Distributors are investing more time if not yet budget on marketing their films through social networks. Andreas Wiseman reports, with case studies of digital marketing plans for Inception, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus and Four Lions.

The UK distribution sector may be buzzing about the potential of digital and social media marketing but established media still claim the lion’s share of film marketing spend.

“This is a high-cost market to operate in so to establish any share of voice you need to be investing a lot,” says Sony Pictures Releasing International (SPRI) managing director Peter Taylor. “Digital has transformed our media budgets from two or three years ago but the bedrock for our campaigns is still TV and outdoor. A spot on X Factor on Saturday night has an immediate effect on 12 million people.”

Alex Hamilton, director, film, eOne UK, agrees: “TV and outdoor are still a massive part of what we do. They get ubiquity.” TV spots and outdoor campaigns claimed more than three quarters (77%) of the $258m (£167.5m)UK distributors spent on media advertising last year, according to statistics from the Film Distributors’Association (FDA). Internet advertising spend accounted for just 3.4%.

After two years of recession, 2009  saw an overall drop in distributor ad spend, down 7% from 2007. Print advertising dropped from $42m (£27m) in 2007 to $32m (£21m) last year, while outdoor also experienced a sharp decline, with spend down 14% over the same period.

After softening during the recession, prices are now rising again, distributors say. “Prices were much more reasonable during the recession and meant that distributors could get more value. Now that they are returning to previous levels, we are squeezed again,” says Hugh Spearing, head of marketing at Optimum Releasing, whose releases include Four Lions and A Prophet.

TV and outdoor may be the dominant platforms, but digital marketing is playing an increasingly important role, with marketers attracted by the huge numbers that can be reached online and the relatively low costs. Indeed, the relatively low distributor spend on digital in 2009 is more to do with the sector’s pricing than a lack of interest. “We spent a huge amount of energy and time promoting and marketing StreetDance 3D on the social networks and lots of websites, we just didn’t spend much actual money,” says Vertigo Films’ head of distribution Rupert Preston. StreetDance 3D took over $18m (£11.6m) in the UK.

Digital marketing can offer a rich connection with audiences that can be lacking in more passive poster and press advertising. “Anything that engages your audience in a more emotional, involved way must be a good thing. That’s a bit of a holy grail for all marketers,” says SPRI marketing director Stuart Williams. “Inevitably online creates that talkability better than anything. When people start to own content and share that with their friends and community they become advocates and supporters of what you’re doing.”

Rebecca Mortimer, head of marketing at eOne, whose recent releases have included The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Nativity! says that online advertising is becoming more focused on engaging users and offering them an experience. “For the Eclipse campaign we had 360-degree MPUs [web banners]. You could get into the MPU on screen and scroll around, find characters and then get more info about them. With MSN’s homepage we used a double side kick [the homepage splits in two to reveal further narrative and creative design].”

As well as established sites like Facebook and Twitter, marketers are also using sites such as location-based social networking application Foursquare to create alternative-reality games. These games immerse players in extensions of a film’s narrative. Vertigo is developing a Foursquare experience based on its upcoming road-trip thriller, Monsters. Meanwhile, Warner Bros ran a Briefcase Hunt to tie in with the release of Inception (see case study below). Both demonstrate the marketing potential of smartphones.

Indeed, the burgeoning potential of smartphone and mobile technology is of real interest to marketers. “Once mobile video is better there will be more viral passing on of assets than there is now,” says Daniel Robey, managing director of digital agency Think Jam, which has worked on Sex And The City 2, StreetDance 3D and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.”This will also follow when iPhone apps become cheaper. US companies are already using mobile advertising and it is inevitable this will become common practice in the UK.”

One technological challenge for marketers is ensuring that advertising and marketing is easily transferable across devices. This will become more of an issue with new innovations, such as digital posters with live Twitter feeds and mobile devices capable of synching with digital foyer displays in cinemas.

Integration of digital campaigns with traditional marketing is also becoming key, says Robey: “Bus and outdoor advertising now has the Facebook page rather than the website URL and a call to action on why you should go to the page. And everyone wants social media to be integrated so the same assets we’re putting online are also being picked up and discussed by the social media communities that we create. Our challenge is to keep them interested and engaged from the theatrical to the home entertainment release.”

At a time of shrinking release windows such integration underlines the effect a theatrical marketing campaign has on home entertainment and other exploitation. Shrinking windows present an opportunity for marketers. “We are seeing more briefs asking us to consider how outdoor can work across the line of the distributor’s business: theatrical, home entertainment, computer games and retail,” says CBS Outdoor client director Michelle Gardiner.

The impact of digital campaigns can be hard to quantify, with marketers unsure how large numbers of Facebook friends or vaunted media firsts relate to ticket sales. However, films with high online presence have seen results.

Targeted social media campaigns for UK independents such as StreetDance 3D generated thousands of online ‘advocates’. Incentivising participation is a good way to generate interest. The Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Facebook page had over 100,000 fans three months before the November release of part one, with assets released according to the number of new fans joining.

