Marketing precisely tailored for each pic

NEW YORK — After several lean years of recession-fueled cuts and specialty arm closings, indie distribs are back in greater numbers — and with wider releases — than ever.

From FilmDistrict to Relativity Media, new distribs are battling the studios on their own turf with genre pics aimed at mass audiences. Specialty film survivors like Roadside Attractions are raking in surprising box office from overlooked viewers.

While the rebound is good news, competition for a shrinking number of theatrical tickets sold and new mediums competing for the same domestic audience lead to a crucial question: How can indies with limited resources use marketing to break through the increasing clutter they’re helping to create?

FilmDistrict theatrical distribution prexy Bob Berney, Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen and Relativity Media theatrical marketing prexy Terry Curtin consider this issue on the “Indies Make a Comeback” panel Oct. 4 at Variety’s two-day Film Marketing Summit at Universal City’s Hilton Los Angeles.

The three execs have a combined 75 years in the business, but with new media seemingly evolving on a daily basis, experience alone isn’t enough to navigate a challenging new landscape.

The “300”-style epic “Immortals” is a potential franchise for Ryan Kavanaugh’s nascent wide-release distrib Relativity. It’s also the first test for recent hire Curtin, a longtime marketing and PR maven at Revolution, Fox, Disney and Universal.

Curtin approaches film campaigns a bit like a lab scientist conducting experiments with new technology.

“Our ‘Immortals’ deal with MTV and ESPN is part of a huge initiative. TV is still the most effective way to get to an audience, but they’re paying less attention,” Curtin says. She cites a 2010 Nielsen/Yahoo! study that says 75% of TV viewers are media multitasking while watching TV, a number that grows even higher in the prized 18-34 male demographic.

She aims to entice viewers to act after a TV spot by using their mobile device or computer with exclusive contests and other incentives “that feel urgent enough for them to do it, for an expanded experience,” she says. “When you drive MTV viewers onto MTV.com, you’re burrowing deep into (MTV’s) consumer loyalty and talking to their social media base.”

Curtain stresses the importance of what she calls “owning that second device when you’re watching television. No piece of advertising should just land alone — it’s a chance for us to bring an audience online. In the MTV and ESPN deal, I’m (using) some of that precious real estate to direct the audience to that second screen.”

It may sound more like social engineering than social networking, but at its core, Curtin just wants to create the kind of “network” of partnerships the majors and their corporate siblings take for granted.

“We’re in a really competitive landscape with fewer resources (than the majors), and (don’t have) a film with existing stars or (one that’s) based on an existing property,” she explains. Some of her partnerships cut across multiple films, including a Clear Channel deal promoting Relativity fare via on-air talent, concerts and other events, and a Virgin Produced deal that brings the company’s promos into GameStop and Best Buy stores. (Virgin is also co-producing what may be the biggest branded entertainment feature to date — next April’s all-star comedy shorts compilation, the untitled Peter Farrelly/Charles Wessler laffer.)

Partnering on select projects with Sony, FilmDistrict’s wide-release mandate makes this startup the biggest challenge Picturehouse and Newmarket vet Berney has ever faced.

“Studio releases may have to have a $20 million opening weekend to survive based on their budget,” Berney says. “It’s very different for an independent distributor, though P&A and marketing expenses are about the same.”

While word of mouth has fueled long theatrical runs for Berney’s films, his first weekend grosses have never been more crucial.

“It’s a crowded marketplace now, which does set the bar pretty high for the marketing money it takes to do a wide release that’s competitive, (especially that it’s) oftentimes it’s an acquisition of a lower-budget film.”

FilmDistrict couldn’t have gotten off to a better start after nabbing its first release, the PG-13 horror film “Insidious,” in Toronto last year. Opening to $13.2 million in April, the $1 million film grossed $54 million plus hefty ancillary, more than justifying the $20 million marketing budget.

Film District’s latest, ‘Drive,” has taken in some $23 million in two weeks, but Berney is counting on the film’s word of mouth potential to shift it into a higher gear. “The people that really like it become almost superfans — they tell everyone. The people who feel it’s too weird, strange or violent tend to just go on to the next movie and don’t talk about it much.”

The key to a successful campaign for Berney and wife and marketing partner Jeanne Berney hasn’t changed since their IFC days. “From smaller to larger films, the real strategy is to work with the filmmakers on the marketing — to really understand what they were trying to do and help them reach the audience they intended,” he says.

Meanwhile, Roadside Attractions co-prexy Cohen survived the indies’ economic slump in part by selling a stake of his outfit (co-run by Eric d’Arbeloff) to Lionsgate in 2007. Aside from conventional acquisitions, he scored his biggest success to date with a business model that had worked well for Berney: the service deal.

The American Film Co. hired Roadside to distribute helmer Robert Redford’s Lincoln assassination drama “The Conspirator,” putting up all the release costs and paying the distrib a fee. (Lionsgate joined in on the deal, mainly to help boost foreign sales). The film premiered in Toronto last year to mixed reviews and few big bidders.

As with their hit 2010 Sundance pickup “Winter’s Bone,” Roadside discovered they could get some of their biggest grosses in middle America, which specialty distribs either ignore or treat as an afterthought. “We and American Film Co. did a huge amount of grassroots work, going after the history buffs and specifically Lincoln assassination fanatics, as well as the older audience throughout the middle of the country,” Cohen explains. “And we got Robert Redford to do PR within an inch of his life — every possible magazine, TV show, print and online source in the world.”

Landing Redford on the cover of the AARP magazine two months before the film’s April release got the ball rolling, leading to a premiere at Washington, D.C.’s, Ford’s Theater attended by such government bigwigs as Supreme Courth Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Defense Sec. Robert Gates. The unusual rollout and campaign brought in $11.5 million at the box office, more than covering Roadside’s reported P&A costs.

All three execs see the value of tailoring campaigns and methods for each film, whether using social media, targeted TV spots or promotional partners.

Curtin’s bag of psychological tricks to cut through the media bombarding her target audience may know no bounds. “Recall is so important — we say the name of the film is ‘Immortals 11 11 11′ ” to remind people of the release date.

“(I’m) not proud — I’ll try anything. I’m willing start a television spot with, ‘Hey, I’m a television spot! Watch me!’ the next time we release a comedy.”

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