Marketing movies: is there any point?

I always make sure I get to the cinema with enough time to watch the trailers. I love seeing the compilation of what films are on the horizon, and how the studios have packaged them up to sell them to me. Movie posters always catch my eye as I take the tube to work, I take note of the starring actors and the starry ratings. Yet there is one thing that (usually) tells me whether I actually want to spend money on seeing a film at the cinema or not: reviews.

Thanks to the availability of reviews online today, we don’t have to rely on the carefully selected four and five star ratings that are inevitably splashed across film posters. Just Google a film and it will come up with a rating right next to the title, whether it’s a Rotten Tomatoes percentage, IMDB rating/ranking or its MetaCritic score. Not to mention the numerous blogs like my own where even semi/non professional film critics can weigh in.

This is great for the public, as they can get a good idea, according to general opinion, whether it is worth them spending their hard earned money on seeing a film at the cinema – an average cost of £10 these days (excluding travel/parking/popcorn/drinks) or wait until the DVD/On demand release.

But this poses a question for film studios: is there any point on splurging a massive marketing budget on films? Potential audiences can and will make up their minds based on other people’s opinion of the film’s content, not just on how good the marketing department can make it look.

A great example of this is the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot, or Fant4stic as it was marketed. Superhero films were on a winning streak thanks to Marvel and DC, and the film was fronted by up-and-coming young stars like House of Cards’ Kate Mara and Whiplash’s Miles Teller. The film had gone down the darker, more serious superhero route (trail-blazed by Christopher Nolan with The Dark Knight trilogy) as opposed to the family-friendly 2005 version of Fantastic Four with Jessica Alba and Chris Evans: who has since switched comic book allegiance to play Captain America. 

The trailer looked great: slightly gritty, action-packed with break out stars. A good bit of Michael Bay-esque rumbling base line to vibrate the cinema seats and the visual effects were impressive. But there was a fatal problem: the film itself wasn’t very good. At least, the critics didn’t think it was. 

  

  
The film was rated 4.3/10 by IMDB, 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and 27% on MetaCritic. Not exactly enticing numbers. Critics described it as “dull and offbeat”, “a woefully misguided attempt to translate a classic comic series without the humor, joy, or colorful thrills that made it great”, “A jumble of predictable but also incoherent plot turns, dreadful dialogue, and unfortunate visual choices”. The film poster didn’t even carry any words of praise or star ratings, likely because there were none above 2/5 and no positive words to be said.

I’m a big fan of awards’ season: I like to cast my opinion and I love the suspense when the envelope is being opened as much as the elated looks on the winners faces – and the gracious loser faces too. Film marketing really goes into overdrive at this time. But unlike Fantastic Four where the studio were trying to pedal a blockbuster, the films being marketed are usually held in high regard, and they films are being marketed to the boards: The Academy, The Hollywood Foreign Press et al. It’s a competition for which film has the best offering in terms of content and performance and what resonates with critics and peers.

Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant has been hitting the Oscar trail hard this year in a bid to let everyone know what he went through during film to deliver his performance. It reminds me of sitcom 30 Rock when comic actor Tracy Jordan turns his hand to serious acting in a bid to win the coveted EGOT with his film Hard to Watch. The films all try to be as serious and important as possible: which one should be a landmark ‘best film’ for that year. This year the trailers and film posters are telling me that Spotlight is: “A phenomenal accomplishment”, The Revenant is “A masterpiece of all in film making”, Room is “a one of a kind must see experience”.

These plaudits don’t come cheap. According to The Independent, the average cost for a campaign is $5m ($3m on advertising and marketing and $2m on entertainment and travel costs) and Stephen Follows reports the cost of a ‘Best Picture’ winning Oscar campaign is around $10 million, half of which will go on advertising.
During Oscar season, the studios aggressively pay for adverts politely reminding Academy voters of their films. Often under the phrase ‘For your consideration‘, these adverts appear in almost every area of the film industry; online, in print, on billboards and even videos. A page 1 advert in The Hollywood Reporter during Oscar season cost one Best Picture nominee $72,000.

But money doesn’t always equal a win. Sometimes the indy darlings prevail, such as Crash, 2005 Best Picture winner, which spent $250,000 on DVD screeners. Or The Hurt Locker, whose campaign cost just $5m, as opposed to Shakespeare in Love which spent $15m ten years before. 

So what’s the point of a marketing campaign for a film? Generally, films are made to make money, to get bums on seats. A good film needs a good trailer and enticing posters, but that often means it needs good reviews so that stars and pull quotes can be splashed across the canvas. If the marketing campaign is then geared towards winning awards, there’s certain people that need to be impressed: not just the critics and the general public. But at the end of the day, it’s down to the majority opinion: democracy wins via word of mouth, and the internet. 

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