When you watch a commercial, do you trust it? Probably not. No matter how clever or cute or bizarre, ads rarely push companies to the top of their field. It’s why, after more than a century of fighting, Coke still outsells Pepsi.
Only 3% of people completely trust the advertising they see, and it’s a little crazy how high that number is considering how attune we are to how marketing generally works and how many marketing images we see every single day. The problem for advertisers – condensed from 300 pages down to a single sentence – is that you can’t tell us how great you are. Someone else needs to. That may have been a celebrity years ago, but we’re even growing accustomed to distrusting those kinds of appeals in an era marked by Yelp and internet comment sections. The reason companies buy fake positive reviews is because we’ve proven that we trust random strangers on Trip Advisor and AirBNB.
This creates a unique problem for movie studios. For a lot of other companies, they are consistently selling us the same product. A car, a toothpaste, a computer. We know there will be new models, but the throughline continues unabated. Your father drove a Ford Mustang, your mother used Crest, your big sister is loyal to Apple. The companies with the most recognizable brands in the world typically represent a singular thing. For example, when I say “Hershey’s,” you don’t think “apple sauce.”
As of 2015, Disney is the only major movie studio that makes that cut (FOX is in the middle of the pack as a network, but 20th Century Fox is nowhere to be found), which makes sense. For years Disney has represented a single kind of movie (animated, family friendly), and while they’ve expanded their mansion to include new wings in recent years (Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel), they’ve done remarkably well to keep those brands separate. When we think of Marvel movies, we have an entirely different thing in mind from when we think of Pixar movies or Disney movies.
For other studios, there’s never been much consistency because they’ve almost all released a variety of different genres with different ratings. It’s rare – and usually below the major level – that a studio retains a focused reputation because they stick to the same type and caliber of movies. Even then, like with Fox Searchlight or A24, general audiences rarely know what studio is producing what movie, let alone base their decision to see something on whether it has a mountain, fanfare, or a spinning globe in front of it.
Unlike Coke, you can’t simply say, “There’s a new Universal movie coming!” and expect people to respond. (This is, I suspect, partially because studios don’t put out enough movies per year to create a “line” the way Macy’s or H&M might. Even if they did, it wouldn’t work the same.)
To make matters worse for movie studios, they’re never selling you the same product.
Imagine for a second that you’re watching Hulu and a commercial for Double Radtown Cola comes on. It’s a fun, colorful ad, but is there any chance it could get you to drink the product? Is there any chance it can get you to switch from one of the major brands? History suggests the answer is Hell No. Yet movie studios have to sell you Double Radtown Cola every single time they have a new movie. We don’t trust commercials (because it’s inherently a case of the company saying how great the company is), but for a long time, commercials were one of the only things studios had to sell us on their movie.
In the past, they’ve tried to bridge the knowledge gap and distrust of commercials by using big names, sequels and remakes. As a multi-billion-dollar industry, they’ve obviously done well pointing us to famous actors (instead of the movie itself), to remind us that they’re the studio behind Recent Movie Everyone Loved, to say “They’re back!” on posters, and to get a boost from name recognition.
They’ve also leveraged public relations (put simply, the use of other people saying how great you are) by using critic quotes and hilariously cheesy commercials where regular people say super nice stuff about a movie after a free screening.
But as of a few years ago, movie studios have cracked the code to the advertising problem. At least Marvel has. It’s probably no surprise that they landed under Disney’s wing.
It’s not only Marvel’s franchise packaging and interconnected universe that have changed the game. Their method of telling us in 2015 what movies they’ll release in 2019 is the real revolution. It helps sharpen their brand, but it also gives a loyal fanbase a huge amount of time to spread the word to a broad base of potential viewers that will make or break the movie’s box office.
To put this in perspective, imagine if 20th Century Fox had used the release of The Hunt for Red October in 1990 to announce Speed for 1994. Who would have cared?
I understand the analogy is faulty, but it’s not like there’s something within the cinematic world to find a parallel with. James Bond was always bound to return years after the credits rolled on the latest adventure you loved, but Marvel uses ever credits segment and annual media event to suggest that, if you loved the talking raccoon, you’re going to love a guy who shrinks way, way down in size.
