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Movie marketing foreplay

Social media and online content has changed the game for the advance-publicity business

Jen Chaney has a point. The blogger and self-described ‘celebritologist’ argues in The Washington Post that Hollywood’s marketing of its movies has reached a whole new level thanks to online and social media content.

Movie marketers have always been in the hype business. In 1930, MGM’s publicity machine went into overdrive with the phrase ‘Garbo talks’. The difference, though, is that back then, films were hyped in the weeks before they were released. Now, we’re talking months and even years of advance publicity.

As Chaney points out, Warner Bros. unveiled the first picture of the new Superman, Henry Cavill, online in August last year. For a film – Man of Steel – that won’t be seen (legally, at any rate) until June next year. That’s almost two years of, Warners clearly hopes, ‘advance fanboy and fangirl chatter’.

Chaney notes that ‘engaging in a bit of premature audience seduction, particularly online, is hardly new’ (Blair Witch Project, anyone), but now the studios are applying a formerly low-budget strategy to its potential blockbusters, with ‘many films engaging in varying degrees of something we’ll call movie publicity foreplay. For several months, sometimes a year-plus, the studios behind these projects titillate fans with provocative sneak peeks — casting announcements, photos, trailers, alternate reality games — until it’s finally time to deliver the full monty: the movie itself.’

Online content and the reach of social media is the game-changer, with every film – from the soon-to-be-released Hunger Games to Peter Jackson’s not-soon-to-be-released (it won’t be seen until next year) Hobbit – getting in on the act.

Online content has altered expectations, with nerds, film buffs and the merely curious expecting behind-the-scenes tidbits in an advance, reversed manifestation of the now-standard DVD extras. So in a sense, the studios are merely responding to demand and giving the public what they want – proof of the power of social media.

But as Chaney points out, such a content marketing strategy can backfire ‘if it’s not executed properly’. She quotes film-publicity expert Joshua Jason: ‘You can campaign however you want and be clever. But you have to have product that stands up.’

Notable recent examples of films that clearly haven’t stood up to all the super-advance online-content publicity include Disney’s John Carter and Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens. Plus, ‘there’s also the risk of overdoing the marketing to the point where potential audience members are already sick of the movie before the first Saturday matinee’.

Whether that will happen with Avatar 2 is highly unlikely. Because as we all know, movie-goers simply can’t get enough of blue aliens and James Cameron. And anyway, two years of advance publicity isn’t too much.

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