Contributor Lee Kolcz weighs out the benefits and disadvantages of cinema adopting a more innovative marketing strategy that mirrors the music industry’s inclination towards hype and surprise.
There’s a trend in the music industry of releasing new, highly anticipated albums with no warning at all. Some, like Radiohead, offer a pay-what-you-want deal. Others, like Beyoncé, release it exclusively through streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal.
The method seems to be working for those with a built-in brand who choose a non-existing marketing strategy. Beyoncé changed the game with Lemonade, Radiohead saw their biggest paycheck yet with the release of In Rainbows, and Frank Ocean gained a bigger audience with his wood-shop themed build up to the release of his highly anticipated sophomore album.
Not every “surprise” release is successful. They may get headlines but there’s no real impact in sales. Some albums are so surprising because no one expected them and no one really cared. I’m looking at you, Avenged Sevenfold. Similarly, Chicago alt-rockers, Wilco, released their album, Star Wars, by surprise in 2015, but even though it was welcomed among fans and critics, it didn’t go further than that. Therefore, although the method isn’t perfected or widely accepted, there are a few things the film industry can learn from its sister medium.
The Arcade Fire Lesson
Make marketing something audiences can participate in as opposed to something that’s thrown at them.
Before releasing Arcade Fire’s fourth studio album, symbols and cryptic logos with the word “Reflektor” on it began popping up over cities across the world. Reflektor was inevitably announced as the title to the album, which was released in 2013. You can still find markings around Chicago to this day. I’m not going to pretend that Arcade Fire created the idea of Guerrilla marketing but it sure worked for them. Pitchfork even called the method, “unusual, ambitious, vague, confounding, a little heavy-handed, and very successful.”
Guerrilla marketing has been used in film before. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project was the first film to be marketed on the internet, which would now be considered viral marketing. The official website for the film was composed of fake interviews and photos of missing persons that would end up being the subjects of the film. This style of marketing, along with the film’s faux-documentary method, caused internet users to debate over whether the film was a real-life documentary or a work of fiction.
At the film’s premiere, the filmmakers took this a step further by handing out flyers and telling anyone to come forward if they had information on the “faux” filmmaker’s whereabouts. Even the “faux” filmmaker’s IMDB page listed them as “missing, presumed dead” for as long as a year after the film was released.
The key ingredient here is the internet and although that may be considered viral marketing, I’m using the term “Guerrilla” in the sense that the marketing is innovative and relatively unconventional for cinema. The internet is one giant tool that generates hype. It’s something that can be manipulated by users who upload information others perceive to be true. After all, the internet is where we go for our questions to be answered. Films like The Blair Witch Project figured out how to use it to their benefit by creating a mystery in which audiences were able to participate. The filmmakers only needed to make one fake webpage to get audiences interested. People would search for more information but were unable to find any because the filmmakers hadn’t given any more. This created urgency for audiences to rush to cinemas in order to see a film that is, admittedly, of terrible quality. However, the story became something they could be a part of because of the belief that it was real.
Flash forward to 2016. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett premiered a trailer for their new film, The Woods. When the film premiered at Comic-Con, audience members realized something weird when a familiar name started popping up during the film. Once the movie ended, there was no hiding the secret. The Woods was actually a sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project simply titled Blair Witch (2016). While the film earned back 1000% of its budget, I still believe it could have had an even bigger opening had the surprise not been revealed at Comic-Con.
For all the downfalls of found-footage films, they really made the movie-going experience immersive. It made audiences feel as though they were participating in the narrative. By convincing audiences that these events actually happened and were caught on camera, it no longer feels like a movie. You go from being a consumer of popular culture to becoming Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en. Classic found footage films, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, made me feel like a detective caught up in this mystery. Both films also lost that once the internet debunked the “truths.” But I still appreciate them for what they did on that first viewing. My knees met my chin during both screenings, as if the Blair Witch was hiding under my theater seat about to grab my ankles.
Although found-footage films and Guerrilla marketing often go hand in hand, they aren’t exclusive to each other. Some examples of non-found-footage films to really utilize Guerrilla marketing include Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Sony Pictures put up billboards and posters on interstates and bus stops promoting “Humans Only” for District 9, a film about aliens living on earth and dealing with issues that reflect apartheid-torn South Africa. Similarly, fans of Batman were teased in 2007 when vandalized posters of a politician named Harvey Dent began popping up around cities and public spaces. The posters read, “I believe in Harvey Dent”, while the vandalism included many “Haha”s and the now famous line, “Why So Serious?” Both films were big successes and even garnered nominations for Oscars in their respective years, proving Guerrilla marketing is not a phenomenon reserved for found-footage films.
