Online movie campaigns: Time to see the bigger picture

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Film distributors are using Twitter, Facebook and other technologies to draw audiences into cinemas – and it's working, says Daniel Bettridge

Worldwide scavenger hunts, comic book prologues, flash-mobbing, alternate-reality games and iPhone apps – just some of the tools used by studios in a bid to prise the cost of a cinema ticket away from your pay packet this summer. Nowhere is this movie-marketing arms race more noticeable than during the summer blockbuster season, as scores of big-budget extravaganzas vie for our attention in Hollywood's most competitive market.

Not so long ago, possession of the sharpest trailer or the biggest array of bankable talent might have all but guaranteed box office success; but this summer, the marketing campaigns for films such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Christopher Nolan's Inception are having to become ever more innovative in a bid to generate the word of mouth, or should that be word of mouse, required to make their summer a success.

The driver behind this change has, unsurprisingly, been the internet. They're familiar figures, but broadly speaking social activity has become dominant online, and more than two-thirds of the world's population now visit a social-network or blog site weekly. As a result these forums, websites and messaging services have become our own individual windows to the world and a critical resource for us to gather information, seek out entertainment and share with like-minded individuals.

Facebook is more popular than ever before and 2010 has been the year when the social-networking service Twitter has well and truly entered into the mainstream consciousness. With more access to potential consumers than ever before, it's easy to see why movie marketers have embraced social networking; but according to Ray Jenkin from MEC, a media planning and buying agency that has worked on campaigns for films such as Watchmen and Iron Man 2, access alone isn't going to make a marketing campaign a success, and 2010 has been notable for the innovative ways in which audiences have been engaged through these networks: "I think 'engage' is an important word here, and is reflective of the broader sweeping change in film marketing. Whereas previously it has been about broadcast, now studios have to actively engage the audience in order to get buy-in to films. This is not about the audience necessarily being able to effect change in final output/product, but rather allowing the user to feel that film content and experience is part-owned by them."

This idea of ownership is key to the way in which movies are marketed today. As an audience we like to be challenged, and in an age of readily available information we have developed a voracious appetite for content. As a result, traditional marketing, which takes the form of one-way communication where information and assets are drip-fed to us, has been replaced by a two-way dialogue that has transformed what is essentially a passive process into an interactive experience that's made moviegoers stakeholders in the success of their favourite films.

We no longer simply consume marketing campaigns; we've become active participants in them, as can be seen in the recent trend in transmedia storytelling. Today, the movie released in cinemas is just one part of a wider narrative jigsaw that stretches beyond the confines of the theatre and across other forms of media. In order to receive the complete movie experience for a film such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World, fans must track down the various strands of storyline in prequel comics, online games and the movie itself, joining up the dots through a complex network of associated content. This has created a sense of involvement that has enabled marketers to transform us into champions who are essentially an extension of their own efforts to create a buzz around the film.

Innovation is key and the pressure consistently to come up with new, ever more creative ideas is high, but the activity we're seeing online is just one facet of a wider effort. "Online could be the activation point for a piece of activity, or the destination, or both; it doesn't matter, as long as there's a strong, appealing idea that involves the audience somehow." So I'm told by Andy Freedman, who works for Substance, an independent digital marketing agency which specialises in film and entertainment. "The old marketing stalwarts – the poster, trailer and stills – are still as crucial as ever. The key is to create a structured, synergistic campaign that challenges and rewards the audience."

Posters are also evolving and the promotional materials being used during the summer of 2010 are almost unrecognisable from the first posters that were employed to market movies more than 100 years ago. Today, your average Tube journey will most likely bring you face to face with one of the growing number of digital hoardings which have transformed posters into multimedia experiences, just one example of how the limits of what can be achieved within traditional spaces are being constantly pushed by innovative marketing. The campaign to promote Inception, this summer's breakout hit, has taken the humble poster to even greater heights, updating traditional spaces with a series of skyscraper-sized images which brought the concept of the movie into reality, creating visual illusions that peeled away the sides of buildings or gushed waterfalls through their windows.

Traditional outdoor media have also been joined by the relatively new phenomenon of guerrilla marketing, flash-mobbing and stunts all designed to generate publicity and create a buzz around a film's launch. All are innovative means employed to create a sense of shared identity around a film. Whether fans experience the event themselves, or read about them amid the landslide of exposure, these stunts generate on the growing number of entertainment blogs; these integrated outdoor events provide the connecting lines between traditional and online marketing, helping to create a richer immersion for the public into the film.

With so much progression in a relatively short space of time, what does the future hold for the way movies are marketed? According to Andy Freedman, "life-cycle marketing – plotting the journey of a film from theatrical [release] through home entertainment and beyond – is becoming the primary focus for many titles." Ray Jenkin agrees and points to the growing number of directors such as Peter Jackson, J J Abrams and James Cameron who are getting creatively involved in the marketing campaigns for their films. "I think we will see more bespoke content created... this content will become an extension of the actual film, and in order to be successful will need the director's own creative direction and influence," he says.

As directors begin to incorporate marketing and promotion into their creative process, it's only a matter of time before we begin to speak about Facebook pages, viral campaigns and interactive trailers as extensions of the moviegoing experience, rather than precursors to it. But as the rise of Facebook itself becomes the subject of a Hollywood movie, perhaps marketing's invasion on to the silver screen has already begun.

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Inception

An incredibly smart campaign combined innovative posters, real-world scavenger hunts, interactive websites and social networking to connect audiences and build a fan-base for a film with no prior history that has since gone on to be a critical and commercial success .

Despicable Me

This year's developments in movie marketing don't just take place before you enter the theatre; they're now invading the cinema itself. The US release of Universal's cartoon Despicable Me was accompanied by an iPhone app, an "in-cinema" piece of software which provided a real-time English translation of the gibberish spouted by the film's minion characters.



Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The latest trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows went live simultaneously on Yahoo! International and the film's Facebook page, placing equal emphasis on both traditional PR and social-media presence. The trailer on Facebook incorporated a live chat feature so fans could discuss the trailer and increased the asset's talkability.



Sex and the City 2

The digital marketing agency behind the film encouraged cinemagoers to "Tweet their feet", leading the film to trend on the social-networking site Twitter during its opening weekend. The movie also has the UK's biggest film page on Facebook, with almost 120,000 fans.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

A cult title, the campaign to promote the August release of Scott Pilgrim vs the World has used social networks to tailor its marketing for individual demographics, sculpting different materials for avid fans from those designed for relative newcomers. There has also been a significant transmedia effort with downloadable games, interactive widgets, comics, on-set blogs and YouTube videos.

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