“I am big,” said Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Little did Norma know just how prophetic that statement would become. In the six decades that have passed since the release of Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece, the pictures have indeed got small. Very small. First, they passed from cinema screen to TV screen with the dawn of video, DVD and Blu-Ray, and then they passed from TV screen to the smartphone screen, allowing us to watch motherships descend and superheroes soar on a 5-inch screen on the way into work in the morning.
As a result, box office receipts are slowly falling, but cinema-going isn’t rolling the end credits just yet. In this article, Neon explores how clever marketing is turning the movies into must-attend, not just must-see, events.
Along with the prominence of smartphones, streaming, prestige television and piracy (not to mention the escalating cost of cinema tickets) have combined to remove the sheen from the silver screen. Whereas once, going to the cinema every week was common, now weekly trips have diminished to such an extent that only around 10% of the US population goes to the movies with such regularity. This summer has done nothing to turn the tide.
As a reaction, Hollywood has been looking for scapegoats, and recently focused its attention on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, which director Brett Ratner called “the destruction of our business.” It’s certainly true that Rotten Tomatoes has an unhelpful tendency to reduce nuanced reviews of complex works of arts to simple ‘good’/’bad’ binaries, but it’s not to blame for another summer of underperforming films, and nor does focusing on it offer a path for success.
Instead, the movie-as-event philosophy that’s taken hold in recent years seems more fruitful. Whether it’s cinematic universes such as Marvel’s or movies like this summer’s Dunkirk that are crafted specifically to be seen on the biggest screen possible, modern filmmaking is about creating must-attend events that can’t be missed. It’s why, beyond the major studios, film screenings with live accompaniment, outdoor screenings and organisations like Secret Cinema have become so prevalent, and why some cinema chains have started offering premium screenings. It’s the experience economy in filmic form.
Don’t just watch a movie, we’re being told. Go to the cinema and live it.
While marketing can’t always convince the audience on the quality of a film, it can convince people of just how important it is that they see it. When researching this piece, I ran a couple of polls on my Twitter feed, with the first being a simple exploration of the impact marketing has on film fans:
I found this result a little surprising. Dedicated fans tend to be somewhat immune to marketing efforts and film fans, in particular, will generally see the latest offerings from their favourite director, actor or franchise and avoid anything from talents they’re not so keen on. However, the overwhelming number of people who said that marketing does have a significant influence on their film-watching habits, even if they’re not persuaded by the film itself or those involved in it, underlines just how important a good campaign can be.
The question is: what kind of campaign should be undertaken? This summer’s blockbusters have tapped into the same immersive, experiential approach as the films themselves. 20th Century Fox used personalisation to promote the latest entry into the Alien franchise. Disney and Sony had Spider-Man literally swing into coffee shops in the US to promote Spider-Man: Homecoming. And Warner Brothers used a VR experience to put viewers in the middle of the evacuation that Dunkirk depicts. In different ways, to different extents, these campaigns are doing more than just selling a film; they’re drawing the audience into them, making them feel a part of it.
You’re in outer space.
You’re hanging with Spider-Man.
You’re on the beach and under attack.
It’s clever and plants a question in the audience’s mind: as you’re already a part of the film, why wouldn’t you visit your local multiplex to actually see it?
Film fans are a fickle bunch though, and while complex marketing campaigns like this can work some of the time, they certainly don’t work (or aren’t necessary) all of the time. Another poll I ran asked voters to select their favourite form of film marketing:
Of all the technologically-driven marketing methods available to us today, it’s the humble poster – a form that’s almost as old as the movies themselves – that won by a landslide. This may seem surprising, but posters too have enjoyed a digital renaissance. Companies such as Mondo have reclaimed movie posters from the clutches of Photoshop and made poster art fashionable and collectable again. The likes of Alternative Movie Posters and Poster Spy have joined in, making it possible for all artists, regardless of whether they’re established or not, to show off their own versions of posters for big films. The latter even teams with major studios to issue official Creative Briefs.
One such film was one of the summer’s biggest winners: Baby Driver. Edgar Wright’s car movie took a fairly routine approach by modern standards with a campaign that featured no large scale tech-backed campaigns. Instead, it focused on posters, via the aforementioned Poster Spy activity and a range of studio-commissioned pieces that stood out from the crowd through their bold use of the film’s signature pink colour.
This openness to engage with what’s most commonly called ‘fan art’ turns the movie poster into something collaborative, exciting and ultimately immersive. No longer are fans and budding artists stuck on the outside looking in; they’re a part of the movie-making process, interpreting and remixing the film in their own unique way and putting it out there for other fans to enjoy. For a film like Baby Driver, which blends car movies, rom-coms and classic Hollywood musicals, and so is something of a remix itself, it’s a perfect marketing choice that doesn’t just sell the movie, but pushes the creative experience of watching it.
However, if any movie has captured the attention of film fans and marketers alike this summer, it’s the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary horror novel, ‘It’. Infamous for its horrifying villain, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the book has gained a reputation for perpetuating many people’s fear of clowns, so for the new version, there are plenty of primal fears for marketers to play on. Evocative posters, fan art, an online game, and a VR experience propelled the film along, but it was something much more simple that grabbed the attention.
Ahead of the film’s Sydney premiere, red balloons could be seen tied to drains around the city centre. Stencilled in white spray paint next to the drains were the words: “It is closer than you think. #ItMovie in cinemas September 7th.” It’s an ingenious marketing tactic that plays to both those who do know about the novel (in which balloons mark Pennywise’s presence) and those who don’t but would be intrigued by the mysterious items anyway. Most impressively, it’s incredibly cheap but also highly effective. Shortly after the balloons went up, Twitter was abuzz with pictures and videos, and blogs and news sites followed suit. Suddenly, this quick, cheap piece of guerrilla marketing became a global phenomenon, striking terror into the hearts of film fans everywhere.
The campaign tapped into more than just a desire to watch It though; it tapped into a desire to be a part of it. This instinct was seen before the film was released when 17-year-old Eagan Tilghman dressed up his three-year-old brother Louie as Pennywise for an It-inspired photoshoot. After release, cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse held a clown-only screening, while in the UK some cinemagoers followed suit, dressing as clowns and wandering around theatres, much to the amusement/terror of their fellow patrons. And with the film breaking box office records for horror films, such antics show no signs of slowing down.
The experience economy can find a perfect home in the world of movies. The successes of It and Baby Driver have shown that fans are more willing to engage with movies than ever and that studios don’t need to lay down thousands of pounds worth of marketing in order to encourage that. Immersive experiences can be achieved through marketing and with relatively small budgets; it just takes creativity, an understanding of the material, and a willingness to treat audiences as collaborators. By doing so, marketing can help return movies to the must-attend, not just must-see, events they were back when Norma Desmond, and the pictures, were both big.
What do you think of the state of modern movie marketing? Are you compelled to go to the cinema as much as you were in years gone by? Tweets us @createdbyneon and share your thoughts!
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