Young Audiences (part 1): Hollywood, Classical Music, and the costs of Social Justice

In my previous post I talked about the minuscule returns that live audience ticket revenue gives for the total operating budget of movies. I’m going to divide this post into two parts as the first has gotten rather lengthy.

In this post I’ve summarized some of the things I brought up in the previous one, “Live audiences for Movies matter less than for Classical Music.” Then I’ll take a look at how and why Hollywood studios focus on the live audience demographic that it does and relate that to what seems to be a “holy grail” for Classical Music Crisis folks: the mythical younger audience. I’ll look at audience-creation that has become the primary marketing model for contemporary Hollywood studios after the precipitous decline in regular weekly movie-goers and how that relates to single-ticket marketing that’s becoming more prominent in the Classical Music field. The post ends with a discussion of the social costs that accompany some of this marketing strategy and its focus on younger audiences and how that relates to a lack of critical inquiry/reflection in the push to bring Classical Music into a “wider and more contemporary culture” (setting aside what’s problematic about saying that the field doesn’t already exist in it).

The next post will discuss the economic costs of marketing to younger audiences and how some of these strategies have actually been implemented in the Classical Music world as well as address how these kinds of marketing strategies require a hefty subsidy (via the musician’s time) which likely can’t be scalable in any appreciable degree without a further cost of hiring a dedicated marketer (who is not a performer) that’s inevitable once an organization moves out of part-time to full-time status or grows in size.

Summary of “Live audiences for Movies matter less than for Classical Music”

I finished Edward Jay Epstein’s “The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies” not long after I wrote the previous post, and scattered throughout is information on how Hollywood films spend an average of $35.9 million (in 2007) in advertising each of their films (pg. 54). As Epstein says

Studios justified this expenditure on the grounds that huge opening-weekend audiences would help turn a movie into an “event,” generating word-of-mouth and other free advertising that would continue to bring moviegoers into theaters, and, later, into video stores. Titanic, for example, took in only a modest $28 million over its opening weekend. Two weeks later, after it had become a word-of-mouth event, the movie had earned $149 million. It would end up grossing a phenomenal $600 million at American theaters. While no other film has equaled the success of Titanic, such “event” films are what studios depend upon to pay the bills. (pg. 54)

Recall from my previous post that Epstein states that practically every Hollywood film starts in the red even after box office receipts are in due to the P&A, production costs, and distribution costs. When ticket revenue only amounts to 10% of total revenue (sometimes up to 20% when global receipts are added in) it’s not too difficult to see that financing films in Hollywood relies on something other than the live audience which it had relied on prior to 1948 when the total cost of films was paid for by box office receipts.

That revenue gap is made up by licensing (to Television, Cable-TV, Digital media) and merchandising deals (DVDs, video rental, tie-in deals with other corporations such as McDonald’s and Coke Cola). Television (which I’ve discussed here as also seeing significant changes and declining audiences) and now digital media are crucial for advertising because of that fleeting 18-49 demographic which networks so covet.

The main audience Hollywood studios targets through those ads are male teens. As Epstein continues

What terrifies top studio executives now is the dearth of word-of-mouth movies. “Word of mouth is no longer a factor,” Thomas McGrath, a former Paramount vice president explained. Instead, studio marketing chiefs try for big opening numbers by driving with a drumbeat of TV ads the one audience they can rely on: male teens. While with $36 million of ads they can still manufacture weekend teen audiences they can rely on, they can no longer create the event movies that the studios need. (pg. 55)

And even then, with changing habits that we’re seeing happen in all forms of popular entertainment, that might not be enough

Meanwhile, a quantum leap in quality in high-definition DVDs, television sets, and digital recorders threatens to further erode the edge movie theaters have over home entertainment. Studio executives are coming to grip with the reality that they have as much chance of reversing the secular shift of audiences from the theater to the home as King Canute had in commanding the tide to recede. (pg. 55)

As I mentioned in the previous post we’ve seen weekly live film audiences decline, in absolute numbers, to roughly 25% of what we had in 1948, this is an even greater decline, proportionally speaking, since the US population has more than doubled since 1950.

Audience Creation is expensive

Since the decline of weekly film audiences, Hollywood has adapted to this audience-creation model, hence the average $35.9 million budget for advertising. This is a “skill that movie executives have honed over the years” (pg. 55) and “[e]ven if it takes $30 to 50 million to herd teens to the multiplexes, and the movie fails to earn back that outlay, they hope it will lead to a future franchise” (pg. 55)

If some of this sounds familiar to those following the trends in Classical Music audiences, that’s because it is analogous to the difference between subscribing ticket buyers and single-ticket buyers.  Classical Music subscribers are declining which quote offset by and increase of single-ticket buyers. The subscribers are functionally equivalent to the weekly movie audiences (prior to the 50s) while the single-ticket buyers are functionally equivalent to the teens that movie studios have been spending such an inordinate amount of advertising and marketing for recently.