With the cost of an integrated creative digital campaign starting at around $23,000 (£15,000), digital is still very much the cheaper option, and a select group of London-based agencies, in particular, are profiting from distributors’ increasingly entrepreneurial online marketing. As SPRI’s Taylor notes: “You have to make it exciting. Do something different. We should never try to reinvent the wheel but we should certainly get a better wheel to stick on the wagon in order to get people engaged.”

CASE STUDY: Inception

Ahead of the July 16 release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Warner Bros hired London-based digital agency Substance to handle the online campaign.

The promotional drive involved servicing trailers and other digital assets, arranging online junkets and creating a website and Facebook page. The agency also created the Inception Briefcase Hunt, an example of the real-time games increasingly used by marketers to engage audiences.

“Warner Bros were looking to their agencies to come up with something that would entice without giving the game away,” says Substance owner Andy Freedman. “Christopher Nolan’s plan was to keep things under wraps so there was little in the way of traditional assets like clips or trailers for the online campaign to use. The Briefcase Hunt was able to fill that gap by providing a focus for UK fans.”

Following clues set via Facebook, players in seven UK cities attempted to locate The Extractor, played by a professional actor, with winners receiving tickets to the world premiere. During the hunt, The Extractor’s suitcase was fitted with a Blupod Bluetooth transmitter so anyone within range was alerted to The Extractor’s presence and received exclusive Inception-related assets.

Media agency PHD delivered blasts of Facebook advertising prior to the game and Orange Wednesdays Film Club posted and messaged the first clue each day on its Facebook page. The hunt generated 20,255 Facebook fans, 3,051 Facebook wall interactions and 50 online articles.

Beyond the 78 active hunt participants, the campaign built a committed online community: “It became like a spectator sport,” says Freedman, who estimates that the hunt generated at least $231,000 (£150,000) in media value.

CASE STUDY: The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus

The marketing brief for The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus was to avoid the niche label and to break the film out to a broad demographic. The film’s UK box office of $4.9m (£3.2m) — Terry Gilliam’s biggest since 12 Monkeys in 1995 — is testament to a successful campaign, even more impressive bearing in mind Lionsgate UK released it before any other territory in the world including the US.

As Lionsgate UK’s head of marketing, Georgia Kaufman, explains: “There was a risk in going smaller and targeting Gilliam fans and the older cinema-goer. We wanted to reach a wider audience.”

The campaign combined a poster and trailer campaign with digital innovation: “We created an impactful poster for a London Underground four- and 12-sheet campaign, partnered with Bluetooth [mobile] and Transvision which played out spots in five big London stations inviting commuters to download content to their handsets, launched a world exclusive trailer on Yahoo! and created a website competition,” she says.

Providing a sustained flow of background information through the media was essential, says Lawrence Atkinson, CEO of DDA, which managed the UK PR campaign: “One of the issues was to get the title out there and knowable. Familiarisation was key. After its Cannes premiere we had things running frequently. It was a long campaign. It wasn’t a popcorn opening-weekend film, so we had to build it over time. Parnassus without context would make people scratch their heads.”

After Heath Ledger’s death during the shoot, DDA had to ensure the feature was not defined by that event. “We didn’t use it to publicise the film. For example, the three new actors [Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell]didn’t do any press out of respect for Heath,” says Atkinson.

The film’s media campaign included more than 200 UK magazine and newspaper articles, 39 television interviews and 24 radio appearances.

CASE STUDY: Four Lions

Marketing a comedy about Muslim suicide bombers without generating negative attention took delicate planning: “Every aspect of Four Lions had to be carefully considered, every image, screening, clip, interview and public appearance,” says Optimum Releasing’s head of publicity, Suzanne Noble. “A simple word such as ‘controversy’ would have diluted our message.”

Prior to the film’s UK release in May, Optimum ensured the principle cast received media training. The families of victims of the 7/7 London bombings and survivors were given advance screenings and the film was premiered in Bradford, the city with the second-biggest Muslim community in the UK.

The distributor worked with digital agency Think Jam to tailor the film’s online strategy: “We suspected that creating an official Facebook and Twitter page for the film might mean we had to defend the film and replicate its unique tone,” says Optimum’s head of marketing, Hugh Spearing. “So instead we adopted a below-the-radar and guerilla Twitter approach; developing hashtags for Chris Morris quotes, asking questions to fuel the debate, and flagging the website on all competition tweets and posts to drive people to the main site, which acted as a hub for the film.”

Optimum went on to use the large volume of tweets to maximise the film’s box-office potential: “We used a Twitter aggregator on the site to pull through cinema-goers’ comments in real time,” says Spearing. “This, in turn, informed our sales strategy.”

Four Lions trended as the third most talked about topic in the UK in its release week, generating a paid-for search advertising rate of 0.80% (double Optimum’s average), 4,000 first-day website views and over a million trailer views on YouTube. The film took $4.5m (£2.9m) at the UK box office.