Studio Marketing Chiefs Talk Budgets, Buzz and Social Media Strategies at Variety’s Massive Conference

When it comes to movie marketing, the Holy Grail these days is a trailer racking up big numbers of shares via social media. That was among the insights shared by a panel of top studio marketing execs at Variety‘s Massive conference on Thursday at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

“Sharing is a proxy for a definite recommend,” said Dwight Caines, president of marketing for Sony Pictures Entertainment. “The more of those we can generate, we’re finding a higher correlation to attendance. It’s a very interesting metric we’re exploring.”

Caines and other panelists drilled down on the wild changes in the business of launching movies. The conversation, moderated by Variety co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller, tackled everything from the definition of buzz to the importance of customized branded content to how budgets are sliced up across digital, linear, print and outdoor marketing platforms.

Josh Goldstine, president of worldwide marketing for Universal Pictures, echoed Caines’ sentiment about organic promotional activity on social media by citing Universal’s experience with the 2013 horror pic “The Purge.” Exec noticed that the low-budget pic was racking up a notable number of trailer shares via social media, and lo and behind the movie had a $30 million opening weekend, far exceeding expectations. That was an eye-opening lesson in the fact that it doesn’t always take a huge marketing spend to open a film.

“If money was what it was just all about, we’d have Mitt Romney as president in the last election,” Goldstine joked.

But panelists also had different opinions about whether the growing importance of digital will amount to a net savings overall or if it’s a matter of redeploying dollars in different media.

Blair Rich, exec VP of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures, said that the increased importance of digital is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheaper that traditional advertising.

“People have this misinformed sense that digital’s going to save us all this money,” said Blair Rich, exec VP of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros Pictures. Walt Disney Studios marketing chief Ricky Strauss agreed. “There is no version of owned and earned (media) that can compete with what we get out of paid media,” he said, adding that the more challenging issue is not how much money is plowed into marketing but “how we spend our money.”

Strauss added that four years ago, Disney spent 8% of its marketing budget for the Pixar feature “Brave” on digital buys. For last year’s “Inside Out,” digital accounts for 30%.

Film marketers have the hard job of not only raising awareness but motivating discreet demographics to leave the house, drive to a theater and buy a ticket for their movie. Old and new media all have a role to play in spurring the audience along, according to Jim Gallagher, head of theatrical marketing for DreamWorks Animation.

“Each of the mediums has within it different interesting mechanisms to accomplish each one of those tasks,” he said.

Caines argued that there are new tools in the era of multiplatform marketing that allow studios to “do more with less,” which will go a long way to boosting the overall profitability of studio pictures.

He cited the recent PR stunt of inviting die-hard “Ghostbusters” fans to the Sony lot in Culver City to meet Paul Feig, director of the reboot coming this summer, and Ivan Reitman, helmer of the 1984 original, and to preview the trailer. That generated a ton of coverage just before the trailer was released online, racking up some 28 million views in a day and trended worldwide on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit within an hour.

“We are really seeing the ability to do a lot more with different tools in the media space,” Caines said. “We can spend less money and make (movies) more profitable.”

One of the liveliest points of discussion was about the definition of buzz and what it means. Negative comments about a movie typically grab more attention, but they usually amount for a tiny fraction of the overall views of a hot movie trailer. The marketer’s job is to reach the silent majority in between the super-fans and the noisy haters who are interested enough to watch a trailer.

Goldstine likened it to a bell curve. “You have people on both extremes that tend to be the ones who talk a lot,” he said. “The business of what we are doing is (reaching) the people in the middle who aren’t passionate enough to put their voices out.”

Rich agreed. “Even in the most positive scenarios of social media, for the most part the largest proportion (of response to trailers) is neutral, which means people are actually engaged,” she said.

Panelists also traded a few compliments. Caines noted that after seeing how well Disney animated movies played with Hispanic audiences, the studio was inspired to do more to reach that audience with last year’s “Hotel Transylvania 2.” They struck a brand integration deal with Univision that worked elements of the film into the Spanish-language network’s programming. The percentage of Hispanic moviegoers in the opening weekend for the pic was 38%, up from 27% for the first pic in 2012.

“By creating content specific to an audience, you can really see dividends,” Caines said.

Strauss noted that those kind of initiatives demand money and resources. “We’re not just using traditional vendors to do trailers and TV spots,” he said. “We all now have content teams.”

Strauss earned praise from the panelists for the splash made on Thursday morning by the release of the “Captain America: Civil War” trailer. In a playful exchange, Caines observed that Sony would also accrue some benefits for the blitz that injects Spider-Man into the “Captain America” canon, as Sony still has big plans for future movies featuring the webslinger from Disney’s Marvel unit.

“It’s just a giant trailer for the relaunch of ‘Spider-Man,’ ” Caines joked. “We’re all in it together,” Strauss replied.

(Pictured: Jim Gallagher, Josh Goldstine, Dwight Caines)

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