In a business in constant change, independent movie companies can count on only a few constants: Major studios will dominate the nation’s screens and hopelessly outspend them in marketing.
So even though 1992 went down as a breakout year for indie films — with hits such as “The Crying Game,””Howards End” and “The Player” scoring with critics and at the box office — the business of selling indie movies is as hard as ever. Or at least that’s what marketing executives with several major indie film companies say.
But what’s behind recent indie successes? And what are the trends making indie movie marketing so tough? Indie marketing executives continue to use the tried and true techniques of specialized film marketing — avoiding major competition, spending tactically, and, as always, trying to squeeze every last bit out of their marketing dollars. What indie movie marketers lack in financial clout, they can make up for with ingenuity, and, of course, the right film.
But it’s a struggle. Indie marketing budgets are a pittance when compared to those of the majors.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the average marketing cost for the pictures of its member companies in 1992 was $ 11.485 million, a 10 .3% jump from the prior year.
Production costs cranked up 10.4% on the average, to about $ 29 million.
In comparison, indie movie marketing budgets range from $ 300,000 to $ 4 million to $ 5 million. Production budgets for indie films can be as low as $ 7, 000 with the outer limits at $ 8 million to $ 10 million.
“As always indies have to work twice as hard for half the money,”said Bob Berney, senior VP of marketing and distribution at Triton Pictures.
But as the major studios increase marketing budgets, indie P&A spending is on the rise too, according to indie marketing execs. One, Miramax Films, now has a deep-pocketed backer, the Walt Disney Co., which purchased the indie in May.
Miramax senior VP of marketing Gerry Rich insists the company will continue to operate autonomously and distribute and market the same kinds of films it always has. But Disney’s presence is causing some hand-wringing in executive suites of other indie film companies. Will this up the ante in marketing spending within the independent arena?
Whatever happens, marketing execs say that as the competition accelerates, indies will have to demonstrate more creativity if their films are to break through the clutter.
For sure, there are some trends working in favor of indies.
Media spending may be on the rise, but then so are media opportunities, according to Fine Line Features president Ira Deutchman.
The rise of specialized media — cable TV, new targeted magazines and the further fragmentation of radio — means indies can now purchase vehicles specifically aimed at the most likely targets for their pictures.
It eliminates the waste that can come from buying mass-circulation media.
There are population shifts helping indies too. Richard Bornstein, senior VP of worldwide marketing at the Samuel Goldwyn Co., credits last year’s surge of indie hits to the aging population.
Baby boomers hooked on the movie-going habit means greater demand for serious or unusual films.
At the same time, Bornstein believes that the traditional younger movie-going audience is demonstrating a yen for more sophisticated cinematic fare.
Theater chains are responding. Entertainment industry consultant Seth Willenson said indies have to prove themselves more than major studios to get the screens, but once-skeptical exhibs now routinely book specialty films.
Mitch Goldman, president of marketing and distribution at New Line Cinema, noted that in Santa Monica, for example, only four theaters played indie pix for years. Today, there are 20 screens booking such films.
It’s a change that’s come with the expansion of the Promenade Mall, a place where people, typically in their 30s and 40s, stroll, sip cappucino and browse at bookstores. “Our films can now play side by side with ‘Jurassic Park’,” said Goldman.
Goldman believes that the poor economy has helped indies, to a certain extent.
Financially-pressed studios are cranking out more formulaic “safe” pictures in an effortto minimize risks. This has created an opportunity for movies offering a fresh alternative, in Goldman’s opinion. At the same time, moviegoers have become more discriminating before parting with $ 6 to $ 7.50 to see a movie. “People aren’t going to go out to see anything anymore,” said Goldman. “They want to be sure.”
“Like Water for Chocolate” is a good example. Foreign language films typically attract small audiences in the U.S., but distributor Miramax believed it had a gem in Alfonso Arau’s film of passion and culinary skills in revolutionary Mexico.
What “Like Water for Chocolate” didn’t have was well-known stars or much awareness, even though it’s based on Laura Esquivel’s novel of the same title, in its ninth printing in Mexico.
A year before its U.S. bow, the film had been released south of the border to great acclaim. “Like Water for Chocolate” was Mexico’s official entry for the 1992 “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar.
But Mexican notoriety didn’t transcend to U.S. audiences, according to Miramax’s Rich.
Miramax released the film in the U.S. exclusively in New York and Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 1992, a time that’s usually advantageous for specialty films. It’s a period when Christmas films are playing out their runs, but before the big studio movies start dominating screens.
To reach Hispanics, Miramax ran an ad schedule and staged promotions involving ticket and book giveaways with the Spanish-language network Telemundo. To reach sophisticated movie-goers, it ran a schedule of TV ads on Cable News Network.
“Like Water for Chocolate” has endured. At its 159th day of domestic release, it was still generating $ 750,000 a week, with a cumulative box office of $ 13.4 million. It broke the record of “Cinema Paradiso” to become the top-grossing foreign language feature of the past decade.
New Line Cinema opened the gritty urban drama “Menace II Society” on the key Memorial Day weekend, feeling it represented a nice alternative to the rush of summer movies. The indie reached its core target — black teens — with cost-efficient print buys and younger-skewing programming on Black Entertainment Television and MTV.
Theatrical marketing president Chris Pula said New Line opened the under $ 3 million film for less than $ 2 million. In its 33rd day of release, “Menace” had earned a nice $ 18.6 million at the box office.
Tiny October Films doesn’t have the option of even considering spending like a major, so it has to be creative. For the French-language film, “Un Coeur en Hiver,” it held the standard New York and Los Angeles premieres and special screenings, but staged an unusual promotion with classical stations and record stores involving a violin giveaway (the film has a classical music theme).
The aim is to create a special aura about the picture at very little cost, according to October Films principal Jeff Lipsky. All agree that while artful marketing can help a film achieve its full potential at the box office, ultimate success depends upon the quality of the film itself.
The key is maintaining enthusiasm for the search. “You have to have a passion about the business. Otherwise, you might as well be selling toothpaste,” concluded Lipsky.