Peter Bart: As U.S. Demographics Evolve, The Question Isn’t Where Is Hollywood’s Audience, But Who

Peter Bart: As U.S. Demographics Evolve, The Question Isn’t Where Is Hollywood’s Audience, But Who

Autumn’s here, so box office gurus understandably are asking, “Where is our audience?” It’s a question also being asked by Netflix, which saw its new subscribers shrink to 5.5 million in the first half of 2021, down from 25.9 million in the same period a year ago.

“The real question is ‘who is our audience?’ — not ‘where,’” advises one studio analyst. “The nation is changing, and we’re not reacting.”

Really? Each week brings revised breakdowns of census data, which together suggest this conclusion: Americans are looking at themselves from a different perspective, with white America morphing into a new Omni America.

Consider the following: The number of people who identify as multi-racial more than tripled between the 2010 and 2020 census reports. Interracial marriages jumped by 50% over 50 years. Racial minorities now make up a majority of the under-18 population.

A generation ago, Hollywood aimed many of its films at specific audience sectors – teens, post-55s, Blacks, Hispanics, etc. Today these sectors seem to be intersecting. In 2010, a slight majority of Hispanics identified themselves as white, for example, but today most Hispanics answered “two or more races” to census takers.

The takeaway: For the first time, the number of non-Hispanic white people has declined, falling by 2.6% to 57.8% of the population. Whites skew older (median age 44 compared with 35 for African Americans) and have fewer babies — hence domination in the teen category.

To be sure, some ultra-right politicians dispute much of this data. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Judis insists that “America’s white population not only didn’t shrink between 2010 and 2020 but might actually have grown.”

Arguably, this revisionist analysis stems from the Trumpist panic over the growing clout of the minority vote, albeit an Omni minority. Both right and left are eager to gerrymander districts to exploit these phenomena. The doubts were sufficient to trigger a study by the American Statistical Association, released last week, affirming the accuracy of the census data.

If controversy surrounds the Hispanic count, Asian diversity also is being contested. “More than a quarter of all mixed-race people in the U.S. are Asian,” according to a study in The New York Times. Further, they reach across the U.S., not just in California.

While Hollywood has not paid rapt attention to Asian filmgoers, the $83.5 million first-weekend gross from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a Marvel film, caught its attention. Will there be a sequel? China’s antipathy to the film, and its cast, might cloud its franchise possibilities.

Marvel already had propelled the diversity of the superhero universe with Black Panther. Actors of color now account for nearly 40% of the leads in top films, according to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. Still no performances of color managed to win an Emmy on Sunday – an anomaly, Emmy analysts argue.

While the Hollywood studios reflect ambiguity about coping with the new Omni-American audience, Netflix is stepping up its marketing spend and unleashing its first global fan event, Tudun, on Saturday. It will showcase three hours of coming attractions including glimpses of such hit shows as Bridgerton, Stranger Things and Ozark.

Stock traders will welcome these sizzle reels: Disney shares jumped 13% after its December pep rally, the sort of hype that could help Netflix. Still, shares dropped sharply last week after its CEO warned that Disney, too, faced a decline in subscriber growth.

“User growth trajectory is a key driver of stock performance,” a Goldman Sachs analyst reiterated. The Hollywood studios would relish some “growth trajectory” in their changing audience, but each sector has its problems. Consumer studies indicate a significant reluctance among females over 35 to return to the box office, irrespective of racial or ethnic background. Some 83% of male teens were ready to buy a ticket to A Quiet Place Part II, vastly more than women.

Movies need their female audience. They also need their Omni audience – and their Omni campaigns.

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