About a year ago, I was asked to respond to a marketing movie challenge. I had fun doing it, so I thought I would share what I did.
The Challenge: It’s 2016. The average film costs $50 million to market, and that cost is passed onto theaters in licensing fees. You run a film distribution startup that needs to make a film successful by spending only $500K in marketing. Build a marketing/project plan to show how you would do it. Assume that your startup has already secured some contacts at major theater chains and just needs to get them excited about a film’s prospects to get them to lease the ability to show it at their theater(s).
Exposition: Movie distribution is always going to be a hits-based business, and whether you’re spending $500K or $50 million, if a movie doesn’t appeal to its target audience, it will not be successful. So, a considerable amount of time needs to be spent evaluating films for distribution that we think we can create hits out of. Now, just because a film is good does not mean it will be a hit. Any top 100 films list is littered with films that largely went unnoticed or unappreciated at the box office. So, this new company needs to have expertise in both access and ability to pick quality projects capable of being “hits”, and a marketing approach that can create these hits at a fraction of the cost of the Hollywood machine.
Since film selection is such a key component for success, I had a hard time defining a campaign without defining a specific film the campaign would be for. You would market a comedy much different from a romantic comedy or a thriller. So, I created a fake project.
The Project: Casey Accidental Films has secured the distribution rights for Nightfall, an adaptation of the Isaac Asimov short story. Nightfall is a story about a civilization on a planet relatively similar to Earth, except that it is in constant sunlight do to a rotation of six suns. At a similar time, archaeologists as well as astronomers and religious scholars discover every two thousand years, there is a period of night. Seeing as how their civilization is only around two thousand years old, they have no idea what to expect, and, based on psychological studies as well as pre-historic texts, they begin to predict that darkness will cause total chaos. What they do not understand though is that it is not the darkness that will cause chaos; it is the discovery of millions of stars that show how their world is just a small speck in a vast universe. That realization is overwhelming to a people who have only known one planet and six suns their whole life.
CA is excited about Nightfall for a few reasons. First, since it is based on an award-winning novel, it should have a somewhat built-in audience of literary junkies who want to see how it is adapted. Second, it is in the sci-fi genre, which is riding high after the success of Star Wars VII last year. Third, it seems a prime candidate to create both an interesting viral awareness campaign and an immersive film experience, which CA expects to be the core elements of their marketing strategy for all of their films.
Campaign Themes: With only $500K to work with, Nightfall will not be buttressed by an aggressive TV and billboard campaign like most other movies. One thing that movie marketers do well is they maximize anticipation utility, a concept that states that consumers do not just gain value/happiness from the consumption of a product, but from the anticipation of that consumption as well. So, this is a part of the film marketing mix we want to adopt instead of re-invent.
To make up for the fact that we will leverage another key concept from economics and psychology: scarcity. Scarcity increases the value of an object/experience according to economics, but what’s more important for our purposes is that scarcity makes something remarkable, a key component to get people to, well, make a remark about something. To be successful in marketing a film, we have to optimize for remarkability. To do this, we will design an experience created by few, but remarked upon by many.
This process will have to be customized for each film. For a comedy, it might be about creating full-fledged profiles to interact with for all the major characters on all the major social networks to create comedic experiences outside the film, or crowd-sourcing jokes for the film. For a science-fiction film, we want to optimize for themes in our campaigns that match the film. In this particular case, mystery and intrigue is what we want to deliver.
Leveraging the mystery of the story, we would hope to gradually reveal all aspects of the film to the potential audience: the name, the release date, the theme, the special experiences attached to the film. This process should expand anticipation utility, and get many moviegoers invested in the film before they even see it. A great film can create evangelists after the film by the film being so good people recommend it. We also want to create evangelists before the film to get more people to see it in the first couple of weeks as movies typically make most of their revenue in the first few weeks. To do this, we need to get fans involved.
The first thing we need to get fans involved is a series of hooks that intrigue them to research the film further. Most films do this by just posting video teasers and trailers before other films or as commercials on television. Without a budget to grease the palms at major theaters to show Nightfall as a trailer before other films or a commercial TV budget, we may only get trailers spots for some theaters that are about to show the film in a few weeks, limiting the anticipation utility we can create. So, we need to get evangelists to show their friends the teasers and trailers by sharing them with their friends on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. To attract evangelists, we need to do something intriguing they’ve never experienced before.
