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Influential Movie Market Researcher Quits His Post

Entertainment: Joseph Farrell denies he's leaving because of a falling-out with current owner of his company.

September 20, 2002|CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man considered the Godfather of modern-day movie research--the art of gauging audience interest in a movie long before it opens--abruptly resigned Thursday from the company he founded more than two decades ago.

Joseph Farrell, one of the most influential behind-the-scenes players in Hollywood, said he and his partner, Catherine Paura, would be leaving National Research Group when their contracts expire in December.

"After 25 years of this and at our peak of success," Farrell said in an interview, "we just thought it was a good time to step back."

Industry sources, however, said Farrell and Paura, NRG's co-chairmen, had grown increasingly frustrated with what they viewed as an erosion of their management control since their business was sold to Dutch media conglomerate VNU in 1997. The sources said the two had found themselves in a cultural clash with the owners and had been planning their exit strategy for months.

But the normally publicity-shy Farrell denied that was the case, saying he was not leaving because of any "divisiveness within VNU.... I'm not trying to escape from any bureaucratic plague; I just wanted to be freed up from the daily grind of the work."

He said he and Paura, who would officially resign at VNU's entertainment board meeting today in New York, would stay on as consultants to NRG "for at least another year."

Farrell, 67, and Paura, 52, founded NRG in 1978, eventually obtaining a virtual monopoly on movie-tracking research. As Hollywood's dominant prognosticator, NRG conducts test screenings with recruited audiences and conducts polls to measure everything from moviegoer interest in upcoming releases to the effectiveness of movie trailers and TV spots.

Studios pay NRG millions of dollars a year for handicapping how their movies will perform on opening weekends. Often, the studios will revamp their entire advertising campaigns based on NRG's research.

NRG's parent company is conducting a search to fill the post of chief executive. In the meantime, Andrew Wing, chief executive of VNU media and research unit Nielsen Entertainment, will move from New York to Los Angeles to work with Farrell and Paura during the transition. VNU also owns the Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication.

VNU has been very aggressive in acquiring research properties over the last several years, including A.C. Nielsen, VideoScan and SoundScan, and also owns Hollywood Reporter, Billboard Publications and Adweek. Sources said the decision for Farrell and Paura to leave was mutual. Some traced it to NRG's position within the company being overshadowed by Nielsen's growing prominence and contribution to VNU's overall annual revenue. NRG recently was renamed Nielsen NRG.

During his tenure at NRG, Farrell became as controversial as he was powerful. His company sometimes erred--and badly.

This spring, NRG misjudged the interest in 20th Century Fox's animated feature "Ice Age" by tens of millions of dollars. Another high-profile incident occurred in 2000 over the highly competitive Fourth of July weekend. NRG predicted that Columbia Pictures' Revolutionary War movie "The Patriot," starring Mel Gibson, was going to beat out Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm." In fact, the opposite happened, and "Perfect Storm," with George Clooney, out-grossed "The Patriot" almost 2 to 1.

Still, despite the misses, Farrell has his loyal supporters.

Producer Laurence Mark, whose many credits include the 1996 blockbuster "Jerry Maguire," said Farrell has maintained "a corner on the market because nobody has his vast amount of movie market research history to call upon. He can reference 'Saturday Night Live' [from 1977] and tell you why that may have some bearing on what you're doing today."

MGM Inc. Chief Operating Officer Chris McGurk said, "Beyond having created this research methodology, which has become the industry standard, Joe Farrell is an incredible font of information that is very useful to us."

Farrell says he takes being off the mark in stride: "If you're way off [by underestimating grosses] no one really screams at you. If you're off and the movie does less, then they have a real gripe."

But Farrell has faced far more serious accusations over the years that he has doctored figures and manipulated demographic information to please clients, which he has steadfastly denied. Revolution Studios partner Tom Sherak, who has known Farrell for more than 20 years, lamented that such allegations dog Farrell: "The accusations that they cook the numbers is absolutely ridiculous."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bio: Joseph Farrell

Vitals: Born Sept. 11, 1935, in New York. Married to actress Jo Champa.

Education: St. John's College, University of Notre Dame, Harvard Law School

1964-65: Works for law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.

1965-66: Works for Carnegie Corp.

1966-71: Vice president and chief operating officer of American Council of Arts.

1966-74: Works for Rockefeller Bros. Fund.

1977: Opens a West Coast office for Louis Harris & Associates.

1978: Founds National Research Group with partner Catherine Paura.

1988: Sells NRG to Saatchi & Saatchi.

1997: NRG is sold to conglomerate VNU.

Extras: Designs furniture under the name "Giuseppe Farbino"; lists work as novelist, screenwriter and sculptor in "Who's Who in America."

About Nielsen NRG

A leading market research and consulting firm to the major studios for their theatrical, video and DVD releases. It operates in more than a dozen countries and has about 1,000 employees.

Source: Times research

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