Multicultural: The hidden audiences

Niche moviegoers are key targets for mainstream film marketers.

Niche moviegoers are key targets for mainstream film marketers.

Monday mornings in Hollywood are often spent talking box office. It's no secret that how a film performs during its first weekend is the generally accepted measure of its success, and dissecting the week's winners and losers is a favorite pastime. In fact, long before a film even hits theaters, its been researched, tracked, and focus-grouped until the studio powers-that-be are confident that they know what to expect from America's fickle film fans.

So when Diary of a Mad Black Woman, a film without a bit of mainstream hype, opened to an astounding $22 million in February, Monday morning quarterbacks were stunned. How could a film no one ever heard of sell out theaters across the country?

The answer was simple: Tyler Perry, the film's creator and star, is a huge celebrity in black communities. And when black audiences have a reason, they'll eagerly turn out to buy tickets.

"When it opened so hugely, it caused everyone's eyes to be opened," says Steven Zeller, president of GS Entertainment Marketing Group and principal at distributor Laemmle/Zeller Films. Zeller is half right. It opened the eyes of mainstream film marketers who are still not convinced that niche markets - be it black, Latino, or other subgroups like gay and lesbian audiences - are consumer forces to be reckoned with.

But for many multicultural marketers, Diary's success was a no-brainer. "This guy has been a star for us forever," says Ava DuVernay of LA-based The DuVernay Agency, which helps studios like DreamWorks reach urban audiences. "His plays have been a mainstay in the urban community for years. My barometer is my mother and brother in Montgomery, AL. Thursday night before Diary opened, they said, 'I want to go see [it], but it's sold out through Sunday night.'"

This year has seen a number of films with niche potential make big bucks at the box office: the Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher comedy Guess Who, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous with Regina King, and Will Smith's Hitch, just to name a few still in theaters. It's a lesson not lost on film marketers, who are courting specialized audiences in ever-growing amounts. The term "niche" applies not just to multicultural audiences, but to any group with a targeted culture, interest, or perspective.

"There is an awakening on the mainstream side," says Santiago Pozo, president of Arenas Entertainment, which has helped position films, including Ray and The Incredibles, for Latino audiences. "You see this [attempt] to really strategically reach a more ethnically diverse audience. Hollywood is paying more and more attention to this marketplace."

Targeting niche markets

While niche audiences are certainly proving their box-office muscle, they do it best when they've been courted.

When it comes to positioning a film for specific niches, experts agree that you can't assume that if you make it, they will come. No matter if a film has an obvious catch for a particular audience - such as a black lead actor - the niche still needs outreach. "You really have to target the audience that the movie is made for," says Zeller, who is working on an upcoming Andy Garcia movie called Modigliani. "You can't ignore your target audience. You can't expect them to be there just because the movie was made for them."

That's a point that Lions Gate, which distributed Diary of a Mad Black Woman, took to heart.

"We were very fortunate with Tyler Perry, who has a built-in fan base," says Sarah Greenberg, Lions Gate EVP of publicity, adding that the company used that as a starting place for its campaign, which included grassroots elements, partnerships with outlets like BET, and cast involvement.

"It was key that the platforms that Lions Gate leveraged to roll this out... be broad and diverse and with a concentration where you knew Tyler Perry already had some cachet," says Greenberg. "A lot of what we did on the marketing side is more good old-fashioned grassroots publicity."

Greenberg says that building word-of-mouth was important. To that end, Perry, who travels around the country as a theater performer, showed a trailer of the film after performances and talked to crowds about the movie.

"He really helped build buzz and excitement within his fan base," says Greenberg, adding that Lions Gate provided him with promotional materials.

DuVernay says that community-oriented focus is key to reaching niche audiences. "That's a huge part of it with any film marketing campaign," she says. "Word-of-mouth."

Also vital is reaching out to ethnic and niche media. Marketers say that these outlets are often bypassed by entertainment publicists - and they are starved for information.

"They're not getting those calls," says DuVernay. "Those outlets need to be incorporated into the junket, the premiere. Even when you give them something small, they do great things with it."

Pozo also notes that niche media give marketers a platform to specialize their pitch and call attention to subtleties that the mainstream press might miss or might not be interested in. "You want to use [ethnic] media to address certain nuances that you can't address through mainstream media," he says.

Zeller agrees, pointing out that for Modigliani, a biopic about the Italian artist of Jewish descent, his firm is doing outreach to Latino press to highlight lead actor Andy Garcia, as well as reaching out to Jewish press and Italian press, with a tailored angle for each. The campaign is even reaching out to art press.

Zeller says that, for lower-budget pictures, niche marketing is crucial because they lack the multimillion-dollar budgets of their studio counterparts. "The indie films don't have the budgets or the wherewithal to compete with the studios, so indies have to focus on the audience that the film is most [suited to]," he says. "You really have to target it because you can't afford to spend lots and lots of money."

DuVernay also points out that the landscape of niche media has drastically changed in recent years, with dozens of new publications springing up, offering greater opportunities for outreach.

"Essence,[The] Source, XXL, Upscale, Sister 2 Sister. You've got 32 urban long-lead magazines," she notes. "No one knows that. They are niched out. They have a very specific focus."

But reaching niche audiences also takes a mainstream effort. Although many minority groups and subgroups gain their news from niche publications, they are also reading mainstream media outlets. And, of course, the goal is always to have the film crossover from its niche to mainstream appeal.

"With a film like Diary, it's imperative, for the campaign to work, that we go after the LA Times and push for coverage as much as it is to go after regional African-American newspapers," says Greenberg.

She uses the upcoming Crash as another example of a film that has niche potential, but will receive mainstream attention, as well. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, the story "takes a broad look at racism in a post-9/11 LA," says Greenberg. It has an ensemble cast, including Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, and Ludacris. "There is a strong African-American cast; we do want to make sure we target an African-American audience," she says. "There are story lines we want to make sure are covered in as many Korean papers as Persian papers as African-American papers, as we are in the LA Times."

More diverse casting

Despite changes in media and marketing, entertainment publicity executives say the number one thing that has changed in Hollywood's attempt to reach niche audiences is the films themselves. Lead roles, once reserved or written for white actors, are more and more going to ethnic actors. That's no accident. As movies like Hitch and Diary prove that ethnic actors can not only open films, but also open them big, Hollywood is increasingly happy to cast them.

Herbert Niles, VP of film development and network program acquisitions at BET, uses I, Robot, starring Will Smith, as an example of how casting has changed to appeal to more diverse audiences.

"Will Smith is a name and a known commodity in the African-American market," he says. "I, Robot, that's a science-fiction film, and African Americans, by and large, are not the largest consumers of science fiction. But when you have Will Smith, he is a character that resonates instantly with our community."

However, urban marketers caution that casting has to make sense with content. While content doesn't have to be tailored to the niche audience, it does have to be good.

"It certainly doesn't hurt to have recognizable faces in the picture," says Michael Lewellen, SVP of corporate communications at BET. But, he adds, "The important thing with the African-American market is content that is relevant. We can see through any charade. We are very cognizant of product that is real and connected and can really strike a chord, versus something that is superficial."

Pozo agrees. "Latinos are not a special class of citizen," he points out. "They are basic people like everybody else and go to movies based on two things: that they know the movie to exist, and that it is interesting."

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