Why Movie Marketing So Often Sucks! (updated)

Advertising Rules, Strategy, Tips

Millions of dollars are spent each year producing and marketing movies. By some schools of thought, whatever the size of the production budget, the marketing budget should equal that. This is definitely true of bigger budget films above the $60 million level. So, a lot of money is spent by Hollywood trying to get people into theaters.

And yet, most of that money is wasted in advertising that commits the worst sin in advertising, bait and switch.

A few years ago PBS aired a documentary on Hollywood, screenwriters and the ins and outs of the business of providing moviegoers entertainment. A memorable quote from that series was by a studio marketer placing the onus of the long-term success of a film on the quality of the film. The credit for the short-term success of a film however he placed on the marketing department. “If a film has a big opening weekend and then tanks, the marketing was brilliant.”

Sadly, that really puts the cart before the horse in a horrible horse and cart accident sort of way.

At the risk of sounding too harsh, bait and switch really is what most movie marketing is doing. Everyone has experienced it even if they haven’t put their finger on what was happening.

You see a poster or a trailer. It piques your interest enough that the two of you decide to invest $20 on it. Unfortunately more often than not, you walk out two hours later, commenting that the best parts were in the trailer. More to the point, it wasn’t what was advertised. Hence bait and switch.

What the studios’ marketing departments have done in these cases is they’ve presented one thing, setting up your expectations based solely on what they assume you’ll find most interesting about the movie, and then accepted your money while leaving you to discover the disparity between your expectations and the actual film. Surprise!

One of the most basic tenets of good advertising is to set up expectations in the customer’s mind for the product correctly. If you advertise a motor oil as the best one for sports cars, but it’s really only designed for farm equipment, you’ll probably be dealing with a lot of really angry sports car owners, complaining of being duped and probably forming a class action suit.

The very funny and talented comedian Dane Cook recently took exception with, apparently, the Lionsgate marketing department for the less than relevant job they did on the poster design for his latest comedy, My Best Friend’s Girl. He posted his diatribe on his MySpace page. If you haven’t read it, do so. It’s very funny and astute. “Granted, one poster stinking up the joint isn’t the end of the world. Yet it sends the wrong message about our movie and I just wanted you to know, that I feel the pain. I really love the film and I know from past missteps marketing wise that the wrong poster sends the wrong audience into the theater.”

Cook points out how unaware the marketing department is about the product they’re talking about. As he says, “the wrong poster sends the wrong audience into the theater.” At least the trailer is much better and really gives you a sense of the premise of the film, making you want to see it, if you’re into that kind of humor (which I am).

A not even close look at this poster or any others teaches that the driving force behind the development of this layout is fear. If we don’t actually show people that Kate Hudson (The Kate Hudson, yeah her!), Dane Cook (You know, Dane Cook!?) and Jason Biggs (Exactly, his name’s Jason Biggs.) then no one will pay attention to 1.) the poster, 2.) the message in the poster and, of course, 3.) the movie. As if people didn’t like pretty pictures… or paintings.

It becomes a tall order when you have to design a poster that looks hot or sexy, by Hollywood standards, (or merely professional) with the severely limiting constraints of having to include the lead stars’ faces, relatively large, looking out at the reader, instead of at an angle, lest they be unrecognizable. It’s like forcing actors on stage to constantly play to the audience while never once looking at each other. Awkward.

And yet, Hollywood persists. It’s hard to believe that none of these marketing geniuses have figured out a better way.

But there is a better way.

Setting aside use of the potentially caustic term of bait and switch, this is advertising a movie based on its story or its contents.

That seems logical, but a better approach is to advertise a movie based on its premise. In screenwriting there is a clear distinction between premise and story. The story is what’s taking place between the beginning and the end. It contains characters and the plot, among many other things. The premise is the basic idea or the germ of the idea that makes everything else possible.

Discussions about a script’s logline or “the elevator pitch” are directly related to the premise. When it’s a good premise, the effect is profound, causing the recipient to visualize the entire film in a blink, way before any cameras are set up or any words are even written.

