Movies as Music Marketing Vehicle

When director Dome Karukoski was interviewed about Tolkien and what, if any, involvement the family and estate of the late author might have had in crafting the story, he responded by saying he avoided such entanglements, fearful that in doing so things might become watered down. He was concerned they would want certain aspects of the story removed, hidden or downplayed because they cast Tolkien in a less than favorable light and instead wanted to remain as true as possible to the facts, with certain creative license taken, of course.

Karukoski’s point of view runs in stark contrast to the approach taken by the filmmakers behind a spat of recent “authorized” biopics, particularly those focusing on bands and musicians. On a number of different occasions those movies, which purport to offer behind-the-scenes “real” stories of how artists rose to fame or bands went through the years of paying their dues before becoming worldwide phenomena, not only have the blessing of the people being portrayed but their active involvement as well.

Consider the three following examples:

  • Bohemian Rhapsody has been in the works for a number of years, with the surviving members of the band Queen shepherding the project along. Their involvement and the desire for it to be a glossy history of the band and not one the delved too deeply into the troubles it had or lead singer Freddie Mercury’s sexuality kept it from moving forward for a long while, at one point leading to Sacha Baron Cohen dropping out due to “creative differences.”
  • The Dirt covers the early years of Motley Crue and adapts the book of the same name that was written with the band’s involvement. As the movie was nearing release, band members gave it their endorsement by appearing at numerous publicity events and promoting it on their social media channels.
  • Rocketman, which tells the story of the rise of Elton John from obscure club musician to international superstar, has received his approval at every step. He’s been interviewed about it and is quoted in stories often, emphasizing how true to reality the story is. John’s husband serves as a producer on the movie as well.

The verdict on Rocketman is still out, but if it follows the pattern established by the first two it’s easy to understand why John would want to not only get his story out there but do so in a way that he had some measure of control over.

the dirt pic

Bohemian Rhapsody was criticized for glossing over Mercury’s personal life and playing up the involvement of the rest of the band, but sales and streaming of their music increased dramatically and Queen launched a new tour to take advantage of the attention being turned their way. So too Motley Crue’s music became more popular than it had been in a long while despite pushback on the movie, which many pointed out conveniently overlooks allegations of serious sexual misconduct and other problems.

These movies have become marketing platforms for classic rocks acts who need a shot in the arm that’s less damaging to their livers and kidneys than the shots in the arm they enjoyed in their heydays. While “classic rock” is still prevalent on the radio in many markets, it’s not as popular as it once was as it fades further into history. Stations find more success playing soft rock hits from the last few decades or Top 40 hits. There are still fans, of course, but as Boomers age and Gen X (which invented the category, thank you very much) get older and are less attractive to advertisers, stations that once specialized in classic rock are going under much like Chicago’s 97.9 WLUP, which folded last year when it was sold to Christian rock syndicator KLOVE.

Getting a movie out there brings these acts and artists back into the conversation. As mentioned, Queen launched a new tour with Adam Lambert taking on vocal duties. Rocketman arrives between legs of John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, touted as the singer’s final big outing before he joins the ranks of singers like Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and others that have hung up their touring equipment because life on the road in their 60s and 70s is very different than it was in their 20s and 30s.

rocketman pic

The difference between how the subjects are producing and developing these authorized biopics and how Tolkien, like many recent movies about famous authors, is unauthorized is that the former have something to sell while those late authors don’t. That’s even the case with an upcoming movie like Judy, a case where the family of the late Judy Garland has disavowed the project entirely. Garland doesn’t have any new music to promote or an active touring career to support, nor does Tolkien have any new books hitting shelves. So their estates and families have moved into “protection” mode to safeguard the reputations of their famous ancestors instead of actively developing new projects that draw attention to new offerings.

The movies are, in essence, a form of owned content marketing.

