Thursday, January 15, 2009

Movies Meet Marketing

There's a great article in this week's edition of The New Yorker, dated January 19, 2009, by Tad Friend, titled "The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer's playbook." The piece follows Tim Palen, Lionsgate's co-president of theatrical marketing, and it does that quintessential The New Yorker thing of using Palen as a means of investigating the marketing of films as an industry. Here's the money quote:
One of the oldest jokes in the business is that when a studio head takes over he's given three envelopes, the first of which contains the advice "Fire the head of marketing." Nowadays, though, former marketers, such as Oren Aviv, at Disney, and Marc Shmuger, at Universal, often run the studios. "Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates, " one studio's president of production says. "So at green-light meetings it's a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, 'This director was born to make this movie.' "
And, on the topic of trailers:
Another problem with free samples is: what if the product isn't particularly remarkable? "How many great movies are there each year?" the trailer cutter David Schneiderman says. "We're in the business of cheating, let's face it. We fix voice-overs, create dialogue to clear up a story, use stock footage. We give pushup bras to flat-chested girls, take people's eyes and put them where we want them. And sometimes it works.
OK. So we know now that the goal of films is to make money--and not, you know, be good--and that advertising lies to us.

But what do these marketing folks think about us, American citizumers? Is there room for nuance? For subtlety? For experimentation?

An unexpected corallary of the modern marketing-and-distribution model is that films no longer hve time to find their audience; that audience has to be identified and solicited well in advance. Marketers segment the audience in a variety of ways, but the most common form of partition is the four quadrants: men under twenty-five; older men; women under twenty-five; older women. A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn't expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film's budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach. The most expensive tent-pole movies, such as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, are aimed at all four quadrants.
Reading this article makes me question how I choose what movies to watch. I try to avoid movie reviews because I like going into the thing without previous knowledge. I want to decide for myself what worked and what didn't work. But are the trailers and commercials and newspaper ads commissioned and designed by the people trying to sell the movie any better? In a strange way, they may be. I may see the best joke in the trailer, but, after reading this article, I'm pretty convinced that the trailer won't actually have anything to do with the full-length movie.

And, just for fun, Gelf Magazine runs an occasional feature titled The Blurb Report, in which the magazine takes a look at the original context of excerpted movie blurbs. For example, here--from their Best Worst Blurbs of 2007-- is a quote attributed to Michael Wilmington of The Chicago Tribune regarding Norbit: "Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense." And here is the complete quote: "Murphy's comic skills are immense, and 'Dreamgirls' shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself—here misdirected by Brian Robbins of 'Good Burger,' 'Varsity Blues' and that lousy 'Shaggy Dog' remake?"

That was just in case you still believed any form of marketing.

[Update: I didn't realize the Best Worst Blurbs of 2008 was out. But it is. Check it out, if you just can't get enough of out-of-context movie blurbs.]

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