In 1939, millions of Americans were eagerly awaiting the movie version of Gone With the Wind. Fifty-six million, five hundred thousand to be exact, give or take a fan. That was the figure given in a Gallup poll and seized on by David O. Selznick as the producer negotiated exhibition terms for the film’s first release and subsequent runs. As astounding as the number was, it had the backing of the brand name in American polling. The film industry paid attention.
George Gallup’s polling marked the film industry’s first full-scale effort at empirical market research, says Susan Ohmer, an assistant professor of modern communication at the University of Notre Dame and author of George Gallup in Hollywood (Columbia University Press). It promised to surpass what could be gleaned from fan mail, industry journalism, or even the personal observations of moguls, such as Adolph Zukor, who liked to sit in theaters and turn around to stare at filmgoers.
Before discussing Gallup’s creation of the Audience Research Institute, Ms. Ohmer sets the stage by detailing his master’s and doctoral research in psychology at the University of Iowa, his advertising work, and the polling that would make him a household name with the presidential election of 1936.
By the start of the ARI, the pollster had already begun sprinkling questions about stars and frequency of filmgoing in polls about Roosevelt and political issues. As Ms. Ohmer shows, he was building the first demographic picture of the American film audience. She also details initial polls he conducted on the popularity of single versus double features and on color filmmaking.
Eventually Gallup won an exclusive contract with RKO Pictures to test the popularity of actors, proposed story lines, and even titles. His chief colleague was David Ogilvy, later one of the most famous advertising men in America. Until he left the ARI in late 42, the British-born Ogilvy was the often acerbic voice of Gallup results for RKO, allowing his preferences to color the numbers. For example, while the pollsters identified lower-income filmgoers as a boon to the industry, Ogilvy could be dismissive of those same audiences, referring to “nether segments” who loved Abbott and Costello, and “proletarian admirers” of George Raft.
Ms. Ohmer goes on to describe Gallup’s work with two independent producers, Selznick and Walt Disney, and also details the views of critics of Hollywood market research who charged that surveys stifled innovation. Filmmaking had become “a sterile, glutted and intractable thing,” one fumed. However, Gallup’s approach would endure, even as the pollster’s reputation was clouded by a stunningly wrong prediction in politicsDewey over Truman in 1948.