Will Hollywood learn from The Fault in Our Stars?

In June of 2012 I wrote Another Crack in the Mass Media Wall, a post that detailed how Lionsgate effectively used social media for the first time to get a huge opening weekend for The Hunger Games.

It is worth noting that two years later Hollywood decided to follow up on its own innovation with the release of The Fault in Our Stars.

As described in How “The Fault in Our Stars” Movie became a Social Media Supernova, Fox effectively reached its audience with a well planned social media campaign before the movie opened.

“Other movies have done [social media outreach] in places,” George Dewey, Fox’s senior vice-president for domestic digital marketing, tells Yahoo Movies. “We’re doing it across the board. I think the combination of the passion that pre-existed the movie with the decision to involve fans every single step of the way is why you see so much conversation about The Fault in Our Stars now.”

Dewey goes on to comment.

“In general, treating fans as part of the campaign as opposed to the audience for the campaign is the future of how movies will market.”

This view expressed by Dewey is still a minority one within the Hollywood marketing and distribution machine.  Most in Hollywood still believe that the audience is simply there to receive the campaign—not be part of it. This dominant point of view clings to the old mass media model of “we create, you simply consume”, where all control rests with the media company and gives no control or “emotional ownership” to the audience.  But we live in a new connected world. 

This past weekend showed that the marketing strategy employed by Fox and Mr. Dewey was “spot on”. 

The studio projected that the movie would hit $29 million at the North American box office.

But something bigger happened. As detailed in the New York Times,

The Fault in Our Stars took in a spectacular $48.2 million at North American theaters between Thursday night and Sunday, and it did so with nary a billboard in sight and no weeks long television ad barrage. In fact, 20th Century Fox spent less than $30 million on marketing, or half of what studios typically spend to introduce a summer film.”

It is important to mention that the movie was made for $12 million—paltry by Hollywood standards.

So Fox effectively cut their marketing spend in half  (thus saving $30 million), by not buying many ads (on that old fashioned one way mass media channel called TV) and instead reached out to fans directly on the Tumblrs, Pinterests, Facebooks and Twitters of the world (all built on that new fangled two way network called the Internet.)

They went directly to potential fans, invited them in and created an ongoing conversation.  They allowed them to converse with the “movie” and converse with each other about the movie.

And note that @realjohngreen, the book’s author and a social media force in his own right, was a big part of this conversation.

Will Hollywood bosses ignore the lessons from this success?  Will they insist that this is just a “one off” that cannot be repeated?   Will Mr. Dewey be praised for his work but also be told that this is really not the future of how movie marketing will work?

Very likely, if history is any guide.

Most industries would be thrilled to find a model that creates their product for less money, gets it into the market it at a reduced cost and still attracts a large number of consumers.  Most industries would work hard to see how they might replicate this model for future products.

They would have R&D units within their companies whose only purpose is to figure out the new connected world we live in.  They would experiment and innovate.

But this is the movie business we are talking about. Change is slow and not actively pursued. Instead of two years between innovations, it should be two months, two weeks or two days.

Can Hollywood learn a new trick that it can repeat, improve and execute consistently over time?

It should. After all, the new world is staring them in the face.  On at least two occasions it has also contributed massively to Hollywood’s bottom line.

But maybe it is just an old dog. 

And learning new tricks is just not its thing.

Update, June 23: A excellent piece today by Kathleen Toohill of Full Screen gives further detail on the social media campaign waged by Fox and John Green. Here it is: Getting Gen C to the Box Office [Infographic]. Read it!

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • UncommonDenominator

    The premise of this article is flawed.

    The Hunger Games and Fault in Our Stars didn’t have to spend money on marketing because they were both based on massive IPs that already had extremely broad awareness. To suggest that the smaller, digital approach to marketing was responsible for - or significantly contributed to - the colossal box office receipts is a specious argument. If you want to test the hypothesis that digital marketing can be just as effective as mainstream marketing, you should examine movies that have little to no pre-awareness. While you may find the odd example where a digitally marketed movie performs just as well (or better than) a movie marketed in traditional fashion, I think you’ll find that most do not do well.

    I’m happy to be proved wrong, but you’re going to have to do some better analysis and more in depth reasoning to get me there.

    • chrisdorr

      You raise an interesting point. I would ask you to consider this. Movies that are based on preexisting properties that are very popular are usually pushed into the market place with very high TV ad spends. Pick any known franchise you can and you will see a lot of money is spent to get people to come see it. Not so in these cases.

      I believe what happened is this. Both films had very well planned and executed social media campaigns that built up huge awareness before the movie opened. The studios did their usual awareness tracking in the months leading up to the release and discovered that the awareness numbers they were getting allowed them to substantially cut back their TV ad spends. In other words, the social media campaign “sold” the movie.

      Most films of all types do not have effectively developed and executed social media campaigns. Why? Because studios do not trust this form of marketing-they do not believe that a conversation with potential fans can get them into the theaters-and as a result of that lack of trust they rely on heavy TV ad spending. This is precisely why they need to innovate much more in this area and create, experiment and try out various social media campaigns where potential fans are treated as part of the campaign and not the audience of the campaign.

