The Future of Movie Marketing

FrontrowiconMy family recently spent a rainy Saturday morning watching upcoming movie trailers via the “Front Row” app that came bundled with our Mac.

I wryly noted that they would likely only see 10% of the actual movies — which led me to wonder if Social Media could be better leveraged to make the maxim, “Hollywood’s business is America’s business” even more of a truism.

After all, when it comes to marketing, Social Media’s power is derived from the ability for consumers and brands to directly interact.

Yet when it comes to movies, it’s a more significant challenge: you’ve heard pundits (like me) say over and over again that doing Social Media “right” means thinking in terms of relationships not campaigns.

But movies are by their nature short-term and event-based — so campaign-thinking is 100% appropriate.  And unless you’re a one-in-a-million, really focused brand like Pixar, you can’t expect a movie studio to do a good job on the relationship-side: there’s no built-in loyalty to the studios themselves, and, anyway, each of the studios’ cinematic products target wholly different audience segments.

So far, the most ambitious marketing efforts — e.g., for 2012, the current box-office champ — add iPhone apps (“do you have the right survival skills?”), Twitter profile wallpaper, and fake websites to the usual crop of intriguing billboards and teaser trailers.

Given the movie’s reigning-champ status, you can’t argue that 2012’s campaign was not successful.  Yet as Chris Thilk of Movie Marketing Madness pointed out in his examination of the campaign: “Despite the impressive reach of the marketing – all those posters, all those websites, all those TV commercials – the campaign winds up feeling like the same sort of superficial spectacle the movie will likely be. It’s all glam…”

So how do you build a relationship built on the one-time event of a movie?

My best answer is that that relationship must start far earlier, and, I wonder if the studios should take more risks on user empowerment…

John-carter-kayananFor example, I grew up reading the pulp fiction tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  (Yea, Tarzan. I cop to it.)  I was also an ardent 10–year old fan of Burroughs’s second-most popular character, John Carter of Mars. Back in 2005, Jon Favreau was slated to direct a film version of my childhood fantasy, and I spent too many hours on IMDB chat boards (fruitlessly, blithely), wrangling with fellow geeks re: issues such as casting, tone, etc.

Granted, I am one of the Ain’t It Cool News variety of geek whom the studios have essentially nailed down…

But, imagine a scenario in which consumers get very early word of a tentpole release, and can use Social Media outlets like Facebook to vote not just on minor issues like “Who’s your favorite character?” (as the marketers of Alice in Wonderland recently handled quite well), but also fundamental questions like, “Who should play the protagonist?”

Imagine a no-holds-barred global casting call in which a pre-determined selection of — say, 5 actors — was subjected to a reality-tv style vote that took place across several weeks, for a major studio release.  Each actor’s Facebook Fan Page could include their screen test, their bio, oodles of shareable content, etc., as well as the to-and-fro message boards where the actors could interact with their fans and guide them to ever-more-interesting acts of promotion on their behalf.

You could create a Facebook Connect app that automagically places the famous actor within your own FB photos — which you could re-post in your newstream, for all your friends to see, comment on, and gain their own participation.

The actors could give anyone who tweets 50X about their vote in the contest a personalized photo, or access to a special Twitter avatar, or raffle off a trip to see them on-set.

And of course when the final casting decision is made, it’s kept secret until the teaser trailer is released — and it’s released first off to that actor’s biggest fans, who would likely spread it like wildfire.

What I am talking about here, with this one (quickly-brainstormed) concept, is personalizing the moviemaking process from its earliest possible origins.

Movie_ticketsKeep in mind that there are many potential reasons to see a movie. Maybe you’re a fan of the director.  Or of the actors.  Or of the movie genre.  Or of the original book on which a movie is based.  Broken down like that, you can quickly envision ways to engage each of these psychographic groups in such a way that they invest themselves — for differing reasons — in the movie’s development … which guarantees that these newly-minted ambassadors spend time promoting it when the premiere finally rolls around.

In other words, they’ll truly make Hollywood’s business their personal business.

But I am no expert on movie marketing.  What thoughts do you have?

Posted on: November 16, 2009 at 11:58 am By Todd Defren
36 Responses to “The Future of Movie Marketing”


  • jasmine says:

    Yes obviously there are many potential reasons to see a movie. Some of us love to watch our favorite stars film, so we watch only his/her films. Nice Post.

