When rebrands go wrong

(And how to avoid the pitfalls)

Movie marketing moves into the digital age

The need for movies to have revenue streams beyond their cinema releases is pushing studios such as Universal, Disney and Fox to invest in emerging digital channels capable of creating engaging experiences both inside the theatre and out.

Video: Trailer for Disney’s Muppets Most Wanted” film

In the high-risk world of the multiplex and billion dollar plus box office receipts, it’s easy to forget the variables that contribute to promoting a success of a movie. Even for those films that ultimately go on to be box office juggernauts, often marketers struggle to fully measure how variables such as word-of-mouth and critical reception have directly influenced ticket sales.

It has made the industry reluctant to walk away from the default promotional mix, whereby studios focus on TV and print ads to promote their titles six weeks before release, despite the model not reflecting today’s digital behaviours. But the days of film marketing beginning with trailers are fading as movie execs turn to emerging platforms such as Vine for sustainable and sometimes more cost-effective ways to reach fans amid growing competition.

Is the film trailer still the right place to start in the digital age?

NBCUniversal, Disney and Fox are using digital to extend the marketing cycle of films sometimes as far back as when they are green lit in a bid to build a fan base capable of stretching beyond the theatrical window. Digital has squeezed the level of control film studios have over content pushing NBCUniversal into the social arena where it uses Facebook as self-moderated forum for its biggest releases.

The studio releases upward of fifteen multi-million dollar movies a year and is using the social network as a key marketing hub for many of those. It has already amassed more than 1.7 million fans on its Fifty Shades of Grey page a full year from release, while its Fast and Furious profile now has over 43 million followers.

Test and learn


The challenge facing filmmakers using social media and other emerging channels is ensuring they test activity and grow their understanding without jeopardising the work horse aspects of campaigns. Disney is building tools to provide a more accurate picture of the effectiveness of its marketing claiming “data is the key”.

The media owner says its focus for 2014 and 2015 is to “harness the newer digital platforms” such as Vine and SnapChat to create a level of awareness it cannot get with just running radio or TV spots. It is planning to use Vine to let fans create content for the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted” movie, while also exploring how it uses short-form content experiences to support other releases in the coming months.

Lee Jury, VP of marketing at Walt Disney Studios EMEA and UK, says: “The success of a movie is of course all in the box office, but the success of the marketing is far more complex. At Disney, we have begun to adopt new models and thinking and to test the mettle of less conventional tactics as with [the marketing campaign around] Iron Man 3. Figuring out which triggers might ultimately ‘fire blanks’ is the key to success.”

Controlling the conversation is outdated

But establishing what those tactics are is a stumbling block and the risks associated with ceding too much control over to fans in the digital space is huge. Movie marketing experts point to the many layers of management approval content goes through before it is published as a way for filmmakers to manage unrealistic expectations from critics and fans during a production’s lifecycle.

Adam Rubins, chief executive of communications agency Way to Blue, which works with film studios, says the industry is taking “early” steps to be more reactive online by tying content to the news agenda – in order to make official assets more pertinent and timely in their audiences news feeds.

He adds: “[Tying content to news] uses existing content that you can just overlay with relevant and targeted copy. It’s something we’re pitching in to clients currently. There’s a sweet spot the industry is working towards in terms of using official assets and endorsing fan-created content so that they’re almost promoting the product on behalf of the studio.”

For Fox, this change in marketing mindset has led to influencers being more involved in the campaigns for its films. Where it had a YouTube creator sourcing content at the premier for Avatar in 2009, for its recent Secret Life Of Walter Mitty release it let a vlogger who had been hired to create a promotional video use the cash to help the Typhoon Haiyan victims. The studio then asked the person to create an inspirational video (see above) of the relief mission to promote the film’s theme of “live your dreams”.

The way the studio measures the health of a campaign has changed to support its efforts to drive and react to conversations about its films online. In addition to traditional metrics, Fox now looks at buzz tracking and how quickly it gains followers on various social platforms, as well as video view counts. The studio, however, still believes the theatrical window is still key to the success of its brands.  

Bettina Sherick, SVP of digital strategic marketing at Fox, says: We’re not selling soap, cookies, automobiles. And we have one shot to get it right in the theatrical window. So, whilst I understand on the outside our marketing efforts may have seem “controlled and rigid”, as you say, on the inside the discussion was more around how do we make sure the audience knows the essence of the story we’re telling, as well as making sure we do what’s right by all the stakeholders involved in the making of our films.”

Because of the high-risk nature of the movie industry, where one sunny weekend can derail years of hard work, marketers are apprehensive out of necessity. And while none of the big studios have quite taken the digital leap yet, filmmakers are learning integration between all marketing channels is key to being more profitable.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I had the chance and pleasure to work for most of the people interviewed here. Unfortunately, as Bettina points out, they only have one shot. And the results I have seen tend to show that unless you have an established franchise, most of these efforts are pretty useless compared to having the right trailer/creative positioning. And these franchises are the ones that need social/engagement efforts the least - they will naturally drive the social efforts studios so desire. In other words, a lot of it is a cost center more than a growth center. For every success story the industry hails, there are plenty of failures that followed the same strategies and tactics and failed. Iron Man 3 will never be a good measure of reference, it has too much success baked in already.

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