      I am sure that most studio heads agree with you, that this is a one off exception and not a model for engaging with movie fans. And that means that they will fail to innovate and simply rely on heavy TV ad spends to get out their message. I think they need to innovate and learn how to deal directly with the movie audience for all types of movies.

      • DanT

        UncommonDenominator is not agreeing with studio heads that this is a one-off. Or that we should not innovate new models for engaging an audience. Yours is the typical defense response of someone who is a self-appointed herald of new technology like a prophet who sees himself as a victim of the masses of the ignorant. Only he knows the future. UncommonDenominator is asking for a more scientific approach to audience engagement. There are many of you prophets (Jon Reiss is another) whose self-interest is connected to social media. You should prepare yourself for skepticism when your business is to promote social media. When you will benefit by it financially. Everyone, I repeat, everyone is aware of social media as a fantastic tool for engaging an audience. Again: everyone in the industry knows this. The question everyone is struggling with is how to deploy the technology. Another question is how to engage everyone over 30. Both of your examples directly deal with a young audience. Which is also a huge problem with these old studio heads that you look down upon. They also only relate to teenagers. This is one reason why TV has exploded. They don’t just appeal to teenagers. But people over thirty do not engage with social media as easily. Open your perspective. This social media propheting can also be misunderstood in television as well. The head of the WE network just pronounced that TV shows are not really about content but rather as a place for people to start a conversation on social media. As if that is not putting the cart before the horse. You see, the movies and TV shows and those artists who create them are simply there to get people to go on social media. Social media is not the means but the actual point. Like TV shows there to sell products in commercials. Instead of the relentless blowing of your horn, take your lips off the horn, look around and see that the song has been heard. And open your own ears to the context now of these coming changes. The good and the bad.

        • chrisdorr

          DanT , thanks for your comments. Uncommon Denominator made some very valid points, which I acknowledged. Should there be more testing done to find out what works and what does not? Yes and it is something I suggest that the studios do in my post. A couple of other points. First, I gain nothing financially by taking the positions I have taken, I simply hope to move the discussion forward. Second, social media has actually spread throughout all age groups and is not limited solely to young people. Various studies have shown that to be the case. In other words, social media is a mass phenomenon. Third, I would argue that the movie industry does not embrace social media. Instead it uses it on selected occasions as add on marketing to their regular mass media marketing. They have been slow to adopt new approaches in a significant way. What I suggest in the piece is that the studios need to look at their own successes in this area and build on them. Just as I have argued that indie filmmakers do the same.

          • DanT

            To your three points. Your resume disproves your statement that you gain nothing financially by promoting social media strategies. Second, I said people over thirty use social media less easily. I never said only the young use social media. Third, I did not say the movie industry embraces social media, I said that everyone in the industry is aware that social media is a fantastic tool for engaging an audience but the question everyone is struggling with is how to best deploy the technology.

          • chrisdorr

            Hi DanT, My resume only indicates that I help media and technology based companies expand their business in an online/mobile environment. Does that I mean I profit from promoting social media strategies? No, it just means that I believe that it is one of the strategies that companies can use to create profit for themselves. Point 2, I would argue that people over 30 use social media just as well as people under 30. Number 3, I would argue that many in the industry do not realize the value of social media and do not fully understand the implications of the social web and further there are some that are not struggling as to how to best deploy the technology-in fact they are doing quite well at deploying it-witness the campaign run by Fox for the movie I discuss in the post. The people who ran that campaign understand the power of social media and used it effectively and the rest of Hollywood should take notice. I hope they do.

          • DanT

            So you work as a consultant promoting digital strategies for free. You receive no monetary compensation. Your second point is ludicrous. Please provide any proof whatsoever that the majority of people 70 years old use social media “as well as” the majority of people under thirty. It’s these kind of dishonest statements made by you and other heralds of an already second generation social media technology illegitimate.

          • chrisdorr

            The points I make on my blog post are entirely mine and I receive no compensation for them. Do they inform the work that I do for which I am paid? Yes, that is true. What you make of that connection is up to you. The use of social media is spreading throughout the population, though is not evenly distributed by age or sex. Each social network has its own differing shares of both men and women as well as different age groups. For example women over 50 is one of the fastest growing groups on Facebook. Teens are less likely to use Twitter than they are to use Tumblr. Women are more likely to use Pinterest than men. You are correct in saying that people over 70 do not use social media as much as people in their 20’s. I only asserted that people over 30 are more likely to use social media than 5 years ago and that number is increasing among people in the 40 to 70 and even 70 plus age range. Part of the reason for that (I would argue) is the explosion of smartphones and tablets that use touch screen interfaces and better designed (and therefore easier to use) interfaces in general. None of these are “dishonest” statements as you would say. They are statements about general trends and some ideas about what those trends mean.

          • DanT

            You did not assert people over thirty are more likely to use social media than five years ago. Read your post. Another lie. Another excuse. What you said is simply wrong. It’s this kind of inexact language, unscientific approach and lack of reality from self-styled experts of social media who blow the trumpet that is so boring. Waste of time.

          • chrisdorr

            Hi Dan, I appreciate your positive feedback.

          • DanT

            Because that’s what feedback is about. To be positive about what you say.

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