There's an interesting survey out this week that demonstrates how gossip influences human behaviour. Boffins (or possibly eggheads) at the German Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology have spent large amounts of time and public money showing that humans give an extraordinary amount of credence to word-of-mouth references.
The methodology involved a prolonged game of cards between 126 students and will delight those who think academia has become frivolous nonsense and that researchers should get back to studying Latin iambic pentameter. But the research adds to growing evidence of the importance of word of mouth to marketing and offers interesting implications for film.
The customer seems increasingly interested in the views of peers, even if some of those peers need the help of family pets to put their trousers on in the morning. A study last month from a number of US universities on WOM (afraid so) marketing fleshes out the idea by saying that consumer behaviour varies between established and lesser-known products. For the former, a word in the ear from a mate in the pub will be highly influential, whereas for the latter, people are more likely to be convinced by the views of experts.
Every summer it feels that even the most vitriolic condemnation of a blockbuster by the best-established critic won't necessarily turn customers away. A text message from a classmate is probably more influential than columnists who could once kill a movie with an acerbic line. Yet for arthouse or non-native language film, you're not going to take the word of anyone who doesn't know a bit about the subject.
It may seem obvious but there's a reason why understanding gossip has been elevated into a science. The bottom line is that the modern world has conjured up dozens of new ways for us to communicate, and social networks are beginning to bypass traditional media messages.
Bottom-up rather than top-down influence is scary stuff because it's so much more difficult to control. Trying to bluff social networks is proving much harder than it seems because the public has a nose for a fake.
The notion that in a pervasive media world, the customer is king is a conference cliche that is rarely followed by much explanation of what this means to the film business. There's a fair bit of energy expended on finding ways to hide marketing so it feels like word of mouth, but not as much on trying to envisage a world in which customer taste can effectively enhance decisions.
To an extent, that's a good thing. Matching film to what customers think they want is a recipe for mediocrity that will drive customers away. If you can see the bandwagon, it's already too late to get on board. But that's a bit of a cop out.
The democratisation of cinema was a big theme a few years ago. It was even posited as a world-turned-upside-down in which the gap between customer and film-maker would blur and then disappear.
After a few drinks, it's possible to get a few indie film-makers to admit they are thoroughly in favour of broadening the base of film-making right up to the point when their project is greenlit or the studios come in with the big bucks. Then it's a case of 'Lord give me democratisation, but not just yet'.
On the other hand, research into how customers think and behave is worth listening to. It's not a big issue for blockbusters but it's certainly the case for those aiming to reach specialist audiences. If the aim of independent film over the next few years is to broaden reach on whatever platform customers choose, then there are tools available.
The traditional critic remains strong in specialist fields but there are now social networks and other new-media means to increase direct dialogue and maybe test ideas. Knowing how customers think does not compromise artistic vision, but trying to make a film by opinion poll does.