In 1910s, the era commonly known as the birth of movie marketing, the big focus was on the movie stars. As motion picture audiences grew, so too did the importance of the actors. It was producer Carl Laemmle who originated the ‘publicity stunt’, an orchestrated media event where something dangerous or spectacular related to the movie is performed in order to draw further attention to its opening. After asking Florence Lawrence, a famous movie star, to join his IMP production company, he announced to the press that Lawrence had died in the car accident. After news of her ‘death’ had created a sufficient stir, he placed a full-page advertisement in papers to deny the story. That was one of the first deliberate marketing strategies in the industry and it changed the movie marketing system dramatically. (Block and Wilson, 2010:19). As the stars of movies became more and more identifiable, the public’s curiosity about them grew to be insatiable. This then started an era of using movie stars to promote movies and ultimately, it opened a whole new field of movie marketing.
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From 1920s, film distributors had started to employ marketing teams to create and produce publicity materials like press books, which were intended to encourage cinema managers in the exploitation of the film product. Film historians tend to look at early press books in order to study the history of movie marketing itself. Each press book would carry information about the film and its production, such as the plot synopses, the cast, background information and all the ‘details of the availability of posters or other promotional aids such as lobby cards or ‘standees’ – life-size cardboard cut-outs of characters from the film’ (Moat, 2003-2010) to be put in cinema foyers. Press books were also used to promote ideas like recipes, competitions, quizzes and tie-ins with the local shops, as well as suggested text for local newspapers. The peak of the press books popularity lasted from the 1920s until the beginning of 1950s, when film distributors started to have more money to spend on promotional strategies, and film going was at its height.
By the mid 1950s, theatre attendance had dropped to only 50 percent of what it had been in 1946. (Lees and Berkovitz, 1981) To make things worse, the U.S Department of Justice had launched an antitrust suit against the “Big Five” film companies – Paramount, RKO, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros. and MGM. After eight years of negotiations, these studios and three minor studios of that time – Columbia, Universal, and United Artists – agreed to what became known as the ‘Paramount Consent Descree’. (Pomerance, 2005:12) From now on, studios could no longer marshal under their own vertical structures the entire movie-making process, from acquisition of script material through pre-production, filming, editing, marketing, distributing, and exhibiting and therefore could no longer predict in advance what the profit range would be for the films they systematically produced. As the audience were less likely to visit the theatre, films had to have a more profound contact through the plot or use of visual effects.
As a result, exhibition practises were modified in many ways after 1950 to lure the audience back: widescreen processes like CinemaScope and Cinerama, advance reservation road show bookings for major features, more intensive use of cinematic colour, the use of more exotic locations and lushly scored, quasi-symphonic or jazzy music. (Pomerance, 2005)
However, ‘what makes a hit?’ is the big question that has been on the minds of everyone involved in the movie business since its early days. (Lees, 1981:142) The uncertainty engendered by this shaky state of affairs causes, quite naturally, a parallel state of anxiety about decision making. There are no guidelines to consult that will indicate anything other than approximate probability. Film marketing has therefore two definitions. One is giving the public what they want. The other is making the public want what you have got. In the eyes of many movie marketers, this amounts to a very clear distinction between ‘bad’ and ‘good’. (E.Squire, 2006:67)
The problem is that there is usually no sure way to tell what the public wants. In late 1960s, film makers had started to use marketing research as a method of predicting the audience acceptance. Its goals were clear: determine a statistical picture of the kinds of people who go to movies, find out if certain projects will meet with public favour and learn how to market films that have already been made. (Marich, 2009:29) However, producers could watch the results of market research, trade paper reports of grosses, but the numbers for one film could never predict how the next one would do.
In the 1970s, for example, there were three kinds of films one did not make: science fiction, sports and Vietnam. The films in those subject categories had all bombed, so it was assumed the public was turned off by the subject matter. (Stringer, 2003) Vietnam was depressing, science fiction was for buffs, and who wanted to see movies about boxing when they could see real sports at home, for free? Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), Coming Home (Ashby, 1978) and Rocky (Avildsen, 1976) buried these arguments forever, although the same thinking persists. For example, the presence of stars in the cast was said to be insurance that a film would be successful, but in Star Wars, for example, there were no famous names.
