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Sex Appeal, Exotic Setting Equal Satisfied Moviegoers

A new study of factors that contribute to a film’s popularity suggests the sex appeal of stars outweighs identification with the lead character.
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What makes a movie appealing? Is it having a lead actor or actress you can identify with, or an opposite-sex lead you find romantically desirable?

Newly published research, which both refutes and confirms conventional wisdom, points strongly to the latter.

“Star power does play a relevant role in driving consumers’ evaluations,” Michela Addis of the University of Rome 3 and Morris Holbrook of Columbia University report in the journal Psychology & Marketing. “But this role seems to depend more on attraction than identification, at least with regard to actual age and gender.

“Indeed, stars’ emotional impacts on audiences, and their consequently high salaries, appear to derive from their power as romantic and sexually attractive models. Hence, star power … should be interpreted as romantic appeal.”

Addis and Holbrook’s study — which also suggests exotic settings add to a film’s appeal — uses information taken from the Internet Movie Database. A remarkably comprehensive film-centric reference source, IMDb has a feature in which its registered readers evaluate movies on a 10-point scale.

The professional version of the site groups those evaluations in terms of age and gender. This allowed the researchers to determine which films had particular appeal for, say, 18- to 29-year-old men, or women 45 and older. They matched this data with the ages of the movies’ stars and directors, and the eras in which the films were set.

To ensure they were comparing films of roughly equal quality, the researchers looked only at data for the 440 movies nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award from 1927 to 2003. Each was evaluated by an average of 11,475 viewers — a sizable sample.

Addis and Holbrook tested four propositions. Their working thesis was that moviegoers prefer films in which:

•  The same-sex lead is roughly their own age, making them easy to identify with.

•  The opposite-sex lead is younger than they are, making him or her more sexually desirable.

•  The director is older than they are, which implies they are in the hands of an experienced, veteran filmmaker.

•  The setting is exotic enough to allow for escapism — that is, the film is set in the distant past, the future or some mythological time and place.

The researchers found three of the four factors did indeed contribute to higher satisfaction scores on the consumer-rating scale. The surprising exception was the first proposition: They found no correlation between enjoyment of a film and age-related identification with the main character.

They speculate that this may be due to “a fantasizing process,” noting that moviegoers may relate to characters they see as “similar to their ideal selves — what they would like to be — rather than their actual selves. And if the ideal self differs from the actual self in age, viewers might identify with older or younger stars and characters.”

As anticipated, there was a correlation between quality ratings and younger opposite-sex stars. And escapism was a big plus: Filmgoers “appear to prefer unfamiliar settings found in escapist or fantasy-evoking motion pictures representing eras that they have never actually experienced.”

The researchers’ oddest finding: “The relationship that links directors’ ages and viewers’ evaluations is U-shaped, indicating that consumers favor films made by very young or very old directors.”

While that’s difficult to explain, it’s worth noting that the data is taken from a site that appeals to people in the industry and serious fans. It may be representative of moviegoers as a whole, but it may also reflect tastes that are at least somewhat more refined than average.

The researchers conclude with some marketing advice for the studios. Movie trailers and posters should be focused on scenes starring the opposite-gender leading star — that is, the leading actor if the film is targeted to female audiences, or the leading actress if the movie appeals primarily to men,” they write.

They concede this “might lead to overemphasizing their respective roles” (a sleight-of-hand trick film studios have never been reluctant to engage in). But their findings suggest the stars’ sexual appeal is a major driver of audience satisfaction and presumably a signal people use when considering what movies to see.

This suggests Eat Pray Love might have been a bigger hit if Javier Bardem had occupied a prominent place on the posters, alongside star Julia Roberts. Eating and praying are fine, but when it comes to cinematic satisfaction, you can’t underestimate love.