By most accounts, we understand that single-ticket marketing is much more expensive than subscription marketing in Classical Music. The Hollywood Movie Industry shows us how expensive that can be even with a product that benefits from economy of scale in ways that most live Classical Music concerts can’t. Of course, what I discussed in the linked Economies of Scale and Orchestras post regarding live-casting may not be enough for most large performing organizations due to the decline in audiences for cinema and broadcast media. Regardless, even if it were possible to create a scalable product, as we see from the film Industry, the big budget productions with big budget marketing is a tiny proportion of the revenue from the live ticket paying audience. By increasing the marketing budget for single-ticket marketing strategies, there will be an even smaller return for a product (i.e. live Classical Music concert) that isn’t scalable.

This, however, doesn’t mean that single-ticket marketing couldn’t be useful for smaller organizations. Since one of the many themes explored at this blog is how Classical Music Crisis talk usually only references unrepresentative samples (e.g. SOBs – Symphonies, Opera Companies, and Ballet Companies) of the field as a whole, it would make sense that large segments of the Classical Music market could benefit from single-ticket marketing in ways that the large organizations can’t.

The social costs of marketing to younger audiences

As Epstein discusses, the teen (especially male) audience is the segment that requires big marketing budgets. One of the running themes of the Classical Music Crisis is the call to “develop a new, excited young audience.” Let’s set aside what’s problematic about the implication that only young people can be a new and excited audience, or that a new audience needs to be visually and vocally excited to matter, because obviously Hollywood studios are actually marketing to the young crowd (which by definition is new because of the attrition rate simply due to the fact that none of us will stay a teenager forever).

The studios zero in on teens not because they necessarily like them, or even because the teens buy buckets of popcorn, but because they are the only demographic group that can be easily motivated to leave their home. Even though lassoing this teen herd is enormously expensive–over $30 million a film–studios profit from the fact that this young audience is also the coin of the realm for merchandisers such as McDonald’s, Domino’s, and Pepsi. (pg. 84)

The quote above is from Epstein’s section, “The Starlet’s Dilemma,” which discusses some of the sexism which has risen along with the focus on (especially) teen male audiences.

The opportunities for a pretty starlet in the romantic comedies, horror films, and the amusement-park films that are made for the Clearasil crowd tend to dry up when they hit thirty, one of Hollywood’s most insightful producers told me. They have to start acting “as opposed to simply gracing the screen with their gorgeous presence and many of those starlets are just no equipped for this second step.” (pg. 82)

As Epstein notes, quoting Martha Plimpton (from Rosanna Arquette’s documentary, Searching for Debra Winger)

As Martha Plimpton explains about casting, “It’s either, she’s a starlet or she’s an old hag.” Such ageism proceeds not from malice, ignorance, or disdain for the performers on the part of studio executives, but from their business model. (pg. 83)

and that

The studios […] try to cast the sort of babe-actresses that their crucial audience can relate to, if not fantasize about. Adrienne Shelley, the star of The Unbelievable Truth, for example, described her casting experience this way: “I get a call in my car on the way to an audition from the agent. He said, ‘What is really important is that they think you are fuckable.'” (pg. 85)

Sexism and the accompanying ageism seem to be coming to the fore in Classical Music if comments like this, the Dvořák Twerking Video, and the Yuja Wang controversy (amongst many other incidents which have been getting a healthy amount of press and blog posts lately) are any indication. In a field (at least here in the US) where blind auditions were instituted to help equalize participation in large scale Classical Music organizations by women, this almost seems like a throwback.

This quote from Anne Midgette’s piece (linked in the previous paragraph) highlights the parallel to what’s happening in Hollywood culture

Yes, the dress is short, tight, and revealing. But in the real world — the world outside classical music’s still-prurient bubble — this is not unusual attire for a young rising starlet in the public eye. For the sake of comparison — or education — go to the blog Tom and Lorenzo to observe what other young women about Yuja Wang’s age wore at a Hollywood event that took place a few days after Wang’s concert. You can criticize these women for their fashion choices; you can like or dislike what they’re wearing; but these dresses and shoes are not inherently shocking — let alone a cause for restricting admission to those under 18. (Some of the women may be under 18 themselves.) Yuja Wang is simply working with designers, the way that other attractive stars her age do — and the way that plenty of opera divas always have, from Renee Fleming’s specially-designed gowns by John Galliano, Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld for her Metropolitan Opera opening in 2008 to Anna Netrebko’s sometimes more unfortunate but often equally revealing options. This field should at least recognize this, rather than drawing up our skirts in horror as if she’s doing something patently unusual.

