The genius of modern Hollywood lies not just in its ability to make movies, but to create weekly audiences for them. Back in the pre-TV days, when two-thirds of Americans were weekly moviegoers, that was unnecessary. Even as late as 1948, some 90 million Americans went to their local movie theaters every week without any national advertising to prod them. That habitual audience withered away after the introduction of color TV in the mid-’60s. Today, Hollywood can count on less than 10 percent of the population seeing any given movie, and getting those people requires multimillion dollar ad campaigns.
Studios must now provide two different products to multiplexes: the movies, of course, for their 39,000 screens, and, far more important, ad campaigns that will fill seats with popcorn-munching, soda-guzzling consumers (without which every multiplex in America would be out of business). So, when Paramount booked 3,900 screens in May for Thor, it also had to (and did) deliver 9 million warm bodies—including people who never read the comic book, and despite the movie’s bad reviews—on opening weekend.
The nearest equivalent, in theory, is a presidential election. Candidates need a large national audience to vote at a particular location on a particular date. But these elections occur only once every four years. Studios mount campaigns biweekly—and without a partisan base of support.
The challenge for the studios’ marketing departments is to build campaigns on budgets that don’t bankrupt their employers. In 2010, studios spent on average $32 million in advertising per movie in wide release. While this sum includes everything from coming attraction reels to newspapers ads, the lion’s share of it goes for 30-second TV spots, aired the week before the movies open.
“People-moving is a far more difficult proposition than merely predisposing people to buy a product,” one studio marketing chief explained to me. “Despite all the talk about using the Internet, and stunts and hype in gossip columns, the only real tool for pushing millions of people into movie theaters on the opening weekend is TV spots.”
Ironically, the very medium that destroyed Hollywood’s habitual audience is now viewed as its salvation.