Lead role for the movie marketers

Forget producers, directors, agents or even mega-grossing actors. These days, no self-respecting Hollywood studio will make a film without the say-so of its resident marketing guru.

Maybe that’s not so surprising, given the average mainstream film costs 25m to make; then add a similar sum on top for marketing. There’s too much at risk not to call in the marketer at the earliest stage. These days that means scanning the potential film script, analysing the profile of the audience, tweaking the soundtrack, tinkering with locations and sizing up the commercial potential of appropriate merchandising. Get it wrong and a goodish film, like Spielberg’s Amistad, can flop spectacularly. Get it right and it’s remarkable how much something as mediocre as Godzilla, or as downright bad as the Avengers, can be talked up.

Godzilla was escorted to market by one of the new breed of Hollywood wunderkind, Mark Workman, vice-president of marketing at Columbia, who also has Men in Black and Zorro under his belt. Then there’s Terry Press, who was the marketing force behind Disney’s Beauty and the Beast before she joined her patron Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks. And Bob Harper, who masterminded the 20th anniversary reissue of Star Wars, which grossed a mere 23m in its opening weekend.

The next big film to try its luck will probably be Polygram’s Notting Hill, to be released in early summer. It comes from the same studio and is handled by the same director as the legendary Four Weddings and a Funeral; it even stars Hugh Grant. Four Weddings was close on a commercial miracle. It cost a pittance, 2m, to make and grossed 200m. Notting Hill, on the other hand, cost 25m, 10m of which is going to its co-star Julie Roberts. It has already taken out an insurance policy in signing a multimillion pound product placement deal with Häagen-Dazs, Max Factor and Domino’s Pizza, all of whom are committed to running marketing campaigns around the film.

Though the film industry rides appalling risks, it has done so with more aplomb than many other parts of the flaky entertainment sector. (The music business springs to mind.) That in part is due to the innovations like the multiplex which helped to woo back dwindling cinema audiences.

But skilful marketing by the Hollywood studios has played more than its fair share in the renaissance. Unfortunately, the price of that success has been an unhealthy dependence upon the so called ‘tent-pole movie’ – that one elusive mega-hit a year which will underwrite production losses and provide next year’s capital. But no tent-pole or marketing footwork can rectify the financial damage wrought by a real turkey like Heaven’s Gate or Waterworld. As the late Lord Grade used to say of his own woeful blunder, Raising the Titanic, sometimes it’s cheaper to lower the ocean.

News, page 5; Cover Story, page 34

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