Once we have attracted evangelists, we will need to keep the story going for them by gradually revealing more information. This information makes sure the anticipation does not subside as well as gives them more information to share with their friends as well as discuss with others online. While we do not want to create any experiences that facilitate discussion as that would make the campaign less mysterious, a critical factor in the success of our campaign will be these discussions occurring elsewhere online, like in science fiction/film forums, on social networks, and in the press. The idea is to create variable rewards by always revealing new elements of the campaign in different ways so our evangelists do not get used to them and become less excited by them.
We cannot expect just an advancement of the mystery to be sufficient though. Our viral campaign needs to also create a level of status for people to who are the most engaged, both in their ability to share the clues as well as an ultimate reward at the end. This reward needs to be a unique experience worthy of the effort to drive tons of word of mouth and email sign-ups to our website.
For the actual release of the film, we do not want the movie-going experience to be similar to others as well. We want it to both unique, a viral driver in and of itself, and, ultimately remarkable. So, we will try to work directly with theaters to create a unique vision. This is a vision that will customize the theater for the climax of the film and allow moviegoers to use their cell phones, tablets, and wearable technology during the film as an enhancement to the experience. In almost every industry that has been fairly static for the last 30 years, there is a strong push to reject all the available technology that helps us in the rest of our daily lives. Classrooms disallow cell phones and tablets that could facilitate learning. Movie theaters ask people to turn off their cell phones before the movie. It could be a great social experiment to try the opposite and could create a ton of viral buzz in the process. We will also give as many people as possible during opening weekend a treat when they leave the film, thus hopefully invoking the peak-end rule whereby people largely just experiences by the peak, which will be where the customizable theater comes into play, and the end, where the treat is given.
Launch Phase (T-minus 180 – T-minus 167)
Our main option for a hook that starts the campaign is to re-create “nightfall” at public events. A few moments of darkness in a crowded area followed by a cryptic message is a remarkable occurrence that should drive people to tweet, share, snap a photo, etc., even if the message is not yet one of excitement, but of confusion. Ideally, we could create such an occurrence at a major league baseball game of the LA Dodgers. The plan would be to shut the lights off at the entire stadium except for concessions for about ten seconds, then use the big screen to display a cryptic teaser message for the film. LA is the best place to start a campaign like this because it is where most of the movie press is, and we need them to organically discover and unravel the mystery of the film in the same way as our evangelists so their larger audiences can also become attracted to the film.
We want all of these cryptic experiences to drive people to social networks so the viral drivers of the message are always right beside the message. With Dodger Stadium, the message on the scoreboard would not advertise the film. It will be a first clue in a mystery to discover that there is a film coming soon that these people need to see.
Ad copy on scoreboard:
Beware the stars.
[Clock countdown that runs extremely fast so viewers are not able to see when the clock started]
The hashtag is the clue to go to Twitter to find out more information, and we hope we can drive thousands of Twitter searches from this message. The LA Dodgers have the highest average game attendance in the MLB at just over 43,000. 1,000 social media comments about this would be a little over a 2% conversion rate, which may be a little optimistic, but is not impossible.
If people search on Twitter for #nightfalliscoming, they will see a sponsored tweet about the search results from a new account called @bewarethestars that reads, “Nightfall is coming. Find sanctuary here http://bewarethestars.com.”
The landing page at bewarethestars.com will be completely black except for one sentence in white:
Beware the stars. Enter your email address here to learn more about how to find sanctuary.
Email address: ______________________
If users sign up, they will see a message that states:
Thank for heeding our warning. Use this link to warn others. Those who warn the most people will be the first to find sanctuary. Not everyone can be saved! [Promotional URL]
Underneath this is a progress bar that shows how many people they have warned who have heeded their warning. The milestones are scrambled in an ancient text that is unreadable though. This is consistent with the film where ancient texts warned of the impending nightfall, but they were in a language the scientists could not translate. These promotional links link back to the same URL bewarethestars.com with some tracking code at the end to keep counts of how many successful referrals these early evangelists who signed up will drive, developing some link equity. Our goal is to rank #1 for the terms “beware the stars”, “nightfall” and “nightfall is coming”, which will be our main promotional messages, within two weeks because as of this moment we have no Google presence at all. That is okay for this time, as we want Googling about this mysterious message at Dodger Stadium not to reveal much.
