Could Movies Ever Be Released the Beyonce Way?

Beyonce Itunes Record
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Cost-conscious studios may find inspiration in a music-industry innovation

Beyonce did it. Is it now time for Hollywood’s stars to step up and prove the value of their own bold-faced brands?

By surprising fans — and the industry — with a massively successful album release that had no advanced promotion or pre-buzz backing it, Beyonce has shaken up the music biz in a single weekend. Now that the album shattered records on iTunes with 828,773 copies sold in three days, it’s a given that other artists will now seriously consider their own options without the expense of a lavish marketing campaign, allowing social media to do much of the heavy lifting.

But studios — and actors that consider themselves multi-hyphenates — should also take notes and consider whether the sneak-attack release strategy could ever work for them.

The question is whether, in a matter of days, websites and social media could send as many fans flocking to theaters as a traditional marketing campaign that typically lasts months, if not years.

Hollywood’s majors have long complained that marketing costs are getting higher with each new release — averaging around $150 million for a summer tentpole.

Those costs could be curbed by surprising audiences with a film. Consider if Ben Stiller suddenly announced on a Thursday via Twitter and Facebook that “Zoolander 2” would be released in theaters at midnight. Or J.J. Abrams pairing up with Will Smith to unleash a new film that was secretly shot without a single image leaked to a blog.

Naturally, keeping every one of the many people involved in making a movie quiet during its months of production would be a herculean task. But that’s why non-disclosure agreements were invented. It’s not impossible — while it wasn’t a mass market title, indie auteur Noah Baumbach kept shooting on “Frances Ha” extremely quiet, so its appearance at Telluride seemed fresh and surprising. And Joss Whedon shot “Much Ado About Nothing” over a short period at his house, surprising many people when it was announced.

It may sound far-fetched today, but could it eventually happen? That would mean turning decades of marketing tradition on its head overnight — no easy feat for a risk-averse industry.

Think of the ambush release as the polar opposite of what Paramount is doing with “Anchorman 2.” Instead of sending Will Ferrell in character to appear on countless newscasts, awards shows and unleashing a blitz of Dodge ads (make that 70 of them), the actor could have simply tweeted that Ron Burgundy is back in theaters starting tomorrow. A frenzy ensues.

Instead, people may have seen Ferrell do his retro-broadcaster shtick for so many months by now that they don’t feel compelled enough to actually see the film.

But the primary obstacles to major releases from doing something like this is exhibitors. Studios don’t want to anger theater chains by distributing “Jurassic World” straight-to-VOD first. Even the thought of releasing films on homevideo earlier than the usual 90 days has ruffled many feathers. There’s too much money at stake to risk losing any screens.

Beyonce is now paying this price by annoying Target enough to the point where the retailer won’t sell her new album because digital-first releases affect demand for discs, the company indicated Monday.

The sneak-attack release could especially prove a lucrative option as studios focus more on producing big- or low-budget films. Those budgeted in the middle could find that quick releases could give filmmakers another option to connect with fans and their wallets and reap more profits from their pics without much marketing demand.

But this kind of sneak attack could also prove a worthy strategy to consider when it comes to digital releases. A major name could bypass theaters and go straight to VOD by enabling rental of a film for $30 or more before selling the film on disc or as a digital copy. With families gathering for the holidays, this could have been an opportune testing time for a forward-thinking celeb.

This kind of strategy might only work, however, if the film that’s released has enough built-in brand awareness. Think the next “Paranormal Activity,” not “12 Years a Slave.”

Again, exhibitors don’t have to be upset. They can be in on the action and be ready for moviegoers when the surprise release is made. They can be in on the act, just as iTunes and Beyonce’s record label was.

While there are few people who could actually pull this off effectively — J.J. Abrams is one prolific producer with an entrepreneurial itch to scratch every one in awhile — you can be sure someone in the industry is calculating whether they can make this work.

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  1. Mark Brack says:

    Why did VOD come up in this article? Can we not make a distinction between movies made for the home screen and those made for theatres? In other words I view VOD as an inferior product and so far that has been born out when I have taken the time to see something from Mark Cuban’s various film entities that are released day and date with their theatrical release date.

