Industry Leaders Discuss the Power of Theatrical Marketing at Promax Conference

In a hyper-competitive landscape where films compete with SVOD services, gaming,  YouTube videos, and each other, industry executives find themselves with a new set of challenges in promoting theatrical releases. The Promax Conference recently celebrated in Los Angeles addressed these issues in a panel session moderated by Annah Zafrani, SVP integrated marketing at Universal Pictures, focusing on the unique power and potential of theatrical marketing in an era marked by increasing audience fragmentation.

Zafrani was joined by Jackson George, SVP creative advertising at The Walt Disney Studios; Dana Nussbaum, EVP media at Warner Bros.; and Maria Pekurovskaya, EVP creative advertising at Universal, in a panel discussion tackling best practices and new opportunities in theatrical marketing.

Convincing people to go to a movie theater and spend money on a ticket requires a strong marketing campaign, one that offers a unique value proposition to moviegoers. “I do think that you have to believe that people are essentially social creatures and want to get out of the house and have a shared experience with other people,” said  Universal’s Pekurovskaya.

The key to successful campaign in such a competitive media landscape  is creating powerful experiences that drive the cultural conversation. “The core promise of the theatrical experience has to be different,” said Disney’s Jackson George. “I think entertainment marketing is getting better and better everywhere, across the board. Everybody’s game has to go to another level. We have to create something that feels like a cultural event. That’s certainly a feeling we’re trying to create at Disney. We create cultural moments. If you’re not part of that moment, you’re missing part of the conversation.”Warner Bros.’ Dana Nussbaum, who was involved in crafting the studio’s campaign for IT, stressed the importance of creating a personal and visceral message associated to a movie. For IT, the WB team created a 5,000 square foot replica of the film’s house on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, welcoming visitors for the four weeks leading to the film’s release. Different digital and publicity touchpoints, according to Nussbaum, ensured the campaign traveled and created engagement even for those who did not experience the activation first-hand.  “We have to convince people that there’s value there, It starts with stories that are really rich and layered, offering something that’s unique and distinctive, but I think our marketing campaigns have to be equally experiential.” In addition to keeping a strong sense of urgency via different touchpoints throughout the campaign, panelists also stressed the importance of innovation. IT’s campaign provides one such example. Disney’s Toy Story 4 teaser trailer strategy, where a second response-trailer was released quickly after the first one, created a unique type of conversation. Pekurovskaya insisted that innovations are also “teeny tiny decisions you make along the way.” That was the case with Universal’s decision to put a red banner across TV spots of Good Boys, an R-rated comedy starring pre-teen boys, to highlight the film’s rating while complying with network and MPAA regulations.

But how can we measure the success of these campaigns and marketing materials? In the golden age of data, the executives provided an alternative: gut feeling.

“You’re listening to all of these metrics throughout the campaign, but at the end of the day, it’s gut instinct”, said Nussbaum. “I think what can happen when you’re so busy looking at all the metrics is that a certain kind of panic can set in. You can limit the possibilities of the campaign. And of course, there’s value to be found in all those metrics, they’re extremely useful, but if you overemphasize their meaning you can lose sight of your own passion and wisdom and thoughts and feelings and instincts.”

Jackson George emphasized that while pre-release tracking and other metrics are invaluable tools, they also tend to be flawed. Campaigns, he added, tend to underperform or overperform, rarely reaching the expectations provided by analytics, because of the influence of non-measurable factors. Conversations, for example, are important indicators. Dana Nussbaum continued: “My morning carpool is the best focus group I could ever have. It’s brutally honest, which is tough sometimes, but when you get a 10-year old and a 7-year old, they’ll tell you exactly what you’re doing right and what you’re doing terribly wrong.”