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How do marketers switch from selling tasty tentpoles to fiber-rich fall films?

Season call for mavens to make abrupt changes

For movie marketers, fall is the most transitional of seasons.

Consumed in summertime by “quadrants,” focus groups and quick-hitting promotional bombardment in service of wide openings of light and tasty fare, their mindsets change abruptly in September, when a movie studio’s fancy typically turns to the kind of heavyweight pictures that win Golden Globes.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about what type of film gets launched when — released June 30, for example, Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada” earned more than $288 million worldwide in the heart of the summer blockbuster season and is now in the middle of a serious awards push.

Interestingly, however, despite its contender clout, Fox chose a marketing campaign for “Prada” that was typical for the summer release period. “We went with a broad sell,” says Fox marketing co-prexy Pamela Levine. “We absolutely sold this as a fun movie about the boss from hell.”

Indeed, with somewhere around 70% of movies that end up nominated for major trophies released after August, there is at least some consensus that moviegoers expect “fun” in the summer and “good for you” in the fall.

“I don’t like to generalize, but audiences do tend to gravitate to more broadly entertaining films in the summer,” Levine says, “and making a movie commercially successful in the middle of a busy summer requires a very different marketing approach than a small movie that needs to be handled with special care expressly for awards season.”

Particularly for those at smaller outfits like New Line that don’t have specialty releasing divisions to handle awards pics — a la Fox Searchlight or Focus Features — this dynamic requires transitioning rather quickly from one very different strategic mindset to the other.

In many ways, it’s the difference between selling candy and spinach.

Not surprisingly, New Line marketing topper Russell Schwartz — who is among those who has to make this transition every year, launching everything from summer comedies like “Wedding Crashers” to serious awards contenders like “Little Children” — says the candy is easier to push.

Muscle up

“Wedding Crashers,” for example, came ready-made with name-brand comedy stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, plus a universally identifiable concept — nuptials — that made it easier for Schwartz and his team to broaden the film’s appeal beyond its core young-male demographic.

“In the blockbuster season, you’ve got big movies with very big advertising budgets sort of pounding away week in and week out,” says Miramax Films prexy Daniel Battsek, who is currently overseeing “The Queen,” among several other contenders. “Often, it’s maybe just a matter of a little more advertising muscle to break through.”

While summer tentpoles often thrive on sheer ad dollar volumes, and can transcend critical drubbings and bad word of mouth with quick-hitting success, more narrowly targeted dramas like “Little Children” — a complex film about infidelity and fear in the suburbs — require more nuanced promotional strategies, Schwartz says.

“The hooks aren’t as obvious. A lot of these awards movies are very personally themed to the director’s vision, and realizing that vision in our marketing is not something we can accomplish in spot testing in a shopping mall,” he explains.

Attempting to please not only the consumer but the awards voter as well, release strategies for contenders are typically based on slow-burning limited-screen roll-outs, and are heavily reliant on critical acceptance and word-of-mouth. Here, the shock-and-awe bombardment of TV advertising dollars gives way to arduous screening schedules and granularly focused publicity.

Marketers are in for a long haul.

“I don’t find one type of campaign necessarily easier than the other,” Battsek says. “But with (the summer releases), you hit or you miss, and it’s over. But you take a film like ‘The Queen’; that release started Sept. 30 (at the New York Film Festival), and we hope it won’t end until next March (at the Academy Awards). That’s a very long period to maintain a film onscreen.”

With dozens of weighty dramas fighting for audience share simultaneously, competition is thick, too.

“With awards movies, you’re working with different budgets, different concepts — a narrower audience base which is being sliced up by similarly targeted movies,” Schwartz says. “Whereas in the summer, it’s also very competitive, but you’re at least dealing with a much bigger moviegoing audience. You’re on so many screens and you can take your (box office) so much quicker.”

Moving targets

Of course, studios always have the option of launching substantive, awards-worthy pics earlier in the year. “Audiences crave variety,” Fox’s Levine notes. “And one of the big reasons why ‘Prada’ was successful is that it was counter-programming.”

While that strategy worked spectacularly for “Prada,” Battsek isn’t so sure that the summer months are right for many of the heartier, less tasty — say “spinachy” — films that Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. voters will vet for awards consideration this year.

“By its very nature, the summer audience is more transient with vacations, and it’s harder when you have a specialized film to concentrate your specific audience on your movie. It’s more difficult because the audience is less settled,” Battsek says.

Meanwhile, the awards season becomes even more elongated: “You have to sort of relaunch the film to take advantage of those (consideration) opportunities when they come along,” he adds.

So, with strategies changing so radically from August to September every year, do film marketers experience serious head-spinning? Not really.

“We never get bored,” Schwartz says. “It just keeps the marketing department from falling asleep.”