Head for the hills

When Maggie Monteith drives through the studio gates of Columbia TriStar’s film lot in Hollywood, she will have to steer past the various “mafias” that control the US film business. Monteith, a Scot, takes up the role of vice-president for global strategic marketing next month after working in London as director of marketing for the studio’s UK film division (MW January 14).

It is said that Hollywood is ruled by the Harvard mafia, the Jewish mafia and the gay mafia. While the British have exported successful actors, writers, directors and producers to Hollywood – scooping Oscars in the process – Monteith is one of the few Brits to enter one of the toughest gangs in Tinseltown – the marketing mafia.

She will report to Columbia’s senior vice-president of marketing, Mark Workman, who has notched up successes such as putting together the promotions and tie-ins for Men In Black, Zorro and Godzilla.

Other top Hollywood marketers include Terry Press, head of strategic marketing and special markets for DreamWorks. She moved from the Disney picture group in 1995 when she was poached by former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-founder of DW along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Press was the marketer behind Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for the best picture Oscar. “There is no one who has impressed me more with their ingenuity, taste and creativity,” was Katzenberg’s comment on Press.

At Fox Filmed Entertainment, president of marketing Bob Harper masterminded the original Star Wars twentieth anniversary re-issue last year which took 23m in its opening weekend – an astounding sum for a re-issued film. This year he will market the Star Wars prequel. Observers say it has the potential to be the highest grossing film of all time.

The skill of these marketers can make or break a Hollywood film. As one source says: “Marketers can even make people go to see a film that is not very good. A film really takes off through word of mouth, but it is possible to bamboozle the public with marketing so early on that people go to see it before anyone has a chance to speak to anyone else about it.” He gives the example of Godzilla – which he says was of “regular” quality, but was still one of the most anticipated films ever. The three-year pre-launch marketing campaign – in which Workman played a key role – helped it become the fourth biggest grossing film of last year.

Until the Nineties, creative people made the films, and then the studio marketing departments were invited to work out how to sell them.

But these days, studios won’t even buy a film script until it has been scanned by a marketer. As a senior marketer at one of the major studios says: “The idea was that the creative people baked the cake. Then we came in and told them how best to sell it. Now more often we come in before the film has been shot. We talk about who the film is aimed at, what elements in the project make it attractive to them and what could be included to further appeal to that audience. This could be a type of soundtrack, locations, or to use existing tie-ins we have with other businesses. We are involved in the ingredients of the cake now.”

Movie marketers have influenced big budget movies since Star Wars in 1977, which ushered in the era of the blockbuster accompanied by a myriad of spin-off products such as toys, TV series and records. Marketers’ early involvement in all types of films is a reflection of the spiralling costs of production.

PolyGram’s Four Weddings And A Funeral starring Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell, cost 2m and took 200m worldwide. Notting Hill, the follow-up to be released this summer, cost 25m, of which 10m has been paid to the © new female lead Julia Roberts. Roberts’ last film My Best Friend’s Wedding, another romantic comedy, made 188m worldwide. She is a hugely bankable star with experience in the genre.

Star salaries exert pressure on marketers to make sure the film has maximum publicity before its launch. Notting Hill will have product placements with Häagen-Dazs, Max Factor, and Domino’s Pizza. All three companies will run marketing campaigns around the film, which will promote it as well as the tie-ins in advance of the release.

After suffering a dramatic decline that reached its nadir in the early Eighties, the movie business has improved its fortunes. Last year, there were 137 million UK cinema admissions, ten years ago there were 94 million. Due to investment in new cinemas, and particularly multiplexes, there are around 2,400 screens in the UK, a decade ago there were just 1,447.

Last year, 24 films grossed over $100m (62m). The list included the usual big budget fare such as Armageddon, Lethal Weapon 4 and Godzilla. But it also included grown-up films such as Saving Private Ryan, The Horse Whisperer, and last year’s surprise hit, There’s Something About Mary. In 1998, Titanic became the highest-grossing film of all time with revenues of 1.1bn. Other entertainment industries, such as the music business, struggle to maintain revenues as well as the status of their leading artists, but the allure of Hollywood and its stars is undiminished. Marketers are credited with keeping the stars in the film-goers’ eyes.

More cinema screens are opening, and more films are being made. In 1989 the UK produced 30 films, attracting 105m in investment. In 1997 112 films were made, netting 560m of financing. The US releases between 400 and 450 films a year, which account for 80 per cent of worldwide box office revenues.

In the UK, however, cinema owners like Odeon, Virgin and United Cinemas International hold the whip hand. They have access to more films for their screens, and the simple economics of film exhibition demand that each screen has as many people watching it as possible.

As Kieran Breen, UK marketing director of PolyGram Film International, says: “A cinema owner may have ten screens, but if he can get away with showing Titanic in five of them he will, because that guarantees income.”

The result is that, despite an increase in cinema screens, it is more difficult for studios to find slots to screen their films.

Simon Spalding, DreamWorks European head of consumer products, says: “Films are in and out of cinemas faster than they were only three or four years ago. A four-week run for a modest film is now down to three. It has been like this in the US for some time and now it is happening here.” So there is greater competition among the studios to get their films seen, and this is driving up promotional budgets and product tie-ins.

The average Hollywood mainstream movie costs 25m to make, with the same again being spent on marketing, advertising, and producing high-quality prints of the film. With this kind of money at risk, studios reason that making films is too important a business to be left to film-makers alone.

As Breen points out: “Marketing is definitely in the ascendancy. The budgets are so big that you can’t afford to get it wrong.”

The picture’s crucial opening weekend is the movie marketer’s major priority.

A film that “opens” well can recoup its production costs in the first weekend, leaving subsequent revenue as pure profit, but four out of five films fail to do this. Number-crunchers can sort out the successes from the failures simply by going through the first weekend’s receipts.

Twentieth Century Fox European marketing director for home entertainment, Mary Daily, says that in general there are two types of films and two types of openings. She says: “There are films that are intended to appeal to everybody. These can often be the bigger releases like Titanic. Then there are films that are targeted at specific audiences, again these can have smaller budgets in comparison. Our job here is to make sure all of the studios’ communications appeal to that particular audience.”

The aim of each of the seven major studios – Disney, Warner, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – is to get one massive hit a year. Each studio is trying to make a Titanic, or a Jurassic Park (which made 750m), a Forest Gump, or a Lion King (both with revenues of 400m).

These films are referred to as “tent-pole” movies, because they hold up everything in the studio. They underwrite the costs of production for the studio’s failures throughout the year, pay the wages of the 2,000 to 3,000 staff the studio has around the world, and help provide capital to do it all over again next year.

It is therefore vital to make one movie of this magnitude. And when this does not happen for a year or two in a row, as when Sony took over Columbia in 1989, the future of a studio is put in doubt.

All studios look to have one movie of this size a year. A tent-pole movie is able to make money from competing media. There are opportunities for records, toys, books, merchandise and a range of other products. The Lion King generated over 150 products after its release.

As film budgets escalate, marketers will have a greater stake in film-making – trying to ensure the films are successful whether they are any good or not. For Monteith and Workman at Sony, for Terry Press at DreamWorks, for Harper at Fox, the stakes are rising as the studios increasingly look to them to ensure they produce at least one blockbuster a year.

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