No matter how good a motion picture is, its success rises and falls on the shoulders of how well it is publicized. If you don’t believe that, Fandango and countless other theaters would like to have a word with you concerning the release of the final Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer Monday evening. The demand for opening night tickets was so heavy that many websites simply crashed. Two months before the film drops, thousands of shows have sold out.
When a film is given the go-ahead by a movie studio, a series of events swing into motion regarding getting the word out. Press releases are written about the film and the actors in the leading roles, while filming sometimes provides an opportunity for media organizations to have on-set visits. Trailers are released and advertising begins on TV, radio, print, and social media. The cast members are interviewed. Screenings are then offered for the media (and sometimes the general public), who generate reviews of the film. There are world and local premieres of the film (complete with red carpets) Websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic compile the media reviews and assign a score to the film. Then, on opening day, moviegoers pay to see the film and formulate their own opinions, generating positive or negative buzz to keep a film playing as long as possible in a theater.
In the case of the recent film Woodlawn, it received fantastic word of mouth from filmgoers, earning an A+ CinemaScore (this is very difficult to do; only a handful of films in 2015 have earned it [one of these being the Academy Award-nominated Selma]). It opened on 1,553 screens and had over one million Likes on their Facebook page.
Total earnings for week one: $4 million.
How can this be? I think there a few reasons why.
One is that, being a Christian-based film, publicity is done a little differently. Following The Passion of the Christ’s lead, most of the interest is generated through grassroots efforts—mainly in the form of screening the film to faith-based organizations and church congregations, and significant influencers. This way, there’s a willing audience that’s ready to pass on the message they’ve seen to their friends and family. The media eventually gets hold of the film, reviews it, and posts their thoughts.Secondly, in the case of Woodlawn, Rotten Tomatoes was showing no score on the day of its release. Their site requires five reviews to earn a score, and the reviews have to come from significant influencing organizations (we at ScreenFish aren’t there yet, but we’re working on it). Currently, Woodlawn has a 100% rating, but from only a handful of reviews. The more buzz, the better—but only if people know about the buzz.
A third, often untalked-about reason often revolves around money. As anyone who has a business can testify, it costs money to get people interested in their offerings. People have to design graphics, do radio spots, tape commercials/videos for YouTube, and more. All of these cost money in some way, shape, or form. When a faith-based film is being shot for a miniscule budget, it means people have to come up with creative ways to get the word out that are financially responsible. The world of social media provides a fantastic place to talk about the film, link to relevant articles, and generate a certain level of interest. Of course, Facebook and Twitter are rapidly becoming ‘pay to play’ sites, so the role of free publicity is becoming less and less an option.
- Movie studios and PR firms have to stop relying on social media exclusively to generate buzz – people have to see the film and generate that buzz for themselves.
- Movie studios and directors have to get their film in the hands of the influencers early on—they can’t wait for buzz to build, because that can take too much time and potentially be overshadowed by other films. In addition, there has to be a focus on finding–or creating/building up–reviewers that meet the publishing qualifications of sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.
- Movie trailers have to go out to the masses – and become viral as much as possible.
- Publicity methods must be able to create and sustain interest outside the church walls. Of course, it’s okay to promote inside, but caution should be exercised because promotion methods can possibly be seen as advertising and/or endorsement by the leaders of a congregation.
- Be even more creative in promotion – try something outside the box and see if it works. But if it does work, it’s important not to keep going back to that method again and again. The film industry likes to copy success and what may have worked can soon become trite and cliché.
- As I mentioned in a previous editorial, the film has to be designed so that it’s good enough to play to both sides of the audience; otherwise, you’re looking at about a $65M cap on box office revenue.
- The biggest thing is perhaps the most simple: No matter how good the publicity is, a film will rise or fall due to how good it actually is. As directors make better films, people will want to support what they see.
It’s time for film publicity for faith-based films to take a major step forward and bring about lasting change that will impact not only the bottom line, but countless lives along the way for the Kingdom of God. It’s a sacred trust that deserves to be treated that way, with all links in the process working together for something bigger than they can on their own.