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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.