Monday, 12 August 2013

Elysium: Proof that concept marketing doesn't work

On Thursday 9th May, I wrote a reaction commentary to an intriguing article found in Variety. The original piece explored the notion that studios are favouring a more concept-driven marketing approach for major summer tent-poles as opposed to campaigns driven primarily by star-power and narrative.

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

The article focused on blockbuster hopefuls such as World War Z, The Lone Ranger and Elysium (see right). It claimed that setting an "iconic" tone was the most important aspect of selling these movies.

I disagreed with this notion at the time of the article's publishing but opted to reserve overall judgement until sufficient box-office numbers were available.

Elysium  is the last of this year's summer tent-poles to implement this marketing strategy. It was released in the US on 9th August and is due for release in the UK on 21st August 2013.

Interestingly, the film's marketing campaign has completely transformed in recent months, there is now less focus on concept and more on star power and narrative. Aside from it being a drastic tactical change, it does suggest that recent box-office disappointments have exposed the flaws within the concept marketing strategy.

Luckily for Sony, the film's distributor, there was still time to adapt and refine their campaign, which would allow them an opportunity to exploit the film's assets and hopefully avoid becoming an expensive box-office casualty, like Disney's The Lone Ranger.

This article will seek to explore these flaws and the subsequent risks that accompany such an ambitious yet inconsistent style of movie marketing.

In terms of 2013 movies that utilised the concept strategy, Oblivion is an effective place to start. The film adopted a very striking strategy that focused heavily on locations that depicted the apocalyptic scenario.

It is evident that there was a clear focus on the unfamiliar landscapes of a futuristic Earth, which indicates that the film favoured style over narrative and from the image (see left) it would seem that character importance is a very distant third.

In fairness, the film's marketing did release several character posters that focused heavily on Jack (Tom Cruise) but these were bland and failed to establish any understanding of narrative. In addition, Tom Cruise seemed bored and disinterested. (See below for an example.)

Oblivion opened to a very solid weekend gross of $37 million but suffered a 52% decline in its second weekend. This indicates that although word of mouth was generally good, general interest in the movie was
largely exhausted within its opening week, which means that the movie failed to attract a worthwhile audience beyond the Sci-Fi demographic.

Many critics blamed Cruise's weakened star power for the film's average box-office performance but it is much more likely that a reliance on "concept marketing" became a far more detrimental factor.

The film's narrative is high-concept in itself and needed to be clarified for general movie-goers, especially those who do not fall under the Sci-Fi demographic, in order to improve awareness and interest. A reliance on style will be counterproductive and is unlikely to encourage people to see the movie.

World War Z's marketing campaign is extremely interesting by comparison. It originally focused entirely on the end of the world scenario but failed to clarify what or even why it was happening. There also seemed to be a distinct lack of awareness of character and actual threat, it was a zombie movie with no clear human story-arc and no clarification of the zombie threat.

The entire campaign felt tired, heartless and appeared to be struggling to establish a clear strategy in terms of target demographic. This was not aided by the constant negativity surrounding the movie's troubled production leading many (including myself) to believe that this mega-budget adaptation of Max Brooks cult classic, would be an expensive box-office disaster.

However, this didn't happen and the film has so-far amassed a global
cume in excess of $500 million, which is amazing given that many had already written off the movie's chances of success.

In order to counteract this, Paramount made a very bold decision to ditch the concept marketing strategy and take a more conventional approach that focused on the film's A-List star, Brad Pitt and also focus on the family story that drives the narrative.

This is a key aspect to the film's success and although the zombie threat was never really clarified, the family's struggle to survive was enough to secure a huge opening weekend of $66 million and an extremely impressive international run.

Paramount effectively forced this movie down our throats with constant TV spots at peak times on every channel imaginable. Each one focused on narrative, threat and spectacle and their last-minute persistence paid off dividends.

The decision to ditch the concept marketing strategy was a very wise move and I am almost certain that it prevented World War Z from becoming a huge box-office disaster . Keeping this in mind, Paramount must be commended for recognising the need to adapt the campaign. However, this was an incredibly risky tactic and could have just as easily ended in disaster.

It is no secret that The Lone Ranger is set to become one of the biggest box-office bombs ever with Disney expecting to announce a write-down of roughly $190 million on the movie.

This teaser poster (see left) arguably provides a strong indication as to why the movie bombed. Though it quickly became evident that Disney ultimately ditched the concept marketing strategy very early into the campaign.

