The tie-ins, the trailers, the cross-selling – that’s what makes a movie great

As the children’s films Minions and Inside Out go head to head, James Moore finds the plot is only half the story for the studios

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The Independent Online

It’s the time when the big movie studios make a big slug of their money – the summer blockbuster season. And one of the most intriguing battles for audience share is between the two big children’s films. .

In the yellow corner: Minions, a spin-off from the Despicable Me franchise that has turned into a marketing juggernaut. In the blue corner, Inside Out, the latest hotly anticipated offering from the creative geniuses at Pixar that has had the critics in raptures.

Both are backed by big studios, Minions by NBCUniversal, while Disney’s financial muscle powers Pixar. And both have the requisite big budgets as studios focus their output on fewer, but bigger, offerings.

But their marketing approach has had to be starkly different. The characters in  Minions initially provided the comic relief for Despicable Me. But to the studio’s apparent surprise, given the fairly limited role they had in the first outing, they have become the franchise.

As Ben Luxford, head of UK audiences at the British Film Institute, remarks: “Kids love them, don’t they. This time around, Universal knew the power they have over kids.”

Analysts describe the way in which Universal has plotted its pre-release campaign as textbook. Giant Minions outside supermarkets, a plethora of tie-ins inside. They’re all over Primark’s windows in Westfield Stratford City in London, and elsewhere, as retailers and the entertainment group feed off each other in the hunt for financial nirvana.

Sky has become the Minions TV channel. Its head of brand marketing, Carli Farmer, says: “We love working with Hollywood studios on marketing campaigns because Sky Broadband is broadband from the entertainment company.”

The power of the studio and the franchise helped Sky, for example, to secure the No 1 hit single “Uptown Funk” for use across its marketing campaign, and Ms Farmer has gushed about working with Universal in a blog post. Again, both sides win.

Mr Luxford explains the increasing importance of such partnerships for the big studios: “It will have a big impact on what you’re going to have to spend on publicity and marketing. The tie-in provides you with free marketing.

“Take the new James Bond film Spectre. It will be really interesting to look at what is actually an ad for the film and what is a promotional tie-in. What you will mainly see is ads for the car, or the watch, or the suits, but they will all be tied in to the movie. So Sony [the distributor] will get value without having spent anything.”

David Hancock, director and head of film and cinema at the research firm IHS Technology, says building a buzz like that for Spectre or Minions is vital now.

“They’ve talked about the importance of the opening weekend for the 22 years I’ve been in this business, but it’s never been more important,” he explains. “Now you have to get people in that first weekend because social media means word of mouth is so much quicker. If you can get them in the first weekend, at least you can make some money –because word of mouth can now kill a bad movie in a couple of days. The drop-off is very quick, so they’re really focusing on the build-up.

“Small trailers, interviews with actors – months in advance, all to build up momentum – make people want to see a film way before it comes out. Minions has been very well done but they’ve got a great product to work with.”

Which brings us to Inside Out, with its Cannes opening and huge appeal to a different group: adults. Unlike Minions, with its easily identifiable cute yellow characters, Inside Out is complex. It has a diverse group of lead characters modelled on emotions and is a critical beast.

Rotten Tomatoes, the film-review aggregator, has given it a rating of 98 per cent, which is extremely rare. (Minions, by contrast, managed a still respectable 74 per cent, prior to the US verdict, where it is yet to be released.)

Metacritic, meanwhile, which assigns a weighted average rating to movies, gives Inside Out 93 out of 100, indicating “Universal Acclaim”. It already looks a shoo-in for the best animated film at the Oscars, at the very least.

“Sometimes you have a film that is just so good, you don’t need to spend too much on it,” says Mr Luxford citing the sleeper hit Amy, a documentary on the life of the late singer Amy Winehouse. “There is an added value in media from the sheer publicity you get through film magazines, the national press, the internet.”

This, he adds, can help keep costs down even for giant movies. But Disney will still spend. It needs to capture the kids as well as their parents. “You’ll start seeing the ads on Nickelodeon and places like that as they crank it up to the release date,” Mr Luxford explains.

Sky, too, which has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Pixar through its Toy Story tie-in, is keenly anticipating its contribution to the campaign to add to the $208m (£133m) that Inside Out has taken in the US (plus a further $81.5m internationally).

Whether the film will move beyond that and into franchise territory – whether that’s even possible – remains to be seen.

Minions is already there. Mr Hancock says: “It used to be that if a studio had a hit, they’d dash off a sequel for 10 to 15 per cent less of the budget and get 10 to 15 per cent less of the audience. That’s not the case any more. Now films are often conceived as trilogies or even four or five-run events. If you see the first one, you’re buying into a stream.

“Studios since the financial crash of 2007-08 have had to cut back. They are making fewer, bigger films – the top 50, that’s their job,” Mr Hancock adds. “They have cut back a lot on mid-budget, which is taken by independents. If you can get three or four of the 10 or 12 you make as a franchise, you almost have a guarantee. They form a core part of revenue projections.”

Not that Disney has to worry. The mother of all franchises looms. In a way that caught even the studio by surprise, Frozen is that rare beast – a property where the tie-ins and spin-offs have become as important as the film itself.

As Mr Luxford says: “That’s very rare. Frozen is on another level, allowing all sorts of other profit centres to appear. I remember being out cycling in south London. There were little Elsas [one of the characters] everywhere. It’s all self-fulfilling and the studio won’t need to spend that much marketing the sequel because everyone knows it and loves it. It’s a permanent money-making machine, and only studios have the power to create a beast like that.”