Social Networking as Film Distribution Super-Promotion

This isn’t a post about the upcoming completely fucking horrible idea that will be the, “Facebook Movie.” (Aaron Sorkin, how could you!?!)

Instead, this is about Paranormal Activity, the first film in history to have a promotional budget low enough to allow for a stunt like getting people to request it play in their city.

The movie’s promotion seems to be based on a series of social media promotions that all say, “if Paranormal Activity isn’t playing in your local theater, request it!” There have been Eventful events showing where it plays, and Facebook ads asking people to request it play nearby.

The idea here is that so many people hear about this strange new way of getting a film to play in their area, the word of mouth has something else to ride on. It’s rather ingenious – there are hoards of horror films that come out every year. Most of them come out around now, at Halloween. Given Paranormal Activity’s low-budget, they can’t compete with the marketing budgets of A-list horror films – so they found another way in.

It’s a nice thought that eventually all films take the approach of getting theater houses by request. Imagine that in each town, 1000 peoplerequest the film, and 500 show up – or, the petition they’re getting people to sign has a conversion rate of %50. They can then go to each town with each new petition, show theater owners the number of requests, and show that if the film is shown, there is a guaranteed number that will come out for it. If this were done for each film released, typical studio dreck might not get a theater at all, while independent films that have a lot of interest own the multiplex.

When I was in graduate school, Burnt by the Sun won Best Foreign Film, while Braveheart won Best Picture. That weekend, I went to see Burnt by the Sun, which was completely sold out – I barely got a seat for it. Meanwhile, in the same theater, Braveheart was showing in two houses, and each was nearly empty. (I asked.) If the theater owner had known that Burnt by the Sun was going to be having that much demand that weekend, they could have shown it in two theaters instead of Braveheart and made a lot more money.

There are a few problems with this wonderfully Utopian solution to film distribution, however. First, this is likely only going to work once, if it works at all. After all, The Blair Witch Project was wildly successful using a similar word-of-mouth campaign to become the hit that it did, but no one was able to replicate it afterwards. This is because We The People are now incredibly cynical, and know when someone is reusing a marketing campaign on us.

The only way this approach could be successful, really, is if people like the way they got to see the film, and see the benefit of having films show up at their theater because they asked for them. After all, there’s a lot of thought that it would have been years before films had sound if the first one to use it, The Jazz Singer, had been a commercial flop. But it was a huge hit, and made studio executives buy microphones for their cameras in droves. (Even though the film was really successful because it’s story appealed to American immigrants who were the largest movie going block at the time.)

Second, contracts between studios and theater chains are still terribly draconian. In the Braveheart example, I have no doubt that theater was required to show it in two theaters by the distributor. If they had wanted to show Burnt by the Sun in two theaters, (which is entirely possible – projectionists know all about interlinking projectors,) they could have been in violation of their contract with Paramount, the distributor of Braveheart.

Why do theater owners make contracts like these with distributors? So they can be sure they get the films that will make all the money. Why will they make all the money? Because they’re the ones with the enormous marketing budgets. There are independent theaters that will certainly make money through a system of requested films, but the AMCs and Harkins and Edwards’ and Cineplex Odeons of the world make their money showing the films they are certain will return some kind of profit. They aren’t likely to base their year’s income on what might have a high request rate, which can only be determined shortly before release.

Finally, movie theaters aren’t hurting enough financially that they need to dig for a new system of finding film goers.

This system would explode if theaters were in more trouble than they are. I know, they’ve been crying poverty for years and years. Which is rather the point: They’ve been around for years and years to cry poverty. People have been abandoning movie theaters for years, saying they will see some mildly interesting film, “when it comes out of video.” They’ve been under attack, in a way, for years by new technology. After VHS, DVD, High-Definition and BluRay, people still go to movie theaters to see films if they want to.

I look forward to seeing how this scheme works out for Paranormal Activity, which I have to say, has more positive reviews on the normally acidic Rotton Tomatoes website than any film I’ve ever seen. It’s possible this whole system could become a big success if this film that’s testing the waters is itself a big success.

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2 comments

  1. Can’t get over the big fat Paramount logo. This is a novel PR campaign by one of the biggest in the business. Not some bootstrap indie “get around the studios” approach.
    You’re being marketed by consummate pros.

    1. Thanks for the comment – and yeah, I know, the marketing is very high-end. The commercials for this thing are everywhere, and you don’t get that with a shoestring budget. Still, the film itself is very low-end, and those are difficult to get people in the door to see on a massive level. While Mirimax and The Weinstein Company are brilliant at it, everyone else isn’t.

      For Paramount especially, this is a pretty good attempt to get a lot of people interested in what is essentially an independent movie.

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