Last weekend Star Trek Into Darkness opened, as expected, in the number one box office slot, unseating the previous king Iron Man 3. All things considered, it did…OK. Of course, a box office of $70.6 million over three days looks great (break me off a chunk of that), until you consider that its 2009 prequel, Star Trek, raked in $75.2 million over that same time period. All things considered—inflation, the price of the 3D option, the fact that the movie is part of a franchise—analysts expected Into Darkness to bring in around $100 million.
All things considered, is this disappointment a byproduct of filmmaking (reviews were definitively lukewarm), marketing, or both? It’s hard to extract one from the other since marketing spend is typically built into a film’s budget. And the marketing creative that came out before the debut of Into Darkness was all slickly-produced, placed ubiquitously on billboards and television, and indicated some pretty decent summer escapism. In short, it’s difficult to figure out what, if anything, the studio’s marketing team did incorrectly.
But a study lead by Dr. Shyam Gopinath, from the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, indicates that movie studios are by and large doing an inefficient job with their marketing. “Studios can take better advantage of the markets’ demographics and attendance habits,” according to the study. In other words, taking advantage of regional differences can help studios drive larger audiences, especially when “90% of a movie’s revenue is generated on opening day and the following month.”
The nutshell version of the findings is that larger markets like Los Angeles and Chicago tended to respond more to blogs than to advertising, whereas the medium-size markets like New Orleans and Salt Lake City responded more to advertising. The natural conclusion is that instead of blanketing all cities with massive ad campaigns, studios should be more precise in their spending, focusing on paid media in medium-size markets and earned media in larger markets. One of the key problems, according to the study, is that studios release their films in 53% of the markets most responsive to paid advertising and 44% of the markets responsive to blogs.
Other findings indicated that young consumers, Asians, and Hispanics tended to respond to blogs, whereas Caucasians responded to advertising, and that blog volume—how many posts are written about an upcoming film—are important to drive weekend returns, whereas blog content—whether coverage of the film is positive or negative—drive ticket sales 30days after the opening.
“On opening day you have pre-release blogs, but they’re all based on speculation and expectations about the movie—not people who have actually seen it,” Gopinath says. “[After the movie debuts, blogs say they] either liked it or not liked it. These are based on experience and not expectations.”
Which isn’t to say that studios aren’t precise about their marketing initiatives—there’s too much money involved for them not to be scrupulous. At the same time, it seems that they focus on channel strategies—radio ads during certain times of the day, game tie-ins, and YouTube advertising—rather than regional differences.
Part of this is because many of the movies analyzed in the University of Utah study were large films opening in international markets. It’s difficult to account for regional North American differences when a film is blasting out to 60 countries at once. The other reason is that, in my opinion, studios don’t have much experience “targeting” movies to certain demographics the way other industries do. After all, most movies—unless they’re meant for families—cater specifically to the white male teenage mind-set. What this says about the state of modern cinema is another debate altogether.