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When Is Too Much Advertising Too Much?

How much advertising is too much? That might be the question Hollywood executives find themselves asking with the news that Prince of Persia has so far failed to earn back its own advertising budget in the US.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Prince of Persia has only earned $63 million dollars domestically, for a movie that cost $75 million to release and market. The stranger thing is that, according to the same piece, that kind of marketing investment in a $200 million movie is cheap:

Looked at another way, for every dollar spent on producing a major film, the studios have been spending 51 cents-58 cents to release and market it in the U.S. and Canada. Assuming distributors get an average of 55% of domestic ticket sales, the average 2009 release had to generate $186 million in domestic boxoffice gross to recoup production and domestic-releasing costs — an unrealistic goal for all but a handful of titles.

The thing is, how much does this marketing actually work? Sure, trailers can generate a lot of talk, and whenever an anticipated movie flops, you can be sure that people like me will point to the marketing (Hello, Kick-Ass!), but… does marketing really work?

Think about it: There are plenty of movies that seem to be marketed endlessly, with trailers and posters everywhere you look, with television ads and Slurpee tie-ins at 7-11s and whatever, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into anything tangible (People buying tickets) or even intangible (People talking about the movie excitedly), anymore. It’s not enough to be omnipresent and in people’s faces these days; you have to have to have that mysterious, impossible thing called “buzz.” But buzz doesn’t behave the way marketing should; sometimes, in fact, it’s just the opposite – Right now, for example, I think the summer movie with the most buzz is Scott Pilgrim… A movie that has barely started to be advertised, officially. Or, last year; District 9 didn’t have anywhere near the advertising budget of GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, but which one were people talking about most excitedly, ahead of release? (Clue: It’s not the one based on a successful toyline from the 1980s.)

Perhaps we’ve all become too media-conscious, too self-aware to be taken in by glossy posters on volume alone, but I’m not even sure there was a time when that wasn’t the case. Did audiences ever really think, well, if they can afford that much advertising, I should go and see their movie? Were people really that gullible? I doubt it. But if that’s not the case, then why do movie studios spend so much advertising their releases? It feels counterproductive to the point of being stupid; am I really the only person, for example, who felt that I’d heard enough about Avatar, say, before it had even hit theaters?

It’s easy for me to say that Hollywood, en masse, should learn the difference between spending a lot and spending well (Look; I just did it there), but it’s clearly not a lesson that’s easy for them to understand – They’ve clearly been losing money in terms of marketing for a lot of movies until, I assume, the DVD stage for years now, so it’s not as if Prince of Persia is going to be some kind of wake-up call. Maybe it’s just that, until someone can come up with a way to commodify buzz and decode it to make it easier to achieve, trying to blanket everyone’s minds remains the best way to do things. But… surely they’ll have to realize at some point that overkill is too much.


  • Ben

    Buzz comes from movie's that look non-derivative, bold, and exciting long before their release date. District 9 and Scott Pilgrim are great examples. Of course there is buzz generated from certain actors or directors or characters (The Dark Knight including all three; also, Inception because of Nolan's popularity and the factors I mentioned above). A movie like Prince of Persia isn't going to generate buzz because it didn't look like anything new. It looked like a convoluted Aladdin-like movie with non-Arabian actors running off the steam of Jerry Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean success. Jerry is no James Cameron and he can't draw the same kind of buzz. You're absolutely right that buzz is more important than marketing. I think marketing can be useful. I think it helped the Dark Knight even more than what the movie already had going for it. Buzz is what is actually important though, and buzz is a product of the general public taking notice of a feature film that has something different about it, usually good. For buzz to generate though, I do think a certain amount of marketing is necessary – the usual trailers and such – but all the tie-ins and whatnot should be left for franchises that are already established. Iron Man 1 and Batman Begins had some tie-ins, but nothing compared to Prince of Persia right off the bat or their own respective sequels. Prince of Persia was handled poorly. As for Kick-Ass, better marketing may have helped if only to show people unfamiliar with the title that it was not just another superhero flick. That and maybe audiences are slowly becoming disillusioned with the ultraviolent and cynical view of the world that has been haunting pop culture for the past decade (Thank you Coen Brothers, Mark Millar, and countless others). As John Stewart put it, “Does this country need a hug?” I digress.

