Many people overlook the fact that Hollywood is just as business-orientated as Wall Street. From a strictly business perspective, a movie is a staggering—and very risky—investment: producers and studios can pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a single production in hopes that the revenue generated from ticket sales, home-video sales, merchandise, etc. will turn a profit. Investing in a movie is precarious because of the underlying notion that no one can predict whether or not a movie will be good, and if it is good, if audiences will want to see it and purchase tickets. In order to dilute the risk factors, then, studios rely on securing high-profile celebrities and creative teams, reverting to known blockbuster genres, remaking classic hits, and making sequel after sequel (Saw 7, anyone?).
Unsurprisingly, box office sales are the primary way a movie earns money, and most movies earn close to 50% of their domestic gross in their opening weekends. The rare exceptions are the movies with strong legs, like Gravity or Avatar, which hold well in the marketplace for continuous weeks. Thus, luring audiences into the theater that opening weekend is especially critical, and consequently studios carefully deliberate release dates and spend huge amount of money marketing a film. In fact, most tent-pole movies (a movie, usually a blockbuster, that ‘holds up’ or balances out a studio’s financial performance, e.g. Despicable Me 2 or Harry Potter; they’re often expected to turn a profit in a relatively short amount of time) can have advertising budgets comparable to their production budgets. That is to say, if a movie’s cost is $80 million, it could have close to that in marketing efforts behind it. Additionally, if a studio knows a movie is going to be a flop, and they generally do, they might increase or decrease the marketing budget, either to make one last push to persuade audiences to see the film or to cut their losses. Securing a strong opening weekend turnout is also the reason why movies with widespread critical acclaim publicize their reviews early, while studios with flops on their hands tend to keep poor reviews under wraps until the last possible moment in order to prevent them from discouraging audiences.
From trailers and posters to TV spots and other publicity efforts such as Comic-Con parties and online presences, creative advertising attempts to both raise awareness about the movie as well as highlight it as worthy of the ten-dollar ticket price to see it on the big screen. A film’s trailer is without question its strongest advocate, and as such, most studios begin creating a trailer months in advance of its release. Studio executives work with the filmmakers as well as with external production companies (known as trailer houses) that specialize in either print (the poster) or audio-visual (the trailer) media to design a campaign that positions the movie in a particular, meticulously crafted light. Everything from the music and dialogue to the font of the copy (text) to the emotion the trailer evokes is highly scrutinized and debated because the trailer is not only the first glimpse audiences will have of the movie, but also, if constructed successfully, the most influential marketing tool.
Executives begin researching the campaign by reading the film’s script and watching trailers for similar movies. They study those trailers to understand what worked well and what did not, but to see how other marketing departments have approached a related topic: what angle on the story did they take? Was the focus more on the visuals or on the story? How much of the plot was revealed and in what ways? While they are researching, executives meet with filmmakers to decide how they want to advertise the film, read the script, and look at dailies. Dailies are visuals (both photo and video) of everything that has been filmed, uncut, on a single day; as filming progresses, the quantity of dailies increases and the executives have more footage to work with. The creative process really begins here, when executives work with trailer houses to select and edit the footage, piecing together the trailer that aligns with their vision about how they want the film to appear. The trailer houses send a number of versions of each cut of the trailer to the executive, each with varying music, copy, visuals, etc. The executive then considers what works well and what needs to be changed, and the trailer houses then make the edits. This editing and re-editing usually lasts several weeks. Once the trailer is ready, and the filmmakers have given their approval, the trailer is usually screened before several test audiences of various demographics. These test audiences comment on not only whether or not they like the trailer, but if the trailer is effective at accomplishing what the studio intended, e.g. was the film’s plot clear? did the jokes work? When the trailer is finally ready, it ships, or is released.
Timing the shipping of trailers is crucial, as there are often specific movies to which the executives want them to be attached or accompany. Attaching a trailer to a movie means that the trailer will always play before a certain movie in the theater; the term comes from when the actual 35mm film of trailer would have to be physically attached to the film of the movie. Perhaps the most well-known recent instance of this was Warner Bros. attachment of Man of Steel’s teaser to The Dark Knight Rises. Studios can also vary attachment based on theater type, i.e. if you go and see the newest Thor in 3D, you would have been treated to a five-minute sneak peak of the upcoming Captain America. This strategy is more commonly exhibited with IMAX screens, as an added incentive to pay the higher ticket price. If a trailer accompanies a feature, it will often play before that film, but it doesn’t have to. Studios work with theaters to have their trailer shown before a movie, but the theaters have the final say and usually make their decision based on the expected audience of the film playing and the release date of the advertised film. In other words, the theater might not choose to screen a horror trailer before the latest Pixar film. This is why if you see a movie in theaters more than once, there may be different trailers before it each time, or if you see a movie at a different theater, there will also be different trailers.
While premiering a trailer in theaters remains the most common approach, in recent years studios have begun exploring other avenues by which to do so, such as on late night talk show’s (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy trailer premiered on Jimmy Kimmel), during major television events (Universal’s Neighbors, the new Seth Rogen comedy, first aired its trailer during the Roast of James Franco), or at events such as Comic Con. This strategy is becoming increasingly popular, as with certain events or television programs, studios can target a more specific demographic. With the ability to watch trailers anytime online, the timing of shipping the trailer might appear to have lost some of its importance, but the opposite is true. The Internet can create immense hype for a film when a trailer is released and shared across various social media platforms, and studios need to time this hype to prevent it from coming and going too soon.
– Andrew Townson ’14 firstname.lastname@example.org