Entertainment Marketers 2008

Entertainment Marketers 2008: Nancy Utley

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After "Little Miss Sunshine" became the little 2006 indie that could, grossing nearly $60 million at the box office and amassing enough critical acclaim to score a surprise best-picture Oscar nomination, the pressure was on for Fox Searchlight to duplicate that success.

Enter "Juno."

Not only did Nancy Utley, the studio's chief operating officer, one-up herself by helping the film snare four Academy Award nominations, she led a remarkable marketing effort that pushed "Juno" to a gross of more than $100 million at the box office (a record for Searchlight). The studio's former marketing chief, with the assistance of a studiowide effort, helped make the film's Diablo Cody-penned script part of the pop-culture lexicon. Remember this the next time you hear someone replace a noun with the word "blog" in everyday speech ("What the blog?").

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Photo: Doane Gregory
  • "Juno-verse" features replicas of character's bedroom
  • Starts with true targets -- art-house crowd, women 18 to 24 -- then branch out
  • Signature hamburger phone a hit online
Using the success of "Sunshine" as a blueprint, Ms. Utley strove to make "Juno" the "kind of film the press and audiences become so passionate about, they start to market the film for us," she says. To make that possible, Ms. Utley commissioned a three-tiered marketing strategy comprising media buys, creative planning and publicity blitzes to coincide with different stages of the film's release and audience targets.

Broadening reach
Dan Pittman, the studio's VP-media, kicked off the "Juno" campaign in late November to go after the tastemaking art-house cinema crowds and females 18 to 24, the film's target demo. After building a significant amount of buzz among both demos in a limited December release, he moved on to target adults 35 to 54 and ultimately proved that "Juno" could play in Peoria despite its controversial teen-pregnancy theme.

"The movie was both pro-choice and pro-life," Ms. Utley says. "We believed 'Juno' was speaking to their cause, and it helped the movie to penetrate into smaller towns in a smaller way."

Similarly, studio PR chief Michelle Hooper and VP-Creative Stephanie Allen pushed key aspects of the film's script. In Southern California, Ms. Hooper set up a series of pop-up replicas of Juno's bedroom, dubbed "Juno-verse," featuring Juno's posters, signature sweater and, of course, hamburger phone. They also trotted out director Jason Reitman and star Ellen Page in an 11-city promotional tour across the country to discuss the movie's themes and creative process.

Ms. Allen edited the film's trailer and TV spots to ensure that Ms. Cody's unique brand of sharp-witted humor stayed true to the movie's subversively heartwarming message.

Promoting a film-fest favorite in the post-Thanksgiving Oscar rush presented Mr. Pittman with two challenges. "The first one was how competitive the landscape was in December. ... Claiming you have award acclaim really isn't enough," he says. The other was being a casualty of Hollywood happenstance. "The writers strike knocked a lot of shows off the air. We couldn't a) get any publicity and b) get any spots out there."

Plan B
With the instant reach of original broadcast programming virtually locked out by the nationwide launch of "Juno" in mid-January, Mr. Pittman used strategic media buys to draw distinct lines between his two target demos. For the 18- to 34-year-olds, he turned to female-targeted reality shows such as "Project Runway," "The Hills" and "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." He bought into cable news' election coverage and key morning and evening news shows to lure the 35-to-64 movie fans.

The online effort saw a mix of social-networking sites (MySpace, YouTube, Gawker) and "smart sites" (Comedy Central, NYTimes.com, Huffington Post) to zero in on potential Juno-heads. Some Facebook users were treated to a free gift, Juno's hamburger phone, to post on their friends' walls.

Having officially broken nearly all her once-boutique studio's records, Ms. Utley has high hopes she and her team can top themselves again soon. Already on tap for 2008 are two high-profile literary adaptations: a hard-hitting take on Chuck Palahniuk's "Choke" starring Sam Rockwell and a movie version of "The Secret Life of Bees" with Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson.

"Sometimes when I meet somebody and tell them what I do, people will go, 'Those are all my favorite movies!' " Ms. Utley says. "I think among our niche group of consumers, our name means something."
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