Getting the right effect at the movies

Film promotion has become big business in the UK, but marketers must use modern technology to keep up with cinema-goers, says Branwell Johnson

When you go to watch a big-budget film you expect to see the million-dollar investment translated onto the screen in terms of special effects, action and stunts. But way before anyone takes a seat they will also have been exposed to a costly marketing campaign.

Film distributors in the UK spent £138.7m on marketing their movies last year, a similar amount to the expected spend for 2003 (Nielsen Media Research). Year-on-year figures for the number of cinema admissions dropped by 11.9 per cent to 77.3 million for the six months to June 2003, according to the Cinema Advertising Association. However, 2002 was a record year for attendance and the potential cinema audience is still huge.

Studios earmark a hefty budget for marketing their movies and a distributor’s media planning and buying account is not to be sniffed at – hence the large amount of agency interest in United International Picture’s (UIP) £27m media business, now up for pitch (MW last week).

In the UK a big summer movie can have a marketing budget of up to £2m, though many have much smaller spends. Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association, says that there are seven films released each week in the UK, competing not only among themselves, but also with other forms of entertainment.

“The cinema market is ruthless. New releases are coming right on your heels and competing for the same audiences,” he says.

Stuart Williams, director of marketing at Columbia TriStar, has 30 films on his 2003 schedule. He says: “Everyone is spending more than ever to get a share of exposure.”

However, while film-making technology has changed, with computer generated imagery or digital animation now pushing the boundaries of visual imagination, it seems advertising strategies have been left behind. The greatest advertising spend goes on television, totalling £55.2m in 2002, followed by outdoor at £47.5m and press at £26.3m.

A key difference between films and other products is that any supporting advertising campaigns must be crammed into a small window of opportunity to capture consumers’ attention.

Mark Waugh, deputy managing director at Zenith Optimedia, which handles Entertainment Film Distribution, the distributor of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, says that the typical campaign launches ten days prior to a film’s release date and will use TV and outdoor campaigns targeted at key audiences pre-release, with press ads appearing in listings sections from the day of release to pick up casual cinema-goers. “It’s a retail business because you have got to generate customers very quickly and if you don’t you’re dead,” says Waugh.

This intense focus on the opening of a movie is because the first weekend of its release is usually the biggest grossing weekend, taking up to 60 per cent of the total box-office gross. After the first weekend, a weak film will find word-of-mouth impinges on its audience. The planning process itself starts much earlier.

Laura James, media director at PHD, the agency which plans the campaigns for Warner Bros titles such as The Matrix Reloaded, says: “Marketing is discussed months and months in advance. We are thinking about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban already.” The film is set for a summer 2004 release.

Radio has less of an impact when it comes to promoting films because it is not visual. Waugh says that he will not buy radio advertising without it being tied up with a promotional programming deal.

The challenge for the planner lies in the careful targeting of the right audience for a particular movie. Core media advertising campaigns can be overlayed with editorial opportunities thanks to a film’s unique interest value. Waugh says: “There is a whole editorial world built around entertainment.” James adds that the role of advertising and its use of media is to then turn the huge hype generated by editorial coverage into “bums on seats”.

Promotional tie-ups with the press can also be used to build on editorial content, such as Columbia TriStar’s partnership with the Daily Mirror to offer readers a DVD on the making of the film Terminator 3 and a Seventies soundtrack CD for Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

Telecoms is another area is being exploited by film promoters. For Charlie’s Angels, Columbia TriStar tied up with T-Mobile, which offered its subscribers the chance to pay for branded content such as games, ringtones and screen background pictures. T-Mobile promoted the content with its own TV and point-of-purchase campaigns. Williams says: “It all adds to the event status of a movie. The consumer wandering around the high street will see a myriad of messages for it.”

Film distributors have also begun to stream film ads on Yahoo!’s home page, develop innovative official film websites, and build up e-mail and mobile databases so they can mail out and text movie gossip and information.

However, the new technology is a double-edged sword and Batey admits there is a concern that SMS messaging and the internet can undermine marketing efforts, as any negative word-of-mouth can travel quickly – a person can tell a friend a film is not worth seeing within minutes of leaving the cinema.

Given that the bulk of cinema-goers are young and are familiar with the internet, the marketing machine and supporting agencies need to plug into new technology in addition to traditional media in order to fully exploit the potential of their films.

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