  • Ben

    Also, I wanted to clarify that I have no idea how much money went into marketing Iron Man 1 or Batman Begins compared to Prince of Persia. I'm going based on what I perceived to be the situation, so if someone has contrary information, please let me know.

  • Wayne

    I think the problem is that advertising in todays market spends so much of it's time trying to capture the attention of a fragmented audience. Buzz is basically just pre-release for WOM. But just getting your friend to watch the trailer for Scott PIlgrim isn't the same as that person being genuinely interested themselves.

  • Talmerian

    I think the biggest problem for POP is that Persia is Iran and they had nobody Persian to play the part? Really? There are Iranian actors out there…

    Also, from what I can tell, its not a very good movie. Sometimes that counts, obviously not for Avatar, more than anything else to create Buzz.

  • Flip Maker

    For me, there's only two things that gets me excited about a movie — certain actors and a compelling trailer/commercials. Giant sized billboards or billboards in the real world of any sort do nothing for me, although advertising on Web sites does remind me when a movie is coming out (I spend more time in front of my computer than driving, thus the Web's greater importance in my life). But ultimately, you can run as many ads as you like, but if the trailer doesn't make the movie look like it's going to be entertaining or compelling, then I'm not seeing it. Pretty simple.

    So, $75 million dollar marketing budgets? Waste of time.

  • LordGanja

    Generic garbage – much like Clash of the Titans – & this one suffered from being based on a video game.
    Industry is screwed if you pay the PR asshole more than the writers:)

  • Jcmese

    Disagree. Regardless of marketing dollars, people just didn't want to see Prince of Persia. I agree with the posters who blamed it for being derivative (that and Gillenhall looked ridiculous).

    District 9 had a lot of buzz because the marketing campaign was designed to be more viral and ground-swell than the more traditional summer marketing blitz for G.I. Joe which had a built-in audience ready to eat it up. G.I. Joe had plenty of talk ahead of it's release and it grossed over 300 million worldwide compared to District 9's 200 mil. Now that's not taking marketing $ into account, but nor does it include DVD sales which I am fairly certain G.I. Joe did extremely well compared to District 9 which really faded away from the movie-goers consciousness fast.

    I also don't think Scott Pilgrim has the most buzz this summer. As an indy comic, no one outside of comics has ever even heard of it (and not all the comic fans for that matter). I doubt it will do much better than Kick-Ass did – which was not that well.

    I think the real summer gems will be Inception and The Last Airbender.

  • Jajaja

    I don't get why Prince of Persia failed domestically. I saw it this weekend, it was pretty good. Not great, and I don't buy the Prince (SoT version or the 2008 one) as being romantic. He's an adventurer, not a husband/father. Take that stuff out, and the movie was great. Gyllenhaal was a good Prince. He handled the action very well, and made the film fun.

  • nickmarino

    as someone that makes a living working in marketing (albeit on the content side of things and not the media buying/ad placement side), here's my take: audiences are becoming more and more fragmented AND niche marketing seems to be more important now than ever. PoP's marketing, to me, didn't seem to have any niche that i could discern, making it difficult to generate interest in a marketplace that requires advertising in lots of different places and lots of different ways. seems like they were going for a lowest common denominator moviegoer with that nondescript trailer they had, but the concept of PoP seems like anything but lowest common denominator to me. i thought it looked like a flick for hardcore fantasy fans.

  • Servando Gomez

    I have to ask this, didn't it share like the same box office weekend with Shrek? If anything, If they had pushed like a weekend a week before or something the movie wouldn't had been murder in box offices. SO, I think the marketing in this sense actually would had helped had it not had to compete.

  • The Voice of Reason

    It might have helped if, oh, I don't know…..if maybe the lead character in the movie was actually “persian” as opposed to a white guy with brown makeup all over his body?

    We Americans sure can be dumb, but we're not THAT dumb. Come on.

  • Lisa T.

    I have difficulty believing that the primary reason PoP flopped was the lead actor's ethnicity. I'm sure that was a critical issue to some people, but is the average movie-goer really that concerned about it? Unless there's some way to quantify that (a survey to find out why people didn't see a movie? fat chance…), I'm more inclined to believe that people saw the trailers and just weren't excited or interested.