During this time, we will also post our first Instagram post, which is a picture of one of the scoreboards, and our first Vine, which is a video of one of the scoreboards. We also will create our Facebook page which has a cover of the scoreboard and the darkness around it. We will pay for sponsored grams, Instagram’s new native ad product, and sponsored Vines, Vine’s new native ad product. These ads are just images and video of one of the scoreboards at the stadium. Our estimated spend here is less than $5,000 and targeted to the LA area for one day, but we could spend more if we like what kind of engagement we are getting. The Twitter sponsored search will remain live through the release date of the film, as much of our promotional material will only mention the hashtag.
At this point, we will have executed four ad expenditures: Dodger Stadium nightfall re-creation, Twitter Sponsored Search, Sponsored Gram, and Sponsored Vine. We hope these tactics generate considerable organic social media activity and press. If these tactics together do not generate 1,000 email sign-ups, we may have to revise our strategy. Fortunately, we can track sign-ups by Twitter, Instagram, and Vine to see which methods, if any are driving sign-ups. Another important thing to measure at this point is sentiment. Our hope is that people find these cryptic messages intriguing, but if the sentiment implies they are annoying, we will have to scramble to create a different style of campaign. Twitter searches and RSS alerts for our keywords plus Dodgers should provide enough information to understand sentiment without having to pay for expensive tools like Radian6.
Film Experience Setup and Key Partnerships Phase (T-minus 180 – T-minus 134)
Everything about this film will try to create a unique experience people won’t forget and will talk about to others. In order to deliver on that, we need help to nail the actual movie viewing experience. Our two tactics will revolve around working closely will theaters carrying the film and student organizations to create a unique viewing experience for the climax of the film, and working with online ticketers to upsell viewers on a truly immersive experience, which requires us knowing their email address and viewing time for the film.
T-minus 180 – T-minus 150
The key scene of the film is the eclipse and the subsequent emergence of the stars. We want to re-create that type of experience in the theater as much as possible, and get theaters excited about having that added feature and ultimately wanting to show the film. We start talking to colleges that have courses in film set design, and offer them an opportunity to for a special project that is once in a lifetime. Students will have a chance to create a special installation for a major film. The reason we use students is because they will trade the opportunity for money, and our budget would not allow us to pay professionals. Students submit their portfolios, and then we work with various students groups across the country to come up with a design that fits the ceiling of a typical movie theater room that replicates the sudden appearance of millions of stars. Students will be listed in the credits for the film for doing this as well as be able to say they had an internship at a film distributor. Students are sworn to secrecy about this project, but we know they will leak what they are doing to their friends, and that is fine. We like that things that seem like secrets leak to people who are likely to see the film. Depending on how light we can get the costs for the installations and how many students across the country interested in set design we can get interested, we will try to install this in as many of the major theater locations showing this film as possible.
The first goal is just to install it in a theater where movie theater reps can see it. We work with one student group winner, and get one theater built out in this fashion, and shows it to theater reps. Fortunately, they like the film and the experience. With the film experience and the marketing plan we lay out for the theaters, we lease lots of copies of the film, but have two requests for them: that we have the ability to augment the theater showing the film so that it has a special ceiling we develop ourselves, and that they ask patrons to keep their phones/iWatches/Google Glass ON instead of turning them off. Theaters, desperate to create some sort of excitement that will drive people to the theaters, and their theater specifically over others, agree, but we know we likely lose some theaters with these requests.
Fortunately, by 2016, online booking of theater tickets is how the majority of movie tickets are bought, and we partner with the major online ticketers like Fandango, MovieTickets.com, and Moviefone to email the purchasers of tickets with their receipt an invitation to make the film an immersive experience by asking for their email address. This one is likely costly, around $50K. We expect the conversion rate to be small, but with this group as well as the group we expect to be on our email list, plenty of people will receive the experience, and those who don’t might want to see it again being opted in to that type of experience.
Story Advancement Phase (T-minus 166 – T-minus 86)
After the launch phase, story advancement phase introduces new marketing tactics as well as amplification of the successful tactics from the launch phase of our campaign. Phase 1 tactics include more stadium blackouts and more sponsored social media posts. New tactics includes additional social channels, email marketing to the sign-ups from phase 1, SEM, online display, and content marketing for social media and SEO. While we do not necessarily need all of these channels to drive awareness and interest for the film, we want our audience to never be sure where and when information will be revealed about the film.
