Could Movies Ever Be Released the Beyonce Way?

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

Beyonce Itunes Record
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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.