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Does Hollywood Have a Plan for Negative Press?

Studio Marketers Might Want to Consider Anticipating Failure in Their Marketing Strategy

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Chris Thilk
Chris Thilk
There's a quote that's always been attributed, as I've heard it, to Mel Brooks that shows the difference between comedy and tragedy: "If I get a paper cut, that's tragedy. If you fall down an open manhole cover, that's comedy."

We all experience that moment of schadenfreude when something (not too) bad happens to someone we know. But I'm not sure any other industry takes it as seriously as the movie press does. So far we've been treated to postmortems for movies including "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (too confusing for anyone older than 30); "Buried" (no one wanted to watch a guy in a box for 90 minutes) and a handful of other films that have underperformed at the box office. Heck, even "Iron Man 2" was eulogized in more than a few stories because it didn't completely eclipse the success of the first installment, even though its $312 million domestic gross is only a few dollars less than the first movie's $318 million haul (both figures per BoxOfficeMojo.com).

Almost no other industry analyzes its failures like Hollywood does. Sure, we all know about New Coke, which at this point has become a cautionary tale that parents tell their little marketers when they want to scare them into always doing their market research. Most other industries, though, don't seem to devote quite as many column inches to looking into why each and every product fails to catch fire with the target consumers as the entertainment press does.

'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World'
'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World'
Part of this comes from simple junior-high physics: Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. So after driving past the huge outdoor billboards and seeing the print ads in Los Angeles and New York, much of which is driven by studio's desire to show the talent that it is pulling out the stops for them, the trade press -- which is based in those cities -- is ready to take the studios and the talent down a notch. And that Newtonian principle is in play because there's much more ink spilled on a much-buzzed about movie such as "Scott Pilgrim" than a small drama such as "Never Let Me Go," which is disappointing on the art-house circuit.

Don't overlook the Hollywood mindset that almost every release has to be a success immediately and which puts all the emphasis on opening-weekend results. Few other consumer industries follow this model, and so instant analysis of how well a particular product did the first week it was rolled out isn't as interesting. It's assumed that it will take time for a new hamburger to catch on through word-of-mouth recommendations.

Whatever the reason, there's such a fixation on why X movie failed that the question has to be asked whether the studios actually factor the likelihood of failure into their marketing plans. These stories are bound to be written and can't come as any surprise at this point, so it would only make sense for studios to plan for them in the same way any other industry prepares for negative press.

There are rare cases, such as the blowback from "Knight and Day," where there is executive reaction to a movie's poor performance, but by and large the silence seems to go back to the fact that studios don't seem to have any sort of reactive give-and-take process in place. If a movie is being trashed by the press -- and I'm including the vast amounts of blogs here -- in the wake of even the first trailer, then it's likely to continue right through release. There's little evidence that any sort of effort has been undertaken to change people's minds or attitudes, whereas companies in other industries would be all over these press outlets with a charm offensive and other tactics to change the tenor of the conversation.

In reality many of the movies written off as dead will, in the long run, wind up being profitable, or at least breaking even, thanks to a home-video market that, even as it moves from an ownership to a primarily rental model -- including streaming -- will still give enough people access to help a picture be financially independent.

But too often long-term profitability doesn't fit the narrative of movies being either flops or hits. We saw this with "Kick-Ass" earlier this year after it was labeled a massive disappointment only to go on to achieve success on DVD. "Secretariat," the feel-good Disney movie, also was labeled as sub-par in its first weekend but it's kept pace since then and will likely become a medium-size hit for the studio.

So as it's not likely that these sorts of stories will be going away any time soon -- it's just too much fun to dissect some else's failure -- studios should consider ways to get out ahead of them and begin writing the narratives themselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Thilk writes and publishes MovieMarketingMadness.com and is a supervisor at PR and marketing agency Voce Communications.
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