Motion Pictures

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Selling a movie is unlike other kinds of consumer marketing. Moviegoing is an experience, not a tangible product that consumers can touch and feel. Each movie is unique; each is in the spotlight briefly.

There are no movie brands, per se, although from the 1930s into the '50s, the films of Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century Fox and other studios all had distinctive visual and audio characteristics. No one buys a ticket because a film is from a particular studio, with the possible exception of movies from the family-oriented Walt Disney Co.

If a movie does not find its audience fast, it faces quick banishment to sub-run houses, although nearly every film now achieves renewed life in ancillary markets such as home video and TV.

Movie trailers

"Previews of coming attractions"—short films featuring highlights of upcoming motion pictures—have been around as long as the movies. These previews, or "trailers" in movie industry terminology, are still one of the most effective ways to reach potential movie audiences, as they are seen by the most likely target group—existing movie audiences.

Point-of-purchase materials have long been the studios' most fundamental advertising tools. For the 1927 film "The Jazz Singer," promoters installed stills of the first talking picture's cast around microphones. Supporting that was a revolving drum containing recordings of pieces of "The Jazz Singer" dialogue. Sound went on as each card popped up.

When the studio system was at its peak from the 1930s into the '60s, all the major motion picture companies retained advertising agencies, most of them based in New York, where Hollywood's financial decisions were typically made. MGM had a long relationship with Donahue & Coe, Columbia Pictures with the Biow Co. and RKO with Lord & Thomas and its successor, Foote, Cone & Belding, before going in-house in the 1950s.

Movie posters did not speak, but they were-and remain-a mainstay for the selling of motion pictures. In the early 1990s, when frenzy around the "Batman" film franchise was at its peak, vandals stole elaborate posters of the Caped Crusader from Los Angeles-area bus shelters. The crimes became a news event that helped promote the Warner Bros. film.

Publicity stunts have at times been used to market movies. To promote the 1947 film "The Egg & I", for example, press agent Jim Moran sat on an ostrich egg for 19 days, 4 hours and 32 minutes-until it hatched.

Following an influx of executives from Madison Avenue and package-goods companies, movie marketers have come to employ a full arsenal of sophisticated marketing techniques. A typical strategy involves extensive market research, advertising in an array of outlets and targeted promotional efforts aimed at ethnic segments. Licensing and merchandising have become big business, with studios locking up major fast-food and soft-drink partners to help share the financial burdens associated with "event" films.

In the 1950s, as Americans moved to the suburbs and TV became more popular, the movie industry faced dark times. But the business fought back with technical improvements such as 3-D, Cinemascope and stereo sound that rekindled interest, although movie attendance has not yet reached the levels of the pre-TV heyday (despite rising box office returns from higher ticket prices). The movie business has adapted to the public's changing habits, now embracing the medium that almost killed it.

Watershed promotions

Veteran movie executives point to the second release of the film "Billy Jack" as a key event in motion picture advertising history. That contemporary Western melodrama played in a handful of drive-ins and adult theaters in its first unsuccessful release in 1971. Two years later, "Billy Jack" received a second chance. That time, promoters played it on numerous screens in key cities and supported it with saturation TV advertising, an unheard of practice at the time, when, typically, 65% to 70% of all film promotional budgets went to newspapers. Instead, 80% of the promotional expenditures for "Billy Jack" went to TV. The picture grossed a then whopping $32.5 million and changed marketing thinking in Hollywood.

Another watershed in motion picture marketing came with the release of "Star Wars" in 1977, an event that revolutionized the financial possibilities of movies. The huge success of this film, followed by the even more spectacular grosses of "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and sequels to "Star Wars," pushed the film business to a new level of economic expectation.

Increasingly, Hollywood marketing turned its attention to creating mega-hits, rich with the potential for generating licensing incomes from toys, clothes and premiums. In the years that followed, marketing expenditures rose dramatically as the major studios and production companies increasingly bet their fortunes on an ever-shrinking number of huge productions that were intended to gross enormous sums.

In that high-stakes environment, Hollywood's attention shifted to each picture's performance on the opening weekend of its release. In the weeks preceding an opening, studios bombard the airwaves with commercial images. And because the summer months and the Christmas holidays tend to produce the largest potential audiences, studios fight to market their biggest films during the most crowded release periods of the year; at the same time, they look for an opening weekend with minimal competition.

That all-or-nothing strategy of the major studios has made it difficult for small pictures to get produced, a situation that has opened the field to independent productions, some of which became surprise hits. That in turn has become an incentive for the major studios to acquire or set up subsidiaries that specialize in marketing lower-budget independent and foreign-language pictures to smaller audiences.

In spite of the many potential pitfalls, there have been memorable movie ad campaigns throughout the years. Ads for "Bonnie & Clyde," a seminal film with antihero leads and a gritty depiction of violence, trumpeted, "They're young. . . . They're in love. . . . And they kill people."

Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 surreal evocation of Vietnam, "Apocalypse Now," did not use cliche war movie images; instead, posters and print ads featured a stark, all-red graphic showing a smoking horizon.

And the copy line, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water," lives in the collective memory from the 1978 release of "Jaws 2."

In the 1990s, as movie marketers struggled to break through increasing ad clutter, yet another new medium appeared: the Internet. Many credit the World Wide Web with the seemingly out-of-nowhere success of "The Blair Witch Project," a super-low-budget independent film that became one of 1999's box office standouts. Its distributor, Artisan Entertainment, set up a clever Web site well before the film's release that allowed its target audience (youth) to feel as if they had discovered the quirky little film on their own—an example of "guerrilla marketing" at its best.

By the early 21st century, Hollywood's film studios were moving beyond just Internet marketing to focus their efforts on alternative media and innovative methods to reach potential movie-goers.

NBC Universal broke ground in spring 2004 by airing the first 10 minutes, uncut, of the remake of its theatrical "Dawn of the Dead" on its sibling cable channel USA Network. The move was credited with boosting the movie to No. 1 on in its opening weekend, when it pulled in $22 million. Several studios, including News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Co., later copied the sampling tactic.

Studios began to make the marketing messages more closely reflect the entertainment content. For "The Day After Tomorrow," News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox created lighting and thunder special effects in arenas during NBA playoff games to mimick the weather-gone-wild theme of the film. Fox hired Brand Marketers, San Francisco, to dispatch models wearing high-tech T-shirts that played the trailer for the Will Smith futuristic action flick, "I, Robot." The models themselves became billboards for the film, with slicked-back hair, poker faces and robotic movements.

Disney, trying to appeal to hip, tech-savvy film fans, launched a "smart trailer" with that packed 11 minutes of entertainment into an online trailer for its Thanksgiving 2004 release, "National Treasure." The studio, best known for its mass-media approach, also created wild postings, in-theater programming, "secret" Web sites and other guerrilla marketing for the release of M. Night Shyamalan's thriller "The Village."

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