Tuesday, March 13, 2012

MR Gets Dissed at the 84th Academy Awards!

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MR Gets Dissed at the 84th Academy Awards!
By Kevin Lonnie, President and CEO

All in all, the 84th Academy Awards were largely forgettable. Billy Crystal, we love you, but it’s time to give that gig to someone born after 1950.


In the midst of this blandness, they set up a skit based on the idea of a 1939 Focus Group for “The Wizard of Oz.” The piece was done by Christopher Guest and his troupe of actors. I have to say I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest, his acting troupe and cult films. “Best in Show” remains one of my all time favorites.

But as I watched the piece, which had some funny moments (especially Fred Willard’s love of Flying Monkeys), I was thinking to myself “What was the writer/director’s intent?” And basically, it was to slam the idea of common folk aiding the creative process. Personally, I felt that MR had been dissed.  Watch the Christopher Guest Focus Group Skit (Hey we got dissed, but this troupe is always funny!)

And it goes back to what I would call “creative elitism.” The idea that creative integrity belongs to the artists and certainly not the common folks. Besides, what does the public know about creativity?

Gosh, why would we want to ask people what they thought of the movie? Could it be the fact they’re the ones who pay to see them? It’s nice to set yourself above the fray and strike out on behalf of creative vision, but no one in Hollywood actually believes that crap. That industry is ruled by the dollar as much as any CPG or service company. You ask for the public’s input because you want to put out a product that people will actually want to see.

Well, I thought to myself, Kevin you’re being too parochial. Most folks probably didn’t take it that way, but looking at the Twitter feed told me that I was not alone:

jokes about focus groups. way to connect to rest of America, Hollywood.


Focus group skit horrible – basically saying average viewers are idiots


I think the thesis is imagine if they focus grouped The Wizard of Oz, it would be terrible. That is a pretty hacky observation.

And I’m not even a fan of focus groups. I think their time has come and gone with the digital age, but the condescending tone of this skit is what annoyed me.

But to put everyone into context, I believe constructive criticism is an art. It’s not a matter of turning over artistic direction but you can certainly explore whether the product speaks to you. Musicians have always tested new material in their acts, gauging what songs are resonating with their fans.

And with movies, one of the more famous uses of market research was for the Michael Douglass-Glen Close Movie “Fatal Attraction.” Joseph Farrell (who was honored during the awards as one of the greats who passed away) was a pioneer in using MR to help fine-tune a movie. The original ending of “Fatal Attraction” left audiences feeling empty. They wanted Glenn Close’s character to ultimately pay for her acts. So the ending was redone (Ms. Close’s character gets shot by the besieged wife) and the film debuted to critical and commercial success.

My point is that no one is above public opinion. An artist who is shunned by the public is a legend only in his/her own mind.

That doesn’t take MR off the hook. We have to be every bit as creative in extracting viewer insights so we don’t run roughshod over the artist’s intent but rather discover areas that are not working. Heck, this is why theatrical plays premiere in Peoria and not on Broadway. It gives the writers’ an opportunity to work out the kinks.

A century ago Henry Ford famously said this about the public’s ability to guide him: “If I asked the public what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And Steve Jobs was a modern day Henry Ford on the value he placed on MR (basically zero). Mr. Jobs felt the public couldn’t articulate their need for something they haven’t seen.

Is it possible for MR to help create the next big thing? Can they actually help ensure the success of the next blockbuster?

I think the new interactive tools of MR are a game changer. Instead of looking at consumers as passive respondents, they become participants. And a participant can certainly be part of the creative process.

Besides it’s simply bad karma to put yourself above the paying public.

I’ve always admired this quote by the great comedian Jack Benny. When Mr. Benny was asked late in his career how he had managed to be relevant with the public for over 50 years, he replied. “When I started out in vaudeville, the other comics talked about playing down to the audience, so I thought I would play up to mine.”


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