From Twitter to transmedia content, the fast-moving digital sphere is changing the face of theatrical marketing. But while online spend is rising, traditional media still claims the bulk of distributor advertising spend in the US. Robert Marich explores how the two arenas intersect

According to some pundits, the rules for theatrical marketing are being completely rewritten by online media. Yet few films have become hits in the US based on digital media campaigns alone and the new platforms - social media, transmedia content, websites, e-mail blasts, mobile phones, ad insertions in virtual worlds - are still used more as an adjunct to traditional marketing techniques.

New media “is great to connect with people instantly, but it should be part of a larger campaign”, says Ryan Werner, senior vice-president of marketing and publicity at New York-based IFC Films. “I haven’t seen many instances where it significantly changed the box office of a movie.”

Unlike a TV spot, the number of people an online campaign is likely to reach can be uncertain, which is why new-media marketing spend is piled on top of more costly traditional media, where a single US broadcast network TV commercial averages $160,000 in prime time.

According to Nielsen, film companies shell out a staggering $3.4bn a year in the US for paid ad buys, of which more than half is gobbled up by traditional TV commercials. Sources say new media is about 8%-10% of US film marketing spend and growing fast, having risen from just 1% a decade ago.

Spend has risen as the appeal of new media has broadened. “Every demographic is online now, so the stereo-type that the audience is just kids and gamers is not true,” says Jeffrey Godsick, executive vice-president of marketing at 20th Century Fox. “For example, moms are very much into games. Of course, they’re not playing shooting games but quizzes that are huge online.”

Gaining most interest among marketers are social platforms: Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. The Alice In Wonderland Facebook page had more than 1.3 million friends in the US. Independent films are often lucky to get tens of thousands, but even that can be enough. “It’s not about the number of people, but the quality of interactions,” says Gordon Paddison, CEO of Los Angeles-based consultancy Stradella Road and a former New Line Cinema film marketing executive. “If you have 10,000 people who are really interested, they’re going to be 10,000 evangelists who can create a big buzz.”

Ironically, a century-old marketing device, the conventional film trailer, is often the hottest component of digital media campaigns. “We don’t really design trailers today differently, even though we know they’re going to be disseminated on the internet,” says David Stern, owner of Create Advertising in the US, whose work includes trailers for Alice In Wonderland and Iron Man 2.

Websites crave trailers and film content, so simply doling out content attracts free exposure, or it can be featured in promotion deals included in an ad buy. “To start, you not only need an official website but also a Facebook hub, apps, and you need to syndicate exclusive and non-exclusive content to publishers as a marketing base,” says Arthur Chan, SVP of digital media at Palisades MediaGroup, a California-based agency handling ad buys for clients including The Weinstein Company, Overture Films, Anchor Bay Films and other independent distributors.

Jason Klein, co-president of the US operations of marketing and technology agency LBi, says this means rolling out film trailers, segments of footage, out-takes, star blogs, still pictures and live online Q&As with movie talent on a pre-planned basis to build momentum gradually. “Content can even be episodic with several clips released over time to tell a story,” says Klein, whose agency’s clients include Lionsgate, Focus Features and Universal Pictures.

For the limited release of theatrical documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, content was systematically placed on YouTube over seven months to drive viewers to Facebook and Twitter. At the culmination of the campaign, a five-minute extended trailer attracted 352,817 views in a two-week period on YouTube and 1,000 other websites timed to make interest peak for Exit’s April 16 US premiere. The campaign, designed by Marc Schiller, CEO of New York-based agency Electric Artists, received a boost from an article on the film’s many mysteries in The New York Times which added to the online buzz.

The growing tide of film content washing into new media recently prompted the Producers Guild of America to establish the ‘transmedia producer’ film credit to recognise executives who fashion film content into original narratives in other media.

Jeff Gomez, president of New York-based transmedia specialist Starlight Runner Entertainment, devised a ‘mythology’ for Avatar surveying the history, flora and fauna of the world of Pandora. This served as a jumping-off point for such products as the Avatar iPhone mobile game, which revealed a new back story for the Neytiri character. Gomez did the same for Disney’s Tron: Legacy and that content served as a resource for an online trailer, which required users to clear five hurdles before gaining access. “The experience of unlocking that trailer deepens the understanding of the Tron universe of today versus that of the 1982 original Tron movie,” says Gomez. “Execution like this helps pull the core fanbase on to your side.”

One area in which new media might be moving vast audiences in or out of theatres is the so-called Twitter effect, though its impact is debatable. The Twitter effect suggests the tech-savvy teen and young adult demographic tweet their friends on Friday nights from -cinemas, creating an instant tsunami of word-of-mouth which can mean life or death for films geared to this demographic. Comedy Bruno is cited by some as having suffered from bad Twitter buzz, given the steady slide of its premiere Friday-through-Sunday box office in the US.
“Web buzz is wonderful if it’s good but it’s devastating for movies that don’t work,” says Rick Markovitz, partner at Weissman/Markovitz Communications, whose movie awards campaigns have included Crash and numerous foreign-language titles.

Of the six majors, Walt Disney Studios seems the most determined to drive down marketing costs, relying more heavily on digital media. In April, Walt Disney Studios plucked a Hollywood outsider to be its head of global marketing: Scottish-born MT Carney headed her own New York-based consultancy which used low-cost new media with a brand strategy approach for clients including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Microsoft.

Whether Disney and the rest of Hollywood will save hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing costs by using lower-cost new media remains to be seen.

“Going forward, the question is, can you artificially manufacture buzz and excitement in new media?” says Vincent Bruzzese, president of the worldwide motion picture group of Los Angeles-based OTX Research. “We’ve all seen it happen organically but to consistently convince an audience that what they’re seeing in new media has authenticity - that, to me, will be one of the great marketing challenges for the future.”

Top 10 movie websites in the US
Total unique US visitors during March 2010
1 24,103,000
2 Yahoo! Movies 23,020,000
3 Moviefone 14,272,000
4 MSN Movies 13,034,000
5 Fandango Movies Portfolio 9,660,000
6 6,448,000
7 5,160,000
8 Flixster 4,427,000
9 UGO Movies/TV 3,431,000
10 Disney Movies 2,829,000
Source: comScore (Media Metrix)


US advertising spend by film distributors, 2008 and 2009
Media type 2008 2008 % of total 2009 2009 % of total

Business to business

Cable TV


Local magazine

Local newspaper

Local Sunday supplement

National magazine

National newspaper

National Sunday supplement

Network radio

Network TV


Spanish-language cable TV

Spanish-language network TV

Spot radio

Spot TV

Syndicated TV


Source: Nielsen