While neither District 9 or The Dark Knight is trying to make us believe aliens have invaded or that our politicians are being stalked by villainous psychopaths, they allowed fans to participate in the hype on their own terms. There was no announcement that the promotional campaign had started. People just started noticing the ads while going on with their daily lives. After being exposed to the ad, it’s up to them whether or not they want to follow the clues laid out for them. At the end of the fabricated treasure map there might be a trailer on the internet, or even an exclusive opportunity to be the first to experience the whole work, which is what awaited Arcade Fire fans in a few select cities prior to releasing Reflektor. That’s the beauty of Guerrilla marketing. These examples led audiences into having a collective experience. By the time the films were released, everyone and their uncle had no choice but to see them with their own eyes. When done correctly, these films are a win-win for everyone by giving audiences something new and giving the film industry a large fiscal win.
The Standard Roll-Out Lesson
Have a limit for promotional material and embargo reviews until after a release.
To compare the two industries I will use Toronto’s pride and joy, Drake. It always surprises me how every time Drake releases an album, it gets released at midnight, but by 12:05am my timeline is filled with opinions about it being the greatest rap album ever made. Thus was the case with his 2016 album, Views From The Six. Months have since passed and those same people who hailed it as the greatest album ever have also heard new albums from Danny Brown, A Tribe Called Quest, and Schoolboy Q. Needless to say, most of them calmed down a bit, as has the excitement.
This is exactly what happens with me and films I love. You feel a high after watching a great film and may over-exaggerate a bit when discussing it. This is “hype” in a nutshell. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Drake, but the man understands how to create hype. When it comes to cinema, much of the hype building responsibilities rely on word-of-mouth from industry professionals, mainly film critics. However, though film critics should be building hype, more often than not, they destroy it. Let’s face it, film critics are not ordinary filmgoers. They have a trained eye. They’ve studied film for years and we as consumers understandably trust them. Unfortunately, audiences nowadays still look to critics in order to gauge the quality of a film but it’s through the toxic aggregation of Rotten Tomatoes.
Rotten Tomatoes is a website that collects film reviews from different critics around the globe and then averages the review into one score. It’s a flawed system. Let’s imagine a film that receives 2.5/4 stars across the board. According to Rotten Tomatoes, that’d be a 100% fresh rating. Some of the films I (along with many others) consider to be classics have horrendous Rotten Tomato scores.
The Boondock Saints (1999) has a 20%. Spielberg’s Hook (1991) only has a 30%. Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998) sits at a 49%. Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) only has a 50%. Hell, even Home Alone (1990) has a 55%!
… Anyways, where was I? Ah yes, critics can be useful in predicting which films will end up being nominated for awards but they can’t exactly tell us what movies we’ll enjoy or not. Imagine if Rotten Tomatoes had been around during the releases of the films listed above. All those quotable lines and belly laughs would be cast into the abyss of forgotten films.
Allow me to suggest the following hot take: Films should be released without any reviews for them. Alfred Hitchcock famously refused to screen Psycho (1960) for critics before its release because he feared they would spoil the twist at the end of the film. Although this move by Hitchcock was more of a gimmick to promote the film and its release occurred when the film industry was vastly different than today, I think we can still apply its lesson. Even when Hitchcock did screen the film for critics, they still didn’t like it. In fact, critics historically panned the slasher horror sub-genre spawned by Psycho, which happens to be one of the most profitable genres in cinema history. Time has since gone on to show who was on the right side of history, but nowadays the internet makes it nearly impossible to go into any film without expectations. This is all the more reason for filmmakers to release films by surprise or extend an embargo for all new reviews to 1-2 weeks after the release of a film as opposed to day-of-release reviews, which most films are subject to.
Hype and speculation go hand in hand. When there’s no longer anything to speculate about, the hype will dwindle. If films adapted to a marketing strategy like the music industry’s status quo, more tickets would sell in their opening weekend. The money a film makes after its first weekend depends on how good the film is because at that point people will be talking and critics will be reviewing. Word-of-mouth can be a film’s best friend or biggest rival in that regard.
I believe a film should announce its title and release date on the same day, a lá music albums. Also, inform audiences who will be starring and who will be making the film. This is the equivalent of an album announcing its track listing and featured collaborators. Since albums normally give a taste of the final product by releasing singles prior to the release, films can do the same by releasing trailers, but they need to be cut down to about a minute long. Trailers are meant to tease, not twist arms. By doing this, a sense of anticipation will lead to speculation and then it’s all aboard the hype train.
The Beyoncé Lesson
Keeping a secret is hard, unless you’re a big director working on a small project.
