by Zoë Billington, New York, New York, email@example.com
VIRTUAL ZOOM INTERVIEW—SOMETIME IN THE
MORNING PST/EARLY AFTERNOON EST
KEVIN and ZOË appear on Zoom with cameras and mics on.
Kevin is the founder and current CEO of Screen Engine/ASI, one of the few firms in the world that conducts specialized research on Hollywood’s movies and television content.
Zoë is a consumer researcher and strategist in the tech industry who also serves as the editor of the VIEWS Luminaries column.
Kevin sits in a leather club chair. There’s a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf behind his right shoulder.
Zoë has a virtual Zoom background to create the illusion of having a bookshelf despite being in a small Brooklyn apartment.
Hi, Kevin, good morning. It’s great to meet you.
Great to meet you, too. Thanks for doing this.
My pleasure, I’m really excited about learning more about your unique career. Can you start off by telling me a little bit about your company?
I run a company called Screen Engine/ASI. We test between 60 to 70 percent of all movies that conduct early test previews in Hollywood, and the same for the pilots of series on broadcast, cable, and streaming services. We also test advertising materials and promos, and track movies and television shows both before they come out and once they’re released into the world.
I’ve also been enjoying reading your new book, Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love. Congratulations.
Thanks, I’m on my book tour right now, so it’s been intense. Simon & Schuster is the publisher. I’ve been running around doing all kinds of interviews, podcasts, and webinars.
I was lucky to get an advance copy. But for our readers who haven’t read it yet, I think it’d be great to share a little about your background and how you got into the movie business.
I actually was a child actor. When I was young, I made my living doing mostly theater and television commercials around the New York City area. When I came to California in 1986, my commercial residuals ran out, so I got a job with a market research company that tested movies. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but it sounded better than the other things that I did to survive, like catering and selling typewriter ribbons and working at an answering service. That was back in the days of beepers, remember those?
(Zoë nods, mature beyond her years for understanding the reference.)
What the company primarily did was screen prerelease movies, get consumer feedback, analyze the results, and then present it to the studio heads, producers, or directors to improve and better realize the movies. They almost always followed these screenings with a focus group.
I didn’t know anything about research, qualitative, or quantitative. At first, they had me doing some functionary jobs, and then plucked me out of the chorus, so to speak, to help with coordinating focus groups.
Within a couple of years, I began to moderate myself, and that was pretty exciting. I didn’t really know the art and science of what I was doing, so I did what I knew best, which was being an actor. From my acting training, I knew exactly how to uncover a character, which is very similar to what we all do in qualitative research, which is to peel back the onion and get to the heart of an issue.
I became a requested moderator by clients because I came from an artistic background and still view myself first and foremost as an artist. Beyond being a researcher, the artist reigns as the key voice or driver of who I am. That has served me well with clients, particularly with very temperamental directors and producers. When I say temperamental, I don’t mean it in a negative sense. They are justifiably very protective of their babies, and the world is judging their baby and may be saying, “your baby is not attractive.”
I think that regardless of the industry or the budget, researchers are always facing this challenge when they have to give constructive criticism to a marketer, brand manager, product manager, or whoever it is that is invested in their “baby.” What have you learned from your experiences delivering that type of feedback?
I have a theory that every movie, if made and marketed for the right price, should make money. If it’s a movie about dirt—seriously, about dirt—and there’s one website that will buy it for $500, if you make it for $400, you’ll make $100 profit. But if you’ve made it for $600, you’re going to lose $100.
So, we have measurements in my company that focus on how to assess the size of the audience prior to shooting a frame of film to ensure it’ll have the best chance to succeed. I illustrate this because we’ve found that there’s always an audience for something—always. It could be the most aberrant, crazy thing in the world. Another important point to always stress is that there’s somebody that’s going to like your idea. So, I always find something to like. I’ll talk to my client and say something like, “on the good side, they like XYZ. But we also heard that the biggest challenges are that you have a significant pacing problem and they’re losing engagement, or they are not liking the lead because they’re not investing in her emotional arc.”
I may suggest, “Do you have any close-ups that you can put in at X point, that may show the character’s vulnerability more intensely?” Then the process becomes more of an interactive and collaborative discussion as opposed to me saying, “You did this wrong; you did that wrong.” The other thing is, I’ve made a dozen movies myself, as a producer. I know the language of film, so I know the terminology with which to speak to them, which is different, and has a different effect, than if you are a strict by-the-numbers person or an outsider.
What has changed in the world of movie-making research since you started, and how has that impacted your business?
I’ve lived through three disruptive periods.
First was the home entertainment disruption, mostly due to VHS tapes. Many said it was going to be the end of the movie business, but it wasn’t.
Then the digital disruption was smart TVs and the proliferation of cable, a huge number of channels, and significant fragmentation starting to occur. But still, broadcasters had control over when and how their content was going to get into the hands of consumers.