  • david zi3tz says:

    Ugh… Thanks for blabbing our idea all over the place… You shoulda called us first ;)

  • Hollywood is taking baby steps in the direction of engaging, although I suspect given the long lead times & difficulties of casting that Twitter votes for “who gets the role” might be a long time coming. A twitter contest for a walk-on in a weekly TV show, that might be more feasible though.

    But back to movies. “Avatar” is trying some new things along with the traditional techniques of trailers & a splashy movie site – an AIR app with Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube integration:

    [Obligatory disclaimer: I work for Adobe, and Adobe has been working closely with the Avatar team on this project]

  • Kelly says:

    It’s an interesting idea. Certain groups of people would definitely go nuts if they were able to participate in the film making process. But I wonder how realistic this is for a movie that wants to be taken seriously by the mainstream audience. Maybe George Lucas or Tarentino could make this work if their film was particularly targeted. However, the minute Spielberg or Scorsese participated people would revolt. Having the audience actively participate in the production of a film is the ultimate sellout and undermines the artistic integrity of a director. Is there a way to bring social media into a movie without selling out? Or is this kind of audience involvement reserved for cult films and B-movies?

  • Todd Defren says:

    Like I said, Meghan, that was just one example of an idea. Let’s not get stuck on one tactic. :)

  • Akash Sharma says:

    Awesome post saw the movie-social media connection being portrayed for the first time.You are right on the point that studios have to understand that being social before the release is very important as that helps to create buzz.As mentioned above Pixar has done quite well in maintaining relations with there movie audiences and I suppose the credit goes to Steve Jobs’s expertise in doing such stuff.
    I think the best way to reach there target before the release would be to figure out how to socialize behind the scene action that is the making part as that can prove vital in creating the right kind of buzz.

  • In a recent clip from web2.0 in SF Peter Guber of Mandaly compared the marketing for 2012 (cost of film + marketing was about 500MM dollars!) to Paranormal Activity (15k for the film, lots of guerrilla marketing) – both wanted $ at the box office, but Paranormal has a much quicker return on investement.

  • paula Smith says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I believe the future of marketing movies needs to occur earlier, especially for the indie movie.

    I am building a database of interested individuals for my family comedy feature, CARUSO AND THE SWORD, about a teen who discovers the sport of fencing, almost a year before we even start filming.

    The funding and distribution of films is risky. But I believe the decision to contribute time, effort, or money into a film is easier when the movie has an eager ready-made audience.

  • I truly wish I had a greater amount of experience in that space in order to make a more informed case. I will say this post has inspired me to breakout my lone movie making book – The Movie Business Book.

    One thing I pull from it is how many, many, many people are involved in especially the blockbuster type films. It truly is astonishing. But what I think that could provide for is an equally numerous amount of potential lead-ins to becoming part of that process – namely via social.

    I would encourage readers to think less about what can’t be and more about what could be. I’m sure there are a number of journalists today still stunned by the difference 5 or 10 years has made for their industry. And as we know, media has and likely is still predicted to become more atomized reflecting smaller groups of ideology. So, perhaps there is a space for the user generated film not too far off in the future? …couldn’t be as bad as the twilight movies. ; )

  • Todd-

    Love the idea. Agree with CC that it will be a tough nut to crack in big Hollywood, but perhaps on a smaller scale for some indie films and some passionate movie lovers? Agree that the channels you could use would be diverse enough to raise all sorts of awareness across different demographics.

    I also think that it may IMPROVE the quality of movies in general.

    A friend of mine and I discussed the movie 2012 this past weekend on what makes it/made it so popular.
    They spent OODLES of money marketing the movie and saturated the market so much that one would figure you’d just HAVE to see this blockbuster of a movie. The movie then grosses so much money in the first weekend, it rolls off of that momentum for the next couple weeks and makes some big $$$.

    However, aside from special affects, this movie, um, wasn’t so great. But by the time people figure that out, and word spreads, the movie has already made its chunk of change and is moving on to CD distribution.

    Imagine if we were all part of the process and were deeply vested in the movie like you point out above. We (and they) would be held somewhat accountable, right?

