ANALYSIS: Corporate Case Study - PR prowess makes Landmark astandout indie theater

The films it shows do not have multimillion PR budgets, but Landmark. Theatres more than makes up for that by devising some of the most creative publicity campaigns in the industry.

The films it shows do not have multimillion PR budgets, but Landmark. Theatres more than makes up for that by devising some of the most creative publicity campaigns in the industry.

The independent, foreign, and classic movies that Landmark Theatres - the nation's largest art-house chain - projects onto its 175 screens in 54 theaters in 13 states don't have the multimillion-dollar publicity budgets Hollywood blockbusters do, so the company relies heavily on PR.

In fact, it's odd that Landmark, whose roots go back to 1974, does publicity at all; usually that's the distributor's job. But the LA-based outfit's history is so steeped in do-it-yourselfness, that it has built an in-house advertising and publicity department that works with film companies to spread the word about the out-of-the-mainstream pictures it shows, such as Kandahar and Nine Queens.

Landmark's promotional operation is so impressive that The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece this past May spotlighting it. The article focused on Landmark's work with distributor USA Films for Monsoon Wedding, which has made over $10.5 million in the US, making it the highest-grossing South Asian film ever. In the piece, Jack Foley, president of distribution at USA Films, credited Landmark's work for the movie's success. "I think Landmark's beauty is knowing how to do grassroots campaigns, he said.

Patti Greaney, producer of another small film, Dinner Rush, was quoted as saying, "They became our prime marketer. People in Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and other smaller metropolitan cities never would have seen the film if it weren't for Landmark."

Reconstructing Landmark

For the past year, Landmark has been rebuilding itself, including its marketing department, at it simultaneously continues to spread out nationally from its West Coast roots. In 1998, when Landmark was bought by discount theater operator Silver Cinemas International, two important executives left, and its marketing budget took a big hit. Things began to look up again last year when Oaktree Capital bought Silver, and in May 2001, when Paul Richardson returned as president and CEO, and Bert Manzari as EVP, film buyer.

Richardson then hired Ray Price as VP of marketing, who in turn brought in Marina Bailey as director of national publicity. Bailey has had an impressive career in film PR since the mid-1980s, including stints as VP of publicity and promotion at Orion Pictures/Classics and Lions Gate Entertainment/Trimark Pictures.

Price has been in the business for 30 years. He ran two theater circuits that were bought by Landmark, then established three distribution companies, and was president of Francis Ford Coppola's production company. He returned to exhibiting when he joined Landmark in August 2001.

Landmark has about 40 people who work in publicity and promotion, including those across the country. Much of the PR work is done on the local level. Each market has a "market leader responsible for working with the distributors and for creating and implementing campaigns. San Francisco has one such leader for all 10 Landmark venues there, but in smaller cities all the publicity work may be done by the theater manager.

"They're not theater managers in the general sense of the word," explains Price. "They're much more skilled, and take much more responsibility for what goes on. That's the general difference between us and a commercial circuit."

Promotion prioritized

Price says the local market leaders will bat around ideas, usually via e-mail, for promoting an upcoming film. Landmark often works with PR firms hired by the film companies, but rarely hires any itself, says Bailey.

An exception was in December, when Donna Daniels PR helped with the opening of its first New York theater, Sunshine Cinema. Each year, Landmark identifies several "project films that get "prioritized attention in the company, says Price.

That extra push will often include PR stunts such as featuring Indian dancers at the opening of Monsoon Wedding, and decorating a post outside as a palm tree and a concession stand as a car for the Mexican road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. Others have included live strippers for The Full Monty and cooking demos for Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.

The stunts do get media coverage, Bailey says, though not usually in big markets like New York and LA. Equally as important, Price believes the stunts are crucial in creating a more welcoming context for the movies.

Art films often test badly, he says, because the context is usually one that says: This is a serious film best taken with a spoonful of sugar.

The fun atmosphere makes for a more enjoyable experience, and helps get the word spread around. "They have to be told it's okay to like this," Price says. He adds that the stunts "are also at the small end of the things we try to do. Clearly, you look to get the cover of the Sunday paper. You try with the electronic media. When you've done all that, you take a truckload of flyers and a stapler and go all over town."

Landmark engages in several important promotional activities. It has started handing out themed CD compilations, called Landmark Music, which it will produce about every two months. (Vol. 3, featuring Moby, Neil Finn, Tom Waits, and others, has just come out.) In March it debuted a quarterly magazine, FLM - Film at Landmark, with listings, reviews, and features about independent movies, including those shown at competitors' venues. The publication is done completely in-house with no new staff.

It also has a popular e-mail-based film club, in which a weekly customized message is sent to each market with an introduction by the market leader.

Reaching different audiences

Price says the messages that emanate from Landmark must be philosophically different from those of the major studios. Hollywood marketing is usually heavily visual and often means spending millions on TV ads. "We're the antithesis of that, he says. "Our audience is literate and verbal, so you have to spend a lot more time explaining the film, trying to get special background pieces."

For example, in early June when current "project film The Fast Runner was released, NPR's To the Point - a news-oriented show that rarely covers movies - interviewed the film's director and the photography director to explain the picture, which is in the Inuktitut language, and has an almost entirely Inuit cast and crew.

Though she helps steer local PR campaigns, Bailey says her main job is to "raise our national profile, now that we're a national company." Increasingly, getting the name out for Landmark means targeting audiences other than its core independent-film lovers.

Price relates that recently Landmark execs Richardson and Manzari had flown to "a city in the Sun Belt (which Price didn't want to name) to check out a theater that was for rent. "They were telling the property owner how they do this great job of running a theater, and the guy said, 'Ah, I don't know. What I really want is somebody like those guys in Dallas who run the Inwood Theatre.' Well, that's us. As we become larger, we're dealing with bankers and shopping center developers who may be in markets we've never been to."

Adds Bailey: "Right now, they don't know our name, but they know what we do. Soon, it seems, they'll know both.

LANDMARK THEATRES

VP of marketing: Ray Price Director of national publicity: Marina Bailey

Director of publicity and promotion: Michael Williams

Director of creative services: Steve Siers.

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