Talk about a big winner
Marketing the 300- plus films released each year requires cash and cut- throat cunning. Sandy George explains the fine art of putting bums on cinema seats
SANDIE Don and Troy Lum from Hopscotch Films love a lot of the movies they see at overseas festivals, but they don’t buy many. If they did, they would be filing for bankruptcy: the game they’re in — independent film distribution — is highly competitive and unpredictable.
But at Cannes last year they decided to buy German political thriller The Lives of Others while the credits were rolling.
Within a half- hour it was theirs. They won’t say what they paid for it, but industry estimates range from $ 100,000 to $ 300,000.
‘‘ The minute we saw it we both thought: ‘ This is a masterful film,’ ’’ says Don, who reveals she and many others among the 35 potential buyers at the screening were in tears. ‘‘ It was one of those rare instances when we said to each other: ‘ This has to be released’, and we threw caution out the window.’’
The Lives of Others is a claustrophobic human drama and an inside look at the culture of secret police surveillance in East Germany in the years leading up to the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Don and Lum ignored what all their experience told them: that this would be a hard film to sell to Australian audiences. They didn’t do the soul searching most independent Australian distributors do before they buy: they didn’t second- guess their initial reaction, carefully ponder who the audience might be, work out how to reach them or run numbers on possible profit and loss scenarios. They just went ahead and bought a film they believed in.
It was a courageous call. Although The Lives of Others was popular in Germany, they made their decision long before the film had generated international attention. It was not headlining festivals and was just one of hundreds of films in the Cannes market, where buyers and sellers dance around each other, bragging, haggling and making promises they will not or cannot keep.
As it turned out, Lum and Don did well to reach for their chequebook. The film went on to win a stack of awards, including this year’s foreign language Oscar, and caught the attention of filmgoers across the world. Most important for the Hopscotch pair, Australians loved it.
To date it has sold about $ 2.5 million worth of tickets, more than twice Hopscotch’s expectations and an impressive result for any foreignlanguage film.
That this sad story, set in a country a long way from Australia, put so many bums on seats shows that a good movie with limited appeal always has a chance if it is in the hands of people who understand how to sell it.
Australia is a country with a great passion for cinema, but people are fickle and constantly distracted by many things, from work to the weather. But get a film under their noses that they love, for whatever reason, and they will champion it. In the case of The Lives of Others it was word of mouth, personal recommendations and watercooler discussions, that helped make it a hit, at least on the scale of foreign films.
‘‘ We screened it to death,’’ Don says, referring to the 50 mostly free screenings held before it officially entered cinemas. ‘‘ Some think this is culling your audience but we thought the film is so strong that there was a wide audience for it, despite its sophistication.’’
Hopscotch targeted people interested in quality films, books and the arts, history and current affairs, and enlisted author Anna Funder, who wrote about similar terrain in her nonfiction book Stasiland , to introduce some screenings.
Word of mouth also played a large part in the success of a not- so- sophisticated film, the little Aussie battler Kenny , which was the surprise hit of 2006, grossing $ 7.6 million.
But is word of mouth relevant to big US blockbusters which, by definition, have broad appeal? It seems so, both before they are released and, given that word of mouth is the vote of the people, after.
Long before Shrek returned to the screen a friend reported that her eight- year- old son had said earnestly that Princess Fiona was pregnant. Kids can communicate with each other very easily and they do about film: clearly he knew the green ogre was coming to a cinema near him and some of Shrek the Third ’ s subtleties.
‘‘ Word of mouth is important for every type of film but its effect has a different trajectory,’’ Don says. ‘‘ A Hollywood blockbuster will get people in based on cast, hype, advertising, the comic book it is based on or what have you, then word of mouth takes effect from the opening day for the rest of the life of the film.’’
Cate Smith, marketing director for Paramount Pictures Australia, which ushered Shrek the Third into cinemas on June 7, says she believes in people power, too. She says US studio DreamWorks’ second Shrek sold $ 50 million worth of tickets in Australia ( behind only Titanic ) because people went to it again and again. But there is no way Shrek the Third is going to do as well as its predecessor, partly due to the lukewarm critical response, despite the pester power of children.
Smith says that, whatever the film, there are two sides to the word- of- mouth coin: ‘‘ We are very cautious about over- hyping and overmarketing something that doesn’t deserve it. The public are smart . . . you can disappoint the audience and damage the longevity of the film.’’
