Last year I wrote on Movie Marketing Madness: The Blog about how movie studios had failed to keep up with emerging technologies such as blogs, podcasts and other tools. Since then there has been some improvement in this area. Two companies that seem particularly to have hopped on the clue train are Fox (especially their Searchlight division) and Universal. Warner Bros., too, seems to be coming around. All three have at least dipped their toes in the waters of consumer-generated media, blogs or podcasts. They and the others that have made efforts to embrace these new technologies should be applauded. While I might have issues with some of the efforts (shocking, I know) at least improvements are being made and attitudes seem to be changing. What this two-part series is going to be aimed at is first identifying some areas where work is still required and then showing movie marketers where they can save themselves some work. When all is said and done I hope these comments are constructive and useful while eventually being a zero-sum game in terms of making work for people.
The first thing movie studios, and the marketers who work for them either in-house or as third-party contractors, need to do is come to a realization that might be difficult for them: They are not in charge of their product anymore. This is not a situation that’s unique to the movie industry, it’s happening all over the place. Companies do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of a larger community and need to accept and embrace that fact in order to survive. Movie studios still operate as if they’re the only game in town when it comes to mass entertainment. Their attitude is similar to that held by car makers. “We make the product and you must buy it. The only input we value comes in the form of payment.” How’s that working for GM? Believe me when I say unless there’s some sort of seismic shift in how movie studios do business there will be at least one studio in the same boat as GM (billions in losses, no end in sight) inside of five years. The products both industries create are cost-bloated, full of inefficiencies, are suffering a lack of creative direction and are increasingly unpopular with the mass audience needed to generate a profit. And both are being trounced by leaner, more user-friendly products that are beginning to dominate the marketplace.
Part of the reason the big movies studios are putting out are failing is that they’re not very good. But an equally big part of the failure is because the brands – and each movie is a brand in and of itself – are not connecting with the potential audience while the pre-release marketing campaign is going on. That lack of connection is happening because studios aren’t effectively utilizing the one medium that can bring people together: The internet.
Companies of all kinds are becoming successful by not only creating good products and services but by creating passionate and engaged consumers. The websites put up by most studios fall so far from any sort of effort at engagement it’s not to be believed. Offering a PC wallpaper to download is no longer enough to engender brand (movie) loyalty. It’s one-way communication to an audience that’s thirsting for a two-way dialog. They want to feel like stakeholders and equal partners in the success of their favorite products and brands. If you give someone the tools they need to spread the word on something they enjoy and are looking forward to then you’ve gained access not only to the money they could spend but to the money their network of contacts could spend.
Think of it this way: People have always hired babysitters and doctors based on personal recommendations. No traditional advertising is necessary for these professions because any such ads would be seen as self-serving and untrustworthy. If you are going to put your two most precious commodities – your kids and your health – in someone’s hands then it’s going to be someone you or someone you know trusts. Well now the entire marketplace is being subjected to the same criteria. I might spend my money only on movies that receive positive reviews not so much from just any old film critic but from someone I know, even if that person is not a professional movie reviewer.
It’s the concept of citizen media, specifically citizen generated media, that the studios and their marketing hired guns need to wake up to and reach out to. There’s a harsh realization that needs to happen that there are more people writing about a film than an executive might think and people are reading what’s written with a wary and skeptical eye. This is something that every industry has, is or shortly will be going through. The companies that used to control thought and information through packaged advertising are realizing their consumers are blogging, podcasting and otherwise broadcasting their feelings, opinions and experiences to an audience far larger than they were previously able to. Those opinions and experiences are, whether they like it or not, impacting their brands on a scale that dwarfs traditional word-of-mouth.
There are some studios that already get this, or have at least shown signs of doing so. New Line launched a great viral site to promote Wedding Crashers that let people upload their own pictures into scenes from the movie that got a lot of buzz. Universal promoted The 40-Year Old Virgin by creating a game site letting people rip off Steve Carell’s chest hair to spell words. Other studios have launched similar micro-site efforts that try to get people involved and that’s great. It really is. But there has to be more.
Now I’m not saying it’s essential or even practical that every studio marketer maintain an up-to-date list of blog writers who have ever talked about their movies and stay in constant contact with each and every one of them. That’s impossible and ultimately fruitless. That doesn’t mean, though, that they’re off the hook when it comes to citizen media contacts. Next week I’ll give some free advice to the studios and their surrogates on what they can do, what they need to do and what they can stop worrying about doing.