On December 13th 2013, Beyoncé released her self-titled album to little fanfare and zero publicity. On top of working with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Drake, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Jay-Z, Ryan Tedder and Frank Ocean, the album’s production cast-list also read like a who’s who of who’s hot in music right now. Coupled with that, the album came with 17 music videos totalling in 78 minutes in length, and again, Beyoncé hooked up with some of the most in-demand visual artists out there, and shooting all over the world, from New York to Brazil to Paris and so on. The album went on to sell over five million copies around the world, top just about every single chart you can think of, and received rave reviews from just about every outlet that exists. The most impressive part of the album however, and the part that has forever altered how artists and audiences perceive album releases since then, is that it took everyone by surprise. All of this was accomplished under our noses, and became a success without any pre-existing hype or build-up.
On November 28th 2014, the first teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakes was released. Shown nearly 400 days prior to the movie’s opening day, the 88 second teaser contained closer to 50 seconds of actual footage from the film. In its first week, on YouTube alone, the trailer was watched a record-breaking 58.2 million times, with an unknown number more viewings on Apple Trailers (where it was officially launched) and other outlets. Hypothetically speaking, and just using the YouTube numbers, if each view equalled to a single ticket bought to go see the movie in its opening weekend, Episode VII will have made over $600 million around the world, beating current record holder Harry Potter & The Deathly Hollows Part II’s opening weekend by over $120 million.
On May 16th 2014, Godzilla opened in US cinemas to a very impressive $93.2 million, at the time of writing the 5th biggest opening of the year. The marketing campaign for the latest Godzilla began in earnest at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, and over the next two years, the teasers and trailers built up enormous buzz, and even critics warmed to the nuclear monster, earning a respectable 73% on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite all of this, the movie barely scraped past $200 million, the lowest ever grossed by a movie that earned over $90 million in its opening weekend. In comparison, and adjusted for inflation, the perceived 1998 flop outing for Godzilla made $31 million more during its theatrical run.
So what gives? With all this marketing, and teasers for teasers for trailers, and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on creating a buzz and hype around a movie, does any of it make a difference?
Not to discredit what some movie-makers are capable of doing with their promotional campaigns – with everything from The Blair Witch Project merging fact and fiction in the mind of the public, to Cloverfield getting fans buzzing over with potential of what the film might be about it – but between the posters, theatrical trailers, TV spots and everything else out there that is used to get attention for a movie, the general rule of thumb for blockbusters these days is that whatever the cost of the movie, the promotional budget for that same movie is between 50% and 100% of the production budget. So, for example, the 2014 version of Godzilla cost $160 to produce, but with promotional costs thrown in, it actually would cost between to $240 and $320 million. Which means it didn’t make back its budget in the US, which is how it’s come to be viewed as something of a “flop”.
On June 11th 1982, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial opened in cinemas in America to the sum of $11 million. It didn’t make its biggest opening weekend numbers until its FIFTH weekend, when it made $16 million, keeping the number one spot away from the likes of Blade Runner, The Thing and Tron. On its seventh weekend, it dropped to second place. On it’s eighth, back to number one. It would do this dance back and forth, taking the box office crown for 16 different weeks, its last visit to the number one spot on its 25th week of release. Today that is entirely unheard of. If a movie keeps the top spot for three weeks, it’s cause for celebration. If a movie manages to stay in cinemas for 25 weeks, let alone still be jostling for the top-spot, then it must be doing fantastically well (by comparison, Godzilla lasted 15 weeks in cinemas this summer).
The difference? Well, aside from the tsunami of big budget blockbusters week-after-week (a discussion for a different article), what is lacking is the potential for word of mouth. Hypothetically speaking, imagine a movie were to come out with absolute zero publicity. No posters, no trailers, no on-set reports, no press screenings, no interviews leading up to its release; the movie is doing a full on Beyoncé. In this same hypothetical, this same movie must be pretty good for the example to work, just like Beyoncé’s album was.
Imagine, if you can, that Godzilla movie just appeared in cinemas one Friday (obviously the movie couldn’t be called Godzilla, cos that’d be a give-away when people check out the upcoming release schedule, so for argument’s sake, we’ll rename it MUTO). So you’ve wandered into your local cinema, Bad Neighbours is still out, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Million Dollar Arm, and then there’s …. MUTO? What’s that? It doesn’t sound great, but you take a risk on it, and oh my god, it’s a new Godzilla movie! How did you not know about this?? This leads us to the second difference in the 32 years since E.T. came out: the internet. Warner Brothers have already saved around $100 million from NOT promoting the movie, but now they’ve got an online army spreading the word of this secretly released blockbuster. Will MUTO make the same $90 million in its opening weekend? Probably not. But will MUTO struggle to pass $200 million in its US run, and disappear from cinemas after barely three months? Definitely not.
Obviously this isn’t a viable project for every movie, and there’s evidence that word-of-mouth is still a massively useful tool in today’s cinematic landscape, but only for potentially easy-to-miss gems like The Guest, ’71 or Blue Ruin. The closest that positive feedback came to saving a good blockbuster from being a dud this year was Edge Of Tomorrow, which is a prime example of marketing working against itself. That forgettable title, that same-y poster, that deja-vu trailer that smacked of “didn’t we just see this?” thanks to Oblivion; all of that combined to nearly take down one of the most entertaining big budget movies of the year. Now imagine you hadn’t seen that poster, didn’t watch that trailer, and went in blind to Edge Of Tomorrow, and then came back out and didn’t have to convince everyone that the adverts “didn’t do it justice”?
Everyone knows that the more a movie is being shoved down our throats, it’s because (1) it cost a lot of money, and the financers want to double down to make their money back, and/or (2) the movie is crap. Beyoncé might yet have shown us the future of movie marketing: no marketing at all, and just let the movie speak for itself, which in turn will weed out the bad ones and force everyone involved to up their game. Spending less money to make better films; how is this not a win-win for everyone?