Closing the Marketing Gap: Innovative Strategies for Film Distribution and Exhibition.

January 30, 2023
The DX Team
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Cinema is dying. Or so we hear echoing off the film studio walls.

In the post-pandemic context, studios have mostly invested in low risk, “big event” franchises and sequels, with cinemas increasingly relying and focusing their hopes and efforts on a limited number of blockbusters. But the results weren't necessarily on par.

So isn't this narrow lens missing a bigger point to be addressed: the growing marketing gap, especially in the post-pandemic recovery?

The way audiences discover and consume film content, get excited about releases, and experience the movie theatre in 2023 has evolved dramatically, but overall, distribution marketing models and cinemas have been slow to adapt to rapidly changing consumer habits.

This is not to distract from those pioneers out there, which we will explore here, harnessing the latest platforms and delivering really creative marketing to attract and retain cinema goers. 

Society often evolves faster and more drastically than industry, and in the case of Generation Z and the cinema industry, that sentiment could not be truer. 

So, what can distributors, exhibitors and movie theatres do to draw audiences back in and keep film thriving?

There are two major areas of innovation the industry could focus on: 1. social media and experiential marketing and 2. the movie-theatre experience. Emma Jamieson, social media and marketing consultant, takes us on a journey to explore these two avenues of innovation for the cinema industry.

The Social Network.

Outside of mega-budget releases, film marketing has largely not evolved to meet digital consumption habits. A typical movie press kit still contains a written press release, one sheet, film poster, a few stills, and a trailer. More elaborate options sometimes include Q&As (also written) with cast and crew.

Whilst the above is a necessary tool in the marketing arsenal, missed opportunities arise when it comes to tailoring these assets for a ‘social-media-first’ audience.

A few examples how distributors could pep-up their press kits include:

●      Editing trailers, video and static assets for Instagram / TikTok / YouTube shorts in 9:16 ratio.

●      Keeping all video content to 90 seconds or less to meet social media best practice.

●      Recording Q&As on video alongside transcripts, and including entertainment “extras” (like on a DVD) videos, packaged and edited - in the above formats - into ready-to-use content  for media outlets and social platforms.

Could #FilmTok be the next #BookTok?

Distributors and exhibitors are slowly but surely joining Tik Tok. The platform itself has been proactively establishing a presence at festivals, being an official partner at Cannes Film Festival and TIFF in 2021.

But it is still largely TikTok creators themselves driving film conversation on the platform. In fact, the 2021 GoodQues TikTok Entertainment Study revealed that 69% of users had co-created content related to a TV show or movie (think the Wednesday Adams dance, or the #GentleMinions trend), whilst 58% declared they were “interested” or “very interested” in seeing more film content on the platform, indicating a real gap in original, creative, movie-related marketing content.

So we must applaud those in the film industry that are investing and innovating on the platform.

Cannes’ move to embrace TikTok is a remarkably bold move for a traditional film festival. Not only did it run a concurrent Tik Tok short film festival judged by a panel of influencer-creators (the #TikTokShortFilm hashtag has garnered 4.4 billion views on the app so far), but it developed a billboard campaign made entirely from TikTok user generated content (imagine the cost-savings on advertising!) an innovative engagement strategy sharing authentic festival-goer experiences.

Sony Pictures also took to TikTok with a clever, world-building approach to generate buzz ahead of the Spiderman: No Way Home release, creating a channel for the movie’s fictitious The Daily Bugle newspaper which teased sneak peek, original, behind-the-scenes content. Posts reached an average of 3.4 million viewers each in the run up to release.

Cinemas are embracing the ‘Tok too - a vital move to ensure they are not solely dependent on the distributor marketing materials to get bums on seats, but are also selling the movie-theatre experience and engaging directly with their local communities. 

Cineworld UK grew its channel to 200,000 followers in its first year with a dynamic mix of content showcasing cinema staff having fun behind the scenes, genuine audience reaction videos, “secret hacks” to get the best food and drink deals and jumping on pop culture trends swiftly with hilarious takes.

Independent cinema Lillehammer Kino also seized on the opportunities of TikTok, with theatre director Clarissa recruiting social media savvy front of house team members and allowing them the creative freedom to develop authentic, spontaneous content that resonates with cinemagoers, made by the very people who serve them. 

These examples of cinemas using social media to build loyal followings and reach their audiences directly are a positive move in a world where cinemagoers are hungrier than ever for content and film fans are building their own communities online. 