These certainly aren’t the first movies being used in this manner – all those films based on comic/video game/other properties do the same thing – but it’s still somewhat surprising to see it happening this blatantly. The reputations and stories of those in the movies are being burnished by the subjects themselves or those with an active monetary interest in doing so. It’s not so different from what authorized biographies and autobiographies have always done, but having it happen on film is still a bit disconcerting, especially with a cluster of examples like this.

It’s not hard to imagine more projects along these lines coming soon. The success of Bohemian Rhapsody and even the two Mamma Mia! films shows there are plenty of people who want to see their favorite sing-along rock hits on screen, so more artists and bands could jump aboard before this particular train runs out of steam.

Netflix Sends Shoppers to Gimbels

It’s become standard operating procedure over the last decade for brands to live-Tweet during big cultural events. In most cases there’s some direct industry or thematic connection between the company and the event, even if it’s just that the company is an advertiser during the broadcast of whatever it is that’s happening or has some sort of other vested interest in what’s happening.

At first this kind of in-the-moment publishing was off-the-cuff and spontaneous, with the content team doing the best they could to keep up with what was going on, though still with whatever sort of abridged approvals processes needed to be in place. Someone from the art department might still be on call if a graphic or image was needed, but for the most part you did the best with what you had. Over time things got more planned, with beats scheduled at specific times. Media brands began partnering with Giphy to share quick-turnaround GIFs of key moments and so on. It all became very structured.

Whatever the situation, the idea remained in place that the point was to promote the brand. That is the key to all content marketing, after all.

During last weekend’s Golden Globes broadcast, though, Netflix showed there’s still some life left in what had become a very formal, stiff and unexciting marketing tactic.

Throughout the show, @netflix had been commenting on what was happening, calling out some of its favorite wins, particularly for shows and movies that the company itself was responsible for. Things got interesting, though, when it posted this comment about the show “Killing Eve.”

When someone pointed out that the show wasn’t one U.S. viewers could watch on Netflix, whoever was manning the Twitter account had the perfect response.

Now it’s a generally accepted marketing principle that promoting your competitors is a bad idea. It’s nice to see someone break that rule.

What Netflix has demonstrated is an idea my colleagues and I have been pushing for years. Namely, that there’s little to no danger to a brand in acknowledging there is a broader industry that they are part of and that their audience or consumers are aware of. You don’t always need to go all out and promote what your competitors are doing and selling, but pretending it’s not there is a silly charade that’s not fooling anyone. If anything, it makes you look out of touch and ignorant if you don’t.

If anything, you have to look at what Netflix did here through the lens of the company’s larger mission. They want to encourage people to watch streaming media and have an active interest in promoting quality content. In the long run they are also working to attract top-tier talent with lots of buzz and audience awareness since that’s what will attract new subscribers to the original material they release and which is a more important part of their business model as other media companies rethink existing licensing deals.

That means acknowledging how great “Killing Eve” is and how incredible Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are is in the company’s long-term best interests and therefore completely on-brand.

Netflix certainly garnered a fair amount of attention for calling out a show currently available on Hulu, just as the Twitter accounts for Moon Pie, Wendy’s and others have when they’ve engaged in conversations (sometimes friendly, sometimes passive aggressive and snarky) with the accounts for other companies in or out of their markets. It’s not a well to be drawn from too often as there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, but for now it’s nice to see someone realize there’s value in taking off the marketing blinders and giving a shout out to quality products in the wider world.

Intentional Content Strategy

I don’t know exactly what the thought process was behind the Instagram profile for Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but with some experience in this field I can make a somewhat educated guess.

The team had to convince someone that what they proposed to do was worth it, was in-line with overall brand messaging and would be received well by the intended audience. To do all that they set out to create something unique and very intentional, even if it may have seemed odd or off-putting in the middle of the execution.

By creating five sets of nine images – perfectly set to create five single photos when put together – they reinforced the movie’s nature as an anthology of short stories. Other sets recreated the two posters for the movie.

It’s beautiful and shows what’s possible when a content marketing team can effectively make its case and execute its vision.