Cranking the weepy factor

When it comes to promoting their latest theatrical releases, Canadian and American film studios know they can rely on one of the most powerful, cost-effective marketing tools ever invented - the two-minute trailer. ...

When it comes to promoting their latest theatrical releases, Canadian and American film studios know they can rely on one of the most powerful, cost-effective marketing tools ever invented – the two-minute trailer.

More than just gigantic ads, trailers can dazzle and tantalize consumers with a free sample of the product at point-of-purchase, effectively generating top of mind awareness and positive word of mouth – providing, of course, they are well made.

To pull the greatest potential audience for a film beyond its core demographic, smart movie marketers delve into a deep bag of tricks, including deftly skewing the trailer’s angle. Stanley Kubrick’s teaser trailer for Eyes Wide Shut, for example, brilliantly seduced the sexual imaginations of moviegoers with a classic ‘less is more’ approach.

While such time-honoured tactics promise box office rewards, they also pose serious risks. Sometimes a romantic comedy can come off looking like just a romance or just a comedy. For The Mummy Returns, the trailer-makers chose to portray the popular WWF character The Rock as a main character when in fact he only makes a cameo appearance in the film. Some believe the trailer for Castaway, which revealed that the marooned Tom Hanks eventually escapes his desert island, was a fundamental blunder.

While it’s tough to measure the extent of a negative audience backlash – the trailer showed too much or too little of the story, or even misrepresented it – studios are generally adept at hitting the mark, crafting winning trailers through a long process of rigorous audience research and online sneak previews, carefully selecting an angle and matching trailers with similarly themed films playing in theatres.

Some films market themselves – Harry Potter’s The Sorcerer’s Stone, due out in November, has already generated such excitement that thousands of kids are visiting theatres just to see the trailer, then walking out and asking for refunds. But most flicks need a marketing spin.

‘Our trailers stem from a core idea and what footage is available, usually six months in advance of the film’s release,’ says Burbank, Calif.-based Richard Del Belso, SVP, marketing strategy, Warner Bros. Theatrical Films.

‘We target a core audience for each film, but of course hope for a wider appeal beyond it,’ says Del Belso. ‘We first decide who we think the film is for and then test our hypothesis through advance screenings and surveys. We discover the different skews in interest that fit our hypothesis, then whittle down the key visual and emotional elements of the film that are most tantalizing, keeping the riskiest elements in abeyance.’

A case in point: released last March, Sweet November, starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Therron, portrays a romantic mismatch between a lively, enlightened woman and a shallow, materialistic man; their clash of values changes their lives.

‘In our initial positioning and testing, we didn’t want to reveal the fact that the female lead was dying of cancer, and trying to live her life to the fullest,’ says Del Belso. ‘That approach didn’t work. The core female target audience needed to know there was some form of emotional payoff, so we realized we had to give them a hint. The weepier we made the spots, the greater the positive response. We gradually learn by trial and error, going through a process of refinement, spotting the turn-on and turn-off buttons.’

Del Belso says there are no ready rules in making trailers – every film has its own set of marketing problems. ‘When Stars Wars: The Phantom Menace is coming, you’ve got the goods and it makes sense to show a lot in the trailer, whereas a low appeal, period piece like Chariots of Fire would not generate the same kind of anticipation.’

From their research, Warner Bros. knows the single most powerful marketing tool for movies is TV, followed by theatre trailers, publicity on talk shows and then the Internet. ‘We know that if we advertised a film only with a trailer and a single sheet poster, we’d get a 33% awareness response from the total movie-going audience,’ notes Del Belso. ‘If we add a TV ad, awareness jumps to 55% or 60%. By the end of the entire marketing campaign, awareness levels peak at around 80% or 90%.’

Still, he says trailers succeed because they are like a gun shooting a bullet straight to your target audience: ‘They reach a relatively small number of people, but they are your crucial, core, captive audience, sitting right there in the theatre. The other marketing tools are scattershots spread across a much wider field. The cost and reach of TV ads dwarf that of trailers, but the trailer’s greatest strength is that it delivers a quality message in greater depth directly to the target consumer. And it’s great value for our money.’

Andy Myers, EVP at Montreal-based Blackwatch Releasing, which specializes in films for upscale, discerning audiences, says this genre of films is easy to target – as long as trailers are well made.

