Thursday, 9 May 2013

Commentary: A Reaction to the shift in Tentpole Movie Marketing in Hollywood

Last week, Variety published a brief article about the state of film marketing in Hollywood. The fascinating piece explored the thought-provoking notion that concept is now bigger than star-power, which indicates a major shift in the necessity of A-List stars fronting big-budget blockbusters.

"The idea is to sell a film initially based on a concept", says Par domestic marketing and distrib prexy Megan Colligan.
Main theatrical poster for Oblivion

Ten years ago it would have been unfathomable for Tom Cruise not to feature in almost the entire marketing campaign for his latest blockbuster; however, times have changed.

Coming off the back of his biggest success to-date (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol), Cruise's next major release was Oblivion, a big budget sci-fi film from the director of Tron:Legacy. There was immense pressure on Cruise to deliver another major hit and reassert his dominance as an unrivalled global box-office star. However, this was somewhat contradicted by his presence within the marketing campaign being strangely understated.

Character poster for Oblivion

It is important to note that there were some posters dedicated to Cruise. However, they were bland character shots that failed to rouse much excitement (see left). Ultimately, the poster designs became very limiting and it is evident that they struggled to establish an effective balance between star-power and spectacle, which caused the understanding of the narrative to suffer. In these images, Cruise doesn't exude the action-hero confidence that he is known for, he seems hesitant and uninspired.

This causes an unusual dilemma within the marketing strategy, which partly focuses on spectacle and downplays Tom Cruise's involvement, but then also focusing heavily on his star-power and ignores plot.

"That indelible first-look image is important to establish a certain tone," she says. "By the time we open the doors, there will be no question that Brad Pitt is the star of this movie. It’s more about being iconic."

The danger with the above statement from the Variety article is that success is assumed. The pressure was on Tom Cruise to deliver a big box-office hit with Oblivion, so why wasn't his star-power potential maximised? The "tone" could have easily been set while complimenting it with Cruise's dominant star-power. However, focusing on one and not the other raises too many questions and causes too much inconsistency.

This poster looks lovely, but there's a lot of wasted space:

And here:

These are both beautiful designs and the tone is definitely established, but Cruise's star-power is under-used and the narrative is non-existent. Consequently, it cannot realistically be a fair representation of his box-office potential, when spectacle is the most important aspect of the movie.

To claim that "there will be no question that ... is the star of this movie" is irrelevant and unjustified, unless you are only concerned with a "certain tone" and pretty aesthetics to compliment the star. If an audience does not have a satisfactory grasp of the narrative, why should they care about the film in any capacity?

Ultimately, Oblivion has produced decent albeit unspectacular grosses for a film with a production budget of at least $120 million. It is baffling why marketing teams take such unnecessary risks when there is immense pressure and expectation resting on the success of a film. The posters are beautifully designed but boring and they bare very little relevance to the actual film aside from the sense of isolation within vast barren landscapes.

The notion of selling "a film initially based on a concept" is not a new strategy and certainly not one that has a proven track record.

Here are two examples where this strategy failed to achieve the expected levels of success:

King Kong (2005)

John Carter (2012)

Both of these films were sold to the audience "based on a concept" and each experienced varying degrees of failure at the box-office. King Kong and John Carter were spectacle movies where the primary focus was the impressive CGI.

Kong was deemed a disappointment after it proved unable to match the gross  performance of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which subsequently led to it being out grossed by The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. John Carter is more obvious after its appalling box-office performance resulted in it being labelled as one of the biggest financial disasters in cinematic history.

It is clear from the poster examples for these two movies that the "concept" was far more important than the narrative. Notice how little exposure the human characters receive, they are evidently of little consequence to the overall movie as it was assumed that the CGI would be the main audience appeal.

It is disrespectful to audiences when it is assumed that impressive visuals will compensate for a strong human narrative. If a film fails to offer the potential of emotional investment, it will always struggle to appeal to fringe demographics, as was the case with both of these examples.

"Overseas, however, marketing campaigns still rely heavily on star power. And while Warner Bros. has no major star wattage in “Pacific Rim,” the studio created country-specific posters that feature the film’s local alien-fighting robots."

The opening sentence of this quote is largely debatable as international posters for World War Z, Oblivion etc do not differ greatly from the domestic ones. It is also worth noting that some global campaigns focus too heavily on star-power (or the appeal of a certain character) at the expense of narrative or spectacle.Two films guilty of this strategy are The Wolverine and Man of Steel because both have focused almost entirely on the primary protagonists at the expense of everything else.

With further reference to the quote, it is intriguing when a film disappoints in the US but succeeds internationally. Surely the supposed international strategy that adapts to the needs of the audience rather than relying on assumption is far more effective and justified by evidently stronger box-office results? This would present a strong argument for one global strategy to be agreed upon per film, which could then be adapted to suit various territories.

"And while Warner Bros. has no major star wattage in “Pacific Rim,” the studio created country-specific posters that feature the film’s local alien-fighting robots."

Japanese theatrical poster for Pacific Rim 
Pacific Rim (directed by Guillermo del Toro) is not an established brand like Transformers so Warner Bros. decision to focus the entirety of the film's global marketing strategy towards the impressive visuals seems incredibly strange.

When there is no pre-established demographic for a big-budget sci-fi movie, the necessity to be universally appealing is absolutely vital. By focusing on the impressive CGI, they are neglecting the human story and subsequently the emotional impact that accompanies it.

It appears as though the most important aspect of the movie is the CGI but something that is aesthetically pleasing may not be rich in content. The impact of the WOW factor is only sustainable for a limited amount of time and once audience have grown accustomed to it, they will demand more.

The fact that the film doesn't feature any stars should be of little consequence to the marketing strategy. It is vital that humans are present within the campaign otherwise there is a major risk that it will be too similar to a videogame. One interesting angle would be that the characters represent regular people who are fighting to save humanity, which would tap into the imagination and emotional involvement of cinema-goers who may envision themselves in that situation.

Placing emphasis on the human aspects of the movie would signify that it has more depth and integrity than a generic CGI-heavy blockbuster and may ensure wider appeal across other demographics.   

Currently, the film's marketing campaign is too similar to King Kong's, which relied too heavily on the visual impact of CGI and motion-capture to satisfy audiences:

Country-specific poster - Australia
That being said, Pacific Rim looks visually stunning so lets hope it's more than a generic monster movie.  The film is due for release in the US and UK on 12th July 2013.

To conclude, the notion that concept and spectacle sells is a volatile assumption that has already proven to be inconsistent at best. Big concepts are vital, but so is audience awareness of narrative and character familiarity.

When too much emphasis is placed on one aspect it proves detrimental to the audience's interpretation of the film. With reference to Pacific Rim, it resembles movies that we have seen before; such as Cloverfield and Transformers. Consequently, it offers nothing new to its target demographic and also negates the importance of the narrative due to the overwhelming bias afforded to the CGI.

It seems as though the most effective marketing campaign, for example Iron Man 3, provide a blend of spectacle, narrative and star power, which provides audiences with sufficient information to satisfy all demographics.

More marketing teams should follow in Marvel's footsteps, their strategy works.

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