    The crux of the matter is the studios are not longer connected to the theatres and the powers that be at the studios ALL come from TV. They have not a clue as to what makes movie going special and it still is and can continue to be. Ah those damn Paramount Consent Decrees – that divorced the studios from the theatre chains – IT NEEDS TO BE REVESED! Studios need to own theatres and films that are MADE FOR THEATRES need to be shown in theatres and social media networking WOULD work wonders if the theatres were owned by the film makers. It is time for a paradigm shift back to studio ownership of theatres here in the US and then there will never be a question of how long to keep a slow earner on a screen or ship it hot to video – it would stay in the theatre much longer and people would be TRAINED to realize that if they wanna see a MOVIE – then they have to get off their fanny and go fork over the $’s to see it IN A THEATRE. Isn’t that what should be strived for – to make movies special again? Using social media to cut that damn advertisin budget down to size…………..too. Movie going IS a HABIT – Hollywood you have forgotten how to do that – get butts in seats that is – easily without all that TV ad rate BS – that just does not work ANYMORE!

  2. Isaac Knox says:

    I think there is something here but it would only work in very small, inspired doses.

    I could be wrong but I stay pretty connected with new movie trailers, news, etc and I remember not seeing anything about “The Hangover” until about 2 weeks before it was released. But the buzz was that is was fantastic, it made tons of money, & it became a franchise (for better or worse). So I could see a GOOD film with a major actor/director combo maybe announce to critics that there will be a surprise Wednesday premiere for reviews & a wide release that Friday.

    The one main issue it creates is scheduling with actual theaters for space & time slots. Many have those set over a week in advance.

  3. Ryan Sexton says:

    I hope someone takes note and does this, I have never seen a movie blind except once. It was “wild things” and I never even heard of it till some friends took me opening night. I was in utter shock the entire time at what I was seeing. After I watched it I saw advertising for it and was upset at how much was given away. By the time you finally see movie, you’ve seen the trailer so much you aren’t intrigued.. You are fatigued. You’ve heard the first single from so much that when an album drop, you hate the song. It’s no wonder people are so jaded when walking out of a show. Or talk and text during cause they’re bored. We are wanting more than we’ve already witnessed and aren’t getting it. If I went to the movies and the billboards just read the genre but nothing more… Now that would be truly interesting experience.

  4. me says:

    It only worked because Beyonce is already incredibly famous/this has never happened before. If this kept happening, with music or movies, it’d get old and people would stop caring.

  5. EK says:

    What naive garbage. A solo music artist with a gigantic following has little to do with how movies are released.

  6. Love that Beyonce has a solid team to depend on because not a word got out about the release, meaning that her house is in order. Secondly, she is a progressive thinker, stepping away from the Hollywood status quo, and following the pack, rather than stepping out in her own way.
    Now this is worth reporting to the news. Her campaign would still rely heavily on online engines to stamp her brand all over the net, and being an established artist doesn’t hurt, either.

  7. K. D. says:

    p.s. Folks are also lauding the lack of a marketing campaign and lavish costs, but forgetting, what’s the cost in producing 17 music videos for God’s sakes? Only a few CPAs know, but it wouldn’t surprise if it comes close to a normal campaign.

  8. The studio system is also addicted to test audiences and pre-theatrical estimates to determine how aggressively and how wide to release a film. Surprise release would have to rely on instinct and intuition–something Hollywood isn’t up for and lacks the personnel to do.

  9. K. D. says:

    C’mon, Marc, it’s kind of comparing apples to canned pork & beans. A possible lead is buried, in the third to last paragraph. “If the film that’s released has enough brand awareness.” Hello! With a Beyonce album, you know what you’re getting. With Beyonce in say, “Sparkle,” you really don’t know at all, until you see the whole thing. And downloading a disc is ions easier than getting in a car and driving – in freezing winter for 1/3 of the country – to a theater to buy the product.
    Again, what’s the studios’ primary mantra these days? Averting risk!

