Standing Out in a Crowd: Advertising, Marketing and Publicity

Distinguishing itself in today’s crowded movie and media marketplace is one of the defining challenges facing each feature film upon its release. So many trailers, so many TV ads, so many films opening each weekend. How is a movie to survive?

A smart marketing plan certainly helps. We have already discussed market research screenings in detail, and that is the first hurdle to be cleared. Without encouraging screenings that show a strong desire by the audience to see and like the film, the movie is unlikely to get significant advertising support. But if the numbers are favorable, then the advertising and publicity machine should kick into overdrive.

An effective advertising campaign, as it will do for any product, can put a film on the map. Getting the word out in print and in the electronic media, as well as by well-edited and scored trailers, helps to ensure public recognition. Having a unit publicist work the media during production, and either a staff or freelance publicist assigned to the film as it nears release can make an enormous difference in securing free publicity.

For reasons that are not always explicable, certain movies ring a bell with larger segments of the movie-going public. Regardless of how people hear about a film, when audience expectations of a film’s content or style meshes perfectly with what they hoped to see, the movie takes on a life of its own, and what is called the “want to see” becomes tremendous. This can happen with movies as diverse as My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Exorcist, but it happens at least once in every cycle of movies.

The quality and cost of a film will usually be strongly emphasized in the way a movie is presented in ads and publicity. This is especially true of 15 second TV ads, which have become the single dominant medium for advertising films about to open. Most audiences respond to high-concept films that are easily summarized in a 15 second ad, or movies with big name casts. So the advertising supports the kind of big budget, high concept film that gets made, which in turn begets a certain type of advertising.

Critics have less and less influence in this advertising-driven world of film releases. The days when a critic like Pauline Kael could make a distributor reassess its release plan by giving a film like Nashville a rave review are long gone. Most newspapers are slowly jettisoning their film critics, and using wire service reviews. Online critics proliferate, but so do their blogs, and how much reading about one person’s opinions do we really need?

The most positive development for any film is favorable word of mouth. The fact that some films develop positive word of mouth and others do not is indisputable. Although the process can be slow and today’s marketplace not overly patient, when a movie generates a good report from people who have seen it, a wave of interest can steadily build. Of course, all forms of social media are employed and a positive take going viral can make a major impact.

As much as movie market researchers have tried to pin down the cultural climate to create effective marketing strategies, it seems that a form of impulse buying accounts for most movie-going decisions.

Lots of dollars are being spent on these efforts, since the movie industry spends more than $3 billion per year on advertising in North America alone, with the majority of that going to TV ads. Television advertising specifically targets audiences based on their TV viewing habits. So to attract a male audience, TV sports become a prime buy; for young viewers, the studios turn to Nickelodeon, MTV and Saturday Night Live. Whatever the current season’s programming line-ups offer, movie marketers are alert to audience taste in entertainment.

Other forms of advertising certainly remain, although newspapers are no longer an ideal medium, since most moviegoer go online to check reviews, see trailers, find screening locations and times. Almost every film release also has its own website, and some feature enticing interactivity.

Merchandising, tie-ins and product placement all fit into this mix, too, although the days when Star Wars toys and merchandise actually drove ticket sales to the movies seemed to have passed. Until Hannah Montana came along, and showed what a predictive and positive selling medium a cable TV show could be, and how it could translate into not only tons of CDs and merchandise being sold, but also a 3-D concert film with a minimum $18 ticket price for children and adults alike.

There will always be a new wrinkle in repackaging older formats and approaches and see them gain contemporary success in a traditional manner. Advertising and publicity can only do so much for a film – at best, it can provide the support for a solid opening weekend. After that, it’s up to the movie itself and its elusive word of mouth recommendations that often mean the biggest difference between success and failure.