Interestingly, the American film industry changed more between 1969 and 1980 than at any other period in its history, except perhaps for the introduction of sound. During that time, profits for the most successful motion pictures rose from the hundreds of thousands to the hundreds of millions of dollars. (Curran, 1998) The sixties were also highly marked by the rise of television. Although still too expensive, it opened a new window for film marketers.
The film that is often credited with changing how movies are distributed and marketed was Jaws (Spielberg,1975), the first film to open at a thousand theatres and to use network television to support it. Made by Universal Pictures, the studio liked the complete film so much that it began a TV advertising campaign that cost an unprecedented $700,000 (Block, 2010:506) The film opened on 490 screens, setting the standard for subsequent wide openings for Hollywood films. Universal was looking to ramp up the marketing for Jaws to levels never seen before. Three nights before the film was scheduled to open nationwide, the studio saturated the networks during peak prime time hours with a barrage of thirty-second trailers. When it opened on June 20, Jaws become a national sensation. After the Jaws experience in 1975, ‘multi-disciplined’ marketing departments were created, which included specific divisions for publicity, creating advertising, media buying, and promotion. (Cook, 2000). The following chart depicts Jaws franchise films all-release worldwide box office revenues versus their production costs. (Block, 2010:507)
Equivalent 2005 $s
Against the rule of films one should not make in 1970s, George Lucas began developing his concept of a mythical science-fiction action adventure film named ‘The Star Wars’, set in the distant future and featuring a cast of characters. Universal and United Artists passed on it, but 20th Century Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. offered Lucas $10.000 to develop the screenplay. (Bakker, 2008:101)
The head of Fox’s advertising department, David Weitzner, began working on the film in February of 1977 and hired the successful advertising agency of Smolen, Smith and Connoly, which had previously created campaigns for such movies as Carrie (De Palma,1976) and The Omen (Donner, 1976). Donald Smolen began his task by examining the initial marketing research that had been conducted. “The reports from the early screenings were not very encouraging” said Smolen. “We were told not to spend too much money, because the research showed it was just another science-fiction movie”. (French, 1997:32) They certainly were not too excited about it, with the exception of Ashley Boone, the vice president of distribution at Fox, who kept touting the film, saying it is going to be a hit. When Fox screened the film for Smolen and his partners, they were not impressed. “At this point, there were so much missing from the film it was not fair to judge it, although we did. However, my job was to make sure the film was sold. In that regard it did not make any difference what the research showed or what anybody thought about the film. We were just trying to sell the film in the best possible way”. (French,1997:32)
To pump up pre-release interest, Lucas inventively tapped science fiction conventions, released a comic book and a novelization. The film opened to long lines at 10.00 am on May 25,1977 in a mere 43 locations across the United States. (Lucasfilm Ltd, 2004) “No one knew it was going to be a big hit” remembers David Prowse, actor playing Lord Vader. “Nowadays, we take for granted that a big blockbuster will go out with thousands of prints and open in May. But back then the summer special effects blockbuster did not exist”. (Prowse,2010) Although there were certainly fewer movie theatres in operation during the 1970s compared with today, a wide release of a mainstream, non-specialised film at that time typically meant a few hundreds engagements.
Lippincott, former Lucasfilm Ltd. Vice President for Advertising admits that “if the film was redone today, on the basis of the way movies are released with a couple of thousands prints, it probably would have been unsuccessful. Theatres did not want the movie. We were lucky to get forty theatres to open it” (Gross, 1999:55)
What is more, until the mid 1970s, movies were poor cousins of television when it came to merchandising. Sound tracks and books had always brought income to producers and studios, but the manufacturers who bought licenses to make other kinds of products such as toys or t-shirts figured that regular weekly exposure on television was the key to selling their goods. In comparison, movies seemed to be quick, one-shot affairs, not around long enough to sustain a product in the marketplace. (Curran, 1998) All that changed with Star Wars. The phenomenal success of most of the scores of Star Wars items showed that all sorts of products could ride on the coattails of a hit film. It also showed that through shrewd merchandising, a studio could make millions of dollars above and beyond income from movie theatres. The studios tend to define merchandising as ‘any instance of an outside company using a film title or an image from a film on a product or as part of an advertising campaign’. (Smith, 2002:34) The latter case is called a tie-in, and as its name suggests, it is a partnership of two different companies in a unified advertising strategy.
