Media: Taking a leaf out of Hollywood's book

British film-makers need to learn that great quality doesn't guarantee box-office success.
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The Independent Culture
SO, AFTER nine months of tantrums, set disasters, budget overruns, irate screenwriters, extended theatricals, rain-sodden location work, cosy actors' huddles and editing-suite agony, you now have, in your hand, the finished copy of your clever and beautiful film, which should change the world.

The Hotel du Cap, Venice and even the Oscars beckon, but the basic issue is more mundane. How do you get as many people as possible to pay their pounds 6, buy their giant bucket of Butterkist and settle down to watch?

This question was the subject of a seminar at Bafta's plush Piccadilly headquarters last week, as a few of the most eminent figures in film marketing shared their secrets with many of the country's producers and directors.

In the current climate, the questions being posed and answered were serious ones. A resurgent British film industry is facing unprecedented competition for its releases, with more than 1,000 films produced every year in America and the EU. Hollywood marketing muscle is ever-present, while the pull of blockbusters viewed in massive multiplexes is immense. And consumers are being saturated with information, publicity and informed opinion in greater quantities than ever before.

In such a sophisticated world, then, making a great movie plainly isn't enough.

"Marketing is very, very important to ensure that a film gets the results it deserves at the box office," said Peter Buckingham, director of Film Four, Channel 4's film distribution arm. Mr Buckingham spoke off the record at the seminar, but said afterwards that there was an essential issue which film-makers had to tackle as early as possible in the process.

Directors and producers have to decide who their audience will be. "Unless it's an action thriller and you're absolutely sure who is going to come and see the film, you'll want to check" - and that means using preview showings and focus-group discussions, he said.

Mr Buckingham would not be drawn on individual film-makers, but another British industry source, well-versed in marketing, said directors and producers frequently had very little idea how to make their films succeed financially.

"There are too many people out there who think that, if they have a decent product, it will succeed on its own merits and from the reviews," she said.

There are three main conclusions that film marketeers agree on.

First, media reviews play only a minor role in attracting crowds, and are less important than either the press or many directors think.

"Word of mouth is by far the most important factor," said Mr Buckingham.

Second, coverage in the main sections of the press, often achieved through the news pages and through feature articles, is very important, but can occasionally be a two-edged sword when it turns out to be of the negative variety.

Third, focus groups, the bane of many creative types who prefer to trust instinct, are becoming increasingly prevalent, even in the low-budget, specialist film market, and their influence is spreading backwards through the film-making process so that even scriptwriters may come under their influence.

The film industry source points to the example of Hilary and Jackie, this year's biopic of Jacqueline du Pre and her sister, as a film that fell foul of some of the key rules.

"The reviews were very good, and the marketing made a positive effort to open up a specialist film to a much wider audience," he says. "The posters were sexy and the trailer was positively raunchy, but they overplayed their hand."

Despite the reviews, the rest of the media coverage was negative, with many lovers of classical music boycotting a film they perceived to demean the cellist's memory, and the mass-market audience uninterested in the subject matter.

Then there was the problem of the title, with some potential viewers inevitably confused by the apparent reference to American First Ladies. The hardest blow of all was the release and success of Shakespeare in Love at approximately the same time. "There is room for only one arty, rather highbrow success at any one time," says Mr Buckingham.

In all, it seems the most important message is for film-makers to break out of the cosy circle of directors, producers and broadsheet reviewers, and step into the dangerous world of the out-of-town multiplex, tabloid feature writers and regional TV stations.

With that, they should add a dash of focus group and polling, and be prepared to change their product if necessary - just as the major Hollywood studios do. Either that, or keep their integrity and stay poor.

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