Obviously, I believe in marketing; it’s what I do for a living after all. And I believe intelligent marketing is critical to the future success of the screen media sector – film, television, webseries, transmedia and whatever hybrid they evolve into. But while Hollywood has certainly always been a marketing juggernaut, I have noticed a disturbing trend recently. There seem to be more cases where movie marketing has become so much more about the marketing than the movies that audiences are left feeling they were tricked into the theatres. Take the extreme example of the film Drive where a woman felt so deceived she filed a lawsuit that not only demanded a refund for her movie ticket but a stop to the production of all “misleading movie trailers” in the future. At a time when it’s more and more challenging to get “bums in seats,” it seems incredibly short sighted to alienate those who are still willing to pay for this experience. Is the only important thing getting the audience to the opening weekend at any cost? Or is there a way to market movies and other screen media that still respects both the audience and the stories being told? What lessons can we learn?
Film Industry = Marketing
Elliot Grove, the founder of the Raindance UK, suggests that “the Film Industry is a film marketing industry, not a film making industry.” The industry takes films which have no value (because people will not pay for them yet), invests a bunch of money to market them (often more than the production budget itself), and turns these films into movies people will pay for. Fair enough. Without marketing of one sort or another, no one would know about the film or want to see it. There is a perceived value created by the marketing. But what we are seeing lately are instances where it feels like the movie doesn’t matter except as a means to part people from their money and pay for the marketing and the rest of the Hollywood machine. Take the recent example of the horror film The Devil Inside.
What The Devil?
The Devil Inside, in case you haven’t heard, is a no-budget faux-documentary horror movie that had an amazing $33.7 million opening weekend. Bought by Paramount for $1 million, made for much less, and marketed for an undisclosed amount, this sounds like an incredible success story. Certainly many in the press are spinning it that way. However, there was immediate and intensely negative audience reaction right from the first screening. Twitter exploded with the outrage people were feeling and audiences quickly gave it a rare F CinemaScore rating and currently a 7% score on RottenTomatoes. After the $16.8 million opening Friday night each subsequent night (Saturday’s box offices was $11.7) and weekend (the following weekend dropped from $33.7 to $8 million) has had smaller box office returns. But when the upfront costs were so comparably small it likely won’t matter to Paramount. The studio is already planning a slate of 10 additional faux-documentary films in a few genres, each with a production budget of $100,000.
How The Devil?
The marketing strategy for The Devil Inside clearly took a page from the previous successes of the Paranormal Activity franchise and did a very good job leveraging social media to reach a young horror audience. Its “risky” campaign included online elements like viral scare videos and 911 calls pushed to fans and an app that is presented as a test to find out how possessed you are that in turn surprises fans with a scare from the film. For the initial Thursday night midnight screenings, Paramount even organized radio DJs, food trucks, and prize giveaways to make each screening seem special. Twitter was also used extensively throughout the promotional period including tweets about “an unexpected theater possession” where the film broke down and a contortionist from the film scared a packed theater of fans. But in the end it didn’t matter to many of the fans how creative and cool the marketing was, the film itself was a disappointment and one that led to a very strong viral backlash, much of it around the way it abruptly ended (rumoured to have been changed by the studio) and sends people to a website, leaving many feeling they were being driven back into the marketing machine.
Because of the disconnect between the marketing and the movie, The Devil Inside’s strategy (no matter how clever or initially successful) feels like the equivalent of email spam. As a promotional tactic, spam worked – for quite a while. But over time people have been getting more savvy and 2011 saw the tides turn as email spam starting to decline. It has become synonymous with fraud and malicious deceit. Is movie marketing going down the same path? The risks are huge. Such strategies could definitely hasten the demise of an industry that is already in serious trouble. However, I don’t think the problem is the campaign itself, it is that it misrepresented the movie and therefore angered the audience. No one wants to feel like a PT Barnum sucker and that’s how this campaign made many people feel.
- Audiences are open and ready for marketing campaigns that are creative and get them involved;
- BUT you have to make sure your marketing strategy stays true to the story and the audience you develop;
- OR you risk losing that audience who have the tools to spread negative (and positve) reactions quickly and widely;
- AND a loyal audience is key to independent business success for every screen media creator.
Ultimately the real lesson of The Devil Inside will be in what happens with the filmmakers’ second film and perhaps the Paramount slate of more cheap faux-documentaries. I expect any audience good will for “found footage” films was spent during the opening weekend of The Devil Inside. Bad or misleading marketing is a betrayal of both audience and story. It is also a betrayal of everyone who struggling to find a workable sustainable model for this business. If the audiences get burned too many times there will come a time when no one will trust the marketing and will be even less likely to risk spending their entertainment time and money. When the marketing is authentic, however, and based on a long term audience development strategy there is an opportunity to harness this powerful emotional response for good and turn fans into superfans who will follow us from project to project.
What Do You Think?
Did you see The Devil Inside or experience any of its marketing campaign? Please share your thoughts, ideas, questions below or send them to me at annelise (at) veria.ca or on Twitter @veriatweet.
Or revisit the previous issue: Which Comes First – Story or Audience?