Indie Cinema Forces: Supportive Audiences

Arguably, the most important factor in the evolution of independent cinema has been supportive audiences. The maturation of the baby-boom generation, which possesses a more sophisticated taste, more disposable time, and more money to spend on movies has provided indispensable backing for indies. The core audience for indie films is small–about 5 to 10 percent of the market–but it's a loyal and appreciative one.

Indies are directed at specific sectors–niche audiences–of the fragmented market. The typical indie public is composed of:

1. College students and college graduates.

2. Singles and childless couples.

3. Discriminating viewers seeking provocative entertainment.

4. Informed viewers with sharper sensibility and greater awareness of new film releases and new directors.

5. Frequent moviegoers who go to the movies at least once a month.

About a third of moviegoers choose a film because of a favorable review, according to some studies. Of those who cited reviews, 20% were influenced by newspaper reviews and 18% by television ones. Television ads stirred 20% of those questioned to see a movie, but newspaper ads were less effective, prompting only 10%. Although positive reviews may increase a movie's run, TV advertising is the “backbone” of marketing campaigns. “Advertising completely opens the movie,” said Chris Pula, as New Line's president of theatrical marketing. “One of the challenges is to create brand awareness very quickly. If we don't hit after the first weekend, we're like spaghetti sauce on the shelf.” Other influences include word-of-mouth and big-name stars. In one survey, about 20% said they go to a movie based on a friend's suggestion; a famous actor stirred interest in 10%; trailers motivated 5%, while convenience of show times brought in just 1% of respondents.

Since the late 1970s, teenagers have been the most reliable moviegoers. Constituting a large share of opening week audiences, they can make or break a movie. In the 1970s, 89 percent of moviegoers in the U.S. were under 40, of which teenagers made up 42 percent. It was not always this way. In 1976, before the “teenage epidemic,” the two leading movies at the box-office were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman's drama about a mental hospital, and All the President's Men, about the Watergate scandal–serious movies that appealed to mature audiences. It's inconceivable that these two movies would be made by the studios today, let alone score major success.

For nearly a decade, between Star Wars in 1977 and Top Gun in 1986, Hollywood spurned adults. In the 1980s, the studios aimed at moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 20 with sex comedies and action-adventures. But in the 1990s, teens are outnumbered by middle-aged baby boomers who don't want to see gore or youth fare. In 1990, when Driving Miss Daisy topped $100 million, it underscored a new trend: Teenagers no longer were the prime audience. Aging boomers make up an increasing part of first-run movie audiences: Attendance of the 40-to-49-year-olds has steadily grown. While the studios continue to target the teen market, the real growth audiences for indies have been relatively older viewers, for whom selling movies requires a fresh, subtle approach.

Adults are attracted to a wider range of movies dealing with more mature themes. Viewers with college education want more sophisticated fare than what's shown on television, and they respond to critical acclaim and word-of-mouth. In the 1990s, the new parents in the audience are the teen-agers of the 1960s, who have remained consistent moviegoers: In 1990, 23 percent of ticket buyers were over 40.

The aging and graying of America has affected the kinds of movies made. “Adults are quality-driven, review driven, subject-matter driven,” said Thomas Pollock while heading Universal. “The critics are speaking to that adult audience. If a critic praises a teen-age movie, it doesn't mean much, because the teen-age audience doesn't read. It's very easy to motivate the 12-to-15 with TV advertisements. You cannot advertise adults into going.” This factor works in favor of indies, which are much more review-driven than Hollywood movies.

Independents have always catered to older audiences. Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made many movies before hitting the box-office jackpot with A Room With A View and Howards End. Other adult films that thrived, Henry V, My Left Foot, A Trip to Bountiful, Kiss of the Spider Woman, were also not pre-made for an existing audience. The return of older moviegoers has been more than temporary aberration. As the baby-boom generation ages, it continues to go to the movies, instead of staying at home watching television. Efforts to attract older viewers include an increased output of niche pictures aimed at specific demographics. The improved quality of the filmgoing experience–large screens, good projection, comfortable seats, versatile concession stands–are key factors in providing a conducive environment for older viewers.

In the 1990s, audiences for indies come from the new foreign markets, which means distributors have their eyes on overseas audiences in China, India, Russia and other countries where American movies have not played regularly. American movies, both studio and independent, have made strong inroads internationally. Strategic releasing in Eastern Europe and Asia, where privatization of the economy continues to accelerate, has increased revenues for all American media, including movies.

The size of the over-40 audience has doubled in the last decade to represent 30% of ticket sales. Conversely, the percentage of the population that seldom goes to movies has shrunk from a high of 45% to less than 30%. The studios have zeroed in on the largest segment that goes to movies, neglecting the niche segments. Teens comprise close to half of “frequent” moviegoers, but they are not the prime watchers of movies on cable or video- renters. Those ancillary markets now exceed theatrical exhibition-domestic theatrical is the primary loser for the bigger returns from other markets.

In the 1980s, all the studios made forays into indie fare, resulting in a raft of specialized divisions. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, most divisions lasted a few years only. A similar cycle seems to be operating in the 1990s, with the studios again aggressively pursuing specialty divisions. Disney acquired Miramax, Sony bought the former Orion Classics team, now called Sony Pictures Classic, Universal co-ventured with Polygram in Gramercy Pictures, Universal purchased October Films, 20th Century Fox established Fox Searchlight, and Paramount has built its own classic unit.

The key to indie survival is developing niche audiences. New Line has been very successful with horror (the Nightmare on Elmer Street series) and black-themed pictures (The House Party series, Friday, Set It Off). Miramax has been inventive in marketing art-house films (both foreign-language and English-speaking) to the masses. Sony Classic has been effective with non-traditional foreign (Farinelli, La Vie en Rose), American indies (Welcome to the Dollhouse, In the Company of Men) and even documentaries (Crumb). Strand Releasing and Jour de Fete have built a name for themselves with gay-themed and other specialty fare.