“[T]his is not unusual attire for a young rising starlet in the public eye” and “Yuja Wang is simply working with designers, the way that other attractive stars her age do” and the culture behind cultivating the female image in Hollywood has implications for the how women are treated in that industry. We don’t question enough why the world outside Classical Music’s “music’s still-prurient bubble” is functioning that way and the social costs that culture may entail for women.

I don’t want to turn this post into a intersectional feminist social justice rant, but we should also recognize that popular entertainment of all forms help to promote oppressive environments and to propagate stereotypes for People of Color, the LGBTQ[A] community, and the Disabled.

Epstein discusses the latter in his section titled, “Why Do Most New Movie Theaters Have Fewer Than 300 Seats?” After a brief history of the shrinkage of screens and the loss of union workers due to the advent of less cumbersome technology which could be run by non-specialists, Epstein states that:

What greatly contributed to the shrinking of the multiplex auditoria, or “screens,” was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. This act requires that new or renovated public theaters with more than 299 seats provide wheelchair access to all rows. Providing such access requires up to one-third more space for the necessary ramps–space that cannot be filled with revenue generating seats. To avoid this problem, multiplex owners divided their space into smaller theaters with a maximum of 299 seats.

Scott Jordan Harris shows whats problematic about able-bodied actors portraying disabled roles (after a discussion about similar issues regarding portraying People of Color by white actors).

Just as non-white roles were once prized by white actors looking to show off their range, disabled roles are similarly prized by able-bodied actors today. A hundred articles and a thousand jokes have been written about how pretending to be disabled is a shortcut to an Oscar. For Hollywood stars, imitating disabled people in an effort to make able-bodied audiences think “Wow! I really believed he was one of them!” is a route to legitimacy as a serious actor.

While some of these issues do already exist in the “older” Classical Music world, the new improved Classical Music world, which focuses on a “new excited, young audience” may actually be a step back in social justice issues in the Classical Music field. What’s ironic is that in this new Classical Music world, where the younger population seems to be concerned with social justice and human rights, we find that despite being more tolerant and diverse as a group, they also tend to be the relatively blind to systematic oppression.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the social costs of bringing Classical Music into the “Wider and Contemporary World” aren’t critically questioned because many of those involved in it just might not be able to see what’s problematic about that Wider and Contemporary World.



*photo credits: Camera Lucida logo. Originally taken by Rachel Miner

Camera Lucida is an interactive projection, electronics, and cello project based in the Greater Louisville Metro area.

Camera Lucida is:

  • Roxell Karr – video, film, electronics, music
  • Jon Silpayamanant – cello, vocals, found instruments, electronics
Camera Lucida and Blue Moves Modern Dance Company performing at the Centennial Black Box Theater in Nashville, Tennessee. March 16, 2014. Still from video.
Camera Lucida and Blue Moves Modern Dance Company performing at the Centennial Black Box Theater in Nashville, Tennessee. March 16, 2014. Still from video.


  1. Excellent and edifying post! The only thing that wasn’t quite clear for me was this: “While some of these issues do already exist in the “older” Classical Music world, the new improved Classical Music world, which focuses on a “new excited, young audience” may actually be a step back in social justice issues in the Classical Music field.” I would be interested in a further exploration of this point.


    • I’ve posted about some of the social justice issues in Classical Music a few years ago here. I should probably do a post dedicated specifically to that and how the old and the new Classical Music cultures deal with it.

      I think what’s most ironic is how, as I said, this younger generation (as Sandow and Sachon and others have mentioned) are supposedly concerned about Social Justice issues and want organizations they patronize to be more outspoken about them in general, yet fail to see how the broader and wider popular culture might just be worse off. The recent Gamergate and rape/death threats to women in the Gaming Industry (plus the examples I mentioned in the Film Industry above), and the rampant cultural appropriation/exploitation we find in Popular Music, for example, seem to show us that folks advocating bringing Video Game and Movie Scores, and Pops Concerts aren’t particularly well thought out (if Social Justice is really such a big issue) by folks advocating opening up CM to that wider and contemporary culture.

      The populism implied by those viewpoints just seems a little bit disingenuous to me, if not downright hypocritical.


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