As p&a costs swell, no expense spared in creating ripple effect of awareness

It may just be a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. Or it may be part of a strategy so Byzantine even the people who designed it don’t really know how it works. Then again, it may just be business as usual.

See if you can extract a line of logic from this Hollywood nugget: In March, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti says the cost of marketing big-studio films has declined for the first time in 20 years – down an average of $780,000 per film in 1999 to a tab of $24.5 million for prints and advertising. The source of that conclusion? Figures supplied by seven major studios that are members of the MPAA.

Yet if you ask studio distrib or marketing execs their assessment of Valenti’s analysis two months later, they either won’t comment, will comment (but only off the record) or just plain disagree.

“I don’t get the impression that (marketing) costs are declining at all,” says one distrib topper. “This summer in particular is going to be very expensive.

Adds Bob Levin, prexy of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures Entertainment: “My sense is that (the decline) is more of a statistical aberration than anything else.”

In many ways, the market conditions for peddling a film in 2000 – whether with big stars or not – are particularly lethal. Despite the ballyhoo about Internet marketing possibilities, the majority of consumers still get most of their film info from TV spots, which get more expensive by the month to buy. To make matters worse, this summer will feature at least eight weekends with major studio pics going mano a mano.

“We don’t have enough leverage to affect pricing,” says Levin. “It’s a very uneconomic situation.”

Last year’s upfront market – where national advertisers make bulk spot buys for the balance of the year – was hot. In some cases, the cost-per-1,000 viewers went up 15% over 1998. This year, the nets were talking 20% increases over 1999. “The only thing we can try to do is be more tactical in our approach,” Levin says.

NBC’s Must See TV, for example, is not the must-buy-at-any-cost proposition it once was. Instead of blowing a half-million on 30 seconds during “Friends,” Levin and his colleagues are more likely to spread that dough over three lesser-rated shows with some strong niche demographics.

Even so, if the competition is yelling loudly about its big summer action pic, more often than not studios have to damn the torpedoes and spend the big bucks on pricey shows such as “ER” to avoid getting drowned. “You have to respond if the competition is putting all their chips on the table,” Levin notes.

For the foreseeable future, there is no plan B for movie-marketing mavens. While the $140 million success of last year’s “The Blair Witch Project” was largely attributed to a canny Internet push, even companies focusing on Web campaigns say it’s important not to overestimate the power of cybermarketing.

Magic of Internet

“There’s a bit of a magic-bullet attitude out there about the Internet right now,” says Marc Schiller, CEO of ElectricArtists, an Internet marketing company. “But it’s not a panacea. People need to realize it’s not a cheap way to replace TV ads.”

Managed the right way and with realistic expectations however, Web efforts can pay some dividends. Among other things, ElectricArtists has very successfully used online street teams to boost record and merchandise sales for Christine Aguilera, Lenny Kravitz and Steely Dan. The company is also part of the marketing team for the summer release “The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps” from Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures.

n the past, rap and hip-hop record companies and clothiers have used off-line street teams to bring the latest sounds and gear to young consumers in schools to bypass traditional marketing techniques. Schiller says as long as entertainment execs accept the fact that the online world is a place you can’t control the message, they’ll be on their way to realizing the incremental benefits of Web-based marketing.

“We tell clients, ‘Let the ‘Net audience say what they want to say,'” he says. “What you get back from them can be your biggest asset.

Street-team members are not paid, nor are they given scripts or suggestions about how to interest their friends in any given film, TV show or record. “It won’t work,” Schiller continues. “That sort of strategy will come back and bite you on the ass.”

Promotion without planning

With the Balkanization of entertainment consumers continuing apace, it’s no wonder the element of panic always lurking in the background for film and TV execs seems to be creeping forward. And that’s leading, not too surprisingly, to some poor decision-making.

“There’s a lot of wanton image promotion both in TV and film without much planning,” says Brent Magid, of Frank N. Magid Associates, a media research company with offices in London, New York and Los Angeles.

There are a dearth of people who understand how to build awareness of brands in general, Magid says, whether it’s a one-off such as a big summer film, a new TV series or a startup network. Part of the answer is to get back to basics: Who’s your target and do they really want what you’ve got?

“It’s not just about cool graphics or noisy promos. It’s about fundamentals,” Magid continues. “If you’ve got an exceptional property and you stay focused you’ll break though the clutter.”

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