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The pitfalls of film/TV marketing

Posted on November 4th, 2013
Posted on November 4th, 2013

by Coop Cooper

Marketing a movie or TV show is a tricky business.

Ron Howard’s latest film “Rush” is a prime example of an original film idea that clearly nobody new how to market. It is being advertised as director Ron Howard’s ‘best film’ and as possibly ‘the best film of the year’ but it’s not really explaining what it’s about other than Formula One racing… a sport that is not terribly popular in America. It also stars Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth and that Nazi hero sniper (Daniel Bruhl) from “Inglorious Basterds” whom you probably forgot about. The film utilizes a strange orange and teal color palette and Opie from “The Andy Griffith Show” directed it. That’s about all anyone knows about it even if they studied the TV promos. “Rush” is also a very generic title also utilized by a 1991 undercover narc film starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Lee which only adds to the confusion. Despite how good the film might be or how many awards it could win, it does not scream ‘blockbuster.’ One would have to do some digging to find out the film is actually based on the real-life rivalry between two European F1 racers in the 1970’s named James Hunt and Niki Lauda (who???).

That’s what often happens to untried, original story ideas and that’s why Hollywood is generally terrified of them so they either under-market or over-market when studio execs have little confidence in it. “Rush” definitely falls into the under-marketed category and they are secretly hoping for positive critical reviews or audience word-of-mouth to sell it. A full marketing blitz, which is not always reported as part of the film’s budget, includes trailers, posters, press junkets, promotional materials, special screenings, product endorsements, all forms of advertising, etc… It’s a large expense and devastating for a studio when a tentpole film bombs in spite of it, especially when there are countless factors that could make a break a film. Only brand-name franchises like “Harry Potter,” “James Bond” films are partially immune and sequels of big hits have a much better track record, which is why there are so many of them.

Much of the same pitfalls apply to marketing new TV shows.

“Sleepy Hollow” seems to be a surprise runaway hit. The odd “X-files”-like team of a Revolutionary War-era Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) teamed up with a modern-day cop (Nicole Beharie) to stop the Headless Horseman from unleashing the apocalypse is a completely bizarro idea, but it is clever. It’s got a few things going for it marketing-wise: It was released close to Halloween, it’s piggy-backing on the success of “American Horror Story” (and a few other popular other supernatural dramas) it has big-budgeted effects, it’s a recognized franchise and it has a elementally frightening antagonist. It also helps that the show is helmed by the extremely successful producing team of Kurtzman and Orci, it has two leads who definitely have a Mulder and Scully chemistry and the show is written fairly well. The nonstop commercial teasers showing the assault rifle-armed Headless Horsemen attacking police was the icing on the cake.

Even successful TV shows have a rough go continuing to market themselves after a few strong seasons. Unless the show itself stays fresh, it will ‘jump the shark’ and begin its inevitable decline into cancellation. This term came from the episode of 1974-1984 TV show “Happy Days” in which the character of Fonzie jumped over a shark while water skiing. This ridiculous gimmick signaled the decline of the show and the expression stuck. Shows still resort to these types of gimmicks in an attempt to keep shows interesting, like forcefully adding new lead characters/sidekicks, celebrity guest stars, supernatural elements, ‘very special episodes’ in which main characters deal with current societal problems and sometimes a drastic reworking of a show’s entire format (look up “Galactica 1980” for a strange example of that). One of the most egregious examples are show ‘crossovers’ like when the “Flinstones” met the “Jetsons” and if you don’t think that happens anymore, just wait until the confirmed “Simpsons”/”Family Guy” crossover happens this upcoming season. Any of these transgressions are a potential kiss of death for a series.

Entertainment marketing is far from an exact science but its practices are highly predictable and a confident campaign could signal a big hit, but be aware that it often covers for big stinkers. Ultimately, it’s the paying audience who has the power and that power can lead to exceptions. The film “Serenity” would have never happened if fanatical fans of the failed sci-fi show “Firefly” hadn’t flexed their massive internet influence. Likewise with fans of the cancelled show “Veronica Mars” who funded a feature film for the character using a Kickstarter campaign. Even more recent is the legion of “Judge Dredd” fans who just launched a grassroots campaign to make “Dredd” (2012) the #1 DVD/Blu Ray rental & sale in the US and UK last week in hopes of igniting interest in a sequel. I joined them and rented the film last week. Wish us luck.

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