The sales strategy for a blockbuster is to saturate the media ( Shrek the Third was supported by a marketing campaign worth $ 3 million or so) and flood the cinemas ( Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End opened on 606 Australian screens, or nearly one in three). The idea is to start with as big an opening audience as possible. Then, with each successive week, the film loses popularity, slowly or quickly depending on word of mouth.
But distributors of appealing small films cannot afford that. The Lives of Others had only $ 200,000 for advertising and the cost of producing prints. By opening on a conservative number of carefully chosen screens, independent distributors hope other cinema programmers, perhaps even multiplex programmers if they are not in the mix already, will fear they are missing out. If the strategy works — The Lives of Others started on 19 screens and expanded to 35 and Kenny went from 77 to 124 — a film may sell more tickets week by week.
This will happen, however, only if the public is continuously reminded of the movie. The reviews helped The Lives of Others , Don says, but the media’s muted response to the film didn’t. Lack of interest in specialist films is much more common now than 10 years ago, she says. ‘‘ Is it more competitive? I don’t know. What sells newspapers these days, an article with depth and meat to it or Cameron Diaz? I hate to have to ask that question, but I feel like I have to.’’
Swedish production As it is in Heaven has become the most successful film screened at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace on Sydney’s north shore. Yes, the patrons think the film is worth recommending to their friends, but the distributor is also sticking by its film and spending on daily advertisements in the newspaper.
‘‘ I love seeing those big campaigns that make the multi- million- dollar sequels hot to trot, but only for the first few weeks in cinemas,’’ says Orpheum general manager Paul Dravet, who has been playing Heaven daily for 30 weeks.
The marketing plan for Kenny recognised the need for newsworthy novelty and sold the central character as if he was a real person, as much as it did the film.
‘‘ Kenny was released at the tail end of three years of doom and gloom about the state of Australian films in general,’’ says director Clayton Jacobson, brother of Kenny’s alter ego Shane Jacobson. ‘‘ We were aware we were entering troubled waters as far as audience expectations were concerned, yet our test screenings had been enormously successful. They showed audiences from 15 to 80, male and female, were loving the film, and particularly the character Kenny.
‘‘ So wherever possible we placed the focus on the heart and main character of the film, not the toilet humour, and the best and most entertaining way to do this was to introduce audiences to Kenny the character off screen, in interviews and word- of- mouth screenings.’’
Australian films usually have little to spend on marketing but still have to produce all the associated paraphernalia from scratch: posters, trailers, press kits, artwork and, on those rare occasions when the distributor can afford to run them, television commercials. In contrast, the US studios send over all the materials — sales agents do that, too, in the case of independent foreign films — and maintain tight control over how it is used or altered.
The upside of marketing Australian films is that there are plenty of people available for interviews, appearances and photo opportunities. Using Shane Jacobson in character as Kenny was like introducing Australia to this decade’s equivalent of Dame Edna Everage or Hoges.
‘‘ It was an uphill climb to convince the media that Kenny was worth covering from a publicity angle, as he was a character and completely unknown, as was Shane,’’ says Madman Cinema’s theatrical distribution manager Anna McLeish. The media was suspicious that it was being conned; Borat hadn’t yet arrived on Australia’s shores. But once the media caught on to how much the public loved Kenny, they came around. In the end, Jacobson says, he felt more comfortable as Kenny than himself.
With the internet and a growing worldwide movie monoculture, the popularity of films overseas, particularly in the US, has a big bearing on the Australian response. The success of the wide US launch of The Lives of Others in February certainly overflowed into Australia.
The biggest shift in movie marketing is this globalisation, marked by the increasing influence of online, mobile and other new media technologies. The number of patrons that the cinema chains and distributors deal with directly is growing exponentially. With Shrek the Third , Paramount launched its own website rather than having what’s called a splash page that redirects people to the US site.
Smith emphasises how teenagers are onlinesavvy but warns of the regulations about reaching them — and rightly so — and just how active they are as consumers.
‘‘ The only way they are going to absorb your piece of advertising is if they have chosen to go there, not because you are throwing it in their face,’’ she says. ‘‘ We have to think differently.’’
Just like the distributors who knew people would want to see The Lives of Others if they heard about it. And the makers of Kenny , who had to build a brand out of the film’s hero.
Film marketing is much like life: a mix of cajolery, hard slog, inspirational moments, haemorrhaging money, dithering, frustration and, sometimes, disappointment.
Every one of the 333 new films that was shown in cinemas last year fought for attention and tried to kneecap the competition: it is always a dog- eatdog game. The only difference is scale.