How can the struggling Canadian film industry build momentum?

Chances are, you will opt for the former - not necessarily because it's a better movie but because this is the film that's a sure bet. The trailers looked good, the media reviews were promising and most importantly, everyone's talking about it.

Chances are, you will opt for the former – not necessarily because it’s a better movie but because this is the film that’s a sure bet. The trailers looked good, the media reviews were promising and most importantly, everyone’s talking about it.

Rarely do Canadian movies receive much recognition. Small budgets are partly responsible, but also distributors often don’t employ the right sort of marketing. It’s tough to get somebody to watch a movie they know nothing about.

One Canadian movie that appears to be breaking this mould, however, is Men With Brooms, which launched on March 9 in 207 theatres across Canada. Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis and Robert Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films ploughed more than $1-million into the marketing of this $7.5-million romantic comedy about a group of curlers.

‘It’s the largest campaign we’ve ever employed,’ says Jim Sherry, EVP of Alliance Atlantis’ motion picture distribution group. ‘We recognized this film as a broadly targeted commercial comedy which had the potential to satisfy a broad audience, so we decided to employ that level of capital.’

Sure, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the multi-million-dollar marketing budget of many U.S. movies. (According to Toronto-based marketing consultancy, The Lightning Group, the average spent for marketing a film in the U.S. in 2001 was $31 million US.) Nonetheless, the campaign has achieved the desired goal of getting people talking about Men With Brooms, and enabled the movie to gross more than $1 million on its opening weekend. According to AC Nielsen EDI (Entertainment Data Industries), this marks the all-time highest recorded opening weekend for an English language feature in national release.

In the early planning stages, Alliance Atlantis sold the television rights to the CBC, and four TV spots were aired frequently during the Winter Olympics. Promotional deals were also secured with Roots, Chapters/Indigo and the CIBC.

In addition to a movie-theatre trailer, the marketing plan included a cross-country press junket with stars Paul Gross, Molly Parker and Leslie Nielsen. This generated substantial media interest. Universal Studios has released a 15-song soundtrack and an e-mail campaign was also launched through the Canadian Curling Association.

Sherry says the movie has already received a substantial amount of interest from overseas markets including the U.S. and U.K, although international marketing plans have not yet been made. ‘I think there are overseas markets where the film has potential to do very well,’ he adds.

This is the exception. Few Canadian films are afforded even a fraction of this extensive marketing campaign, let alone the wide opening. How can the struggling Canadian film industry improve its marketing efforts to gain recognition both in Canada and overseas? And how can small production companies and distributors compete with the vast marketing budgets of the U.S. studios to ensure a stronger voice for Canadian film? Four industry thinkers share their views.

Leo Furey,

Executive director, Newfoundland & Labrador Film Development Corporation, St John’s, Nfld.

(The corporation’s mandate is to develop and market its local film industry and to attract filmmakers from around the world)

Leo Furey would like to see a complete change of direction for the industry, with a regulatory system to give Canadian films access to Canadian screens, currently dominated with U.S. studio fare.

‘There are really two separate issues here: the marketing issue and the distribution issue. Distribution is a huge problem because the Americans have always owned the industry.

‘If you look at the Canadian music industry 20 years ago, there was nothing there. But the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) told every radio station, ‘If you want to stay in business, a certain percentage of the music you play has to be Canadian.’ As a result, we have a booming industry. Unless that happens with the film industry, we are always going to struggle.

‘As far as marketing is concerned, the winning formula is the $1 million. If you put money behind the advertising, people will come and see the film. The industry has been screaming about this for years, but the marketing money just isn’t there. The media is often very supportive but nothing does it like getting out there with the advertising.’

Howard Lichtman

President, The Lightning Group, Toronto

(A marketing consultancy that provides advice to clients targeting the U.S movie theatre industry)

Howard Lichtman recommends an increase in market research to find out what sort of movies consumers really want to see. Films should then be accompanied by a strong movie trailer and TV spot and an effective publicity campaign, he advises.

‘There is a magic formula for box-office success. The three ingredients are: a story that people want to see, good marketing and a good movie.

‘You have to start thinking about marketing at the beginning. Don’t finish the film and then start thinking about how you’re going to market it.

‘There’s no question that the most effective means of marketing is through movie trailers and TV spots. Print ads and posters serve as reminders but they won’t generate a ‘want-to-see’ effect.

