Why British films face a Titanic task

When Jack Nicholson brandished the best actor Oscar for his role in As Good As It Gets, the marketing men connected with the film saw a fist full of dollars. In contrast the marketing team behind the small British film Twenty Four Seven, starring Bob Hoskins, will simply be trying to hold their own against the post-Oscar hype when it opens on Friday.

One film had an estimated worldwide marketing budget of 17m, the other has 500,000 to make a splash. The contrast puts into sharp focus the gap between the film haves and have nots.

Ironically, at a time when there are a record number of UK-made films being shown in the home market, marketing budgets are not so much lagging behind, as non existent in comparison with those originating in the US. Last year, 23 per cent of films shown in the UK were produced in this country – the average for the past few years has been eight per cent.

To give an extreme example of what the British film is up against, Titanic cost 150m to make and has an estimated budget of 40m. About 90 per cent of the budget goes on marketing, the rest is spent on duplicating the cinema print. Twenty Four Seven cost 1.6m to make and has a marketing budget of 500,000 – small even by UK standards. But that money has to entice people into the cinema and then ensure that the film is given its full run while the competition is spending at least four times as much in the UK alone on giving their films a profile.

It commonly costs between 1m and 2m to open a film across the UK; in the US it costs between 13m and 19m.

Elizabeth Draper, deputy managing director of independent film distribution house Pathé, is marketing Twenty Four Seven. One of her tasks is to avoid making the boxing film, shot in black and white, not seem like an art house – and therefore small audience – movie.

A cinema trailer campaign was launched for the film a month ago, posters went up earlier this month and radio ads start this week. Its executive producer, Nick Powell, believes the UK film industry is in good shape, and must resist the temptation to try to emulate US populist cinema.

“We make bespoke upmarket products like BMW or Mercedes, not mass-produced Fiats,” says Powell. “We simply don’t have the resources to do what the Americans do. But we are market leaders in making this kind of upmarket product, which does well in the US.”

Draper believes some of the new money coming into the UK film industry should be put aside to market films – not just produce them. This week’s Academy Awards, as it does every year, acts as a springboard for those films that come away with a prize in a major category. But it also offers the greatest contrast with those which do not even have the funds to win a place on the shortlist.

Guy Laurence, vice-president of marketing Europe for Planet Hollywood, was until the start of the year executive vice-president of international distribution and marketing for MGM Studios. It meant that he oversaw the marketing of James Bond everywhere except the US.

He says the Oscars do one of two things for a winner: “With a successful film like Titanic it increases the length of its run. But an Oscar can also create a ‘breakout’ film. This is a well acted fairly low budget movie that suddenly wins the prize and then everyone wants to see it.”

The Crying Game, Usual Suspects and The Unforgiven all fall into this category. But others, such as Sling Blade, which won a screen play Oscar for Billy Ray Thornton last year, have never had the distribution and therefore the marketing to exploit the Oscar success.

Usually the addition of that short gold statuette can add between ten and 15 per cent to a film’s box office revenues. In the case of Titanic, which according to the industry’s business newspaper Screen International has already made 600m, this could mean an extra 90m.

The success means that extra profit can be wrung from a product that has a short theatrical life – two months is considered a long run in the cinema. If a film wins an Oscar as it comes to the end of its run, it may be relaunched with a new advertising campaign and a new burst of interview activity by its stars. This happened with Clint Eastwood’s western The Unforgiven in 1992.

By the time a film makes the screens at the local multiplex, 90 per cent of its marketing budget has already been spent.

“A film’s marketing effort is all focused on the first weekend of opening,” says Stewart Till, president of Polygram International.

“There are two reasons for this. The first is that by the time a film opens enough people must want to see it early. This generates word-of-mouth which is incredibly important in this industry.

“The other reason there is so much focus on the first weekend is because there is a great deal of pressure to keep your film run ning at the cinema for the second weekend.

“If your returns are poor in your first weekend then the exhibitor will move your movie onto a small-er screen or drop it altogether,” says Till.

The figures bear out the pressure for exhibition space that Till describes. According to cinema sales house Carlton Screen Advertising, in 1995 there were 254 film releases in the UK. This jumped to 284 in 1996, and then 290 last year.

Charlotte Stockting, marketing director of Carlton Screen Advertising, says: “I used to work in magazines, and we would deal with lead times of up to five months. In cinema we regularly handle four or five films a week, and the marketing and communication is of a high standard. We are the equivalent of the fast moving consumer goods (fmcg) marketers of the media world.”

The British film industry is enjoying a renaissance on the back of movies like Trainspotting and The Full Monty but to fully ex ploit that position it needs to learn more from the packaged goods marketers.

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