This teaser poster focuses on Johnny Depp's face but is incredibly confusing. Depp plays Tonto, The Lone Ranger's side-kick, but this image implies that he will be portraying the titular character. The most obvious indications are the fact that he not only looks like he is wearing a mask, but the tagline, "Never Take Off The Mask", indicates that he should never take it off.

When a big-budget summer tent-pole movie suffers such a horrendous marketing false start, it is generally expected that it will struggle to recover. Although this is very true, Disney did attempt to adapt their strategy and approach the film from a more conventional route.

Aside from the fact that Westerns are not typically considered to be a suitable genre for big-budget blockbusters, the biggest issue here is character awareness and familiarity. Before this film was released, the franchise had been dormant for over 30 years, which indicates that any cultural relevance it may have had was not sustainable amongst future generations.

As a result of this, it becomes inconsequential as to who is starring in the movie if the characters mean nothing to its young target demographic. This is where I believe the film marketing notably faltered, it failed to establish who the Lone Ranger and Tonto really were and why they are culturally important. This is obviously why Disney tried to sell the blockbuster as a Johnny Depp movie, regardless of the fact that his character was the side-kick, which simply confused matters further and negated the entire premise. Additionally, none of the villains were recognisable and this nullified their threat due to their general anonymity amongst cinemagoers.

Finally, Elysium was released on 9th August 2013 in the US and opened to a solid, albeit underwhelming $29.8 million weekend. This is a fascinating example of the pitfalls of the concept marketing strategy and another example of a studio adapting the campaign to follow a more conventional and commercially accessible route.

This image (see left) was a prominent one-sheet for the Sci-Fi movie, which stars Matt Damon and is directed by Neil Blomkamp (District 9). The poster is undeniably intriguing, but it fails to clarify any details about the movie, including narrative and character.

In a nutshell, the film's worldwide distribution rights were purchased by Sony for $115 million and Matt Damon is one of the biggest movie-stars in Hollywood. Keeping both of these points in mind, why are they simply focusing on Damon's back in the one-sheet?

This immediately negates the promotional impact of star-power and limits the film's accessibility amongst non Sci-Fi fans. It's an impersonal design that resembles one of deep personal contemplation as opposed to a high-concept threat to society that holds a global cultural relevance.

Setting the tone and creating "iconic" imagery simply isn't enough with an expensive movie such as this. Therefore, it is wholly unsurprising that the marketing campaign was adapted (see right), as has been the case so often in recent months, to focus on Matt Damon as we have never seen him before!

The campaign has never reached levels of true inspiration but it has recently reached a consistency that has allowed it to gain substancial levels of momentum to ensure a solid opening weekend.

Sony clearly learnt from the mistakes of others with regards to their marketing strategy and were fortunate to have had plenty of time to redevelop their campaign relatively easily and without the need of a World War Z-type frantic push towards the end.

However, the focus will now shift to the film's second-weekend performance and whether it will be capable of retaining a large portion of its audience. In all likelihood, it won't and if the film fails to reach at least $100 million at the US box-office it will be deemed a domestic disappointment, resulting in the film's global appeal becoming ever more crucial.

To conclude, it does seem evident that setting the "tone" of a movie and focusing on concept is wholly insufficient when dealing with big-budget blockbusters. It is absolutely no coincidence that studios abandoned this strategy and opted for a more conventional approach, if you have A-List superstars such as Matt Damon, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt it's probably advisable to exploit that asset but also ensuring that it compliments the narrative in the process.

Showing Tom Cruise from a distance or Brad Pitt and Matt Damon from behind is ultimately a pointless exercise. They could be any actor, there is a sense of anonymity surrounding them and this implies a degree of laziness on the studio's behalf or a lack of understanding of what is appealing to audiences. It can also suggest an uncertainty surrounding the A-List star's commercial appeal within that specific genre.

Many studios will probably argue that they had always intended to focus initially on concept and tone before shifting towards character, but it is unlikely that this will be accurate. Elysium does seem to have saved some face with its $29.8 million debut, but one can't help but speculate as to whether the ill-advised focus on concept marketing left the campaign with simply too much ground to make up before it's release, limiting its commerical appeal.

This is unlikely to be the last we see of this ambitious marketing style, and in truth much of the imagery is very intriguing. However, intrigue does not guarantee success and when so much money is at risk, this strategy needs to be refined in order to accommodate all major selling points of a movie, rather than focusing on one aspect that fails to resonate with audiences.

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