Amid blockbusters and indie darlings, marketers try to keep films from the mushy middle

Many films this holiday season have either flopped or made mega-bucks. Why the movie-marketing environment is tougher than ever.

Photo credit: Lucasfilm
Photo credit: Lucasfilm

The holiday season is an important money-making window for Hollywood movie studios, when both big-budget films and Oscar contenders have been able to compete for good tidings. So why have so many films been greeted this year with box-office returns that feel like a lump of coal?

Veteran entertainment PR pros say the market is undoubtedly more competitive than ever. Movies are competing with each other not only at the box office, but also against content available at home on digital platforms such as Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and apps from networks such as HBO and Showtime. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for marketing departments to show their films are worthy of a trip to the multiplex.

It’s especially hard for serious films that are neither big-budget extravaganza nor indie, says Jarrod Moses, president and CEO of United Entertainment Group, a joint venture created last October by DJE Holdings, United Talent Agency, and Moses, who launched UEG in 2007.

He points to the poor performances of Our Brand is Crisis and Burnt, movies with healthy production budgets of between $20 million and $30 million, making them neither big budget films nor specialty offerings. Both opened to no more than $5 million in their first weekends despite showing in many theaters and starring boldface names Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper, respectively.

"Both these films were mass released, but they weren’t big budget films. They were also niche in terms of their subject matter, but then featured big stars. It was difficult for audiences to connect three seemingly opposing things together," says Moses. "It was like putting a D-League team in Madison Square Garden."

He adds: "Audiences just don’t understand why they’re playing there."

Indeed, Moses says the industry is abuzz about the shrinking middle ground. The New York Times recently noted just a few films have captured a lion’s share of box-office dollars in the past few months. It cited massive returns for The Martian in October, the one bright spot amid a slew of disappointments, from The Walk and Steve Jobs to Pan and Jem and the Holograms.

Yet long-awaited upcoming films such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are expected to be blockbusters, to the detriment of other films. In other words, movies are either making hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, or they’re competing with everyone else for a relatively small piece of the box office pie.

Communications pros say mid-range films simply can’t compete with the massive marketing budgets of tentpole films. According to multiple sources interviewed for this article, a studio spends about the same amount of money on marketing as it does on production costs for a film. And while a $30 million marketing budget sounds like a lot of money, it can be blunted by the massive spending of would-be mega-hits such as Spectre and Star Wars.

Depending on the film and the studio behind it, one-quarter to one-half of the marketing budget is spent on digital, grassroots, below-the-line, and PR and publicity efforts.

A different strategy for indie Oscar darlings
There is another approach that has worked well, particularly for indie Oscar hopefuls. With the right movie, especially during the holiday build-up before awards season, experts say a film can be successfully platform-released.

That means using grassroots and word-of-mouth tactics such as free screenings and showings with director and actor Q&As to drive box-office returns, while holding back most paid advertising until – or if – the movie builds critical and popular buzz and reaches more theaters.

It’s an approach that is working for small-budget films such as Spotlight and Room, both of which played the fall festival circuit including the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Communicators note that doing the festival circuit is another smart comms tactic for a platform rollout, where PR and content creation can play a particularly pivotal role.

"You only want to release tidbits of information at first, so maybe you set up a star interview with Huffington Post while holding back your talent from doing The Tonight Show, for instance. Or you create pieces of content that could go viral," says Moses. "You want to do things that will capitalize on this idea of audiences feeling like they’re discovering the content, so they can be the ones who share the content with friends."

"When your consumer starts serving as your marketer, versus the studio, you’ve found the Holy Grail," he adds.  

While that’s a strategy deployed by Oscar hopefuls, big-budget pictures are also discovering the power of releasing tidbits of content in the months, weeks, and days before premiere day.

One example is the latest in the Star Wars canon. Its studio has, over the past year, slowly released photos, trailers, and interviews, often in bite-size format, so they can be shared over social media. The studio believes it can get more leverage from that strategy, rather than investing more in billboard and other traditional media.

 "Obviously having a brand such as Stars Wars to begin with helps, but the buzz around the movie has also benefited from the studio sharing tremendous content that has moved across the Internet," says Andrew Stachler, who previously led interactive marketing at the Weinstein Company and before that at Warner Bros. Pictures. He launched his own consultancy, Max Stax Media, this past May.

Conversely, putting talent in front of the media has become less important.

"Given media is so fractured, traditional PR elements have become less and less effective. Stars also mean less than they used to because they’re just seen differently," he says. "But where studios can leverage stars is when they have someone like a Kevin Hart who has a big social media following."

However, that doesn’t mean studios should hit consumers over the head with an avalanche of content at once.

"Social media has become really important, so they can help push out great, sharable content," says Stachler. "It’s tricky because you don’t want to push out too much too soon and make people sick of it before the film even comes out. But you want to provide content that gives them a compelling reason and reminder why they need to see it in the theatre."

Given the challenges in the marketplace, more smaller films are launching both in theaters and on pay-per-view at the same time, says Marian Koltai-Levine, EVP of film marketing and distribution at PMK*BNC. She previously spearheaded successful campaigns while at indie studio Picturehouse and FineLine Features.

"Box-office results do seem to be either very high or very low, and not in the middle as much," says Koltai-Levin. "Where I think the middle has gone is to digital. It’s just that spending is not reported in the box office results." 

She says there is synergy with such a strategy, because you can market availability in-theatre, on iTunes, and DirecTV all at once, rather than having to create separate campaigns for a theatre release and later at-home release. "It mitigates the risk somewhat," says Koltai-Levin, who also notes the distribution model plays into the trend of giving consumers control over when and how they watch content.

However, the disadvantage of the strategy is many theatre chains restrict how much they’ll support a day-to-day release, meaning most films can only find their way into a maximum number a few hundred locations. Yet she adds it’s still important from a comms point of view for studios to play up the theatrical component in an alternative distribution model, "because an in-theatre play offers a perceived importance and excellence."

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