Window of Opportunity: Shorter Marketing Campaigns Are Seeing Healthy Results

In recent years, studios have often chosen to condense their marketing campaigns into smaller windows. The prevailing thought has been that millennials especially have shorter attention spans, and with such a crowded theatrical marketplace, it is better to have a shorter and more concentrated marketing effort to raise and maintain awareness. This is especially true for sequels, which already have both a built-in audience and huge brand and character awareness.

The previous school of thought was that large tentpole releases should have a one- to two-year campaign, with awareness rising and falling dramatically through sporadic release of information. Let’s take a look at some major releases over the last five years and their promotional efforts on social media to see how the landscape has changed to better meet the needs of audiences.

We analyzed the top five domestic box office performers since 2015 and how far from opening their first trailer was released. 2017 had the highest average, at 246 days before release of the first trailer, while 2018 was the lowest, at 193 days. This year is not far off that mark, with 195 so far. This lines up with conventional wisdom about shortening of the marketing windows—the fact that over the last few years the average for that first trailer premiere has dropped by two months is a huge change.

In the past, there would often be three or four trailers for major releases, including international trailers, teaser trailers, and other clips and featurettes. With shorter windows, this has slashed the numbers of trailers on average; a maximum of two or three trailers is now customary. This undoubtedly saves money and allows extra capital to be spent on other channels.

In addition, studios are using social media to communicate and interact with fans more than in the past. This has helped to maintain interest in between trailers and news alerts and has become a key strategy for many releases. Facebook and Twitter have been used extensively for the last 10 years by studios, but mainly as informational tools to share trailers, casting information, and set pictures. But this has shifted in recent years and many (but not all) have increased their posting frequency and types of posts to offer more for their fans. This is especially true for larger franchises such as Avengers and Star Wars, which are head and shoulders above most other campaigns in terms of their engagement with fans. Certain trailblazers such as Deadpool have popped up with massive presence online and surprising box office revenue, which has forced all distributors to rethink their efforts.

Another factor that has been important in recent years is the rise of Instagram among younger audiences as a vital promotional and engagement tool. Within the last two years, Instagram official pages have become essential for all films, and most major releases now have distinctly different campaigns for each of the three major services rather than cut-and-paste marketing.

An interesting case study is that of Avengers, which created its Instagram profile on November 28, 2017. Since that time, there have been 350 posts—but in the last five months alone, more than 180 posts have appeared. It’s no coincidence that Avengers: Endgame had the shortest marketing window of any film in the top five over the last two years, just under five months. Star Wars, James Bond and Detective Pikachu also had huge pushes on Instagram, which led to their consistently being among the most talked-about films on the service, even so far from their release dates—good examples of smart campaigns in this current climate. 

The total number of films released each year has continued to increase annually, with 2018 the first year ever to tally over 850 films. Add to that increased competition the changing demographics of moviegoers, the waning importance and reach of TV ads, and the rise of different mediums of advertising consumption, and you have a vastly different landscape today than even five years ago. Studios are forced to alter the tried and tested methods of promoting their films to accommodate these changes. The proof is always in the results, and it’s notoriously difficult to gauge the impact of these changing methods. But the fact that 2018 was the highest-grossing year on record, yet its biggest films had the shortest marketing windows of the last five years, is a strong sign that what studios are doing is spot-on for today’s audiences.