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"Target groups": Blessing or curse for the writer and audience?

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Posted 4th August 2009 at 10:05 AM by Peter Neal
Updated 4th August 2009 at 10:23 AM by Peter Neal

Watching and reviewing 1982's "Poltergeist" some months ago got me really thinking again about how much the present fixation on "target groups" has drastically changed the kind of (movie) entertainment we're served in the present day.
Whereas the 70's/80's blockbusters (particularly the Spielberg- and Lucas supervised and influenced ones) went to high lengths to furnish stories, which would appeal to and satisfy the entertainment needs of a whole "average family", modern mainstream movies- no matter of their budget- seem to get tailor made only for "exclusive" portions of the audience, depending on age, sex, taste in music or fashion and (rather cynically) education.
When did (predominantly American) filmmakers loose their faith in movies, which work for varying groups of audiences?
It can't just be yet some more testament to increased family split ups and single parent households....or can it? I guess only a studio accountant could answer that one.
I don't know, I can only say- from a writing pov- a movie like "Poltergeist" seemed like high and smart art from a 2009 perspective, as broader appeal only truly works when it's not too obviously/clumsily done nor results in a flavourless mish-mash of different halfhearted elements, which contradict each other.
I guess, as a horror fan, we probably shouldn't complain too loud about the modern "target group" thinking, as it's very much responsible for Hollywood's continuing support of "strong horror"- until of course the interest diminishes to late 80's/early 90's levels from a mainstream studio exec's perspective.
On the other hand, the "target group" thinking has ruined pretty much the idea of a cosy saturday evening at the movies for the whole family, as the dominating big budget comic book adaptions, scifi- and fantasy franchises are more interested in catering to the sensibilities of hardened fanboys, who take their (trivial) myths so seriously, that there's no more room left for a bit of irony to lighten up the sillyness (for some, like me) of it fact, looking at modern big budget actionfests of today, you're almost convinced to believe that at least 85% of today's cinema going public must consist of single males way under thirty, who don't have to worry about taking their wife and kids to the movies because they've never mentally left their adolescent obsessions about dwarfs, elves and men & women in funny costumes in the first place.
Anyway, where was I?
Looking at recent movies- no matter how good or bad actually- you can't shake off the impression that the notion of a potential target group is (or HAS TO BE) taken already into consideration before our poor chap, the writer, has put the first word of his synopsis down on paper. In these days, it's not enough that you have an interesting or unique story to tell. You've also got precisely to know for WHOM you want to tell it.
This seems to be compromising and liberating at the same time:
For one, selecting between all the details and ideas for your story going around in your head should be much easier when you know that the audience of your desire consists of younger school kids, adolescents, twens, middle aged men or women, the arthouse catch my drift.
Simultanously it might also kill off some otherwise interesting options, because your target audience supposedly "doesn't like this or that" and might rather go for "that other" option you feel slightly uncomfortable with, but it just seems to float the boat of that particular (age) group in this moment of time.
Don't get me wrong: The last thing I personally believe in is the whole "autheur" thing when it comes to movies, since I regard the whole notion of a filmmaker making a film only for himself and a very exclusive circle of admirers and critcs as somewhat missing the point, as films are meant to be seen by audiences and of course, it doesn't hurt to take their reactions into consideration.
BUT the current mainstream love affair with the "target group" thinking will ultimately mean- from my pov- fewer classic movies (mainstream and otherwise), which'll stay in the collective memory of whole generations.
Experiencing them TOGETHER- with parents, older/younger brothers and sisters etc is what made them last for us from back then to eternity, but...
Where are the "Jaws", "Godfathers", "Gremlins", (original!) "Star Wars" and "Terminator", hell...even "Ghostbusters" (!) of the last ten years, films which almost everybody seems to know and can quote (more or less correctly) a line from?

Call me blind but I just can't see them...
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