It is that fact that makes movie advertising based on the premise so much more effective than advertising based on the story. The same is true of advertising any product. Think about it, the only reason benzoil peroxide is important to you is because it was made relevant to you. Otherwise, you don’t care what’s in a product. What you do care about is what it does for you. What’s at the core of its very existence. Does it work harder, faster, slower, better, deeper, higher, lower, longer-lasting, quicker-drying, on and on and on.

It’s kind of like we’re discussing the soul of a product rather than the outside manifestations. Of course the outside matters, ingredients can be important. But the fundamental raison d’etre is the most important thing.

My favorite and I believe the best example of premise-based advertising for movies is the trailer and even the poster for the original 1979 Alien film, directed by Ridley Scott. If you recall, the icon developed for the film is an egg. It’s not one of the distinctive eggs used in the film that open at the top by way of four petals or lids. No, this is what looks like a plain chicken egg, splattered with plaster or latex and photographed with side lighting, creating a dramatic image. The addition of a green glowing crack in the shell makes it even more compelling.

The trailer begins with fifteen seconds of a rudimentary starfield flying at you. It’s nothing compared to images of starfields zipping at you we’ve seen since, but it works in that you basically don’t know what you’re looking at while the eerie sound design gets a chance to get into your noggin. What follows is a series of shots of a dried terrain that the camera flies over and shots of the aforementioned egg, some in extreme close-up, some in wide shots, some of the top, side, bottom. The logotype for Alien gradually appears with each successive image as individual strokes of the letters spell out the title. The sound design/music builds until a crack cuts across the shell, emitting a beam of light and piercing sound, which then starts two montages, a series of scenes from the film followed by a more frenetic series of shots of anything in the film that shrieks, shakes, explodes or shoots out at you. This culminates in a spacescape of a ringed planet, its many orbiting moons and a tiny spaceship floating there. Then the best cashline in history fades up along with the title, “In space no one can hear you scream.”

All style and no substance, someone could say. They’d be half right. It’s a style piece that was designed to convey exactly the right feelings about what it was selling. There’s definitely substance there too. In fact, if you watch the montages closely, they consist of all of the key moments in the movie. But they’re a blur that keeps the trailer from ruining the film before you’ve seen it. In a way, the style is the substance.

I challenge anyone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at to see this trailer and not say, “I’ve got to see that.” Of course, if you’re not into scary movies, this doesn’t apply. But you get my point.

These pieces were less interested in filling in the blanks and afraid of leaving some possible audience member in the dark. Instead, this campaign cut through to your psyche and in two minutes scared the bejesus out of you.

So, what should Hollywood do? Can it possibly knock one out of the ballpark on every film like this campaign? Well, they’re paid enough to, so why not? But practically speaking, no. Hollywood does marketing triage. It spends money on what it thinks are its best investments. That won’t change.

But it could start to apply this thinking to more of its product and focus more on the What if inherent in any movie concept. It’s become a joke now to hear the words, “In a world…” But that at least is on the right path. The difference is that you don’t have to say, “in a world.” You need to demonstrate it, dramatize it, show it. But not give it away. And definitely not make it into what you think people would buy, if only you were lucky enough to have that product to advertise instead of the one you’re stuck with.

Again, less is more. By focusing on the premise rather than the contents, studios would give their products a better chance at finding their real audiences and therefore making happier and more loyal customers.

My Best Friend's Girl poster—Click on the the poster and it’ll take you to Dane Cook’s MySpace page and his hilarious diatribe about the marketing.

A better version of the poster for My Best Friend's Girl.—Here’s my (very quick) stab at a poster design. I saw that the title treatment in the trailer was way more appropriate to the tone of the movie, so that’s the anchor for this concept. Notice that layout-wise it’s not too different from the actual poster.

—Check your computer’s volume before playing this Red Band (R-rated) trailer. The poster above looks like it belongs to a Disney RomCom. The trailer is something altogether different.

—The ALIEN poster, designed by Bemis Balkind.

—The original ALIEN trailer.

—Additional good commentary on the innovation — or lack thereof — in movie marketing.