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Go Inside A Hollywood Studio Movie Marketer’s Playbook

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by Tambay A. Obenson
January 27, 2014 5:56 PM
3 Comments
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Researching for a future post, I stumbled upon this lengthy 2009 article in The New Yorker titled, "The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook," which gives the reader an insider's look at how film studio marketing departments operate (excerpts below).

Yes, it's from 2009, but, much (if not all) of what's talked about in it, is still very current, and I encourage you to read it - especially if you're a filmmaker with Hollywood dreams.

Much of what is in it, I was already familiar with; however, it's all still rather depressing (ok, maybe I'm being too dramatic) to be reminded of just how much "business" has devoured the "show" in show-business.

If you're a filmmaker, take your idealist hat off (assuming you're wearing one), and forget the *art* of it all; if you weren't already aware, to any studio marketing exec, your film is no different than a Double Cheese Burger from your choice of fast-food joints. How can we make it accessible to as wide an audience demographic as possible? Thicker slabs of beef? More ketchup? 6 slices instead of 4 slices of cheese? Eliminate the buns altogether? Sure, it just might kill them, or at least, lead to unhealthy bodies, but, we're making money, and that's more important.

Piece by piece, your film is taken apart in an attempt to find something within it (or sometimes something that's not even in it) that can be packaged and easily sold to audiences that are thought of as not much more than sheep. And whatever vision you as the filmmaker may have had for the film, means very, very little to them.

So, you might see a finished version of your film that is vastly different from what you created, even though your name remains stamped on it.

Consider this a Monday slap into reality. Although I don't think any of this will be a shock to most of you.

Here's a snippet:

It is often said in Hollywood that no one sets out to make a bad movie, but the truth is that people cheerfully set out to make bad movies all the time. It is more accurate to say that no one sets out to make a movie without having a particular audience in mind. Many studio executives argue that films can’t objectively be categorized as “good” or “bad”: either they appeal to a given demographic—and make the studio at least a ten-per-cent profit—or they don’t. “Most critics are not the target audience for most of the films being made today, so they’re not going to respond to them,” Sony Screen Gems’ Clint Culpepper says. “How a fifty-six-year-old man feels about a movie aimed at teen-age girls is irrelevant.”

And I might be inclined to agree. From a strictly business standpoint (emphasis on business), there are no bad movies; it's all subjective anyway, right? One man's trash is another man's treasure.

So I may not like a Tyler Perry movie, for example; but others will connect with something within the movie, even though I didn't.

Here's more...

An unexpected corollary of the modern marketing-and-distribution model is that films no longer have 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.

The collective wisdom is that young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, “you’re so gay” banter, and sex—but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance—but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.

Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most “review-sensitive”: a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.

Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. “Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to ‘Wild Hogs’ or ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ” the marketing consultant Terry Press says. “If all you have is older males, it’s time to take a pill.”

There's a lot more where that came from.

If articles like these are meant to dissuade novice filmmakers from entering the business, it might work. It could've had an effect on me if I were still in my early 20s, out of film school, with a dream and vision of making it big in Hollywood. I wouldn't want to have to play this game, but it's a game that one has to play to succeed within the realm of Hollywood studio filmmaking.

Of course, you can completely bypass the studio system altogether, and instead tread down the just-as-challenging DIY path many filmmakers have, are, and will continue to take. But no matter which way you go, the road will be bumpy.

In short, it ain't easy, no matter which way you slice it.

Read the entire piece HERE.

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3 Comments

  • Adam Scott Thompson | January 28, 2014 12:11 PMReply

    I think you have to find a happy median as a filmmaker. First and foremost, people want to be entertained by movies. They can get an education or a sermon on TV.

    Second, if you package a theme or message or question inside of an exciting narrative then people will come to watch. It might go over some people's heads and that's okay -- they got the entertainment. Those who dig deeper get the entertainment *plus* the underlying theme.

    "The Dark Knight" was a film about the Bush Administration and America's response to terror post-9/11. Substitute Batman for W. and the Joker for terrorism and you have the film's primary question: How do you win a war against enemies who "just want to watch the world burn"? By the end of the film, Batman was tapping people's cellphones to find the Joker. A part of you was with him and a part of you was thinking, like Lucius Fox, "This is dangerous." But even if you missed all of that, you still got the Batpod and an 18-wheeler flipping and a guy getting murdered with a pencil.

    That's what great films and great filmmakers do -- they package weightier issues inside a commercially viable product. Nolan's a master at it; so is Spielberg. So now as a screenwriter, I first ask, "What's going to get asses in seats? Okay, check. Now how can I sneak something deeper inside that narrative for those viewers who need more than visual junk food?"

  • Miller N. | January 28, 2014 8:35 AMReply

    Louis B. Meyer's wife summed it up well decades ago-- the movie business is great because you buy a product without seeing it, but if it doesn't fit (unlike, say, a pair of pants), you can't return it.

  • Jones | January 27, 2014 10:56 PMReply

    Big surprise: show business is about "business". What did you think this was?

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