George Lucas agreed to reduce his salary as a film maker, reportedly $100.000, in exchange for Fox agreeing to let him have the film’s merchandising rights and other, lesser non-cash considerations. At the time Star Wars hit theatres, it had just ten licensees, but that mushroomed when the science fiction movie exploded in the box office. According to The Licensing Letter, the original merchandisers were Kenner for toys, games and crafts, Factors and Image Factory for t-shirts and posters, Ben Cooper for children’s costumes, Twentieth Century Records for soundtracks, Ballantine for paperbacks, Marvel for comics, Don Post Studios for various masks, Ken Films for edited home movies, and George Fenmore & Associates for souvenir programs. (Marich, 2009:144)
Star Wars was the real birth of the modern movie licensing business and it caught a lot of people by surprise. Six months after the release of Star Wars the much anticipated range of toys still was not ready. Puzzles, jigsaws and other items that could be produced with relatively short lead times begin to dominate toy shops across America, but Kenner had simply not had enough time to create its product. It became apparent to everyone at the company that they were going to miss the all-important Christmas toy purchasing period. Worried that by the time its products were available, the Star Wars obsession of America’s children would be over, the company devised the ‘Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package’. (Lucasfilm Ltd, 2004) This was a large envelope available in toy stores. It included a certificate which the recipient would have to post to Kenner, remembering to include his or her name and address. The recipients would then, as soon as the toys were produced and before they were available in shops, receive the first four of Kenner’s Star Wars action figures: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. Kenner, which is now owned by Hasbro, still to this day has a Star Wars license for different merchandise.
To compare, in 1997, by adding just four-and-a-half minutes of new footage to the original film, at a cost of $10m, roughly the cost of the entire original movie, George Lucas has managed to recycle Star Wars back to the top of the box office and make it the most successful picture of all time in the US. When it opened on May 25, 1977, Star Wars took $2.6 million in six days from a timid 32-screen release. On January 31, 1997, the re-release exceeded all expectations with $35.9m from 2,104 screens. (Duncan, 1997: 16)
When George Lucas decided to digitally revamp the Star Wars trilogy for re-issue, Lucasfilm and 20th century Fox were left with a marketing conundrum. How do you build awareness for a film that is possibly the best known picture ever made? “We went into re-release without a marketing template” explains Gordon Radley, president of Lucasfilm. (Lucasfilm Ltd, 2004) “Star Wars is more than a cultural phenomenon, it has such an impact on the hearts and minds of cinema-goers and no trilogy has ever been re-released on such a large scale”. Lucas himself had strict guidelines for the worldwide re-release: it was to emphasise the ‘in-theatre experience’- the big screen as the best possible way to see Star Wars – as well as stressing the unique chance to see all three films in a relatively short scape of time. Less than a year before the Star Wars relaunch, the new trio was titled The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition and given the tag line ‘Join the Celebration! Back on The Big Screen!’ (Lucasfilm Ltd, 2004). Although the average American has seen the film many times, US posters used the phrase ‘See It For The First Time’. (Duncan, 1997:16) Working with Lucasfilm, Fox marketers have approached Star Wars in terms of raising the consciousness of an existing, long-lasting brand name. “The important thing was that we were not bringing a new film out” says Jim Gianopulos, president of 20th Century Fox International. “We didn’t have to raise awareness. In 1996, before the release, Star Wars merchandising held the number two sales spot.” (Smith, 2002:35) Star Wars action figures were the biggest selling toy after Barbie and has made more than $3 billion since the release of the film in 1977 – twice the amount the franchise itself has earned. The unprecedented $2 billion tie-in with PepsiCo that was struck in May 1996, became the cornerstone to promoting Star Wars as a brand name again. (Duncan, 1997:16)
During the latter part of the decade, intoxicated by the success of Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood developed a blockbuster complex. The following table depicts franchise films originating in the 1970s. (Block and Wilson, 2010:533)
Equivalent 2005 $s in Millions of $s
Number of Films in Franchise
All-Release Worldwide Box Office
The event movies, franchise films, and instant blockbusters that drove the box office of the 1980s became more expensive, more high-tech, and more international in the 1990s, although the profits became even harder to realise. By the early 1990s, sophisticated marketing techniques such as advertising testing, the use of the internet and product placement in films, became firmly rooted in the business. As production and marketing costs soared, more and more movies opened with huge grosses only to fade after the first weekend, replaced by another movie the following weekend.
