As the release date for Universal’s First Man neared, B&B Theatres decided to send two members of its marketing department into space. Sort of. The film, helmed by Academy Award–winning director Damien Chazelle, tells the story of Neil Armstrong and NASA’s maiden voyage to the moon. It’s a fascinating movie, revealing the personal and logistical challenges of that space-age milestone. Taking inspiration from the subject matter, B&B decided to plot its own outer space journey.
“We essentially sent a weather balloon with a payload up into the stratosphere,” says Paul Farnsworth, director of public relations at B&B Theatres. With his accomplice, Nick Frizell, B&B’s multimedia coordinator, the pair arranged three GoPro cameras in a Styrofoam ice chest to which they’d attached miniature astronaut figures of themselves and a First Man one sheet. Once the craft was launched, the cameras beamed images of Paul and Nick in flight. “We managed to get really high up,” says Frizell. Farnsworth believes the balloon reached an altitude of 70,000 feet.
Farnsworth and Frizell have become well known to B&B Theatres’ growing social media following as the stars of their YouTube channel, posting videos produced in-house as part of its social media marketing efforts. Apart from a weekly rundown of new releases and the occasional junket visit, the pair work with Executive Vice President Bobbie Bagby Ford and marketing team members Chris Tickner, Paul Weiss, Rob Vernon, and Megan Hageman to develop creative and engaging content that can connect with the cinema’s chain online following.
The mission started as a joke. “Chris just said it off the cuff: ‘We should go to the moon!’” says Farnsworth. “It literally came together in a span of 20 minutes. We were laughing about it, he left, and I went back to his office with this idea.”
Farnsworth then pitched the idea to Bagby Ford in a three-sentence email, and she encouraged the pair to give it a shot. Once approved, B&B reached out to Universal to make sure the campaign would work alongside the studio’s own promotional efforts. “Our partners at the studios are, across the board, wonderful and encouraging. A lot of our campaigns are designed to drive pre-sales, in order to get out in front of things and move the needle early. Depending on the information that we get from the studios about how early tickets will be made available, we can begin crafting campaigns around them,” says Farnsworth.
Granted, it wasn’t exactly sending actual human beings to the moon—but the project did pose its share of challenges. “The learning curve was straight up,” says Farnsworth. “None of us knew what we were doing. We watched some YouTube videos, did some math, and worked some online models to project where things would end up once they were in the sky for a period of time.” Alongside the cameras and cutouts were a $100 B&B Theatres gift card and five courtesy tickets—in case the vehicle ever found its way back to Earth.
“We filmed virtually the whole thing from start to finish; the announcement of the project, the construction of the device, our little journey across the state as we tracked it. We compiled it into sort of a series that we put on across our social media channels,” says Farnsworth. “The sickening part of it was scheduling the campaign because we were sort of anticipating it failing and we were approaching the film’s release. There were so many things that could go wrong. We get one chance to launch this thing—what if it pops at 300 feet? What if it works perfectly, but we can’t recover it? When we told our viewers what we were planning on doing, we let them know it could crash and burn. It gave us a cushion in case it went wrong, but it also provided some hype for people who wanted to see it fail! I’m not sure how to say this in a way that isn’t self-deprecating, but I feel that’s part of the appeal of some of the content that we create: being approachable and friendly, not coming off as a polished corporate production.”
At the core of these efforts is B&B’s ability to promote its own initiatives in conjunction with a film’s release. Contest giveaways like complimentary tickets, for example, are distributed via the circuit’s free-to-join loyalty program, B&B Backstage Pass. “In terms of generating new membership, it’s been a big part of it,” says Frizell.
B&B’s has attracted around 8,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel since launching it in April of 2016—an impressive benchmark among regional U.S. circuits. The circuit incorporates weekly prize giveaways in some of its social media campaigns, incentivizing viewers to watch and participate. “We don’t give away the bank every week,” says Farnsworth. “It costs the company very little to engage our customers in that way, but the fact that our customers can tune in to our videos and have a chance to win an associated prize every week is something they appreciate.” They have also tailored content to each specific social media platform—going beyond the autopilot approach of occasionally posting new posters and trailers. “We’ll look at what’s working for a lot of the influencers on each platform and figure out if there’s a way we can put our own spin on it,” says Frizell.
According to Farnsworth, all campaigns are driven by a series of key questions: “Is this going to draw you back to the movies? Is it going to get you to buy more at the concessions stand? Some things work, some things don’t. You have to be willing to try a lot of things and see what gets some traction.”