What Google’s New Study Tells Us About Why People Go to the Movies


Nobody likes feeling irrelevant, and when steering people towards good movies and away from bad ones is part of how you make a living, it’s more than a little dispiriting when it seems no one’s listening. But if the grosses for Trans4mers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 weren’t enough, now here’s this: Google conducted a study, analyzing nearly two years of search data, to determine what makes frequent moviegoers choose which movies they’ll see. As you may have guessed, the carefully composed missives of yours truly (and my critical brethren) don’t really figure into the equation. But frankly, neither do filmmakers, actors, or even word-of-mouth. No, the biggest influencer is the movie trailer (which might help explain why there’s six or seven of them before every feature nowadays).

The study, which Google conducted with Millward Brown Digital, was focused on “how moviegoers research and choose the films they watch.” Unsurprisingly, they’re trumpeting the prominence of Google-owned YouTube, noting that four out of five moviegoers “use video sites to look for more information about a film” (well, duh). Thirty-nine percent report the official movie trailer influences their decision most — a factor more than three times as important as the runner-up, “information on the cast” (11 percent). “A friend’s opinion” is third (with eight percent). Reviews are somewhere below that, perhaps right around “Ugh, it’s what he wanted to see” and “Hunger Games was sold out.”

Now, the wording of this statistic should be carefully parsed, as that 39 percent figure is apparently a portion of the already narrowed-down demo of “moviegoers who use video sites to look for more information about a film.” But it’s still pretty staggering — or is it? In the pre-Internet age, trailers really were just a pre-feature advertising tool (with occasional exceptions), but once web connections got fast enough for downloads, the Internet became their chief delivery system; the much-anticipated and much-desired trailer for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace marked a turning point, with 450 users per second trying to download it, for an eventual, record-breaking total of 3.5 million hits. And thus, trailer culture was born, giving birth to such ridiculous accoutrements as trailer reaction videos, trailer podcasts, and official teasers for trailers (in essence, 30-second commercials for a commercial). Breathless play-by-plays of newly-released trailers are one thing (and, yes, guilty as charged), but your film editor recently saw a movie blog post an item quoting another movie blog’s item in which someone merely describes the next Star Wars teaser (this is the point where, as a rational culture, we should just burn down the Movie Internet).

In other words, trailers have become as much an event as the movies they’re promoting — sometimes more so, as a trailer only has to promise endless thrills and non-stop laughs and effortless cool, and a movie actually has to deliver it. The complaints about movie trailers are numerous: they give too much of the plot away, they show all the good parts, they tell all the good jokes, they show stuff the movie doesn’t even include, they’re totally different from the movie they’re selling. But that hasn’t put a dent in how they’re perceived — if anything, quite the opposite. Informed moviegoers devour trailers, the Google study tells us, and act accordingly.

Of course, trailers aren’t the only element that comes into play. The Google study broke filmgoers down by genre preference, with some interesting (and, frankly, hilarious) results. They report 70 percent of moviegoers “consider more than one movie before deciding which one to see.” Those who like drama care most about plot; comedy fans focus on the cast; action lovers are interested in the director. Horror fans are most concerned with (I’m not making this up) “convenient showtimes,” a statistic from which you can draw your own conclusions w/r/t/ discriminating taste (“Ouija’s playin’ in ten minutes? OK, sure”).

And it seems that the only demo with any concern whatsoever for “positive reviews” is the family market — and that element should probably come with a big ol’ asterisk next to it, since parents may well cull reviews less for critical commentary and recommendation than for assurance that their little ones aren’t going to accidentally see a dick joke or hear the fuck-word.

The Google study tells us little that we didn’t already know, but puts it in bold type: reviews don’t matter, and word-of-mouth, movie stars, and plot matter only a little more than that. What’s driving movie-going decisions — and thus, driving movie-making decisions — is marketing and hype. It’s about what can be sold, and sold most easily, and that might tell us all we need to know about why every movie they’re selling you is something you’ve already heard of.