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Turning a piece of filmed entertainment into a cultural phenomenon is both an art and a science, say marketers. 

But in the 2020s, the science has turbocharged the art. 

Variety spoke to two marketing gurus who promoted such blockbusters: Pia Chaozon Barlow, executive VP of HBO and HBO Max originals marketing, who aims to recapture the magic of “Game of Thrones” with spinoff “House of the Dragon”; and Marc Weinstock, Paramount’s president of global distribution and marketing. Paramount has opened five features at #1 in 2022, culminating with “Top Gun: Maverick,” which has grossed more than $1.4 billion.

Barlow and Weinstock are careful to note that their campaigns start with great content. But with so much content — all different — competing for viewers’ attention, a campaign can help cut through the clutter, elevating a good watch to a must-see. 

Barlow says that begins with taking cues from the fans. “They inform every decision we make as marketers.” 

That has long been where the science came in, but social media and digital tracking have turned a trickle of data to a torrent. 

“Even seven-eight years ago, creating that cultural moment meant a one-to-many type of messaging, spending lots of money to cast a wide net to reach a broad audience,” she says. 

Today though, a campaign balances broad tactics such as TV spots, trailers and outdoor, with targeted messages on digital media, including social and influencers.

The plethora of data makes targeted messages possible. Marketers look beyond demographics to target viewers’ other interests. Weinstock says before “Top Gun: Maverick’s” release, his team knew “if you were a male over 35 or 40, you were like ‘Yep! I’m super excited to see this movie, I cannot wait.’” Other demos, though, were not as enthusiastic. “And so we were like ‘OK, let’s go get those other audiences.’”

That’s where targeted marketing came in. The film has a sailing sequence, so that was pushed out to mariners. Tech enthusiasts were told there were sequences shot with six Imax cameras in a jet. Others got messaging on the diversity of the young cast. “Audiences could say ‘Oh, there’s something here for everyone.’ I think that’s our role, to create a campaign with different access points for different audiences.’

Marketers start with that base, though. For “House of the Dragon” that means “Game of Thrones” fans. 

“When you have brands and franchises like DC, or ‘Game of Thrones,’ the teams are engaging in real time with communities online, offline, to make sure we are listening to what they have to say,” Barlow says. 

Part of creating a true water-cooler event, too, is sweeping up the audience that missed the initial release, whether for a series or a film. “A premiere is really when someone decides to click ‘Play.’ Right?,” says Barlow. “For us, that is constantly important as the season progresses. Even if you missed the first few episodes or the first half of the season, there’s still an opportunity for you to join the conversation, if you will.” 

After all the social-media analytics and data have been weighed, is there still room for a gut feeling, a marketer’s intuition? “One hundred percent,” says Weinstock. “The data can only guide you. You really have to make that decision that ‘It just doesn’t feel right.’ Or ‘This feels like a perfect piece, or timing, or whatever it is, to go out.’ 

I think that comes from years and years and years of doing this and feeling like ‘You know what? This is the way to go.’”