  10. It would never work, it’s not even possible. WAY too many people involved in the production, it WOULD slip prior to release. Even so, even if it was a Video on Demand service release, it would cost too much money to risk, it takes FAR less money to produce a CD than a movie that would be big enough for any real buzz upon it’s release.

    Dozens of movies are released quietly on Itunes and various other forms of media weekly with no buzz because there is no reason to talk about them. In order to get that buzz, the movie would have to be a BIG movie with Big names attached, not only would that cost too much to keep quiet, but in the time filming took those names would constantly be getting calls for other movies and having to turn them down with no explanation or anything would raise eyebrows.

    With the Album, Beyonce could go into a studio, essentially alone, and no one would think twice, she was under contract to one label so no others were requesting her services the way it is with actors, she could then privately make deals with her featured artists to do the same. No questions asked pretty minimal exposure and time. It’s the opposite with movies.

  11. Dee Thompson says:

    How many real jobs for working people trying to make a livig will this take away from? Sounds like the artist is trying to streamline their dollars and eliminate the middleman. They must always remember the middleman employs alot of people and a move like this can hurt alot of people on their food chain. They also must remember those people are fans also and need the income to keep buying their favorite artist music for them, their family and friends. They won’t be able to do this if they don’t have a job.—–Dee Thompson, actor/author of the book “How I Went To The Oscars Without A Ticket”—-true story. Amazon.com/deethompsonauthor

  12. Genius idea… few will even attempt. But those who do might obliterate the old models in one mighty stroke. The challenge though not being the ‘surprise’ element—but the cost/risk element as putting out a record vs. a movie a very very very big difference in the chequebook risk factor.

  13. Ivan says:

    In the media world of major egos, few would want risk throwing a party with no one showing up. Beyonce could, as she has spent years building her brand. If this idea had flopped, what would she care? She would have just called it an art project and moved on. Now someone like a Kelly Clarkson? It’s highly doubtful an artist this this lower level would have the same result.

    • Michael Anthony says:

      Beyonce only got lucky. She’s released several singles in the last 2 years that got no airplay or chart action. This could have easily bombed. And yes, she did sell just over 800k. Good numbers, but she’s angered alot of people. From retailers to those who don’t have the money for download devices. Some can only afford a single or two.
      Frankly, I won’t buy the album. I don’t like being forced to buy an entire CD and I certainly don’t like being forced to buy it from a certain retailer. Imagine how much she could have sold had she opened the door to all.
      We’ll see how radio does in the weeks ahead. After all, she’s close to “aging” out of her target audience.

      • Smooth says:

        I bet you don’t get invited to many parties. You wasn’t going to buy a Beyonce CD any way, you’re obviously jealous and a hater.

      • dulce says:

        @michael- how did she ‘only get lucky’ if, as you claimed, in the past 2 years she had no ‘airplay or chart action’ this alone would’ve made consumers less likely to purchase her album. it’s clear that people understand the quality of work that beyonce provides which is why many people decided to purchase in the first place and through positive word of mouth it began to spread hence her being able to sell over 800k on digital sales alone. im pretty sure if the album sucked people would’ve said so and her album wouldn’t have flourished. and no one can ‘force’ you to buy anything, if you don’t like the route she decided to take then so be it there are thousands of other people that do. you also have the option of purchasing it when it becomes available in stores. the point of her releasing that way is because, as she has explained herself, people now a days focus too much on singles and not enough on whole bodies of work and I agree. she opened that door with her last album, selling it online and in stores to every retailer and guess what? she sold less than she did with this album and other artist that went that route sold less than this album as well, so that’s false! and by doing this she avoided her album being leaked, it’s not like the album will remain online for purchase only, she’ll be distributing it in stores later this week also so that voids another one of your statements. finally, her target audience grows with her. do you think her target audience consists of teenage, high school girls? because it doesn’t. she’s be in the industry 17+ yrs and is still able to find success, even moreso than her younger counterparts. and as far as radio, so far the singles she has chosen are doing pretty well, so yes we will indeed see.

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