Fox exec Tom Rothman kicks off Variety's marketing event

Selling a new film to an audience presents challenges, and marketers must embrace those very challenges directly rather than retreat from them, Fox honcho Tom Rothman told the audience Tuesday at the launch of Variety’s marketing summit at the Universal Hilton.

Rothman, co-chair/CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, set the tone for the two-day event by addressing key problems for film marketers — primarily rising costs. One key point: As new marketing avenues are added, like Twitter and Facebook, studios have to be efficient and replace one platform with another, so they aren’t spending increasing amounts.

“The movie business has a challenging financial model. There’s a tendency to lay down more and more marketing dollars,” Rothman said. “At a certain point, you must find replacement spends. You must learn how to reach your target audience more efficiently. Inflation of marketing costs is very harmful to the business, and it makes for middle-of-the-road movies.”

In a half-hour keynote Q&A with Variety group editor Tim Gray, Rothman also pointed out that not long ago, marketing’s role started out with the first rough cut of a film; now it begins at the development stage. “You probably shouldn’t greenlight a movie if you don’t have a marketing campaign for it,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Fox’s Tony Sella, co-prexy and chief creative officer of domestic theatrical marketing. Speaking on the New Creativity panel, which covered how to move from attempting to control marketing campaigns to learning how to influence and make ideas contagious, Sella talked about how savvy filmgoers have become.

“In the world we live in, everybody knows everything,” he said. “They know start dates, schedules — they know what’s going on. So if you don’t know what you are and define yourself, they will define it for you. With the advent of paparazzi and TMZ, if you’re working on an X-Men movie with a huge fanbase, they want to know who’s in it, what they’re going to like. If you don’t proactively design the movie you’re making, a paparazzi will take a shot of a costume, it will hit the Internet, and that’ll be your first impression.”

The marketing timetable has moved from three months ahead of a pic’s opening to a year in advance, Sella explained.

Some films require even longer, explained Terry Curtin, co-president of promo firm Cimarron Entertainment, who talked up the innovative 18-month campaigns of “District 9″ and “Tron”: “The accumulation of the online and offline efforts is astounding. Everything interfaces the rest of the campaign; it’s all consistent in its message.”

Selling originality, whether in the blockbuster or the indie world, can be both a blessing and a dilemma.

Rothman said marketing James Cameron’s “Avatar” presented the biggest challenge of his 25 years in the movie biz, since it was an entirely original story — yet that originality propelled the film to become the most successful film of all time.

But first the studio had to sell it. “There was no pre-awareness in the culture. It was just a word, and no one knew what that word meant,” he recalled. In marketing “Avatar,” the studio had to “step all the way back and educate the audiences on this original world,” Rothman said.

To that end, the studio spread the word with events like screening footage for free on Avatar Day, among a host of other tactics. Conversely, there was no outdoor media, save for one lone billboard at the entrance to the Fox lot, since “Avatar” didn’t have recognizable images.

He noted that Fox Searchlight is adept at marketing more unusual titles, from “Black Swan” — a scary movie set in the world of ballet — to “127 Hours” — an action film where the hero never moves.

Another panel took on the controversial subject of compressed release windows.

Veteran indie exec Marian Koltai-Levine, who runs PMK/BNC’s newly launched film department, said simultaneous theatrical and VOD or DVD releases can be an integral part of a film’s marketing campaign. As an example, she built the DVD marketing campaign for “Bass Ackwards” around its theatrical debut at Sundance.

Koltai-Levine, who spoke on the panel with Landmark Theaters CEO Ted Mundorff and Screen Engine CEO Kevin Goetz, said as windows shrink, distributors are getting more savvy about banking publicity they do for a film’s theatrical release for the DVD release.

Marketing is the most significant challenge for films in a premium VOD window, Goetz contends.”The single biggest issue is how do we cut through the noise?,” he said.

The impact of social media and the Internet were also on panelists’ minds. Curtin said social media is a great way to build community, quickly. “When it works, the upside is enormous. When it doesn’t, you can find yourself digging your way out of a hole.”

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