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Stories not stars sell specialised films, BFI exit polls show

Over the past decade the British Film Institute (BFI) has conducted over 170 cinema exit polls for the British independent and specialised films it supports. Huw D Jones analyses the data and asks what lessons are there for distributors.

Understanding what makes audiences tick is a key concern for the film business. Knowing what motivates cinemagoers to watch a particular movie can help distributors improve the way they market their films. But while Hollywood studios can spend millions on audience research, smaller independent outfits often only have gut instinct to rely on.

So it’s useful to know that for the past decade the BFI (and initially the UK Film Council) has been conducting cinema exit poll surveys for those British independent and specialised films – i.e. foreign language titles, documentaries, re-releases and films with challenging subject matter – it supports via its Distribution Fund. The results of all 173 polls are freely available on its website, and they provide some valuable insights into the audiences for these types of movies.

Polling problems

The exit polls ask cinemagoers four basic questions:

Analysing this data can be tricky. The polls don’t conform to a standard template, and the multiple choice options can differ from film to film. Some polls, for example, ask whether audience members are aged 35 or over, while others if they are 25 or over.

The section on ‘baits to attendance’ poses particular problems as the answers are often specifically tailored to the film in question. So, for example, audiences leaving A Field in England (2013) were asked if they saw the film because they were ‘interested in the Civil War era’, because its was ‘from the director of Kill List and Sightseers’ or because ‘it stars Reece Shearsmith’.

We have therefore tried to get round this problem by matching responses to a generic set of options, such as ‘I’m interested in the film’s subject matter’, ‘I like the director’ or ‘I like the lead actor’, though many of the responses could only be categorised as ‘other’.

Fig 1 - Gender balance by genre

Audience gender balance by genre. Source: BFI exit polls 2005-15 / IMDb

Genre and gender

Across the 173 films surveyed the average audience split between men and women is about 50/50. The same is also true if we compare different types of specialised film – foreign-language, documentaries, re-releases and so on. However, some genres do significantly vary according to gender (figure 1): action, sci-fi and adventure films tend to attract more men, while family, romance and historical dramas attract more women.

The 2009 re-release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the only Bond film to star George Lazenby as British agent 007, had the largest male audience (78%), followed by the Japanese samuari epic 13 Assassins (76%), the UK remake of Danish crime drama Pusher (74%), and the US war documentary Restrepo (73%). Coco Before Chanel had the highest female audience (78%), closely followed by another foreign-language biopic about the French fashion designer, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinksy (75%), and the wartime period drama The Edge of Love (74%), starring Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller.

This suggests women are drawn to films with strong female leads, just as men prefer the more macho male characters, though this pattern may be partly explained by the way such films are marketed (notice, for example, how the poster for The Edge of Love centres on the film’s two female leads and not the roguish Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, arguably the film’s main protagonist).

Baits to attendance

The top bait to attendance overall is ‘the story appealed to me’, followed by ‘genre/type of film’ and ‘reviews’ (figure 2). The least popular is for the film to be ‘shown at a festival’ or ‘nominated/received an award’.

‘The story appealed to me’ may seem a rather vague reason why cinemagoers choose to see a particular movie, but it nevertheless suggests audiences enter the cinema with some idea of what the film’s about. It also tells us that – in the case of specialised films at least – audiences find it much more useful to know what the films is about than who made it or who’s in it.

Fig 2 - Bait to attendance

Baits to attendance for specialised film in rank order. Source: BFI exit polls 2005-15

The same could be said of genre: the fact that horrors, thrillers or martial arts movies stick to the same basic conventions (even if they sometimes play around with those conventions) gives audiences a fairly clear idea of what to expect. Reviews likewise provide potential viewers with a plot outline as well as an indication of whether the film is any good.

Other key baits to attendance – e.g. the film’s director, the stars, its awards or source material – can also help audiences to make up their minds about whether to see a specialised film or not, but only in certain cases.

For example, other than a few British or internationally renowned auteurs – including Lars Von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Mike Leigh,  Shane Meadows and Ben Wheatley – the director is not generally a big draw for specialised films. Similarly, only certain actors – Michael Caine, Tom Hardy and Tilda Swinton in the case of British independent movies or Andreu Tatou, Penelope Cruz and Javier Barden in the case of foreign-language films – lure audiences.

Subject matter is also not normally a major attraction unless the movie focuses on a global icon, such as Che Guevara, Coco Chanel or Serge Gainsboroug, or the film in question is a documentary.  Likewise, with the exception of Shakespearean adaptations (Much Ado About Nothing, Coriolanus) or films based on internationally bestselling novels (e.g. Norwegian Wood, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, We Need To Talk about Kevin), audiences are not usually baited by the film’s source material.

In most cases, though, British audiences are unfamiliar with specialised film actors and directors or the subject matter and source material these films are based on. So, in order to decide whether its worth paying £10 or so for a cinema ticket, the only meaningful information they have to go on is the film’s story, genre or reviews.

Source of information

Fig 3 - Sources of information

Source of information for specialised film in rank order. Source: BFI exit polls 2005-15.

If audiences want to know about the story before they decide to watch a specialised film, then their main source of information is word of mouth, followed by cinema trailers and features/reviews in the print media (figure 3). By contrast, radio adverts/trailers, social media and radio reviews/feratures are the least popular source of information.

Online features, reviews and trailers are also generally unpopular sources of information, but it is important to remember that the exit polls go back to 2005, when internet usage was much lower than today. If we focus only on films released in the last two years, online trailers rise to the fifth most popular source of information, though word of mouth, cinema trailers and print media still remain top.

Effective marketing

It’s frustrating the BFI’s exit polls don’t probe audiences further, but I suppose that, from a practical point of view, the amount of information you can get from audiences as they stream out the cinema in a hurry to catch buses, tubes or last orders is only ever going to be limited.

Nevertheless, these surveys do provide some important lessons for distributors. Firstly, if your marketing budget is limited, prioritise getting your trailer into cinemas. That appears to be far more effective than TV, print, radio or online advertising as a source of information. Providing free preview screenings for target audiences to generate early word of mouth can also be effective, yet don’t bother too much with social media – few people seem to learn about specialised films from Twitter or Facebook, presumably because it’s so difficult to stand out among the millions of other messages tweeted, shared or liked each day.

Secondly, unless your film is directed by an internationally renowned auteur, stars a well-known actor or focuses on the life of a global icon, make sure the trailer and other publicity material provide a clear sense of the film’s narrative, as in most cases it’s stories not stars which sell specialised films. Emphasise the film’s genre elements and any good reviews as well, but don’t worry too much about mentioning festival appearances or awards/nominations (unless they are major ones like Oscars or Baftas).

And finally, keep in mind that each film is unique: what works for one movie may not for another (after all, the fourth most important bait for attendance after stories, genre or reviews is the miscellaneous ‘other’ category). As a general rule of thumb, play on those elements which British audiences might already be familiar with, as few pay to see films they know nothing about.

In any case, distributors may still have to rely partly on gut instinct after all.

My thanks to MeCETES intern Jessica van Roye for helping to collate the polling data. A copy of our summary table of the exit poll data is available here: BFI Exit Polls (2005-15) – Summary Table.

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