‘Publicity and promotion are also an integral part of the mix. Press junkets are something that people laugh about but they are a very effective way of generating a substantial amount of free publicity. The challenge for Canadians is that the star system outside Quebec is not really extant. That’s where Men With Brooms had a head start. If you call a paper and say Paul Gross and Leslie Nielsen are going to be in town, the reporter is going to be interested.

‘Marketing is always going to be an expensive proposition. It is pretty difficult to make noise on a North American-wide basis when you’re up against the huge U.S. budgets. One might argue that the government should be providing incremental marketing dollars to Canadian films that have potential for box office success.

‘But marketing is not a stand-alone magical potion. It can help a film to open but it can’t help a film to stay in the theatres because people are voting every day with their wallets and their feet.

‘Part of where Canadian film has been problematic is that we don’t always make films that people want to see. There is not enough market research done into consumer attitudes about what people want to see. There is no question that Canada has both the stars and the talent to be successful, but it’s not an easy task.’

Jeff Spriet,

Founder of Wiretap, Toronto

(A guerilla branding company)

Jeff Spriet suggests holding events in conjunction with film festivals or smaller repertory cinemas to attract serious film buffs. He also recommends creating a film club to get people talking about movies, or spreading the word via Internet clips.

‘Trying to make a Canadian movie with decent box-office rates is a pretty lofty goal. To act like a mainstream movie, you need mainstream distribution. So if you don’t have that luxury, be a little bit smart and build a groundswell for your movie in a non-traditional way.

‘For example, there is a very passionate film community in Toronto. Why not create a movie club where film lovers can get together to see a movie and discuss it afterwards? That way you are creating a sub-community of people who can influence the masses.

‘All you have to do is find those people and hold some sort of event, maybe in conjunction with the film festival so you can use their mailing list. Or get affiliated with some of the independent repertory cinemas because they are already membership oriented. You can create a symbiotic relationship with them by holding events that bring bums into their seats, and promote your film at the same time.

‘One example of an event could be a monthly independent cinema night. Create a social event around your film, with some sort of in-house party.

‘Film companies can also think about doing something viral. Get an e-mail list and mail out movie clips. Create a viral club that people can join and send clips to one another, or post those clips on a Web site.’

Paul Gratton

VP, general manager of CHUM Television’s SPACE, Drive-in Classics and Bravo! stations, Toronto

(Gratton also has prior experience of running a repertory cinema in Ottawa)

Paul Gratton recommends an increased use of television as a marketing partner to movies. He also suggests more grassroots marketing within a localized marketplace.

‘The problem in Canada is that many movies can’t even afford a trailer. Last Wedding was a great movie that opened at the Toronto International Film Festival but the opportunity for success slipped through their fingers because there wasn’t enough marketing. But you can do a lot with very little money if you have time and patience.

‘One of the aspects of marketing movies that’s often forgotten in Canada is the use of television as a marketing partner. Networks should be getting more involved in the release of a Canadian film. A lot of networks have very credible brand relationships with their public. Men With Brooms leveraged its partnership with the CBC really successfully and that’s something that other film companies could learn from.

‘One thing we are starting to see that is hopeful is more and more grassroots marketing. Smaller theatres can make use of incentives like free children’s matinees, and get the support of a local radio station.

‘If a movie is specifically located and is likely to appeal to one market more than others, then start your marketing there.

‘Rare Birds, for example, was shot in Newfoundland, so they decided to put a particular focus on the Maritime markets. As a result, they had an unbelievably successful run in St John’s, Nfld., and took $100,000 in a week or two. After its opening in the Maritimes, the movie is now doing well in Toronto markets too.

‘You have to consider your audience very carefully. I think Men With Brooms will be limited internationally because of the subject matter, as is often the case with sports movies. Curling is not a popular sport in a lot of countries. The British movie, Mean Machine, did really badly in the U.S. because they’re not interested in soccer, just as movies about American football don’t land well in Europe.

‘There may be ways for Men With Brooms to get around that. They can sell it as a romance rather than a movie about curling. Situating a story in a specific time or place does not always limit the capacity to export it.

‘One film that managed to do well despite focusing on a specific local problem was The Full Monty, because from the specific comes the universal. People around the world related to [the characters] because the story was told in an accessible and entertaining way. There is no reason why the best of Canadian stories can’t be exported in some way.’