He's Hollywood's best-kept secret, a professorial sculptor and furniture designer who, in the last decade, has worked his way into the upper stratum of the film industry. Armed with a Harvard law degree and an MFA from Notre Dame, a five-year stint as the director of the Lou Harris Poll, and an uncommon gift for salesmanship, Joe Farrell now has a virtual lock on market research in movies, testing about 80% of the major studio releases to determine audience response.
That makes him not only one of filmdom's most powerful figures, but one of its more controversial. Market research--surveying the public to determine a product's market potential, then fine-tuning the products and/or their advertising campaigns in light of the findings--has been commonplace in the world of packaged goods for nearly half a century. But a movie, many argue, is a creative expression, an emotion-laden, subjective vision that cannot and should not be dissected like a deodorant or soft drink.
Critics acknowledge that previewing a work-in-progress or a finished film in front of a recruited audience, assessing likes and dislikes from post-screening questionnaires and discussion groups may be valid in working out a marketing strategy. But too often, they claim, research is used to justify changes in a movie's content--changes that can diminish it.
"They're saying to the audience 'tell us what you want and we'll give it to you,' " says director Sydney Pollack. "From a business point of view that can do a lot of good but, as a filmmaker, it scares and angers me. As the film industry economically depends more and more on market research, it becomes less and less satisfying to the filmmaker. All it does is make the audience's movie and not your own . . . there's no two ways about it."
Such charges are not news to Farrell or his colleagues at the studios. Nor is the claim, made by market researchers outside the industry, that the methodology of the Hollywood variety is somewhat suspect. Though Art and Numbers are joined at the hip these days--some say as an outgrowth of the industry's MBA mentality and a fixation with numbers fed by the media--few people in the industry will discuss research--or its leading practitioner--on the record.
"Joe Farrell is a guy you need but don't want anyone to know you know," admitted one marketing chief. "Everyone wants to keep moviemaking a 'feeling' business, a 'gut' industry, but the guy has information everyone wants."
With so much money--and ego--riding on the summer releases, the industry had more than a passing interest in Farrell's most recent data: The "1992 Summer Competitive Positioning," a survey indicating first-weekend box-office forecasts for the 35 films opening from mid-May through Labor Day weekend.
Studios, eyeing potential release dates, were informed that a poll of 1,200 moviegoers 12 to 59 years of age had selected "Lethal Weapon 3," "Batman Returns" and "Patriot Games" numbers one, two and three, respectively, in terms of summer "wanna-see." The yet-to-be released "Wind," "Stay Tuned" and "Honeymoon in Vegas" were at the bottom of the heap, with "minimal" marketing potential. Marked "absolutely confidential" in the upper right corner, the study was disseminated only to a select group of clients--ensuring that Farrell, unlike fellow pollsters Roper or Gallup, is kept safely out of the limelight.
That suits Farrell just fine. Uncomfortable with publicity, pledged to secrecy by his clients, he has never before agreed to be interviewed. He's only talking this time, he insists, to set the record straight.
"People see me as a pyramid with an eye radiating light out of some luxury building in Century City," says the 56-year-old Farrell. \o7 Two \f7 blue eyes peer out of a pair of tortoise-shell glasses. A shock of silver hair spills down on his forehead. "I actually operate out of a downtown Hollywood office, where I've been for the last 14 years. When I moved in, there was an office of hookers next door. There's no alchemy or magic involved. I provide information, of course--but it's the studio executives with their hands on the throttle."
Farrell was a man in the right place at the right time. When his National Research Group was established in 1978, market research in movies was far more limited than it is today. Studio executives had previewed films since the 1930s, when they rode the Big Red Cars--L.A.'s former mass transit system--to out-of-town screenings and read evaluation cards on the way back. Marketing techniques were documented in Leo Handel's 1950 book "Hollywood Looks at Its Audience: A Report of Film Audience Research"; and the Motion Picture Assn. of America started a research department more than 40 years ago.