Specialty divisions to rely more on word-of-mouth

With the specialty film biz at risk of not being so special anymore due in part to spiraling advertising costs, there’s movement afoot to reduce P&A spending.

As the field of awards-aspiring pics has grown in recent years, and ad buying in the fragmented TV market has become less and less efficient, one high-level awards-season marketing operative says he expects to see “belt-tightening” this year at studios’ specialty arms including Fox Searchlight and Focus Features. Division mavens, he says, will rely more on word of mouth publicity, viral ad campaigns and narrower release skeds.

He adds that specialty divisions will increasingly seek to cast the kind of talent that’s frequently showcased in the celebrity tabloid world in order to increase the free publicity cache of their pics.

“They’re probably going to have to rely more on free advertising,” the marketer says.

Last year, advertising on specialty releases from the six major studios was up 44% to an average of $25.7 million, according to figures released by the Motion Picture Assn. of America in March.

By contrast, the MPAA says studio film marketing costs increased 4% last year to $35.9 million.

Like the rest of the film biz, specialty pics are facing modest increases in ad spending due to a fractured TV market and additional spending online. Increased competish factors in, too.

While the MPAA reports $25.7 million as an average, one specialty division’s marketing budget maven says there’s now a general feeling in the arthouse biz that to break through the clutter, a unit must spend a minimum of $10 million-$15 million on P&A.

According to a previous Variety report, the best picture-winning “No Country for Old Men” had a P&A budget of $15 million while embarking on a slow-release strategy to build its Academy Awards buzz.

Just a few years ago, $15 million might have described the total combined budget of the typical awards contender. However, production costs alone for specialty-division best pic contenders including “No Country,” “Atonement” and “There Will Be Blood” far exceeded that total.

According to the MPAA, average specialty pic production costs spiked 60% last year to $49.2 million, raising total costs to $74.9 million.

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