LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- In a challenging, critically savaged summer movie season for Hollywood, the triumph of a quality, well-marketed film is almost an anomaly, an exception to the rule that offers lessons to film marketers.
Witness Warner Bros.' "Inception," which overcame its complicated plot and dizzying narrative structure by showcasing the film's special effects in trailers and dream-related mythology in mobile apps to the tune of a $62.8 million opening weekend and nearly $200 million in box office since its July 16 debut. In many ways, "Inception" was like an indie movie on a huge budget -- a risky premise centered around a prestige cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page) with a cult-inspiring director (Christopher Nolan) that proved to be greater than the sum of its parts for Warner Bros.
But what about actual indie movies? For Focus Features' "The Kids Are All Right," the same formula that worked for "Inception" has proved to be successful on a much smaller scale. A risky premise (same-sex marriage presented in a matter-of-fact way) with a prestige cast (Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo) and a cult-inspiring director (Lisa Cholodenko, whose "High Art" is still well-revered among the lesbian art-house crowd) all added up to the breakout indie hit of the summer, breaking per-screen gross records for 2010 upon its July 9 release and grossing an additional $3.4 million this past weekend in its first weekend of wide release.
As each film rode a wave of critical adoration ("Inception" currently holds a Metacritic score of 74, while "Kids" boasts an 86) and savvy mid-summer scheduling, each makes a worthy case for the so-called Twitter Effect, which at day's end is simply souped-up word of mouth. Studios can throw as much paid media as they want at consumers in otherwise unpaid environments (witness Disney's ultimately fruitless Twitter campaign for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice") or downplay Tom Cruise's appearance in a would-be blockbuster (witness Fox marketing chief's misplaced mea culpa for "Knight & Day"), but if the movie doesn't live up to expectations (or frankly sucks) audiences will stay away -- witness the diminishing returns of this summer's "Sex & the City," "Iron Man" and "Shrek" sequels.
Hollywood mega-PR firm PMK-BNC, a recently completed merger of Interpublic Group of Cos.' PMK and BNC, gave a nod to this trend this week by tapping Zipline Entertainment's Marian Koltai-Levine to helm the company's new film department, overseeing New York-based PR for films like "Kids" (which was marketed internally by Focus Features) as well as entire marketing and distribution strategies for even smaller films like Harry Shearer's New Orleans documentary "The Big Uneasy," marijuana doc "Cash Crop" and the Ashley Judd drama "Helen."
The New York-based Ms. Koltai-Levine started Zipline in early 2009 as a response to the shuttering of the big studios' indie units, from Warner Bros.' Fine Line Features and Picturehouse (where she used to run marketing) to the folding of Paramount Vantage into Paramount Pictures. "You had all the studios closing their indie divisions, but all these films were still being made," Ms. Koltai-Levine said in a recent phone interview. "You'd hear the statistics out of Sundance or Toronto or South by Southwest with 4,000 submissions and wonder, 'Where are they going?' ... I think we can create some very valuable assets. Content is content, and there are platforms all over the place starving for content. There's no reason we shouldn't be able to give these films a home wherever they're needed."
Madison & Vine caught up with Ms. Koltai-Levine to learn more about the hybrid PR-marketing model she started at Zipline and will continue at PMK-BNC, the lessons learned from "Kids Are All Right" and why critics still have just as much power as the consumer when it comes to affecting movie-marketing ROI.
Madison & Vine: Like many movie marketers, you got your start in public relations and still do a great deal of PR as well as paid marketing for indie films. How will Zipline Entertainment's new structure within PMK-BNC change, if at all, to reflect the changes we're seeing in developing word-of-mouth for films?
What they're doing is allowing us to become real partners with clients very early on and have a real overview because we not only understand the marketing but the distribution. The key to all this is understanding revenue streams. Both Cindi and Michael [Nyman, BNC CEO] have been so supportive and took on our whole team to come over and run this for them. Again, this speaks to the resourcefulness we have to have these days, plus innovation. We're able to do a lot of pioneering we weren't able to do 15 years ago. With new technology and new opportunities, I've found it's really exciting to be in this business.
Madison & Vine: "The Kids Are All Right" seems to be exemplary of this new marketing model -- an Oscar-friendly PR campaign combined with just the right mix of audience targeting and mainstream marketing to capitalize on some of the best reviews of the year. But it's also arguably one of the only quality films to be released all year. What aspects of that new word-of-mouth marketing model can you control and what parts are beyond your reach these days?
Ms. Koltai-Levine: What the public is saying is, "Offer me something good, and I'll come." I think we forget that a little bit, and I think "The Kids Are All Right" is a wonderful example of that. From our point of view, we've been able to get the film out there and present it in a very accessible way. You can look back in time and fundamentally say this is a good film. When you look at independent films, we have to focus on good movies. The great thing is it shows audiences will come, and Focus did a great job of taking their time, being patient and picked a fantastic date.
As far as word of mouth, there's this perceived measurement which is what the buzz would be and where the trailers are hitting. The thing about Rotten Tomatoes is it's a tangible item. That means a critic has written something, and it has registered. But interestingly enough, Rotten Tomatoes is not something you can control because you can't control critics. That's not something that you could say, "I maneuvered that." I'm almost interested in how do we make that transactional. The elements we have now that are very helpful are [that] we can really target -- niche, demographic, you can drill down to the most minute item, so when you're able to target , that gives you a much more effective way that may be more precise.
I always think of it as a more inverted pyramid. And you have to start with your core. The question is, "How big of a core is enough to create word-of-mouth?"
Madison & Vine: So it seems if there's anything we've learned this summer, it's that quality really does make a difference.
Ms. Koltai-Levine: The quality does make a difference, but I also think the accessibility. I don't mean how many theaters you're in, which of course does play a role, but the material. I think you have to really find the combination of material matched to where you're distributing the film. There are fantastic theaters around this country, when you look at Landmark and what's in New York and L.A., you know there's great films that have audiences that are going to come knowing they're going to get sophisticated material.
And when you look to apply it to a blockbuster, it looks like "Inception" is certainly going to be that. The great thing is it also had the visuals to support it -- a really sophisticated idea with incredible visuals and incredible special effects. Those are wonderful juxtapositions of what can work in this marketplace. But you can also look at examples of [Nicole Holofcener's] "Please Give" or [the Banksy documentary] "Exit Through the Gift Shop" for how to do that with smaller movies.
Madison & Vine: When does active social media make sense for a smaller movie? "The Kids Are All Right" has more than 10,000 fans on Facebook, and Focus Features has more than 12,000 followers on Twitter. At what point in the marketing pyramid do you activate those people instead of paid media?
Ms. Koltai-Levine: It's about understanding the financial needs. When you make a movie for $30,000, your needs are much different than even a movie made for $1 million, $5 million or $20 million. I'm a big believer in backing into your numbers. Let's look at some comps, see what those films grossed on the same budget. Of course you want to be the anomaly, of course you're going to make the best film anyone's ever made, but just in case, let's take the conservative and go from there.
And I think the "Kids Are All Right" is going to be a wonderful example of that inverted pyramid. Between marketing and distribution, they've done a marvelous job of that balancing act, where the buzz is often beating the film to some markets. You have to be patient with the distribution, and it's great that they've found this moment. That timing of distribution becomes very important, because you can look at summer films that made it all the way through to the Oscars. But it is a business at the end of the day, and you have to back into the numbers.