In 2009, the year he negotiated a deal to buy Icon from Mel Gibson, I heard distribution veteran Stewart Till give a talk on digital and entertainment commerce. Playing the role of an avuncular Doubting Thomas, Stewart saw the excitement around the onset of digital as a flaming chip pan that urgently needed a wet tea towel thrown over it. Digital would democratise content and ignite an explosion of product, but it wouldn’t solve the major problem: marketing is expensive and essential, said the former studio head. Paranormal Activity cost just $15,000 to make; without the millions spent on promotion, though; crossing $100m at the US box office would have been a crazed fever dream.
Of FAANG, (the five most popular and best performing tech stocks in the market, namely Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet’s Google) only Apple were monetising digital video online at that time, and Twitter had just 18 million users (vs 330 million at the time of writing). The scale of digital content and its consumption continues to expand like a soufflé: 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute; Netflix has 125 million subscribers. In theatrical, the number of cinema properties on release has risen from 10 to 17 a week in the past year. We have films shot on iPhones in cinemas now, the entry barrier of 35mm costs has lifted, and “binge watching” is now an official phrase in the Oxford Dictionary.
Studios still spend heavily on mainstream media; but whether you market online because of a luxury of budget or a lack of it, digital is perhaps where the future of film marketing lies. The savvy marketer has an array of new tools and performance-related analytics that allow them to target, join and create online networks, run with trends, and grow campaign in alignment with budget (“some people spend more on coffee each day than they do on [our] advertising campaigns” – Facebook). You can pickpocket competitor or influencers’ news feeds, because Facebook own them and can sell you access. You can set up advertising against key searches in geographical locations on Google Adwords in minutes; or employ agencies with expertise in pinpointing advocates and orchestrating chain interactions, to spread influence and social network (of course, we’re talking about arts marketing and nothing as contentious as politics…).
Network and advocacy is a two-way street: consumers interact and engage, in a way that allows them to curate the content they access as well as be ‘curated to’. We subscribe to channels on YouTube, react (positively and negatively) to suggestions made by Netflix or Amazon algorithms, and refer to aggregators of opinion, like Rotten Tomatoes. Consumers spread opinion across social media, enjoying direct contact with filmmakers and stars, and that connection is reciprocal, redefining the role creators take in the promotion of their product. The customer is no longer two steps away, they’re on the end of an email or a tweet. At Curzon, we have touch points to film consumption across cinemas, distribution and On Demand – and the new ‘B2C’ era is re-defining our business and our relationship with our advocates, Curzon members. We strive to build trust by aligning customer experience in the cinemas, including film acquisition taste and programming, with a curated service in the home. As word trickles through that transactional VOD numbers are reflecting the challenge of Netflix and Amazon, we’re confident that brand value explains the upward rise of our digital streaming figures.
The digital end goal might be to go direct to the public. Monologist Daniel Kitson is agent-less, preferring to promote his gigs via witty emails with typos sent to thousands of fans who’ve opted in – like Glastonbury, the tickets sell out within an hour. Graphic artist Mr Bingo took the viral success of his Hate Mail project to build an Instagram following of 54.6K and now sells his work and personal services via his website. In my home town of Blackpool, adolescents as young as 12 turned to YouTube to post offensive rap videos to each other, literally from the playground. Now Blackpool has a world-renowned ‘grime scene’ and their controversial BGMedia channel has 404,000 subscribers with videos streaking past 4-million views. As far as I know, neither ‘Little T’ nor Soph Aspin (Google them if you’re not familiar, but at your own risk) has yet to record a track, in the traditional sense.
Do-it-yourself On Demand services, like YouTube and Vimeo, have failed to create meaningful ecommerce for filmmakers; that said, Kitson, Bingo and BGMedia are advocates that work with low overheads and IP they already own. Filmmaking is a team sport where even ‘microbudgets’ run into five figures; and independent film commerce requires a certain level of distribution machinery just to recoup costs. The final challenge to traditional film marketing has yet to come, but you sense change and that digital network and audiences’ sensitivity towards curation will be at the heart of it. Perhaps the strongest indication yet of shifting tides was Netflix’s extraordinary display of digital power when they released, with two hours’ notice, The Cloverfield Paradox in February. We’re not quite there yet, though - as Stewart would point out, they also bought a Super Bowl TV commercial to advertise the fact, at a cost rate of $5 million per 30 seconds.