Behind the Scenes of Modern-Day Movie Marketing

funny scottish fold cat watching a movie on television in 3D glasses lying on a pillow on the sofa

Way back in 1999, during a strange time of disposable cameras and cargo khaki pants, psychological horror film The Blair Witch Project made its mark on the American film industry. Not only did this little indie film popularize the found-footage film technique and go on to become one of the most profitable films in cinematic history (it grossed 4,000 times its production budget), but The Blair Witch Project also became a game-changer in movie marketing. Its promotional campaign was the first to leverage digital as its primary marketing platform, an incredulous feat when you take into account the internet was still relatively new to the public at the time.

Fast-forward to modern-day movie marketing, and studios continue to leverage the digital resources available to them in their marketing efforts. From Deadpool (2016) and its hilarious use of Tinder and obscene, custom emojis to Carrie (2013) and its now-viral Telekinetic Coffee Shop prank (racking up 66+ million views on YouTube), current movie marketing efforts are slowly but surely entering the digital landscape.

Carrie’s Telekinetic Coffee Shop prank


Still, Hollywood has been hesitant to fully adopt digital platforms as a key resource in their marketing strategies, continuing to rely on TV spots as their primary source of advertising.


TV Advertising Is Effective, but Not as Effective as Studios Think It Is

In a 2015 marketing study conducted by Google Partners and MarketShare, 82% of movie-marketing budgets go directly to television. And while television advertising is effective — the study reports that TV was the largest driver of box-office success with 64% of revenue attributable to television spots — marketing budgets are increasingly overspending on that platform.

Last year, studios placed 934 different spots over half a million times on US national television for a total of 2.36 billion dollars spent on TV advertising, up 39% from 2014.



Source: iSpot.TV data, published by Variety


These pricey television campaigns are the culprits of the skyrocketing costs of movie-marketing campaigns in Hollywood. However, there is a more effective solution.

As a paid media specialist working at a digital marketing agency, it may seem self-evident that I would advocate for the move toward digital. But the numbers don’t lie. Though digital only accounted for 10% of the average movie-marketing budget in Hollywood, it was three times more effective than TV at driving revenue, as reported by the same 2015 study. In fact, YouTube comprised only 4% of total US marketing spend, but generated four times its cost with marketing-driven revenue.

Yes, traditional TV advertising works and it plays a significant role in movie marketing strategies, but it has become a saturated platform and consistently exceeds the point of diminishing returns. In a time when Hollywood blockbusters can easily surpass $100 million in domestic advertising costs alone, movie marketers must be smart and look elsewhere for opportunities. Digital is that opportunity; one that has not been fully leveraged.


Why the Slow Shift to Digital?

Marketing executives know digital works, so why have studios been so reluctant to utilize digital to its full potential? Two words: pressure and fear.

The Hollywood movie industry isn’t all red-carpet premieres and celebrity power couples (RIP Brangelina), it’s an entire ecosystem: one that represents countless jobs, millions of dollars in investments, and years of work — all for one production. Thus, the pressure placed on movie-marketing professionals to get butts into seats on opening weekend so that years of work pay off financially is astronomical.

This pressure means their mentality going into developing a marketing campaign strategy is to overbuy media rather than underbuy it, just to ensure all their bases are covered. And with a locked-in media schedule (often a month-long window before opening weekend), studios need the certainty that their media will be shown to their target audience, thus leading to premiums and further increasing advertising costs.



Source: MarketShare case study


Synonymous with the pressure of attracting moviegoers is the fear of under producing. David Weitzner, a former studio executive and current professor as USC School of Cinematic Arts, says it perfectly: “If the film worked, it was a brilliant film. And if it didn’t work, it was the marketing.” Studios don’t want to take the risk with new media (primarily digital). To them, it’s a gamble if new alternatives/platforms don’t produce. It’s better to rely on the tried-and-true traditional platforms, such as TV spots and billboards.


Moving Toward the Future

Impacted by fear and industry pressure, marketing executives and their studios are inefficiently spending their advertising budgets, spending more than they should on generalized mass marketing through TV spots. To revitalize movie marketing, studios need to get smarter on allocating their advertising budgets. They need to go digital. With the wealth of online resources, advanced targeting capabilities and high return on investments, digital is the future of movie marketing.

Written by Calvin Su on October 6, 2016


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Written by
Calvin Su