Entertainment Marketers of the Year

After mining 'big idea,' Fox duo perfects segmenting effort to fill theater seats

By Published on .

Pam Levine, Co-president of Marketing, & Tone Sella, Co-president of Marketing

To young hipsters in major metropolitan areas, the movie was described as the tale of an original American rebel, beloved by rap and rock stars, and captured in iconic images from underground artist Shepard Fairey.

To people in the heartland, the film is a moving story of redemption set to an indelible country music soundtrack.

It's the same movie-last year's hit biopic "Walk the Line" about Johnny Cash-but Pam Levine and Tony Sella, co-presidents of marketing at News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox-crafted distinct messages to play up the qualities that would most appeal to certain target demographics. In addition to casting the broadest possible net, with TV spots during "Desperate Housewives" and "American Idol," the executives served up pieces of the story to buff both the cool factor and the emotional resonance.

Though it might seem schizophrenic, the approach worked, helping push "Walk the Line" over $100 million at the box office. It became one of the few Oscar contenders to draw in a wide audience, landing in the top 20 money-makers of the year.

The campaign is indicative of the yin and yang of Ms. Levine and Mr. Sella. Ms. Levine, 39, who's all about number crunching and strategy, comes from a research background. Mr. Sella, 49, who started in advertising at Diener Hauser Bates in New York, and later worked as VP-creative services for Walt Disney Co., Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, loves "the big idea."

Together, they've become the formidable Hollywood team whose string of successes last year helped make Fox the second-highest grossing studio with $1.3 billion in domestic ticket sales, and the first Advertising Age Entertainment MVP of the year for drawing in massive crowds during a trying year for the movie industry.

Ms. Levine and Mr. Sella, who have been a team for the past four years, say they look at each film as an individual product that needs an event-style launch, whether it's the all-family toon "Robots" or the comic-based action flick "Fantastic Four." They thrive on creating that sense of urgency.

"You home in on what's unique about the movie," Ms. Levine says, "and that's how you position it in the marketplace. You never waver."

COUNTERED SLUMP

Luring people off their couches and away from other entertainment options proved a tall order in 2005, when box office ticket sales slumped 5% and attendance dipped 8%. Even "Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith," the final installment of a billion-dollar franchise, was not a slam dunk due to turbulent times and weak reviews of the prior two movies. With deft positioning that served the nostalgia and the cultural gravitas, "Sith" made $380.3 million domestically, the top earner of the year.

"We sell the experience of going to a particular movie, and it had better be worth leaving home for," Mr. Sella says. "If you present the right idea, the market can expand."

It did, unexpectedly, for "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," a surprise summer hit starring Hollywood couple "Brangelina" that opened at No. 1 and eventually grossed $186 million. The challenge for the marketing team was to keep the focus on the movie and away from the budding off-screen love life of the high-profile stars.

The solution: Mr. Sella and Ms. Levine used the elegant images of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in black tie and evening gown, with guns as accessories, with only "Mr. Smith" and "Mrs. Smith" as identifiers. The stars' names were not in the ads, a rare occurrence in Hollywood. Nor were the stars' images used together-they were always separate-to keep the emphasis on the characters and story.

Industry watchers also were taken aback by the $154.7 million earnings of "Fantastic Four," which Ms. Levine and Mr. Sella positioned as the quintessential popcorn movie. During the same summer that Warner Bros.' "Batman Begins" was critiqued for its dark and gritty story, Fox marketers gave "Fantastic Four" a light, fun, almost Saturday morning cartoon feel to appeal to kids, teens and genre fans.

"It was a combination of good choices, bringing the right movies to the marketplace, and good marketing behind them," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Fox had five movies in the top 20 of the year, and that's impressive at a time when it was very difficult to get people to the theaters."

The medium is as important as the message, and Fox relied heavily on everything from hot social networking site MySpace.com and cable channel Spike to tie-ins with the National Basketball Association and Amazon.com. Marketing partnerships with Burger King, Kraft, Samsung, SBC, Kellogg Co. and other heavy-hitters pumped up exposure and awareness for individual Fox titles.

That trend continues this year, with a dozen co-marketing partners that linked to "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown." The $100 million-plus partner push around the film propelled it to a $68 million opening, the best of the year. Those deals, in addition to marketing that positioned the movie as a comedy for everyone, not just kids and families, have made the animated flick pop to the tune of more than $183.4 million so far. It's being credited with helping boost the overall box office 6% this year.

How AA chose the Entertainment MVP

For the first time Ad Age named an Entertainment MVP. The 20th Century Fox team was chosen for highly selective marketing that drove the box office receipts of a string of films.

Selected for: 20th Century Fox

* Mixed research with the creative big idea.

* Sold the individual experience in varying methods to reach demo segments differently.
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