BEST AND WORST MARKETED MOVIES OF 2013? — Easy to say; hard to prove


COULD THIS TRAILER (#4) HAVE CHANGED THE OPENING WEEKEND OF THE LONE RANGER?

Scott Mendelson, a Forbes.com entertainment marketing blogger, recently posted his assessment of the best and worst marketed films of 2013. (See article here.) It’s the kind of piece that appeals to me, given its claims about movie marketing in general and trailers specifically; I find best and worst lists irresistible in terms of provocation and entertainment, albeit suspect in terms of methodology and analytical rigor.

But before I engage with his interpretation of the data (with numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo), I wanted to share some of the insights Mr. Mendelson offers relative to “marketing campaigns for the various major releases between May and August.”

    Overall Worst

: Mendelson faults the marketing campaign of Star Trek: Into Darkness for meddling by the director and production company (Bad Robot). Even though it made lots of money, he considers the decisions to hype plot and character details while concealing others to have detracted from the audience experience and ticket sales. How he measures such qualitative phenomena, I do not know, nor does Mendelson say.

    Overall Best

: The Great Gatsby gets the nod. Warner Bros. is praised for positioning a mediocre, period costume drama, released on an inauspicious weekend as a summer blockbuster. That the saturation campaign worked was due, Mendelson thinks, to the lavish marketing budget and the aggressive media buys rather than for the creative talent behind the trailers, posters and web designs (my interest). Still, the suits who decide what to spend and how to position took a financial risk, made decisions creatively (if not creative decisions) and won big.

By Box Office Results:

    Worst

: Fast and Furious was a huge hit for Universal, notes Mendelson, but he faults the marketers for releasing too many trailers. By the time viewers saw the movie, they had seen all the spectacle and had their enjoyment of story development spoiled.

    Best

: Man of Steel was not an acclaimed movie (by fans or critics) and yet the beautifully crafted materials sold the film for its cinematic quality, its dramatic seriousness (as much as can be said for a comic Book inspired film) and its distinguished cast. The trailers and teasers made it look like the Superman film we’ve long awaited. Mendelson calls it a successful fraud, an unkept promise, but hey, the marketing department did its job of getting audiences into seats on opening weekend, and isn’t that the unvarnished reality behind trailers qua trailers?. The a/v and print materials teased rather than revealed, a marketing quality for which Mendelson has a marked preference.

    Worst

: White House Down was expensive to make and did not recoup its budget. Not an uncommon event in Hollywood, even for what in Mendelson’s opinion was an excellent film with a stellar cast. Nonetheless, he blames the marketers for a lack of nerve, since they sold cinematic quality like a mediocre, by-the-numbers, exploitation actioner. In this case, Sony had a juicy goose which they dressed like a turkey. Apparently, the adult audience and their interest in complexity and nuance as sauce for fights, chases and explosions were overlooked. The 16-24 year old man-boy demographic was pitched, but they didn’t swing for the bleachers or even with zeal.

    Best

: – World War Z, was a huge hit, domestically and internationally for Paramount, which majesterially ignored bad press, production delays and problems, preferring to believe that audiences would turn out for Mr. Pitt on the run from hordes of hungry, sprinting Zombies. It was Pitt’s best theatrical showing EVER (!!), courtesy of Paramount’s skillful campaign, launch and press management. The trailers weren’t bad either, nor the key art, but Mendelson doesn’t dwell on such creative specifics.

    Worst

: Lone Ranger. No surprise here that the biggest bomb of the year (190M write down) for Disney and Johnny Depp makes the list. But Mendelson thinks the marketing shares the blame with a “not all that bad, really” film. The problem was, that there were 4 trailers (counting the Superbowl Teaser), but only the fourth, in his estimation, hit the right tone. But audiences don’t know which trailer is the right one. They decide based on the one (or ones) they see, which is a point as obvious as it is profound.

    Best

: Lastly, Mendelson reserves praise for the film and the marketing of Iron Man 3, calling it the best popcorn film of the year. The genius of the campaign was in hiding the actual film while ostensibly revealing it in the trailers. Whereas audiences probably thought they knew just what they were getting (and didn’t mind), once in the theater they learned that they’d been pleasantly misled. “What’s great about the marketing campaign is how it too subverted our expectations by seemingly indulging in the very worst kind of no-stone-unturned marketing. We expect these marketing campaigns to basically give away the store, so we took what we saw at face value.” And, “for using the oft-derided saturation marketing techniques as a giant smokescreen, Disney’s Iron Man 3 wins the unofficial prize for best marketing campaign of the year.”

As I mentioned above, best and worst of lists make for eye-catching, link-clicking content. In addition to interesting claims made about familiar films and brand-name stars, directors and studios, Mr. Mendelson also appears to have well placed sources, although he is too savvy to expose them by name or attribution. However, while the list ranges across the various components (advertising, media buying, press and publicity) and levels of feature marketing (from the studio suites to the editing bays), there is no apparent methodology to the analysis, apart from a few gimlet-eyed glances at the box office grosses relative to production and marketing expenditures.

The evaluation is conducted on a subjective basis (i.e. Mr. Mendelson’s preference) informed by industry gossip, rather than polls of audiences or surveys of expert observers, and vice versa. Coincidentally, it’s a failure all to common to reporting and commentary on the business of entertainment in Los Angeles. Research data exists at a granular level for the marketing of thousands of films, going back 35 years (to Apocalypse Now, in 1979), but there is very little (or almost none) that examines films and their marketing relative to each other as determined by interviews with, polls of or surveys completed by the end consumer, the audience. In their absence, opinion (informed or not) and taste (educated or not) run riot. It’ not that I disagree with Mendelson’s claims or dispute his evidence, per se, but that I don’t have access to his evidence or his method.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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