October 28, 2009

Film marketing and why it's all nonsense.

Michelle Pfeiffer at the 62nd Annual Academy A...Image via Wikipedia

I've written a couple of screenplays. But I have a problem: marketing them. Or to be more precise the movie companies will have a problem marketing them.

One story involves a number of dominant, strong women who are able to see through a sleazy male character trying to blindside them as he runs rings around his 'business' associates. They are all 'women of a certain age' and these would be dream roles for characters such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep etc.

The other movie is about a Machiavellian gangster who kills everyone between himself and the top role in his crime family including his brother, nephews and close friends who betray him.

Now here's the problem. Let's look at the market for these films. Traditionally the people who market movies split moviegoers into one of four groups: 1) Males under 25, 2) Males over 25, 3) Females under 25, 4) Females over 25. For a movie to be considered 'marketable' it has to appeal to at least two of these groups. Top summer 'tent-pole' films such as the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise are aimed at all four sectors. Let me quote a New Yorker article on this topic

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 ingĂ©nue 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,’ ” New Yorker Magazine
So let's look at my two scripts. The first one (which we'll call "The Tale of Margaret and her friends") will obviously appeal to the Older Women quadrant. And that's about it. The first movie (which we'll call "Richard and The Boys") will appeal heavily to the younger males and may appeal to the older male. Women, probably aren't going to enjoy it at all.

So by popular theory the second movie might get made but the first movie won't unless the budget was small- the audience isn't big enough to sustain a larger film (and associated marketing budget)

I like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent so is set about trying to solve this dilemma. The answer came fairly quickly "Why not merge the two stories into one and create a film that will appeal to everyone?" Surely a gangster movie with strong female characters fighting against the Machiavellian lead would appeal to everyone, right? Right...? I mean the young guys will like the action, explosions, blood, cars flying through the air etc. The older women will identify with the feel-good factor and the triumph of the human spirit. It's a sure fire winner, right?

OK, now here's the problem. I've already mixed the two together. The screenplay is actually a modern day reworking of Shakespeare's 'Richard III' with Richard Gloucester transposed to be a Mafia capo killing his way to the top only to be thwarted by the strong willed women of the piece. All the elements listed above are there: dominant, strong women who are able to see through a sleazy male character trying to blindside them as he runs rings around his 'business' associates. A Machiavellian gangster who kills everyone between himself and the top role in his crime family including his brother, nephews and close friends who betray him. It has appeal for both the younger male, the older female, the older male AND (possibly) the younger female as a result of the romance scenes where Richard woo's Anne over the corpse of her dead father-in-law. In theory it should tick all the boxes for the movie marketeers. But in reality they'll take one look at it and say 'Can't sell it!'


Because movies are marketed on the basis of comparisons with already existing movies. If they can look at something and say "It's 'Die Hard' on an Airplane" or "'Porkies' meets 'American Pie"' or "Spielberg Does Dinosaurs" then it's something they can easily figure out how to market. But for "It's Shakespeare done gangster style" there is no precedent. They can't market this as Shakespeare because it isn't "Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet" or even "Olivier's Richard III". They can't market this as 'The Godfather meets Shakespeare" because it will turn off each of the respective target audiences (Your 'Godfather' fans won't want to go watch Shakespeare and your Shakespeare fans won't want to watch a gangster movie)

Remember none of this actually has anything to do with the movie itself, or the quality of the movie. Look at something like Transformers : senseless, big budget, CGI with a weak story and some mediocre acting. But because it could be easily marketed (and it targeted at least two of the four demographics) it was easy to sell. But I don't think there are many people who would classify it as a 'classic' or 'great' movie. It's hardly "Lawrence of Arabia", "Chinatown" or "The Godfather" itself, is it?

But there's the rub. Can you imagine trying to sell 'Lawrence of Arabia' to a studio nowadays? "OK, So this story is about an intellectual in England between the wars who decides he wants to go help the Arabs. It involves a lot of camels, it's set in the desert and it's so long it has an break in the middle where we stick a card up saying 'intermission' and play some rousing music."
"Does it have big action sequences?"
"There's a battle which takes place on camels. Oh and they blow up a train. And some guy appears out of the desert and shoots a guy at a well."
"Who's the love interest?"
"There isn't one."
"Okaaaaay..... I'm not sure how we could market that. Can you bring it more up to date and set it in Iraq or maybe Afghanistan? Maybe add a few tanks, or Black hawk Helicopters? We could get Robert Pattinson in as a young army recruit and maybe Megan Fox as his love interest - she can be a female recruit who gets kidnapped by the Iraqi's....."

You can see how that conversation would go down.

No, the fact of the matter is that the Hollywood marketing men are leading the drive to create 'safe' content which may (or may not) actually make it's money back on a theatrical release. It is up to the independent distributors - with smaller budgets and a different marketing philosophy - to push forward something new and different. Take "The Blair Witch Project" for example. The premise is startlingly simple. "We take a few unknown folks, give them a camcorder and get them out in the woods acting scared." Can you imagine trying to sell this one at one of the major studios? Well it was a hit at the film festivals and had a wicked on-line marketing campaign using viral internet methods. And guess what? It was a hit. People went to see it. Even though it was shot on low-quality camcorder video and grainy black and white film. Even though it used 'shaky-cam' to such a degree that it made people sick. Even though it had no script and was improvised by the actors based on notes they received from the film-makers who were not actually a big part of the filming. People went to see it. In their thousands. It made more money per dollar invested than any other movie ever made.

And the studios would never have made it.

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