But the last disruption and the most telling is the streaming disruption. That has changed moviegoing forever because something happened. The confluence of three things came together to form the perfect storm: price, convenience, and choice. It put the consumer in the driver’s seat 100 percent. Rather than telling them, “these three movies are opening this weekend, and you’re hopefully going to enjoy at least one of them” and everything staying controlled and monitored, consumers are like, well, if you’re not going to give me, say, Succession, and I have to wait every week, well, I’ll just watch this or that instead. They’re going to have it when they want it, or they’re going to look for something else, because there’s just so much out there.
(Zoë nods along, tempted to interject about her excitement over the return of Succession, but instead stays quiet.)
As the population grows, more people are actually going to movie theaters, but they’re seeing far, far fewer movies. So what has happened is a bifurcation of what I call the “haves” versus the “have nots.” The “haves” are the Marvel-type movies like Eternals, for example, which will still open to about $75 million, and event movies that people want to see in a theater. It could be even horror, like Halloween, but it’s certainly not these tweener movies or these small movies—those are the “have nots.”
So, how do you interpret the feedback you get from viewers about content when there’s the fundamental question of whether they’d even see it in a theater?
We now have very clear lines of questioning about “theater worthiness” versus not. It’s not an indictment on the movie if it’s more likely to be consumed at home, but just that that’s what folks would rather do. Most movies do not require you to leave your home to see them.
Is all your screening research still done in person in theaters? How did COVID impact your research?
When the pandemic stay-at-home orders hit, we invented a screening platform at home called Virtuworks. It’s a synchronous platform, so you’re actually watching people watching your movie—150 to 300 of them all at once.
There’s a questionnaire administered right afterward for everyone, and a focus group for a select number of respondents, so it really brings the screening into your living room. Some filmmakers are wowed, and others are appalled. But, in fact, if you think about it, more people are going to watch the movie in this venue right here—on our computers, or on a television, than will ever see it on a big screen even if it premieres in a movie theatre.
(Kevin gestures into the camera.)
A major filmmaker said to me the other day, “I’m intending to make my movie for the theater, for the big screen.
However, my favorite movie of all time is JAWS, and you know what? I’ve never seen it in a movie theater.”
Think about that, who under the age of 80 ever saw Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or Lawrence of Arabia in an actual theater?
I’ll say that the pandemic forced us to be creative, and the makers of streaming services in particular have said they don’t know if they’ll ever go back to a theater to test; why would we? This is how people are seeing our content. But some people still want that in-person experience.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the entertainment business has come more into the spotlight in recent years. I was curious if or how you see your role in this, as a major force of influence in the industry?
Extraordinary question. It’s somewhat of a complicated one, but let me just start by saying that I am very committed to my ten-point initiative I created for our company.
We now have 300 employees, and we are a proudly diverse company. The initiative is to promote things like blind hiring, mentorships and internships from historically Black colleges, and disenfranchised groups or groups that just don’t know about our field of market research.
We’re a very white field, and even QRCA membership looks to me to be far more female than male. So, how do you create the world of an organization and business category that looks more like the people that you’re serving?
I have a big quant shop as well as qual, and I think that we as an industry need to rethink demography as we know it because the simple act of current sampling promotes an institutional sexism, genderism, and racism by bucketing people into old ways of identification.
This has largely to do with the U.S. Census, which I think really needs to be turned on its ear. What if we thought of the U.S. population in terms of psychographic segmentations, and not by race or gender?
For example, I have a friend who is an 81-year-old straight, cis female living in a rural area, and I’m a gay, white, Jewish male who lives in a city, yet we come together in our sensibilities, and we often watch the same things on TV. But, given how we’re segmented and targeted traditionally for content, I might never see something that she might love, and she may never see something that I love, and that’s wrong on so many levels.
(Kevin’s phone rings and he excuses himself to answer, while on speaker phone. Kevin confirms his Friday night dinner reservation for five and then turns back to the camera. Zoë acts disinterested but secretly wonders if he is having dinner with anyone famous.)
I know you’ve been a QRCA member for a while now, so a last question to wrap up is, what made you join QRCA, and why do you continue to be a member?
I’m a member of many groups—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Producers Guild of America, SAG/AFTRA, and The Actors’ Equity Association—and I’m on five charitable boards.
I like the idea of strength in a common vision. I find some very bright people connected to the QRCA—people who help inspire me to try different techniques. I have an insatiable curiosity, and part of the success of my company is based on a lot of really curious people trying many different and new things.
I think qualitative researchers in particular have that innate ability to get beneath the surface and uncover those layers in a way that others can’t, and I want to be a part of that.
Well, the QRCA is glad to have you. Thank you again for doing this interview, and good luck with your book tour. Want to tell VIEWS readers how they can find your book?
Yes, it’s called Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, and it came out on the thirtieth of November through Simon & Schuster. You can order on Amazon or wherever books are sold. You could also go to my website at kevingoetz360.com
Great, well thanks again and best of luck with the book!
(Zoë and Kevin continue to smile and nod as they each cut off eye contact to locate the “leave meeting” button in the bottom right-hand corner of their respective Zoom windows.)