Low tech movie marketing in a high-tech world

DO YOU FIND it hard to keep up with the latest Wi-Fi lingo? Do your eyes glaze over at the first mention of EVDO cards and data transfer speeds?

Imagine how David Verklin feels. As CEO of media services giant Carat Americas, Verklin is responsible for steering advertisers like Pfizer, Ikea, Adidas and New Line through a media environment that’s constantly offering up flashy new tools for reaching consumers.

Carat will do $5 billion in billings this year. To keep up to speed, Verklin gets briefed on new technologies every 48 hours. Ask him about the future of advertising and he’ll talk about new marketing platforms like electronic billboards embedded with flat-screen technology, or mobile virtual networks like Boost Mobile and Amp’d.

In case you haven’t heard, MVNs are the hottest new trend in cell phone marketing. MVNs lease network capacity from a wireless carrier like Verizon and customize the contents of your cell phone. Think of it as TiVo in the palm of your hand.

Verklin detailed all this techno-exotica in a Wednesday talk at Advertising Week in New York, a citywide marketing jamboree where tens of thousands of advertisers gave keynotes, screened their work, hobnobbed and downed cosmopolitans at industry parties, all while swapping insights on the latest trends in commercial seduction.

Many of those trends have nothing to do with radio jingles, print ads or 30-second TV spots, for years the lingua franca of the ad world. To be sure, TV spots aren’t going away (spending at the four major networks is expected to inch up to $4.8 billion this year, according to Jonathan Davis at Leo Burnett). But the real buzz at ad week was about a micro-segmentated consumer culture that spends more time than ever consuming media, more time in the Wi-Fi world (in other words, using wireless networks) and more time multitasking.

THAT MAY SEEM a nightmarish situation for movie marketers. Most studio marketing dollars, after all, are spent on old-fashioned promotional vehicles like trailers, TV spots, one-sheets and junkets. The continuing fragmentation of movie audiences is often blamed for the industry’s box office woes: wider releases, rising marketing costs and ticket sales that drop sharply after opening weekend.

That’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s not how Arthur Manson sees things. Manson, a producer’s rep who broke into the industry working for Cinerama, is a trusted adviser to such producers as Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin. A quarter-century ago, he ran publicity and marketing at Warner Bros., working with everyone from Clint Eastwood to Stanley Kubrick. Where most movie marketers came out of PR or advertising, Manson knew the film buyers and the exhibition business.

Manson’s flair for showmanship is well remembered. Here’s just one example: For David Cronenberg’s “Scanners” campaign in 1981, he cut a trailer showing an exploding head that was shown in just one theater, Mann’s Chinese. “The audience went nuts,” he remembered.

Over lunch in New York, Manson told me that the cultural trends reshaping the movie market — the audience fragmentation, the Wi-Fi industry, the MVNs and DVRs — should be a marketer’s dream.

The problem with studio marketing, he said, is often a lack of creativity: The campaigns dissipate too quickly, the personal touch is missing, and the ad materials are often interchangeable. The studios rely on the same research companies and vendors, and they end up with cookie-cutter trailers, he said. “Two-thirds of the way through, there’s a montage showing every scene in the film.”

TO TEST MANSON’S theory at Advertising Week, I stopped by an event called Trailer Park, hosted by the Assn. of Independent Editors, a trade group whose members cut about 95% of the commercials airing on network TV. Trailer Park is a competition designed to showcase the work of assistant editors, a scrappy bunch, who spend long hours in darkened edit bays, reducing 30-second spots to 15-second spots. The assignment was to cut a new trailer for a Hollywood movie, but in a different genre.

The results were impressive: “The Sound of Music” became a horror movie (the tagline: “What does terror sound like”?) “Platoon” was recut as a gay love story (Tagline: “The last thing he expected to find in Vietnam…. was love”). “Gigli” was recast as a silent epic, complete with title cards (“A motion picture spectacular featuring the biggest names in cinema”) and a soundtrack straight out of “City Lights.”

I asked one of the editors, Paul La Calandra, who recut “The Parent Trap” as a lesbian romance, what he thought of movie trailers.

“They’re pretty boring,” he told me. “They all use the same voiceover guy. Who is that guy? He must get a lot of work.”

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