Long Before Donald Trump Surprised, Hollywood Values Consultant Marshall Mitchell Saw It Coming

Michael Cieply
Deadline

Netflix apparently didn’t see it coming, the Donald Trump victory. The streaming company wrapped Wednesday morning’s print edition of the New York Times with a four-page advertisement for its series The Crown, built around a message of female empowerment that seemed to welcome a Hillary Clinton presidency. “We have a new leader: Let us give her a celebration that is befitting the wind of change,” it said.

But Marshall Mitchell, a values-oriented Hollywood audience consultant with Wit PR, and a pastor at Jenkintown, PA’s largely black Salem Baptist Church, caught something in the wind at least six months ago. Over drinks at the Hollywood & Highland center in May, Mitchell let slip he was seeing a surprising receptivity to Trump and his message among the heartland types with whom he and his partner Corby Pons do much of their work on films like Warner Bros’ Sully and Fox’s upcoming Hidden Figures.

Speaking by telephone on Wednesday, shortly after Clinton’s concession speech, Mitchell elaborated.

“I am not particularly surprised” by the Trump triumph, said Mitchell. “It began to be evident to me and some people in my circle, Corby and others, as we spent time with audiences in Harrisburg, outside Philadelphia, and in forgotten parts of Pennsylvania, places very far removed from the Upper West Side” of New York, he said.

In screenings and small focus groups, Mitchell explained, large numbers of viewers months ago were talking of Trump not as a primary election candidate, but as an expression of something they found missing both in their political lives and in many of the films and television shows they were watching.

The viewers with whom he spoke were mostly blue-collar or lower-rung white-collar workers. About 80% of them, Mitchell reckoned, were white. In the simplest terms, he said, many “wanted someone to be the hero,” and they expressed a willingness to embrace a less-than-perfect Donald Trump in that role.

A pervasive feeling in those groups, said Mitchell, was that “America has seen its best days.” Yet he also found the viewers to be surprisingly optimistic. “They seemed to believe that the best days can still be restored.”

If that mood, as Mitchell suspected, ultimately helped Trump, it also carries some messages for those who make and sell movies and television programs. One of those lessons he said, is obvious. “They still want aspirational content, they still want stories that end on a high note,” said Mitchell.

But a slightly subtler theme emerged from those interviews last spring and summer. “The audience was telling us of their desire to not have the same stories told over and over again, the same film with a different paint job,” said Mitchell. Instead, viewers are looking for something that surprises—like the rule-breaking Trump, or perhaps a movie equivalent of the same.

A more specific surprise, said Mitchell, was the discovery of Hispanic males who voiced support for Trump, notwithstanding his tough views on illegal immigration. Many Hispanic men, said Mitchell, seemed to view him like a character from one of their favorite television shows, The Family Guy — that is, as a bawdy, outrageous but ultimately acceptable fellow male.

Going forward, said Mitchell, Hollywood marketers should simply listen more closely to what the viewers are saying. “The audience wants to own a story, to allow it to become their own,” he explained.

“Sometimes the studios resist the audience.”

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