    Here’s to social media and moviemaking and no more talk of 2012….. :-)

  • Seth HART says:

    Some very good ideas in here. Unique and innovative. I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of studios, large and small, suggesting and implementing online marketing strategies.

    Todd, this is good stuff. A few needs in order to successfully execute I see are: 1) EXTREMELY detailed definition of the target audiences (this idea would not be as effective with a big name talent film or one that skews older), 2) a studio willing to take risks (would work for a low-risk acquisition ala PARANORMAL), 3) the right type of film — animated films come to mind because the voice talent is not as publicity-critical yet still highly debated by alpha fans (e.g. the could vote on Joel McHale vs. Patton Oswalt, and 4)incentive — a trip to the set is right on the mark; a script reveal would work, and the vignette idea is cool too.

    Great post. More from you on movies in Chris’s hiatus!

  • uriah Av-Ron says:

    Todd — some interesting points, as always (you have a great blog!)

    More fan interaction would be great, though polling could cause a problem where one of the actors starts a marketing campaign and wins the part even though they aren’t the studio’s top choice (though that in itself would generate buzz).

    Todd — Do you know what ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ did in the social marketing realm? There is a movie that this 43 year-old would have loved to interact with.


  • Anita Lobo says:

    Interestingly the #140conf in London today discusses:

    11:30am: The Making of a Movie…In realtime and tweeting with the stars.


  • M. Wilson says:

    Letting America cast films is a very interesting idea. Letting studios and fans interact with each other would increase film hype earlier since films are usually casted and shot years before they are released.

    This early hype could have two outcomes. One, it could start among the core fans and then spread to the rest of the population, resulting in a popular premiere. Two, the hype could also start among the core fans, spread to the rest of the population but lose momentum due to production delays. In this scenario, the core fans would make up a majority of the audience since everyone else has lost interest.

    Films are tricky since it is such a long and complicated process. Like the John Carter of Mars case, things change quickly and frequently. Fans might be upset when their social media input is disregarded due to changing circumstances. In fact, the social media backlash might be detrimental to the film if studios fail to live up to expectations.

  • Ben Bloom says:

    Great post- the movie business is a tough one to crack. I think this is a good application of social business design to the business- being social about making the product and about the organization rather than about mere marketing.

    Studios and distributors have faired poorly in the battle against digital duplication- they have been unable to maintain the scarcity of their content.

    ACCESS, however, has been fairly well controlled. Being on a movie set, in the scene, the venue of an exclusive sneak preview- these are scarce, and using them for marketing adds serious punch.

  • Anita Lobo says:

    This is an intriguing idea!
    Bollywood [India's Hindi movie industry] is wildly placing pre-release promos on TV – via soaps/ reality TV/ contests etc
    But pre-casting and involving fans in scripting the narrative – now thats new!
    The risks are obvious i.e. no surprises isn’t good for the wow element of drawing people to a new movie.
    To make it viable would require sharing a strong start-up narrative brief that will allow people to come up with ideas.
    I’m not entirely convinced that voting on the star-cast is useful – we’ll get the same popular faces.
    But location ideas and wild twists to the story are open to everyone’s imagination!
    Really enjoyed reading and responding to this idea!

  • C.C. Chapman says:

    Some great ideas in here and while major blockbusters are not going to get cast via voting like this any time soon you are hitting on some points that I completely agree with.

    I think that if and when a movie studio allows the fans to connect more with the movie they are going to take a vested interest in it. They will talk about it more. They will hype it up.

    I’ve worked with some studios in the past and hope to more in the future. There are so many fun tools out there that a movie can now use to engage with potential fans and I think that you’ve raised some interesting ideas that I haven’t seen done before but that could and should be done.

    I look forward to the day when Shift executes a program for a movie. I’d love to see you try some of these out.

  • John carter says:

    John Carter of Mars–great character, great books, studly name.

    Not sure if Hollywood is ready to let America cast their blockbusters yet, but what about all those minifilms that come as part of the DVD extras? I could imagine an online fanfic contest where finalists get invited to a “pitch” meeting and the winner has their idea turned into a vignette for the DVD. Or even a crowdsourced minifilm, done up Blog Cabin style.

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