The End-of-Year Movie-Marketing Dichotomy

There Has to Be a Smarter Way for Hollywood to Spend Its Ad Dollars

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Chris Thilk
Chris Thilk
The end of every year brings with it an interesting mix of movie-marketing efforts. You could almost say, if you were prone to paraphrasing the famous opening of a piece of classic literature (a lazy writer's trick to which this lazy writer is absolutely prone), "It was the narrowest of times, it was the broadest of times."

Come December, studios are going incredibly broad. There are franchises to market here, people, and the ramp-ups have already begun for some of 2011's biggest tentpoles. There's already a trailer and multiple posters for "Green Lantern," a poster and teaser trailer for "Thor" just debuted, photos have been released for the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" entry and so on. More immediately, studios are jumping on their newfound discovery that people will go see movies in December so they're continuing to promote "The Dilemma," "Green Hornet" and other mass-appeal films opening early next year.

And then there's always the Super Bowl, the holy grail of mass advertising, that's coming up in early February. While no studio has announced its Super Bowl ad plans yet, it would be safe to say there will be more than a few movie commercials within the game's broadcast.

But because we're in December, we're in the thick of movie awards season, meaning advertising is being targeted to the very narrow audience of industry voters. That means we're awash in discussion of whose performance is worthy of a nomination for various honors as well as ads from studios touting the talent they think deserves some recognition. And all that is in addition to the campaigns for limited-release movies that are still to come out this year. "Rabbit Hole," "True Grit," "Somewhere" and others are sneaking in before the end of the year in just a handful of theaters with marketing campaigns that coincide with the publicity that hopes to result in one or more awards nominations.

'Thor,' set for 2011 release
'Thor,' set for 2011 release
It's tempting to say the awards race is simply Hollywood marketing reverberating more loudly in the echo chamber than usual and that it's all about insiders trying to reach and influence other insiders, something that is going to barely affect the general movie-going public. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

The "For Your Consideration" campaigns are bigger and more extensive than the marketing for the release of the film itself, meaning more money is being spent trying to garner a nomination than in trying to get people to see the movie in the first place. If that money had been spent on 1) distribution plans that would have released the film to more markets/theaters; and 2) a marketing campaign to support the movie so that more people would be able to see it in theaters instead of adding it to their Netflix queue, where it will languish as "Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" is rented for the fifth time.

That's not to say that everyone everywhere is going to be interested in the latest filmed character study by Mike Leigh, the great looking "Another Year," but the potential audience for it surely has to be bigger than whatever the distribution plan likely is. (Of course it is, and don't call me Shirley. RIP Leslie Neilsen.) Yet -- here's that dichotomy again -- we're about to see studios shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million for a 30-second Super Bowl spot in the hopes of reaching as many people as possible during the last bastion of live TV viewing.

In both these cases there are other uses for the indulgent amount of money that's being spent. Certainly a ton of social-media activity that has as its goal to spur and sustain conversations could be generated with a $3 million budget -- activity that would likely be able to achieve the same reach over time as a Super Bowl spot. (I know because I've seen this happen on brands my agency works with.)

There are so many movies that come out that are positioned as awards contenders even though vast swaths of the audience have, at best, never seen them and, at worst, never heard of them because their marketing and distribution was so limited. On the flip side, if a movie's budget can afford a Super Bowl spot, it's likely there will be such massive media saturation around its release that audience reach is not even remotely a concern.

(I completely understand that the bigger the movie, the bigger the marketing spend, as more dollars are seen as insuring the movie doesn't fail at the box office. But considering the other factors at play, some of which I've laid out here, there has to be a better way to spend a buck.)

Take the money that's spent on either the mass-reaching Super Bowl or the extreme-insider-reaching "For Your Consideration" ads and using it to finance broader theatrical distribution and marketing for those smaller movies, bringing them to more people and increasing their chances at box-office success.

Moving some of those dollars from either the incredibly narrow or the incredibly broad would allow more films to flourish by fulfilling their destiny in the same way as Charlie Brown's much-maligned tree: By finding someone who loves them.

Chris Thilk writes and publishes and is a supervisor at PR and marketing agency Voce Communications.
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