John Hegeman

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John Hegeman is getting used to working in the shadow of Hollywood's major studios. And that's just fine with him.

Six years ago, Mr. Hegeman was anointed the entertainment industry's Internet guru after his online-marketing efforts for independent Artisan Entertainment's thriller "The Blair Witch Project" turned the $60,000-budgeted indie into a box-office smash, earning $140 million in the U.S. alone.

The 42-year-old is now trying to mastermind that same success at Lions Gate Entertainment, the largest independent-film distributor, whose slate is typically made up of a mix of franchise, art-house, genre and urban or teen films, half of which are acquired at film festivals. Mr. Hegeman joined the company last year, and ironically, his appointment as president-worldwide marketing is a homecoming of sorts: Lions Gate in 2003 purchased Artisan, where he held the same title.

So far, so good: In October, Mr. Hegeman's campaign for the $1.2 million-budgeted "Saw" helped the horror thriller scare up $18 million in its first weekend and generate $80 million worldwide. He followed that up in February by opening the comedy "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" to $22 million. It's earned $50 million in the U.S. so far, surprising Lions Gate's much bigger rivals who all turned down the chance to distribute the $5 million-budgeted film.

The secret to Lions Gate's success comes down to identifying a film's audience. "The more unique a movie is, and the more that it strikes a chord with a specific core audience, the easier it is to market," Mr. Hegeman says. "The more we can have movies that are different in the marketplace, the easier it is to stand out."

Targeting that audience involves building a direct line of communication with a small group of moviegoers and conditioning them to spread the word to mainstream moviegoers. That could be through hosting events or screenings, interacting with them online or through more guerrilla tactics like passing out fliers on the street. "We try to do that as early as possible," Mr. Hegeman says. "We want them to feel that the success of the picture is just as much about their effort and support as the studio's. "

The company's films also have to be "cultural events, not media events." For "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," Lions Gate not only targeted playwright Tyler Perry's loyal audience of African-American women but built its campaign around holidays and events like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month. "We went after a group that's not defined anywhere," Mr. Hegeman says. "It's a forgotten demo."

Lions Gate spends less than the majors: Marketing budgets per film range from $1.5 million to $15 million.

Being different has meant relying on the Internet to generate word of mouth.

"The Internet levels the playing field of competition," Mr. Hegeman says. "It's a really important tool for us, especially for anything that's more genre specific. It builds a direct relationship with the audience. It's the only media platform where you can integrate information, communication and entertainment in a seamless way."

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