T-minus 166 – T-plus 28
Our next phase of social will leverage the rise of ephemeral and random photo sharing to drive additional cryptic messages about the film, and will expand our geography to the entire U.S. The first destination is SnapChat. Creating organic content for SnapChat will not be very useful as we will not be trying to develop relationships on this channel. What we will is a native ad platform on SnapChat call a Sponsored Snaps (note: this doesn’t exist yet, but something like it will by the time of this case) where we can target users based on demographic information to show them a message for ten seconds before it disappears. Savvy SnapChat users who are interested can save screenshots and try to interpret the messages. The messages will just be random words related to the film. There will be dozens: Nineteenth Theptar, Apostles of Flame, six different suns, the name of the newspaper in the story, etc. We will also use random photo sharing app Rando to target random U.S. users to send the same random photos.
T-minus 159 – T-plus 152
Our email marketing campaigns begins shortly after the second phase of our social media advertising. Depending on how many people signed up, the top 5%-20% of referrers to the site will receive an email with a link to the teaser hosted on bewarethestars.com (and, a week later, everyone else on our list). The teaser is only six seconds long, and shows grainy video of a red star being covered by a black moon, slowly creating an eclipse, similar to the video here. The clip ends with the title of the film, the hashtag, the website URL and the date “Nineteenth Theptar”, which is the fictional date in the book for the nightfall. Underneath the trailer is the same progress bar with the first message decoded that says “teaser”. The other milestones are still in an unreadable, ancient text. This shows the evangelists that they unlocked something special for their participation. These people will be given another promotional URL to share the teaser URL. If someone arrives at this page, but has not given their email address, they will need to give it to see the teaser.
T-minus 155 – T-minus 134
We take that same teaser and upload it to Vine, Cinemagram, YouTube etc. and pay for some sponsored posts. We also post it to our Twitter and Facebook pages so any followers can see it, but we really don’t expect to have many Facebook fans at this point. We also start buying AdWords for the same keywords we are targeting with a “media ad” that plays the teaser. Again, the cost here should be in the low thousands. We will also start buying full page takeovers on random websites where the screen goes pitch black for a few seconds, and then our message is revealed.
Our next iteration of email marketing will be to reveal more of what the progress bar is actually tracking progress for. The next milestone will be release date, and will be personalized to how far away each user from having enough sign-ups to have that date revealed to them. Those evangelists that have already gotten that many users to sign up will see the release date in the email, and see the next milestone as “trailer”.
T-minus 100 – T-minus 86
Our most active evangelists will receive a new email with the trailer once they reach the next milestone, and anyone they share that URL with will have to sign-up at that URL before they can see it. Over the next two weeks, we will email everyone else on our list the trailer, and will replace our media ad on Google Adwords with the trailer, as well as post the trailer on our Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Cinemagram, Instagram, YouTube, etc. pages.
T-minus 85 – T-minus 0
Our next personalized email send will include a progress bar fully translated, and the end of the progress bar appearing to be a trip to the premiere. We will send progress bar updates every couple of weeks to evangelists to show how they are doing in their goals to win a trip to the premiere.
T-minus 70 – T-minus 0
Our next phase of the campaign will focus on content marketing to flesh out anticipation for the story. We create pages of content for specific pieces of the film on our websites. These content pages will start on very generic topics like the planet, some of the main characters, then go into more detailed elements like the suns, and minute story details. These topics correlate exactly to the random phrases we started advertising on SnapChat and Rando, so as more people start to see those sponsored pictures, we expect Google searches for these terms to rise, and for our pages to show up organically for them. The pages will have a mix of text describing the topic as well as video or images depending on the topic. We will use email, Twitter, and Facebook to drive traffic to these pages and people keep engaged on these channels. We will still not respond to any comments on Twitter and Facebook so as not to make the campaign less mysterious.
Sample Editorial Calendar:
T-minus 70: Lagash/Kalgash (the planet in the story)
T-minus 65: Nineteenth Theptar (the date of Nightfall and the release date of the film)
T-minus 60: The Tunnel of Mystery
T-minus 55: The Theory of Universal Gravitation
T-minus 50: The Apostles of Flame
T-minus 45: Thombo tablets
T-minus 40: Onos (main sun)
T-minus 35: Dovim (eclipsed sun)
T-minus 30: Trey and Patru (sun pair #1)
T-minus 25: Tano and Sitha (sun pair #2)
T-minus 20: Beenay (main character)
T-minus 15: Sheerin (main character)
T-minus 10: Siferra (main character)
T-minus 5: Theremon (main character)
Purchase Intent Phase (T-minus 21 – T-plus 28)
Most people don’t purchase movie tickets very far in advance, if at all, so we need to push hard in this area to make it an experience you want to plan for. For those that we already have their email, we will email them about the immersive experience, an interactive viewing of the film unlike anything they have ever experienced. This email will have a call to action to book now, which they will be able to do on our website. We will also have an option to tell us when they are seeing the film so that we know when to trigger the immersive experience. Those that purchase on Fandango, Movietickets.com, or Moviefone will receive an email from that ticket provider about the immersive experience and how to sign up. For those that check-in on foursquare or Facebook, we will leverage their post check-in ads (this ad is coming out soon for foursquare. I assume Facebook will follow) to ask them to sign up so they can get the immersive experience. This will cost us a few thousand dollars on a CPA model.
