No matter the studio, there’s nary a theatrical movie poster or TV spot today that doesn’t feature the phrase “only in theaters” as prominently as the film’s title.
It’s not a coincidence. It’s a form of damage control.
Hollywood’s unified marketing push comes after a two-year period in which movie distribution patterns were ceaselessly changing and nearly every major movie was released in a different way. In the time since cinemas have started to rebound, studios have veered back to the one-size-fits-most approach for bringing movies to the masses. However, industry experts believe COVID-era effects are still reverberating.
“Because of those hybrid strategies, the lines have been blurred,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “It’s created consumer confusion that’s going to have to be dealt with over time.”
In that period of mass experimentation, traditional studios were able to test strategies that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic, which is why Marvel’s “Black Widow” debuted simultaneously in cinemas and on Disney+, “The Matrix Resurrections,” “Dune” and the rest of Warner Bros.’ slate also premiered on HBO Max, and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” moved to Paramount+ after only 45 days. Those changes may have pumped a few extra millions from rentals and subscriptions in the pockets of studios at a dire time, but they’ve also provided the industry with a renewed appreciation for the money — and cultural awareness — that can be generated at the movies.
Now, as concerns about catching COVID-19 at the multiplex seem to have subsided and experimental release patterns have abated, marketing executives are working to undo that confusion to help the average moviegoer keep track of where they can watch the newest blockbusters. In practice, that means only having the release date on posters will no longer suffice.
“To get people to recognize the distinction, we have to be insistent,” says Josh Goldstine, president of marketing at Warner Bros.
With the delineation already murky between streaming (thanks, Netflix!) and theatrical releases, traditional studios are working in overdrive to reeducate audiences that no, “Elvis” is not available to watch at home on HBO Max. And no, paying an additional fee will not allow Disney+ subscribers to stream Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder.”
“We use every piece of paid or earned media as an avenue for in-theater messaging,” says Danielle Misher, Sony’s co-chief of global theatrical marketing. It’s not just billboards and trailers touting that information; cast members from “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Where the Crawdads Sing” and other recent releases have made a point to hype the theatrical experience on morning shows and late-night appearances. It also appears on backdrops at red carpet events. “We consistently repeat it so it’s clear,” Misher says.
The marketing push is starting to pay off. According to new info from industry researcher Guts + Data, the concept of theatrical windows — the industry’s term for the period a new movie plays only in theaters — is much clearer to consumers. Of the 600 active moviegoers who were polled, about half were able to distinguish where new releases will first be available to watch. The hope, among the executives tasked with selling the public on the movie, is that increased awareness drives monster opening weekend ticket sales.
One week prior to the release of “Thor: Love and Thunder,” 52% of those surveyed knew the Marvel adventure would be playing exclusively in theaters. But there’s still work to be done. Case in point: 38% incorrectly believed the fourth “Thor” installment would have a hybrid release on Disney+, while 10% wrongly thought the movie would only be streaming.
For Universal and Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” which opened over the July 4 holiday weekend, 48% correctly knew the animated comedy was first available exclusively in theaters, while 40% incorrectly believed the movie would have a simultaneous theatrical and digital debut and 12% thought it would be streaming only.
Part of the problem is that lines between digital and theatrical began to blur prior to the pandemic as contemporary players like Amazon introduced shorter theatrical windows (compared with the traditional 75- to 90-day frame) and Netflix movies with big stars mostly skipped the big screen. As a result, when consumers watch an ad on TikTok or walk by a movie poster on the subway, they can’t assume the film is playing in theaters.
And there’s evidence to back up the idea that the average consumer can’t tell the difference between a movie from old-school players like Paramount and Sony versus newcomers like Apple or Netflix. Some 38% of consumers polled by Guts + Data thought Ryan Gosling’s action-thriller “The Gray Man” would be first available on the big screen even though Netflix movies rarely have robust theatrical rollouts. Though the film will have a limited theatrical release on July 15 prior to landing on Netflix a week later, “The Gray Man” will not be playing in most of the nation’s cinemas.
All the more reason for these campaigns, studio execs say. “There’s so much content being marketed on a daily basis,” says Marc Weinstock, Paramount’s president of worldwide marketing and distribution. “It helps consumers, whether it’s subliminal or overt, know it’s a theatrical movie.”