Beyoncé has released two albums with no warning: her 2013 self-titled album and 2016’s conceptual album Lemonade. Both albums were mammoth successes and although they are both very strong records, the initial success in sales was mainly due to Beyoncé being Beyoncé. She, the queen, has a built-in brand. When a personality of that magnitude puts out a new piece of work that truly comes out as a surprise, it can gain the attention of literally everyone and create a level of buzz unmatched by a traditional release. The buzz extended far past the music community, becoming the center of conversation in many different media outlets. For example, Lemonade was released with a companion film, something the film industry was interested in. Also, her self-titled album sold 1.3 million copies in its first 17 days on the market, something the business world talked about for a while. The point is when you’re that famous, the album doesn’t even have to be good to sell a large amount of copies. I’m not saying Lemonade was bad, jeez, calm down.
How does this translate to film? There’s not much to learn from Beyoncé on this topic. Lemonade credits 76 others as working on the album. That may be a lot of people for an album with one name on the cover but nothing compared to how many people work on a feature length film. Have you ever stayed ‘til the end of a big-budget action film? The average length of closing credits roll for action films is 9-10 minutes. To put things in perspective, 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions credit’s 701 people as having a role in making the film, including a “set masseuse.”
The fact that it’s really impractical to have 701 people to keep a secret makes this nearly impossible. It would have to be a small film from a huge director to really land as a “surprise” and that’s actually happened before. Shortly after filming 2012’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon was on a contractual vacation from post-production on the film and decided to make an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012). He created his own production company, used a cast of relatively unknown actors, and shot the whole film in his own house. He did everything he needed to do in order to make a film in secrecy.
However, the film is a Shakespeare play which means it didn’t really require that much to tell the story. How hard can it be to make a movie based on a story that was performed live in the 1600’s? No special effects were needed and no extra sets were built. Whedon asked the cast and crew to keep it under wraps. Luckily for Whedon, they kept their mouths shut while other directors have to go to massive lengths to get their actors not to blab important info about the film. Yet, the film didn’t stop the presses the way Beyoncé’s album did. People flock to cinemas to see a spectacle and a pretty straight forward re-telling of Shakespeare isn’t going to fare too well with the cherished 18-40 year old demographic.
A film doesn’t have to be a surprise, but you also don’t need to tell audiences anything. That’s the best lesson cinema can learn from Beyoncé. But this lesson is only for the Beyoncés of film. J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan, two of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers, are both known for their secrecy on set for their films. I think this is something audiences appreciate even if they don’t realize it. Also, Martin Scorsese’s next film, Silence (2016), is scheduled to be released on December 23. A trailer and poster were released exactly a month prior to its release. However, neither shows too much. The trailer showcases the themes and teases Scorsese’s style, yet is still very different from the narrative summary type of trailer that over-exposes. With a filmmaker such as Scorsese, there’s no reason to promote his work too heavily. He’s currently in the midst of a month-long promotional blitzkrieg for Silence, but I’d argue that’s more of an awards campaign than anything. He is the film-lover’s Beyoncé; our “Scorsese-fierce”. His name is enough to convince a wide-array of audiences into purchasing tickets. Even though he doesn’t need to promote his film for it to gain an audience, he does so in a way that corroborates my feelings of “less is more.” Silence has been on my mind since I heard it was going to be released this year. Without an abundance of trailers or festival reviews, my anticipation has only grown as I’m sure it’s had the same effect on most fans of the medium.
The Radiohead Lesson
Release films for free and make them easily accessible as a means to get your name or message out to the public.
Radiohead is a mammoth band with a huge following. The film equivalent of what they did with In Rainbows would be like Quentin Tarantino releasing a new film next week with no desire of any sort of monetary compensation. I’m sure that hypothetical future Academy Award nominated film would end up making bank the same way Radiohead’s album did but it’s completely up to the filmmaker’s discretion. Basically, Tarantino could do this if he wanted to but it would just add to the already colossal amount of work that goes into making a major motion picture. Tarantino would have to hate critics as much as Radiohead if he were to truly adopt this method of distribution.
According to Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke on releasing In Rainbows, “We were trying to avoid that whole game of who gets in first with the reviews. These days there’s so much paper to fill, or digital paper to fill, that whoever writes the first few things gets cut and pasted. Whoever gets their opinion in first has all that power. Especially for a band like ours, it’s totally the luck of the draw whether that person is into us or not. It just seems wildly unfair, I think.” Bless your heart Thom!
The problem once again is critics. Today, it’s not just professional critics since everyone’s a critic thanks to social media. Opinions spread like wildfire. The best part of how Radiohead released In Rainbows was that it allowed all their fans to participate in the first listen. Similarly, they were able to gain a new plethora of fans by allowing people to pay what they wanted. I’ll confess, this was the first Radiohead album I listened to and also the first album I ever downloaded off the internet. More importantly, however, this was the album that got me to see albums as whole works and not just a compilation of songs. Keeping that in mind, this method of distribution could cross over into film in two ways: To release a documentary where the filmmakers honestly just want more people to see their film and also for up-and-coming filmmakers to gain exposure.