Film Viewing Phase (T-minus 7 – T-plus 28)
This is the time where we pay our most successful evangelists with a night they will never forget, and when we deliver a truly unique in-theater experience for our film amplified by the in-theater build-out and use of the devices most people carry with them to a film.
For our premiere, we will invite our most viral drivers of email sign-ups as well as some reviewers and the cast and crew. The premiere will be held in one of the few “dark sky” parks in the world. These parks are some of the darkest places on land, and have fantastic views of the stars. There are two in the U.S.: Natural Bridges, Utah and Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania. We pick Utah because we may be able to attract a couple reviewers from LA. The premiere will not need the illusion of stars above, as Natural Bridges will have the clearest view of the stars in the U.S. We will develop an enclosed theater where bright lights hide the real-life stars until the eclipse scene. We will invite ~50 of the most viral email sign-ups at an average cost of $500 a flight at an average cost of $100 for accommodations, which will be a ~$30,000 spend. The theater build out for one night will cost about the same. This is an event that, while few people were invited to witness, many will hear about through word of mouth and press.
T-minus 0 – T-plus 28
For the release date and beyond, if someone has signed up for the immersive experience, they will receive emails or push notifications (if we have them tied to an app like Facebook or foursquare) so they get emails from the characters in the film, copies of the ancient texts, gossip from characters not heard in the film. These would all be triggered sends from an advanced ESP like ExactTarget where emails would trigger off a start time for the film. The CPM’s on email are fairly cheap, so if we sent 10 million emails, it should only cost us something less than $20K. Viewers will be encouraged to take pictures and share them via timely messages as well to drive more social buzz.
For the premiere and opening weekend, after the film is over, we will try to do one last thing to make sure viewers leave with a positive impression. Social comments can kill or drive a film’s success in a few hours to a day. We want to make sure we don’t receive ANY negative tweets or status updates about the film and many positive ones. So, for the first weekend, when viewers leave the theater, we will offer them cherry lollipops almost completely covered in chocolate, simulating the eclipse of the red sun in the film. Thus, we will try our best to use the peak end rule to our advantage: an in-theater special display for the appearance of the stars as the peak, and the chocolate covered sucker at the end. Our hope is the quality of the film and the uniqueness of the experience drive significant social activity and positive reviews.
We can also email all of the people we received emails from who we know saw the film and ask them to review the film on their favorite social networks, Flixster, IMDb, etc. After a few weeks, we can also ask them to see it again. We can attract them to a second viewing with “Did you notice?” emails. We will continue to email the people who signed up, but haven’t seen the film to try to remind them.
Social media advertising: $120,000
-Twitter sponsored search
-foursquare post-check-in ads
-Facebook post-check-in ads
Dodger Stadium Blackout: $10,000
Two other sporting event Blackouts: $30,000
Additional technical development: $15,000
Google Adwords campaign: $35,000
Display Advertising: $10,000
Online Ticketing Partnerships: $50,000
Email Service Provider: $30,000
Total Premiere Costs: $60,000
Post Film Gift for Opening Weekend: $10,000
Set design raw materials: $100,000
Total estimated project costs: $470,000
Staff needed (all permanent members, so not included in per film budget):
Community Manager: this person will make sure all social posts are posted on time and correctly and manage the editorial calendar, with appropriate level of engagement.
Media Buyer: This person will buy all the advertising, coordinating bids on auction-based media like some of the social ads and Google AdWords
Email Marketer: To set up a complex triggered send campaign during the film showings and to send out coordinated lifecycle program before the premiere of the film
Copywriter: To write email, social, and site content
Designer: To design all of the web and social media content
Business Development: To get the tough deals like Dodger Stadium Blackout and Student Set Design Competition to happen
Full Stack Developer: To develop film website and assist with deep integrations into ESP (additional technical development budgeted because this person is probably not a unicorn)