what one could view at a theater wasn’t available at home and that among entertainment choices, going to the movies was both a of good value and more economically accessible than other alternatives.

It’s logical to assume that should either of those carrots be nibbled to a sliver, the effect isn’t going to be positive for movie theaters. Cable TV and DVDs have advanced to a point that extends the possibility of being able to see anything on the bill at a multiplex. In fact with unrated versions of hit movies and the availability of films that were never shown in America or received the narrowest and briefest of releases, one actually has a great deal more movie options. Advances in home entertainment also provide the impression of a quality viewing experiences for those willing to make a significant initial investment.

As to economic value, it remains a comparative bargain when placed beside a concert, sporting event or a night at the theater. Nonetheless, in troublesome economic times, plunking down $100 to take the family out to the movies is a decision that could require more than casual scrutiny. It’s the sort of financial outlay that demands a positive experience and psychologically people are not only going to want to be entertained but will convince themselves they had a positive experience because any other conclusion is too painful to voice. However, it will color future entertainment options.

Ultimately going to the movies is a choice made by an individual even if made in concert with one or more people. The gravy is the audience experience that can be rich and flavorful like that bygone entrée in Montreal or lumpy and unpalatable. Too much of the latter is only going to force to people to change their diets.
March 30, 2006

– by Leonard Klady  

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~ David Simon