Publicists Guild Awards: Film Promoters Adjust to Cultural Changes as Large Campaigns Go Global

Movie PR efforts have turned into vast strategic operations incorporating world travel and social media onslaughts

Film Publicity Campaigns Adjust to Cultural
Courtesy of Disney/20th Century Fox/Warner Bros

With all their moving parts and logistical challenges, publicity campaigns for major motion pictures have been likened to military operations.

With a film like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which is sweeping in its reach and deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of millions of fans, a PR campaign can by highly complex and take on enormous proportions.

Says Michelle Sewell, senior VP of global publicity at Walt Disney Studios: “It’s a giant strategic puzzle and that’s what’s exciting.” The plan for the film’s day-and-date worldwide release — it opened slightly earlier in the U.K. — involved simultaneous deployments of groups of stars in three key regions where those actors had influence, good branding or personal history. Then all the forces — er, talent — reconvened in L.A. and London for premieres two days apart ahead of the Dec. 18 theatrical debut.

Disney is relatively unique in that it does not have separate international and domestic publicity teams. “We’re fortunate to have a globally minded studio where we can maximize (press) access to our talent with the time we have in the most creative and practical way we can,” Sewell says.

The key word here is global. These days, the bigger a Hollywood film is in budget, reach and spectacle, the more it must rely on foreign box office to recoup its investment and turn a profit. In addition, to combat piracy (among other reasons), day-and-date releases are getting more common for big-budget tentpoles. That means publicity and marketing departments are squeezed to sell a single product to a myriad of cultures simultaneously, which requires knowledge of every region of the world and the ability to respond to unique cultural signifiers.

Knowing, for example, that emotion plays better in Japan while action elements travel better across the rest of Asia is Publicity 101 these days. But content often has to be interpreted. Mark Markline, SVP international publicity at Universal Pictures, notes that for the frat-comedy “Neighbors,” the studio produced a featurette explaining the U.S. fraternity system. “You can’t make assumptions that other cultures consume entertainment in the same way that Americans do,” he says. “That would be foolhardy.”

Subtle differences are key. Markline notes that “50 Shades of Grey” sold better with romantic angles in the U.S., but emphasis on its frank sexuality fit better in Europe; in Latin America it was positioned as a date-night movie.

Meanwhile, publicity departments are working hard to know what types of media outlets resonate in different regions: European markets still rely on print; Asia is heavily digital. Knowledge of how social media works in countries like China is invaluable.

“(Digital) has made marketing of movies more market-specific and more market-effective,” says agency publicist Henri Bollinger. “You can get materials anywhere in a flash. Local publicists can take basic materials and translate them in a way that’s most effective.”

Film festivals are on the rise as nexuses for global publicity. “The power of festivals to get the message out to journalists has mushroomed and can build the profile of a movie,” says Bonnie Voland, head of worldwide marketing and publicity for IM Global Film.

Locations like Berlin and Cannes have become hubs for junket kickoffs for that reason, says Visio Entertainment CEO Dennis Rice. “One of the most effective strategies is to get your talent to do a press tour in local markets,” he says. “(Film festivals) bring all the press to one location and it’s more affordable than a press tour and easier on your talent.”

In the end, says Judith Baugin, head of international marketing at Content Media, “Every film forces everyone to think outside the box to get the angle and the actual audience they’re going for to respond to a film they’re about to release.”

And those subtle cultural gradations in campaigns may not be as important as they once were, says Voland. “There’s Starbucks everywhere; cultural differences are not the barriers they used to be. You’re less likely to see someone from Japan who will be insulted if you don’t put out your business card with two hands.”