Movie Marketing Is On the Cusp of Major Changes

As January 2018 winds down, the entertainment finds itself with a number of notable events happening.

First, nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were just released. As usual, there were notable omissions, including Wonder Woman being snubbed. Thankfully there were also some great inclusions such as both Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) receiving directorial nominations.

Second, the Sundance Film Festival has finished up. This year’s Park City, UT gathering has been more low-key than it has been recently. While films are still being acquired, neither Netflix or Amazon Studios have been active buyers, reversing a trend from the last few years where they’ve outbid traditional specialty distributors for heavily-buzzed films.

Third, the Super Bowl is coming up quickly, traditionally a big platform where studios debut trailers for high-profile releases coming out in the next several months. We already know Universal and Paramount are going to be promoting some of their films. Marvel’s Black Panther will also be included in a spot that’s actually for Lexus.

That’s a lot of movie marketing-related activity right now. And it’s all taking place when there are some notable marketing and entertainment industry trends that will upend many long-held beliefs and tactics.

Marketing Will Matter Less

Massive campaigns for Justice League, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Tower and others couldn’t salvage their box-office fortunes. All were sunk by a mixture of poor reviews and even worse word-of-mouth. On the flipside, recommendations from friends, coworkers and family helped propel Girls Trip, Wonder, Get Out, The Greatest Showman and other movies to success. Studios can throw all the trailers they want to and launch TV spots on the Super Bowl but that spending doesn’t overrule peer reviews.

Yes, the biggest movies of 2017 all had massive campaigns, but in many cases that’s correlation, not causation. Star Wars opened huge because it’s Star Wars, not because of the dozens of commercials aired. No one wasn’t aware the movie was coming out. Conversely, some of the most profitable movies of last year had modest campaigns, including Get Out and Girls Trip. Those succeeded because people kept sharing their love of the films.

Distribution Will Replace Marketing

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently made comments about how in an ideal world the company doesn’t do any external marketing at all. While the streaming service did mount substantial campaigns for movies like Bright (which already has a sequel coming) and Mudbound (which scored a number of Oscar nominations), Hastings wants to rely solely on internal promotion. Netflix releases, with the exception of these two and a couple other titles, don’t ordinarily receive anything but a cursory marketing push and that may fall even more as it leans on recommendations within the app/site and word-of-mouth to drive views.

It’s not hard to imagine that mindset being adopted by other media companies. Everyone is a video competitor now, from CBS to Disney to Snapchat to Facebook to YouTube and so on. Buying ads on Facebook to promote your movie is essentially funneling money to an entity that’s actively working to steal your audience (which has been true in the larger media industry for years and is now specifically true to entertainment producers), so why do that? Instead, the focus will increasingly be on using recommendation engines to surface movies existing subscribers are likely to enjoy.

Indie Filmmakers Will Bear The Brunt

Netflix and Amazon Studios have, for the last three years or so, been among the biggest buyers at the Sundance Film Festival, driving up the prices of buzz-heavy films in the hopes those titles will add attractive options to their catalogs. Both have been almost completely silent this year as their corporate priorities have shifted. Bright was reportedly a huge success for Netflix (though it hasn’t backed that up with confirmed numbers) and rumors are circulating it wants to acquire the next Cloverfield anthology film. Amazon is changing direction to focus on bigger movies, essentially admitting that its initial embrace of prestige pictures was a foot in the door to get people’s attention but now it would like more blockbusters and less awards fodder.

That’s going to leave the kinds of filmmakers who bring their films to Sundance back in the same position they were 10 years ago. Netflix and Amazon were seen as outlets for the kinds of original voices and stories the big studios were no longer interested in. If they’re getting out of the indie film game, fortunes will once more be pinned to the specialty distributors who are struggling to survive themselves. Bleecker Street has financial issues. Fox Searchlight’s future is up in the air with the Fox/Disney merger pending. Others are having their own problems. It’s going to get rough.

Mo’ Trends, Mo’ Problems

All of those are big issues that will drastically impact how films are marketed and promoted. There are plenty more where those came from, including:

  • Facebook’s constant changing of the rules will hurt the organic reach of posts published to the pages studios love to create for each film. And, as I stated early, paying for promotion is tantamount to offering bullets to the guy holding a gun to your head.
  • Media consolidation – not just Disney/Fox but everywhere – means fewer critics and fewer outlets through which to reach a relevant audience. This is particularly felt in the closure of alt-weeklies that traditionally championed smaller films.
  • Influencer marketing and branded content are getting more and more attention from marketers as a whole and it’s not hard to see studios following along as a way to get around the problems caused by both of the two points above.
  • Adoption of voice assistants like Alexa and Home are spurring a pivot to audio by marketers and media companies who just 18 months ago pivoted to video, though that worked out well for (runs numbers) no one.
  • Retail outlets in general, especially those that cater to young shoppers, are failing left and right. Those young people simply aren’t going out like previous generations did. Eventually theatrical chains are going to start closing as “just raise ticket prices” becomes an unsustainable strategy.

All of those and more are going to have an impact on how the movies coming out this year and beyond are sold to the public. Each film will be affected in different ways, but it’s going to add up. It remains to be seen who will adapt best and keep up with those trends, who will fall victim to them and how all that changes what sorts of movies people choose – and are able – to see.


Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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