Nobody could predict that in a summer packed with big-budget mainstream studio fare like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999) and Wild Wild West (Sonnenfeld, 1999), Artisan studio would score the most stunning coup in recent times by propelling Blair Witch Project, a grainy, low-tech documentary, to $250 million at the box office worldwide. (Marich,2009:96) Interestingly, the writers of the film spent less than $100,000 to make and present it in documentary style.
As a result, with sequels, videos and licensed merchandise, it became the most profitable low-budget films in cinema history, as depicted in the following table. (Block, 2010:520)
Top 5 Blockbuster Movies
Lowest Production Cost versus Highest Revenue
All-Release Domestic Box Office, 1960-2009
Equivalent 2005 $s in Millions of $s
Domestic Box Office
The Blair Witch Project
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Thanks to a revolutionary use of the internet and word-of-mouth, the movie stood out amongst the onslaught of $200 million movies with corporate tie-in partners and $50 million advertising budgets. Bound by a small marketing budget, the internet proved to be the one outlet where the money spent paid off in spades. “The Web completely levels the playing field; you can’t out-spend somebody on the Web” the Artisan’s studio marketing head, John Hegeman said.
“It’s against the grain of every other media; you create a message and give it time to breathe. If the environment is interesting, you can hold onto the fan base longer, as opposed to a 30-second ad that’s here and gone. For us, it was the most important and impactful delivery mechanism” (Hegeman, cited in Stanley, 1999)
Co-director of the movie, Eduardo Sanchez, created the Blair Witch Project website to outline the story of the Blair Witch and lure potential investors- before the screenplay had even been written. He also planted a false information that the murders shown on-screen were real, not staged by film makers. Of course the events depicted in the movies were not real, but the controversy they caused helped boost interest and ticket sales. Rather than posting a typical promotional movie site with Shockwave presentations, cute screen savers, a few trailers, and an opening date, Sanchez created a Web site that is an extension of the movie rather than just an online advertisement.
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In addition, just before the general release of the film, The Science-Fiction Channel aired a mockumentary, Curse of the Blair Witch (Sanchez, 1999b), which, supposedly, investigated the legend behind the movie. The program contains “actual interviews” of relatives and friends of the three main characters. (Sanchez, 1999b) Since the whole legend was fictional, including the myth of the missing students, the program can be treated as another marketing mechanism for the film. Despite this, it gives more background information on the legend that is hinted at in the film.
Then, at the Cannes Film Festival, the producers distribute flyers containing information about the cast. The missing posters of the actors of the film were also put up. These marketing strategies and also the authentic feel of the movie made many viewers believe that the whole documentary was real, even though the film was listed in the fiction category.
This decade also saw industry consolidation accelerate. By the end of the 1990s, bigger companies dominated the entertainment industry and companies such as News Corporation (20th Century-Fox and Fox Broadcasting), Time Warner (Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema), and Viacom (Paramount, Blockbuster Video, and CBS) were changing the dynamics of ownership. (Bakker, 2008:122) Studios were no longer part of companies focused primarily on movies and TV shows. These companies ushered in an era of more intense research, which was conducted at a higher cost. Everything was tested, from story concepts to TV commercials. These companies were also able to raise vast pools of funds from investors both in United States and around the world.
Movies were still shown on film, but there were signs that the end of the celluloid era was upon us as movies entered the electronic age. Digital technology was used first to store information, then to edit movies and TV shows, and later as a tool in special effects, leading ultimately to the beginning of digital cinema, which would transform production, distribution, and exhibition.
At the same time the internet gave easy access to an abundance of information and fast communication. When in 1993 only 1.3 million people used the Internet, by the year 2000, over 300 million people had access. (Bordwell, 2003:274) Soon after, the DVD was introduced as a digital consumer entertainment format and seemed likely to replace videotape.
However, mainly due to evolving technology, the U.S film industry faced many new difficulties as a new century dawned. Film piracy exploded, thanks to digital copying and internet access. Also box-office revenues swelled due to increased ticket prices as supposed to larger audiences. In real terms, theatres were earning less from tickets sales that they had in the 1980s. (Stringer, 2003) In the meantime, the costs of film making and marketing were rising faster than the income. Nonetheless, theatrical motion pictures remained central ingredients in the media mix. Films spawned television series, video games, comic books and other merchandise material. The press tracked top-grossing films as if they were a sports team. The industry might have been riddled with economic problems, but film was securely at the centre of America’s and the world’s popular culture.
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