The only reason they’re connected is because we know what it means to be “A Marvel Movie.” The height of this strategy came with Guardians of the Galaxy which simultaneously made a household name of a comic book pretty much no one had heard of and silenced every critic who suggested it was a gamble. It’s an advantage unique to a connected universe, regardless of how connected each individual movie is. At the end of the day, Marvel only makes movies (and TV shows) that take place in one universe, and they remind us of that as often as possible. They essentially cannot make a standalone movie.
Whereas years ago, movie studios would have a few months (maybe as much as a year) to sell an audience on its coming property, they’ve crafted a new strategy that takes the burden of selling movies off of advertising and onto public relations. Instead of hoping that trailers work three months before a release, studios are making sure that as much information as possible is online as early as possible. Thus, the strategy evolves from a studio telling us how much their own movie is going to kick ass (which we don’t trust), to the studio telling a fanbase to get excited, and the fanbase telling all of us how much the movie will kick ass. You might distrust a commercial, but your movie-aware pal who’s psyched for Suicide Squad now has more than a year to sell you on it – word of mouth advertising transplanted from unreliable to reliable source.
Other studios are now copying this tactic. Disney is stealing from its own Marvel playbook for an endless stream of forthcoming Star Wars movies, and Warners is most conspicuously playing copy cat for its DC comics movies, but every studio with a franchise at stake has been setting out bread crumbs for those properties years in advance of their release.
Granted, it takes more than merely announcing that you’re releasing something in a few years to be successful, but it’s a major ingredient in getting excited fans to sell your movie for you. That “excited” part is the keystone.
Consider Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys. We had been hearing about Jurassic Park 4 since before 2011, and it was casting its stars (with PR releases) as early as 2013 (read: two years before its release), so it had plenty of opportunity to work fans into a lather before dropping it into the record books. Terminator: Genisys has a similar timeline, and both studios were happy to get information out there, but it never clicked with the initial fanbase, so the word they spread wasn’t about how they couldn’t wait for it to come out, but how lame it all felt/looked. The only thing that could have saved it was an excellent trailer to turn opinions around (and for those opinions to spread like wildfire).
Thus, the danger of depending on public relations and fan word of mouth to sell the movie for you is clear.
If you think this is part of why original filmmaking has largely left the studio system, you’re not wrong. The cold coda to all of this comes from Al Ries and Laura Ries, authors of “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR,” who pinpoint creativity as a hurdle to effective marketing. As they say, advertising can maintain a brand, but it can’t build one. You need public relations for that. Thus, you can imagine the problem that arises when every new product you release doesn’t have a built-in brand.
Ries and Ries point to Tylenol calling itself the “pain reliever hospitals use most” as un-creative and unarguably effective (as backed by its sales). They follow up with this:
Look at movie ads. If you are a copywriter on a movie account at an advertising agency, you have nothing to do. Invariably all the copy in a movie ad is taken strictly from movie reviews. Why is this? The movie studio has no credibility with the public, who will believe only what the reviewers have to say about a film.”
They wrote that back in 2002, and I imagine that if they put out a new edition this year, they’d add “random people on the internet,” and consider seriously striking “reviewers” from that sentence.
They’re also talking about creative in regards to making ads, but they might as well be talking about the initial product itself. When Goodyear releases a new tire, they have a legacy to help sell it. When Lionsgate puts out a new thriller about abducted children in Soviet Russia, they have an uphill battle to make potential customers care. They have the same uphill battle with the next movie and the next. How much easier it must seem to tell audiences that you’re making the movie version of that adventurous book series they love.
If studios can find a built-in, excitable, vocal audience and give them enough time to sell their neighbors on behalf of the movie, the studios can jump over the mile-high hurdle that advertising couldn’t clear. That’s why Suicide Squad already had a polished trailer over a year before its release, before filming was even complete. That’s why we’re well aware of the next four years of Marvel and Star Wars movies. That’s why Ghostbusters director Paul Feig is retweeting something like this (and why a Ghosbusters countdown twitter feed (at 326 days!) exists):
— Ghostbusters: 326 (@GBCountdown) August 24, 2015
That’s why studios are currently hunting for the next thing we’ve already heard about so they can get us excited. They rely on us to do the advertising for them.
Then they just have to keep us excited for a few years. Someone crank up the rumor mill.