Take Your Cue From Hollywood

Tepid Box Office Turns Studios Into Innovators and Creators of Marketing Case Studies

By Published on .

Marketing a movie seems like a no-brainer. Shoot a few trailers and air them like mad on TV the week before the movie's premiere.

But Hollywood studios, faced with declining box office in recent years, have been forced to take a leadership role in marketing experimentation. And it seems to be paying off. Hollywood's film studios rebounded with a 5% increase at the box office last year, the result of some crowd-pleasing movies and maverick marketing behind them.

"You have to come up with a plan that's indigenous to any given movie," said Gerry Rich, Paramount's president-worldwide film marketing. "It's not marketing for the sake of being different but for the sake of being smarter."

So despite what critics in D.C. might say, Hollywood may prove to be a positive role model-for marketers at any rate.

Here are 10 tricks of the trade:

Speak the language

Screen Gems' ringtone to promote its thriller "The Messenger" is teen-friendly not only because it's a digital-marketing maneuver: The specialty studio created it with ultrasonic frequencies that are supposedly audible only to teens. The promotion hews closely to the theme of the movie-the 16-year-old protagonist hears voices her parents can't. Studio marketers will infuse the campaign with loads of teen-skewing outreach via AIM, social networking and text messaging.

Revive the roadshow

To launch Oscar hopeful "Dreamgirls," DreamWorks and Paramount took a cue from the 1960s, when epic movies such as "The Ten Commandments" played at a few select theaters at a premium price. Audiences paid $25 a ticket to see "Dreamgirls" in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York before the musical started a gradual rollout. "It's showmanship," said Paramount's Mr. Rich. "It's a great way to start word-of-mouth in high-impact markets." When the movie widened to 850 screens, buzz was so intense that it vaulted into the top 10 with an $8.7 million take in a single day.

Shock 'em

Lionsgate, never shy about controversy, persuaded the star of the grisly horror flick "Saw III" to donate his own blood to mix with ink for the movie's poster. Tim Palen, co-president of marketing, said it was the best way to get just that authentic shade of red. It was the first time real blood had been used to build buzz for a movie. The studio's at it again with a poster for "Hostel II," another hugely profitable franchise. Mr. Palen personally shot the close-up of raw meat and gristle that's a dead ringer for flesh and splayed organs.

Let the fans speak

New Line Cinema went further than any studio ever had by allowing webheads to dicker with its precious intellectual property. Scenes from "Snakes on a Plane" were re-shot, and Samuel L. Jackson's now-infamous line was added partly because fans asked for an edgier, R-rated horror flick. The studio freely put out material for mash-ups and parodies. Though the experiment didn't pay off with a big box office, it changed Hollywood's thinking about consumer involvement. Paramount will let people put words in the mouths of "Transformers" characters in what's likely to be the beginning of more fan fingerprints on films.

Harness new media

Studios were the first to latch on to gaming systems such as Xbox Live as marketing venues, churning out video diaries and podcasts from the sets of superhero movies and goofball comedies. Sony Pictures launched a recent ad roadblock across Viacom channels that drew upward of 5 million views for the "Spider-Man 3" trailer online, knocking out the previous champ, "King Kong," which had 3 million views. Cellphones and BlackBerrys are fertile ground for movie-centric entertainment bits beyond just trailers and behind-the-scenes footage. Look for more original content on every conceivable platform as studios try to engage young demos.

Ride with giants

A Sony Pictures partnership with Google for "The Da Vinci Code" helped spawn a rare "adult" blockbuster. MGM linked with eBay during the high-traffic holiday time for its "Rocky Balboa," with Sylvester Stallone's voice greeting visitors to the site. Other studios cozied up to MySpace, Yahoo, YouTube, AOL and Amazon, generating millions of impressions and kicking off what will be a long relationship between studios and the online behemoths.

Percolate a potential hit

Fox's marketing team pulled back on a plan to release the low-budget "Borat" on thousands of multiplex screens in favor of a more measured rollout. It turned out to be one of the savviest marketing moves of the year. "Borat," starring tireless promoter and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, was confined to 837 theaters on opening weekend, which slow-cooked the prerelease major-city hype. Performing well beyond expectations, the comedy scored $26.5 million, the top-grossing movie of the week, on far fewer screens than its competitors. When it tripled its screen count on the second weekend, it hauled in another $28.3 million and fixed itself as a cultural phenomenon.

Unclutter the environment

TV is a traditional medium, but Sony put a twist on its cable buy on FX. Studio executives bought all the commercial time in the fall season premiere of the edgy drama "Nip/Tuck" and used it to promote such features as "Casino Royale" and "Stranger Than Fiction." For about $1.8 million, the studio created 11 minutes of movie-centric ads and vignettes, giving fans little bits of branded entertainment and less commercial time than usual for an hour-long drama. The effect was theatrical and memorable.

Court controversy

After his drunken-driving arrest in Malibu, Calif., last summer and the anti-Semitic tirade that followed, many in Hollywood publicly distanced themselves from Mel Gibson. Disney did not. It had previously agreed to distribute his self-financed Mayan epic, "Apocalypto," and Mouse marketers put Mr. Gibson front and center in the campaign. Mr. Gibson started with a public mea culpa in a Diane Sawyer interview. He then made mainstream-media appearances to plug the ancient-dialect, star-free movie. The high-profile writer/actor/director screened the film at casinos and Indian reservations and at fanboy Harry Knowles' festival-masterful strokes that helped net the movie its $53.5 million worldwide.

Do the quick step

A rare brand-integration deal between two competing conglomerates, the link between Buena Vista Pictures' "Step Up" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance?" unfolded so nimbly it made marketing look like a glide across a well-polished ballroom. "Step Up," a movie about dancers following their dreams, had prime placement on the TV show's highly rated two-part finale without seeming like an infomercial. The movie's music and stars were pivotal to the TV show, a major hit with the teen-girl target. The low-budget "Step Up" opened at $20.6 million, better than industry expectations, and held strong with another $10.1 million in its second week. The partnership, put together in weeks, was a thematic winner.

Location, location, location

Honorable mentions go to a couple studios for premiering their films at attention-grabbing destinations. New Line staged the first movie debut at the Vatican for its holiday release "The Nativity," which kicked up coverage for the movie (but didn't translate to box-office success). Fox and WWE Films' premiere of "The Marine" was held at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in Southern California, and was attended by star John Cena and a host of wrestling's most famous faces. All the positive PR didn't put butts in seats, but props for trying.
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