Audiences: Made, Not Born

Today's guest post is from screenwriter Jeremy Pikser. When we say, “know your audience,” what do we mean, exactly? What defines the characteristics of an audience? Is an “audience” identical to a “market?”

Is the audience, as Hollywood (and, really, the entire ideology of market consumerism) would have us believe, a natural expression of human nature, the zeitgeist, or what people “want now?”  To think so would be to ignore the domination of our sense of what all these are by exactly the cultural forces who are selling us what we “want.”

The creation of desire is a well worn concept, but it’s worth keeping in mind when we think about the “audience” for art. The requirement, for instance, of virtually every popular story to have somewhere in it a hot chick, a beautiful woman, a fair maiden isn’t, obviously, something that’s been created by Hollywood out of whole cloth. It has a long tradition in popular (and not so popular) art. But the entertainment industry has cultivated this notion into a much more powerful and self perpetuating “necessity.”

Let’s talk about stars. There is, we understand, an audience for films with bankable stars. What does that mean? How was the star system developed, and why? People go see, let’s say, a Will Farrell movie. When they talk about it (even, more often than not, when professional CRITICS talk about it, they don’t say Ricky Bobby does this or that, or Ron (was that his name?)Burgundy does this or that, they say Will Ferrell does.

On the other hand, if most TV fans saw Hugh Laurie walking down the street, they’d say… “look, it’s House!” Would there be an audience for a show starring Hugh Laurie using his native accent? Is there such a thing as a Hugh Laurie series as there is a Will Ferrell movie?

The expectations of the audience, what it wants, how it thinks about what it responds to in a film or TV show doesn’t arise spontaneously from human nature or the zeitgeist, but by the way the industry develops and promotes it’s “product.”

The audience wants stars (which basically means a very small pool of lead actors) because the studios figured out a long time ago, repeating casting that had successful audience results, and exploiting those repetitions to the hilt through publicity anointing the actors as “stars” was the most profitable way to sell films. People respond to Jean Harlow in a film. So the next three films calling for a sexy woman require Jean Harlow to be in them, and Jean Harlow is proclaimed the sexiest woman in pictures, and before you know it, the audience “wants” a “Jean Harlow movie.”  After 70 years of this, the audience can only want a “somebody movie.” Its what the audience understands as a top movie experience. If there’s not “somebody” in it, it’s less likely to be satisfying, and less likely to have an audience.

Of course the kinds of stories and  the way they’re told follow the same pattern. When the entire culture from E network to the Times “culture” pages take as a force of nature that the release of every $200 million summer tent pole is an seminal event in the collective experience of contemporary human experience, it’s not surprising that audiences await them with bated breath.  And it becomes a fact that audiences “want” to see big movies, with big budgets, elaborate effects, and lots of explosions (like the old SCTV  Farm Film Report where Billy Sol Hurok and Big Jim McBob rated films on how well “they blowed things up.”).

The market creates the audience, the audience drives the market by following its lead.

And in the most corrosive of all such feedback loops, audiences “want” successful pictures. I don’t know exactly when it was, (surely sometime after 1975, maybe as recently as the 90s?) “arts” coverage and the audience started focusing on film grosses and evaluating films largely on the basis of them.  Now it is relative well accepted that a film that doesn’t meet market expectations is definition a film “fails,” and is therefore, not a good film. George Trow wrote a great article in the New Yorker 15 or 20 years ago marking Family Feud as a turning point in the culture because it was the first game show where the “right” answer was defined as the most popular answer.

This isn’t to say that the notion of creating an audience is inherently a bad thing. Culture is never created or experienced in a cultural vacuum.  That maximum profit is the end all be all of the most powerful forces in the culture create the conditions for both expression and response, may indeed be an inherently bad thing, but there are other examples of audience creation, too.  The European New Wave directors of the late 50’s and 60’s created a new audience, not just by making films that audiences were ready for, but by building a culture in a variety of media that cultivated the values and attitudes of the new cinema and was expressive of the audience’s non-mainstream interests. The American film makers who aped them in the 70’s to some extent did the same. Critics like Kenneth Tynan, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris played an important role, too, in educating audiences and creating a nexus for a new concept of what they “wanted.”

As varied and eclectic as all the players may have been, there was some kind of underlying aesthetic, social agenda, and relationship to historical developments that unified the creation of this new audience—a zeitgeist that gave rise to both the artists who educated the audience, as well as the audience who embraced their work and supported it. This, to me, is the kind of feedback loop we should strive for.

Jeremy Pikser is the co-writer of the film Bulworth, for which he won the LA Critics Award, as well as Oscar, and Golden Globe nominations.  War, Inc., which he wrote with Mark Leyner and John Cusack premiered at the TFF in 2008.  In 2009 he  completed a script for director Darren Aronofsky about Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass).  He is currently developing a cable series with co-writer Mark Leyner.