BERG: Academy awards the unpopular and unprofitable

Hollywood just doesn’t care what Americans want

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The theme at the upcoming Academy Awards is the past. Best picture nominees such as “The Artist,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris,” “War Horse” and “The Help” all evoke nostalgic themes. Even host Billy Crystal is a throwback to the ‘90s.

Perhaps it’s understandable that the industry prefers to look back to earlier times. Frankly, there isn’t much to get excited about these days. Most films are financial disasters, with about 7 in 10 losing money. Movie attendance has been steadily declining, hitting a 16-year low last year, as reported by, which tracks box-office receipts.

Many reasons are cited, such as the recession, higher ticket prices and other entertainment choices, such as video games. But the industry is partly responsible for its own sad story because viewers simply dislike much of the entertainment it produces, according to a new book, “Creating Blockbusters,” by industry insider Gene Del Vecchio.

Mr. Del Vecchio, who has worked as a marketer with large studios and entertainment companies, offers key principles in his book that would help studios create stories audiences will actually like. He conducted research, which specifically shows what they don’t like.

People’s main pet peeves about a recent film they’d seen: It was boring (59 percent), too slow (47 percent), unfunny (39 percent) and confusing (33 percent). Twenty-two percent said they couldn’t relate to the characters.

The most striking thing about this research is that none of it is surprising. One would think Hollywood executives should know this stuff. As a former producer at “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” I witnessed countless television and film projects at NBCUniversal result in failure I knew was inevitable.

I came to believe that network executives had no more insight about the business than I did. They just acted like it. Mr. Del Vecchio’s book has confirmed my suspicions.

He points out that many Hollywood executives are green-lighting film scripts based on absolutely no market research whatsoever. No other business would tolerate such hubris when tens of millions of investors’ dollars are at stake.

Mr. Del Vecchio, who is in the business of audience research, says many Hollywood executives don’t want audience opinions to get in the way of their “creative vision.”

Instead they often gravitate to big stars who are pushing their small, award-driven projects and unproven independent films, which have been anointed by industry royalty at film festivals. Deals are struck without any idea if mainstream audiences will be interested.

Much of the time the audience research isn’t even conducted until the expensive projects have been nearly completed. If the films test poorly, which happens with some frequency, then good money is thrown after bad, as research dollars are used primarily to come up with ways to market bad films.

The budget to produce and promote Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” was huge. It has garnered 11 Oscar nominations, more than any other film, but it’s a box-office loser.

It’s estimated the film cost as much as $170 million to produce. With marketing costs, it could be as expensive as $200 million. So far its worldwide box office receipts total $114 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The studio’s take will be about half.

Of course, Mr. Scorsese is a celebrity director. Critics and Academy voters loved his film. But the audience was able to see something voters couldn’t: Mr. Scorsese directed a film that didn’t have mass appeal. It’s a good bet viewers might have had the same take had they been consulted before “Hugo” was shot.

Another flop last year was “The Rum Diary,” which was produced by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Johnny Depp. Mr. Depp’s ode to his friend, journalist Hunter S. Thompson, was shot, says Box Office Mojo, on a budget of $45 million and grossed $24 million.

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