To date, however, the majority of film-based content on TikTok remains largely repackages of existing, high-production PR materials and trailer edits, rather than original, entertainment-based content that capitalises on TikTok’s unique style.

Whether the hesitation by the wider industry to fully embrace social media is a knowledge gap within marketing functions, or, perhaps, a resistance to platforms such as TikTok, which by its very nature of being unpolished, spontaneous and often unedited is the very antithesis to “real film”, the distributors and exhibitors who fail to adapt are missing out.

We were told e-readers would kill bookshops, but by 2022, many high street book retailers reported an uptick in people flocking to purchase books in store that they had discovered through #BookTok.

If the film industry wants to truly leverage new social channels, it needs to lead the conversation, work with, and develop influencers, produce in-app, original content and drop its guard to let audiences in.

Creating “fan moments”.

The biggest screen successes of the post-pandemic world have two things in common: Mega budgets and 360˚ experiential marketing.

Avatar: The Way of the Water’s launch was extravagant and heavily experiential. Kicking off with instagrammable, visual stunts across the globe (illuminating the canals of Venice in blue, for example), releasing a visual dictionary collectors book, running an avatar design competition in partnership with a global conservation charity, drip-feeding sizzle trailers six months ahead of release.

When it came out, cinemas went above and beyond to offer event-based, memorable, experiential moments for audiences. Shanghai Film City, for example, organised a four-part screening of Avatar including a pre-screening VFX make-up workshop, the movie itself, a post-film photo and video event wall for cosplayers to pose in front of, followed by a themed party.

But experiential marketing and memorable moments needn’t be the preserve of the big players.

From the exhibitor side, Lillehammer Kino in Norway, again, offers a brilliant example of using the "event cinema" approach and TikTok to sell out shows of "Ticket to Ride", a romantic comedy which, in the advent of streaming, is a film genre that no longer performs  strongly at box office. 

Built around a series of “ladies-night” screenings, Lillehammer Kino used creative networking events, woman-oriented product partnerships, and a targeted, localised social media campaign using a mix of original and distributor content to build anticipation and eventually sell-out three screenings ahead of release.

So we’ve nailed the marketing, but how do we keep people interested in theatres?

All of the above marketing activity won’t drive attendance, if cinema spaces themselves don’t also reinvent themselves. 

Firstly, by opening their programming and taking more risks in what they show, not monopolising nine out of ten screens to show the same blockbuster on repeat.

Secondly, by recognizing that audiences are looking for more than just expensive popcorn and a film. In the same way that retailers adapted to digital-age shoppers seeking more personalised, experience-driven visits to physical stores, the same applies to cinemas and cinema goers.

Boutique cinema groups such as Curzon and Everyman and independents such as Lillehammer Kino, or the Metrograph, NYC, are integral parts of their wider communities. 

By offering high quality food and beverage alongside attractive lounging spaces and community events, boutique cinemas retain audiences, giving them a place to spend quality time, enjoy an evening out with friends, or host casual work meetings over coffee.

Metrograph, for example, reflects its hipster Lower East Side community with curated programming incorporating events such as director Q&As, book signings, retro cartoon screenings and themed retrospectives, it also boasts a cocktail bar, film bookshop and upscale diner.

Some cinemas offer dedicated parent and toddler screenings or autism-friendly relaxed performances, cult-movie costume events or sing-along-nights. We see from the demise of the low-cost multiplex that audiences are willing to pay a bit more to get that higher-quality experience.

So what does the future hold?

By harnessing social media, exploring experience-based marketing and rethinking the cinema space, movie-theatres are proactively generating audience engagement around film releases and building their own fan communities without relying solely on distributor marketing materials. In turn distributors are embracing digital platforms and creator-content to build excitement and awareness for films beyond the traditional trailer and press release strategy.

Will future models of film marketing see distributors and exhibitors working more closely to maximise digital and social technologies and collaborate with fan communities to transform how movies are marketed? In a future where NFTs and web3 give full power and ownership to creators, audiences will potentially be invested in the film-making process right from the start. We’re already seeing this with NFT-based film financing.

With productions like Top Gun taking 12 years to produce, that’s over a decade’s worth of content being generated: ‘making of’s, behind the scenes, cast and crew stories, draft scripts, concept boards, reams of material largely left on cutting room floors - with access to this content controlled by the studio and distributor. 

In a future creator-led, web3-based industry this content, alongside an experiential-marketing mindset and collaborative relationship with audiences could unlock powerful and innovative movie marketing approaches that allow for multiple engagement touchpoints in a film’s lifespan long before release.

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