Entertainment A-List 2010

Entertainment A-List No. 1: Sony Pictures

Studio's Marketers Credit '09 Success to Interactive, Viral Campaigns for Buzzworthy Pics Such as 'District 9,' '2012'

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Jeff Blake and Marc Weinstock
Jeff Blake and Marc Weinstock
LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- In a record-breaking 12 months for Hollywood, it was sometimes hard to stand out among all the milestones. From the highest-grossing year at the box office (2009) to the biggest single weekend (Dec. 27) to the highest-grossing film of all time ("Avatar"), the individual highs were sometimes easier to keep up with than other impressive successes. So it's understandable if Sony Pictures' highest-grossing year in its global history snuck by you. But if you take a look at the 2009 slate promoted by Jeff Blake, chairman of Sony Pictures worldwide marketing, and Marc Weinstock, the studio's marketing president, you'll find some of the most smartly marketed films of the past 12 months.

From "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," the surprise $146 million-grossing hit released January 2009, to "2012," a summer-caliber blockbuster released in November that earned $166 million, Sony's streak of hits were built (by Hollywood standards) on original stories, some with future franchise potential, while its competitors were trotting out sequels, retreads and over-hyped star vehicles. Perhaps its most striking achievement was "District 9," an out-of-nowhere film from an untested big-screen director (Neill Blomkamp) that earned $115 million and a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars on the strength of a clever viral-marketing campaign and an endorsement from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.

Elsewhere, "Julie & Julia," "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," "The Ugly Truth," "Zombieland" and Michael Jackson's "This Is It" all became larger-than-expected hits -- ultimately helping the studio achieve its first $2 billion-grossing year overseas* (and more than $3.5 billion worldwide).

Mr. Blake credits quality as the ultimate criterion for the studio's marketing successes.

"We can be as ahead of the game as marketers as we can be, but there's still something called a good movie. You can think of all the promotional partners and tie-ins you like, but what gets people into the theater is a good movie." Having a buzzworthy film has also proven to work more in Sony's favor than most, due to an early presence on Twitter (Sony has more followers than any other movie studio) and an adaptive marketing strategy that keeps conversations around its films active even after the opening weekend.

Sony's overseas gross for 2009, the first year the studio has passed the $2 billion mark in its history (and the fifth time in history for any studio)
Domestic gross of "District 9." Budget: $30 million
Domestic gross of "Julie & Julia." Worldwide gross: $129 million. Budget: $40 million
$603.6 MILLION
Worldwide gross of "2012." Budget: $200 million
"The judgment day comes a lot sooner now. You used to get to opening day or the second day to see whether the audience really liked the movie or not. But when you hype one thing and deliver another, [negative social-media chatter] is the immediate penalty these days," Mr. Blake said.

Mr. Weinstock suggested that creating an interactive viral experience for each film's marketing also helped matters. "District 9," for example, was launched with a viral outdoor campaign on benches and kiosks featuring a silhouette of the film's signature prawn-like aliens and a 1-800 number. It was a gamble that ultimately paid off due to Sony's commitment to original storytelling.

"Someone had the confidence to put a real tease in the market and really get something going virally before you even knew what it was," Mr. Blake said.

International coordination is also a growing priority for Sony's marketing teams. The global launch of "This Is It," for example, was hastily assembled in a 10-week timeframe following Mr. Jackson's death, with 18 simultaneous premieres in different countries. The result? A $261 million global gross, including $72 million domestically.

"The one thing we learned early on was great ideas need a great group to make sure they go out all over the world," Mr. Blake said. "We have a structure that makes us an efficient worldwide group, but we also listen to what's coming back from around the world and adapt that to our plans."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sony's $2 billion in ticket sales was worldwide. That figure referred to overseas sales.

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