    The whole 'summer movie' season has been a bit low this year, and with the economy sputtering along, I think it makes sense that the average movie-goer is going to save his/her monies for those movies he/she is genuinely excited about. If the trailers themselves do not get me excited to see the movie, then it doesn't actually matter how many times you shove them in my face. I'm not going to the movie.

    As for me…. PoP, I'll see when it's on DVD. Even though Gyllanhal isn't 'authentically' Persian.

  • Vina

    Airbender's in for a world of bad press soon. Much of the show's fanbase is severely ticked off that despite being a heavily Asia-themed property, ethnic actors were shut out of all the hero roles.

  • Paul B.

    I agree with this article to a certain degree, but I think Ben got it right on the nose. Yes, marketing works, but only to a certain degree. Any movie falls in to certain categories, whether it be action, adventure, fantasy, etc., and you'll always have a certain demographic that, once they are aware a certain movie is coming out, will go and see it regardless of whether it looks bad or not (unless the trailers really screws things up). In this case, the producers of the film, without any kind of marketing at all, had a large audience due to the gamers that grew up playing the PoP games. You may even entice the gamers that know nothing about PoP just to see what it's about. But one of the problems with this movie is that the fan base for it is not as large as one would think. The game, which has existed since the days of the Nintendo (Yes, the original NES) only grew to popularity when it was reimagined on the Playstation over a decade later. This is where Ben's idea of buzz via directors, actors, and characters comes in. This movie, while it had a large fund to market, was doomed to fail because: A)It did not have a big-name director, B)It had Jake Gyllenhal for the lead (he's not a bad actor, just a little bit too known and too white for the lead), and C)the characters do not stick out in anybody's mind. Marketing can increase the size of the core audience, but with a movie that looked like a rip off of “The Mummy”, it doesn't suprise me that it failed.

  • Mikesteinberg

    The advertising companies do believe that the audience is gullible. Just look at the trailer for Clash of the Titans. Its just screaming and monsters. The fact is, I didn't see it because I didn't know what it was about nor did I really care. A similar aspect can be connected to POP. I played the game and knew what it was about, but advertising certainly didn't tell me how well they were going to pull it off considering the long history of crap video game movies. Iron man and Dark Knight or Spider-man didn't need that much advertising because people generally know the characters and can understand what kind of movie it's going to be. Simply put both of these movies are the same. Its about a guy becoming some kind of Meta-human and beating people up. From the trailer, I have no idea what some of these movies are about. Sometimes, like Transformers, it doesn't matter, but most of the time it does. No one is going to see the next Jurassic Park movie because they hope the story is good. Simply, I didn't see POP because it didn't feel new in anyway and overall it seemed like too much action and not enough plot.

  • RunnerX13

    The better question is, why did the studio allow a 200 million dollar budget on a film that was obviously crap?

  • ray

    the movie is not worth the hype and money spent on it

  • King Mob

    We're living in the blockbuster era. I remember reading somewhere that films aren't allowed to “breath” in theathers anymore. Nowadays, films have to make its earnings in 2-3 weeks. Movies aren't allowed much longer than that on theaters. Long are the days of word of mouth, although it still plays a part on dvd sales. So the only way to capitalize on that limited time frame, is through massive marketing campaigns. In the past it worked well because, the majority of the moviegoers sole source of information about the movie was the marketing campaign. Sure, there were dedicated magazines about movies, but only a small fraction of audiences bought and read those. The “problem” today is that information and much more is readily available for anyone with a click of the mouse. Trailers, reviews, even advanced screenings are available easily. I personally gave up on watching a lot of films based on that information. Some people do, some don't. Some see something else. Others don't. The fact is, those massive advertising tsunamis, although still effective, lost some of its strenght, because they've lost their place as the primary source of information. And perhaps, after so many blockbuster disappointments, people don't believe the hype anymore.

  • Ccidgfx

    I've played all but the most recent release of PoP and I recently saw the movie. Not trying to be snarky, but how many of you have played the game? Even the character in the game didn't look Persian. All in all He looked just like the character form the game, And while I didn't like every aspect of the movie I thought it was fairly decent. But to say it downright sucked, IMO, would be pushing it a little far.

  • Cj53kerfeld

    I actually have my television on mute and unmute when the program is running.  It seems less frustrating.  Advertising has become so extreme that it seems that if each program were to add just one more advertisement, it would not need a program.