House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton’s Edwardian novel, was successfully positioned as an unrequited love story. But the trailer for The Third Miracle, starring Ed Harris as a priest who investigates a series of miracles, proved a tougher challenge.

‘It was a tricky film to succinctly nail down,’ says Myers. ‘We positioned it as an investigative story, but as it turned out, the trailer wasn’t compelling enough to pull people into the theatres. We made the mistake of giving out too much information. Perhaps, in retrospect, we should have positioned it as a love story, like House of Mirth.’

While the Internet still remains relatively low on the marketing totem pole, it is becoming an important force in creating awareness via gossip Web sites. Many major films now have their own Web sites, including trailers and value-added games and promotions. Early adopters, keenly anticipating the next big blockbuster, are typically heavy Net users.

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film of the $270-million Lord of The Rings trilogy, is not due out until Christmas, yet has already drawn 400 million hits worldwide, including a record 1.7 million downloads of the trailer in the first weekend. The Net has been buzzing with rumours of possible production delays and budget problems.

‘We still believe the single greatest way of getting people into theatres is through word of mouth generated by trailers,’ says Mark Slone, VP of marketing and publicity at Odeon Films, a specialty arm of Alliance Atlantis. ‘Yes, there can be an inherent danger of misrepresenting the story, generating negative word of mouth among the peer demographic. But if the trailer fails to build word of mouth, then it’s useless.’

Odeon sometimes receives negative e-mails, complaining that the trailer showed too much to the point where people wouldn’t bother to see the movie. ‘But what consumers say and how they actually behave are not always the same thing,’ says Slone.

In the trailer for the Canadian-made film Last Night, Don McKellar, both the lead actor and the director, wrestled with the marketing department over whether to show the kiss between himself and the female lead in the apocalyptic final scene.

‘Showing emotion was the key to building depth of content,’ says Slone. ‘We didn’t want to tip our hand about the ending, or risk portraying the film as emotionally cold. So we ended up using the kiss, taking a gamble that in the time elapsed between consumers seeing the trailer and seeing the movie, they wouldn’t necessarily remember the kiss was coming.’

For many studios, budget is a key influencer in the choice of a trailer’s soundtrack. Generally, the more recognizable the music, the more it costs. ‘We look at what’s available in terms of source music, what’s most appealing, and what fits the pace of rapidly edited trailers,’ notes Slone. ‘In the case of The Red Violin, which had a gorgeous soundtrack, we simply had to use it.’

Larger studios will often customize soundtracks, investing as much as $100,000 for a single trailer. But Blackwatch, for example, spends only $15,000 to $30,000 per trailer, saving money by pulling sound bites directly from the film.

Most studios typically match their trailers with current releases based on genre and target audiences. ‘It’s not always easy,’ says Warner Bros.’ Del Belso. ‘We try to place trailers in theatres that are playing our own pictures. Sometimes we’ll cut a deal with a competing studio where they agree to run a trailer for one of our films as long as we reciprocate in another theatre.’

Odeon attaches one matching trailer to each film they send to the cinemas. The recent sex comedy One Night At McCool’s was accompanied by a trailer of The Center of the World, an intense sex drama. ‘It is not precisely the same genre, but it is the same demographic – 18- to 24-year-old males,’ says Slone. ‘We base our decisions on the psychographic of the ideal movie-goer.’

During the summer months of American blockbusters, major studios jockey for position, bombarding the theatres with dozens of two-minute trailers. Smaller films can often suffer. ‘We have found that if you make a shorter, 30- or 45-second trailer, the exhibitor may go for it,’ says Tim Brown, VP of Canadian distribution at Vancouver-based Red Sky.

Most studio films are broadly released theatrically in multiplexes, but smaller pics will generally be placed in handpicked art houses. A trailer can be more crucial in the marketing of a movie with a lower ad budget, but of course, the cost can be prohibitive, too. Some U.S. studios can spend upwards of $200,000 on a single trailer – about one-third the total cost of making a small, independent film. ‘Because of the lower budgets and viewerships of Canadian films, making a trailer is not automatically a good idea,’ says Slone. ‘We work on a case-by-case basis and then work backwards, doing what makes most sense financially.

‘But coming attractions have been a big part of the movie-going experience for about 50 years,’ he adds, ‘and will continue to be. You have a captive audience right there in the cinema. The best way to maximize return on your marketing dollar is to make the most entertaining, informative and motivating trailer possible.’