Documentaries often get passed by casual filmgoers but 2016 has been a great year for them. The only problem is they rarely ever receive a wide release and often times don’t even make it to home video. I believe the great year documentaries are having is due, in part, to streaming services making them available. There’s more reason to produce them with all these different ways to distribute. However, while most docs are available through video on-demand platforms such as iTunes, Amazon and cable providers such as Xfinity, they cost about $6.99 to rent. I understand the price. It’s the same as what an average movie ticket used to cost. But when looking through all the docs on my watchlist, there’s too many to choose from. This causes audiences, including myself, to tell ourselves that “we’ll just wait for it to be on Netflix.” Perhaps there should be a new subscription based streaming service exclusive to documentaries. It’s not exactly pay-what-you-want but it’s much more affordable and thus could lead to more documentaries being watched, which is the best thing possible for these films.
Furthermore, exposure is good for social and political messages, but also for up-and-coming filmmakers. To relate this to the music industry, Chicago hero and human shaped cloud of positivity, Chance the Rapper, has never charged money for his albums. Or are they mixtapes? I’m not sure anymore. Anyways, he has since skyrocketed to fame. He headlines music festivals, sells out tours, and even sold out his own festival that took place at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field this past summer. At the ripe age of 23, Chance was able to rise to prominence the old-school way of essentially handing his demo out to anyone that would listen. So if you’re a rising star in Hollywood, stop meeting with distributors and just put it up on YouTube and let your art do the talking for you. However, it’s important to keep in mind this is much easier said than done since music artists get paid for live performances whereas filmmakers depend on ticket sales to make money off their art. Although, one could argue no one would have even showed up to Chance The Rapper’s concerts had he not released his music for free.
A film that resembles this type of release is 2013’s The One I Love, a sci-fi romance film directed by newcomer Charlie McDowell. It flew under the radar in theaters but was widely written about and analyzed when the film showed up on Netflix’s streaming library. The film has a twist hidden within it that the filmmakers purposely kept under wraps. According to McDowell, “We felt [that], going into Sundance, our world premiere would be the only screening where people would have a pure watching experience of the movie. That was the one [screening] where no one really knew anything going in. We always felt that was the best way for people to see the movie.” The film premiered in theaters and had a modest run before getting a home video release that coincided with it becoming available to stream through Netflix. By putting it up on Netflix, the film gained some steam in its home video release by using every great film’s secret weapon: Word of mouth.
It would’ve been hard to market The One I Love without giving too many hints towards its surprise so I believe the filmmakers made a smart move by keeping it under wraps and letting its quality do all the advertising needed. 86.7 million people subscribe to Netflix as of 2016. That’s the amount of people who could theoretically see a new filmmaker’s film. Putting a film on a streaming site is the greatest resume builder for a filmmaker. Sometimes Netflix feels more like a filmmaker’s version of LinkedIn than a service for consumers. I think new filmmakers should always try to make money off their films. After all, it is a career, but if that doesn’t pan out, don’t give up. Release the film for free somewhere accessible to the general public and start planning the next move.
It’s no secret that movie theater attendance is down. With too many options to choose from and not enough variety between them, audiences are forced to turn to Rotten Tomatoes in an attempt to make sure they’re seeing the best one. This causes few films to become huge successes while many other films are overlooked by audiences. By looking to the music industry, cinema may be able to make film great again. First and foremost, it’s always going to be the responsibility of the filmmakers to produce good content. After that, it’s all about the marketing. By pulling back on the throttle, I believe cinema can find new life. The internet should be used to generate the perfect amount of hype without over exposing the plot which inevitably spoils all interest in a film. With so many different ways to watch films through different platforms, films need to make a case for why they need to be seen in theaters. This can be done in a couple of different ways as discussed above, but the common denominator has always been a lack of urgency due to the plethora of opinions and promotional content being thrown around the internet. It’s time to make up our own minds on film. On that note, I’ll leave you with what the golden standard of what film marketing should be: The trailer to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Alien. Marketing is and always will be an art as opposed to a condensed version of what’s being advertised. Although it seems we’ve lost our way somewhere in the recent past, we can only hope it’s merely a temporary diversion.
Author: Lee Kolcz is a senior at Columbia College Chicago, where he is studying Journalism and Cinema Studies. He is particularly interested in the horror genre and documentaries. This Fall he is the Editorial Intern at Facets.