Movie Marketing

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popcorn.jpgSource: Google Images

This week, as the world debates the winning Oscar films, we explore the critical importance of movie trailers to a film's success.

Hollywood now spends an average of $32 million dollars per movie to advertise. But trailers have changed dramatically over the years - and now many give away the entire storyline. How much is enough? Do you tease with plot points, or do you give away the ending to attract more moviegoers? Do audiences today now want to know the ending before seeing the movie? We'll look at several films that chose to give it all away in the trailers, and in particular, the movie "Castaway" - which had trouble generating an audience, until it gave away the ending in its trailers.

The movie Zyzzyx Road was an independent thriller shot in 2006.

Source: YouTube

In order to qualify for "independent film" status with the Screen Actors Guild, it had to run in at least one U.S. theatre before it could be distributed internationally. So it opened in the Highland Park Village Theatre in Dallas, Texas, on February 26th, 2006. It ran for one week.

Total U.S. box office receipts: $20.

It ranks as one of the lowest box office takes in movie history.

Once in a while a sleeper movie that was made for a small budget suddenly catches fire. Like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was made for $140,000 and ended up making $26 million.

But that is the exception to the rule. For in most cases, the success of a movie depends first, and foremost, on the marketing.

And when it comes to movie marketing, two things count above all.

The Oscars.

And movie trailers.

AdWeek Magazine noted recently that the genius of modern Hollywood lies not just in its ability to make movies, but to create weekly audiences for them.

Back in the pre-TV days, a full two-thirds of North Americans were moviegoers. Even as late as 1948, nearly 100 million people went to their local movie theatres every week without any national advertising to prod them.

Then came television in the 50s, and colour TV in the 60s, and theatres suddenly had a fight on their hands.

Today, Hollywood can count on less than 10% of the population seeing any given movie - and attracting that 10% requires huge multi-million dollar ad campaigns.

In 2010, studios spent an average $32 million in advertising per movie in wide release. Most of it spent airing movie trailers on television.

Those ad campaigns must draw people to the 39,000 screens across North America, and hope that audience is in the mood for lots of popcorn and soda pop. Because without the concession stand, most multiplexes would be out of business.

In 2010, studios spent an average $32 million in advertising per movie in wide release. Most of it spent airing movie trailers on television.

Then there's the big ad:

Source: YouTube

The Academy Awards. This year, ABC is charging between $1.6 and $1.7 million for a 30-second commercial during the broadcast.

There is a reason why the Oscar show continues to be such a big-ticket item for advertisers: It is one those few programs that viewers tend to watch live.

Meaning - there is a much lower chance of fast-forwarding through commercials. The only other programming that can make that claim is live sports - very few people tape sports events, with the majority preferring to see it unfold in real time.

Last year, Hyundai was the exclusive automotive advertiser and the biggest spender on the Oscar broadcast with seven commercials.

But it also went down in history for having one of the most interesting back-stories.

Jeff Bridges Is Hyundai's spokesperson...

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has an odd rule: It effectively prohibits sponsors from running commercials during the show that feature any of the night's nominees or presenters.

The problem for Hyundai was that Jeff Bridges was also a Best Actor nominee for the movie Crazy Heart.

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So in order to comply with the Academy's criteria, Hyundai shot seven commercials with seven other Hollywood actors doing the voiceovers - all from a list provided by Jeff Bridges himself - including Kim Basinger, Richard Dreyfuss, Catherine Keener, Michael Madsen, Mandy Patinkin, Martin Sheen and even David Duchovny:

Source: YouTube

But aside from the giant ad that is the Oscars, the most powerful way to advertise a movie is, without a doubt, the movie trailer.

One of the biggest dilemmas of movie trailer marketing is... how much of the story do you give away? Where is that fine line between giving enough of a tease that a moviegoer's curiosity is piqued, but not giving away so much that the public feels it has just seen the movie?

In action films, that answer is easy. Take Vin Diesel's movie, Fast Five. All the trailer had to do was show the stars, the stunts, a few scantily-clad women and the slightest hint of a plot:

Source: YouTube

But other trailers have given away a lot.

The trailer for Contagion for example, gave away the fact that star Gwyneth Paltrow dies early in the film:

Source: YouTube

To give away the fact a major star dies early in a movie is a very rare thing in a trailer. But this decision was made to attract more moviegoers, not less. The studio's belief being that the more the audience knew, the more they would want to see the story.

In the movie Arlington Road, made in 1999, Jeff Bridges starred as a university professor who teaches a class in terrorism. A new neighbour, Tim Robbins, moves into the house next door, and he seems nice enough. But soon, Bridges begins to suspect his new next door neighbour is a terrorist.

But is Robbins just an nice guy, or is he a terrorist hiding in plain sight?

That's the core tension of the movie.

But the trailer reveals, in no uncertain terms, that Robbins is a terrorist:

Source: YouTube

That's a pretty big giveaway. So, the question remains: What's the tipping point of plot giveway vs. plot secrets?

Maybe the best story of a spoiler trailer is for the movie Cast Away.

When it came time to do the movie trailer, Hanks and Zemeckis created one that showed Hanks' character Chuck Nolan promising his fiancée that he will be back in time for New Year's Eve, flying to Russia, then his plane crashes on the way home...

Source: YouTube

They hoped that trailer would be enough of a tease to attract moviegoers. But the feedback was that people weren't sure they wanted to sit through a two-hour movie about one man all alone on an island.

You can sympathize with Zemeckis. How do you sell a two and a half hour movie where a large portion of screen time is spent with one single actor talking to a volleyball on a desert island?

So, a second trailer was created. But this one was different.

Because it gave away the entire storyline, from the first shot to the last shot. It showed Hanks' character Chuck Noland not only being marooned, but being rescued:

Source: YouTube

Immediately, Internet websites began buzzing with complaints that the trailer gave too much away. Even actress Helen Hunt weighed in. "I love Cast Away. I loved making it, but I hate the trailer" she said angrily.

Not only did she object to so many of the plot points being given away, she argued that so many of the movie's unique visuals were exposed, spoiling their later impact.

But director Robert Zemeckis defended the trailer. He felt that the main audience for the film - men under 25 - approach a movie the same way they approach a hamburger stand: They want to know what they're getting before they plunk their money down.

Said Zemeckis: "There's a McDonalds on every street corner, and none of them is losing money."

The problem, of course, is the size of the investment studios have in big films. And the lack of patience for turning a profit. Dreamworks had $80 million invested in Cast Away.

With the film, both the studio and the director believed the spoiler movie trailer was a necessary marketing strategy to bring in the core moviegoer.

Zemeckis feels movie studios are responding to the same marketing pressures that mandate disclaimers at the end of automotive commercials, small print on cell phone ads and ingredient lists on packaged foods.

That consumers simply demand to know what they're buying.

But movie critic Roger Ebert disagrees. He said he would have preferred knowing much less about Cast Away on his way into the theatre. That Chuck Noland's survival should have been left as an open question.

Therein lies the marketing dilemma. Does ruining the surprise ruin the movie, or does it influence more people to see the movie? Studios spend about $3.5 billion advertising movies each year, so there's a lot riding on that question.

It all comes down to:

What's the give for the get...

...when you're under the influence.
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