The audience for any film is finite – but you have to at least try

When I did an audio interview for Alex and the guys at FirstShowing.net we chatted briefly about Snakes on a Plane and whether or not it was a “disappointment” or not. I remarked that, despite all the chest beating by the mainstream media following its debut that it was a flop I didn’t agree. A movie, I said, will never draw an audience larger than the one that’s predisposed to see it, regardless of the marketing efforts or how much buzz the the film generates. So no, I said, it wasn’t a flop. Quite the contrary, the buzz the movie had likely enabled the maximum audience that would be interested in seeing it to become aware and eventually check it out. So it did far better than it would have if it would have followed the fate it otherwise would have had and either been dumped into theaters or DVD with little fanfare. The Los Angeles Times has a story that covers much of the same ground now that the film is hitting disc that pre-release coverage tread.

The basic equation behind my thinking goes like this: A huge movie (think Da Vinci Code) casts a huge net. But only 40% of the audience impressions the marketing campaign garners might be interested in seeing the movie. So 60% of the impressions from the campaign are, in essence, wasted. A viral buzz campaign like the one the fans created for Snakes on a Plane was, perhaps half as big in terms of pure size but the campaign – official or otherwise – might have reached 80% of those who were inclined to see the movie. That’s because the buzz was happening primarily online (where geeks and horror fans are prevalent) and in the offline versions of those same communities. So while the campaign impressions were lower, they were happening in the right places.

It’s that last point that’s most important – It’s not the size of the campaign that matters, it’s the targeting.

But you have to step up to the plate to begin with.

In his book The Long Tail, author Chris Anderson devotes a little bit of time to talking about movies that made next to no money. We’re talking less than $50. And today, Cinematical has the story of a movie that grossed $30 in its entire six-day run at a lone Texas theater. While this is an extreme example, the point Anderson makes is that it’s distribution and marketing – or the lack thereof – that doom movies such as these to their fate as trivia answers. Is the title awful? Sure. Is it any good? Who knows, except for the six people that went to see it in Texas. But if there had been a better distribution model in place and a marketing campaign that got eyeballs to the flick, it likely would have at least done a little better. At the very least the movie could have then been judged on its artistic merits by a wider audience.

Movies need to be supported by campaigns that are targeted at the right audience and which allow people to actually see the movie in question. That point is made also in this other post at Cinematical about how independent films that are truly worthy of larger audience recognition often get the shaft due to lack of marketing support.

Studios and their marketing partners would be wise to put into place mechanisms and procedures that allow them to truly and accurately target the audience for any particular film instead of, as I assume they sometimes do, plugging a film’s components into the pre-designed Plans A, B or C. There’s too much reliance on demographics being an indicator and predictor of a movie’s success or failure and too little thought toward finding groups of individuals who are going to be interested in a movie. I think it will be worth it, especially when the studios find that engaging and targeting those groups lead to powerful “secondary explosions” in the form of online chatter and a wider audience than they had previously anticipated.