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Low-Budget, High Profit: The Journey of the Distribution Gem from Film Production to Consumption Simone Barsky

Table of Contents Introduction: Dissecting A Film Phenomenon ........................................................................................ 1 Production: Interactivity & Body Genres as Formula for Marketable Content...................................6 The Intimate but Humble Presence of the Artist ......................................................................................... 9 The Creation of a Philosophy: How DIY is “Cool” .................................................................................. 11 A Call for Imitation ...................................................................................................................................13 The Dissolution of the Line between Reality and Fantasy ........................................................................ 15 Distribution & Marketing: How Selling Buzz Creates Interactivity ..................................................18 The Moviegoer as Detective ..................................................................................................................... 20 Promotion of the Theater-Going Experience .............................................................................................22 The Marketability of Controversy .............................................................................................................24 Exhibition: The Strategy of Bringing Buzz to the Screen..................................................................... 25 Reveling in the Low-Budget .....................................................................................................................26 Measuring and Drawing Out Film Anticipation to Pack Theaters .............................................................27 The Appeal of “Free” Merchandise ...........................................................................................................30 Giving the Power of Distribution to the People ........................................................................................ 31 Confidence in the Film Festival Tradition .................................................................................................32 Conclusion: Keeping up with the Public Sphere................................................................................... 33 Works Cited............................................................................................................................................... 36

Figures Figure 1: Budget & box office totals for distribution gems since 1990 (www.boxofficemojo.com).......2 Figure 2: A still from Clerks shot in 16mm black-and-white in single shooting location......................13 Figure 3: Iconic characters of Napoleon Dynamite campaign together in school elections...................14 Figure 4: Stills from The Blair Witch Project shot from a handheld camcorder.....................................16 Figure 5: Stills from the Paranormal Activity trailer with a hidden camera capturing terrified faces....23


Introduction: Dissecting a Film Phenomenon The American film industry is a high-risk trade. A film is not a commodity, with a predictable supply-and-demand market. It bears no guarantee for success. There is no innate formula that can promise popularity, cultural impact or even box office return. Distribution companies undertake the high-risk challenge of buying and selling films. These companies must predict whether or not a film's box-office results will make up for, or ideally, surpass a film's production costs. They also must predict the ideal exhibiting conditions to release the film under. Distributors try to account for all possible contingencies in the market, and desperately latch on to any form of stability or trend in the industry that will grant them the possibility of predicting success or loss. It's no mystery in the film industry that big-budget films tend to make more profit than low-budget films, and that Hollywood, more often than not, reigns over the independent in the United States. This is why distributors often fall back on 3-D films, star films and films with special effects, and overlook low-budget films. These high-budgets are seen as reduced risk and prosper more often than not, or at least tend to break even. High-budget films rule the market because they usually follow conventional narrative formulas that have proven to be popular in the past while low-budgets often explore stories that deviate from the norm, and therefore have more potential to suffer in box offices due to unpopular creative risks. But every once in a while, an independent film takes center stage that costs almost nothing to produce but makes millions in box offices. I will refer to this type of film as a distribution gem, a film that a distributor buy low but sell high. Distribution gems are films made with a budget of roughly less than $500,000 or less that gross at the very least, $1 million in box offices (See Figure 1). The public usually considers them sleeper films, because they gain


success and recognition that is considered unexpected in retrospect. I have always possessed a fascination with these films because they represent the ultimate underdog story of the film industry. These low budget films not only penetrate the mainstream market but dominate it, taking victory as the dark horse against Hollywood. It is with great triumph that their lowresource production budgets still manage to overtake the top box-office slots. These successes are rare but phenomenal occurrences that prove to be memorable for movie-going audiences.My paper intends to explore how exactly this rare film phenomenon happens. I will discuss both the theoretical and empirical explanations for their unpredicted success. This will be accomplished by applying film theories to specific case studies and examining individual film marketing campaigns. Although I will explore specific reasons behind this phenomenon, it is essential to remember the importance of temporality and the in-the-moment nature of these films' successes. This means that there is no one formula that can predict prosperity for independent works in the future and that these phenomenons cannot be replicated identically ever again. These films entered the arena of the film industry at exactly the right time and the right place with new innovations— their stars aligned, so to say. Each of these distribution gems succeeded not only because they were marketed at the exact time that their content aligned with or satisfied the trends, zeitgeist and milieu of the everchanging public sphere, but because they also catered to a developing longing that I believe has not been properly explored since the 1990's that I will simply refer to as interactivity. I propose that at this moment in movie going, there is an underlying desire for audiences to reach a higher level of communication with the screen. Audiences are jaded, tired of simply being projected onto. Viewers not only want to react to a film, but interact with it. I believe this desire stems from the mid-nineties and on due to the development of the popularized two-way


communication of the Internet. With the Internet, a new viewing experience has emerged that requires an adjustment in marketing and advertising tactics. The Internet has created a blueprint for interactive communities that breakdown the barrier between the producer (filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors) and consumers (the filmgoing audiences). The lines between the roles that were once distinct have now been blurred to what has been named the prosumer, because the two-way form of communication in new media has “empowered their users to create their own content reversing their role as the passive consumers of content. Examples of consumers becoming producers with 'new media' include the creators of Web sites and blogs, podcasters who create their own radio shows for other MP3 users, iMovies users who can create their own movies from raw video footage.” 1 Now, a consumer is not simply ingesting a film or is just being projected upon, but rather, is using the film as a starting point for interactive discussion, critique or cult creation on the web. As a consumer is given global reach to voice opinions, an exaggerated two-way dependence is formed — the consumer relies on the producer for entertainment media, while the producer relies on the consumer to make meaning of the produced content. This new two-way form of viewership requires an updated advertising and marketing methodology, “moving from a passive form where advertising messages were designed by companies and broadcast/projected to consumers towards interactive forms where consumers are actively engaged in promoting products and services, whether consciously or unconsciously.”2 Not only must a film's content itself be interactive in nature, but its marketing campaign must be as well. Even a film that possesses an innovative form of interaction with the screen does not attract viewers by simply existing— it must be marketed to the public. Chandler, Zan. "Prosumer: The Consumer as Content Producer." 22 August 2010. 2020 Media Features. 6 April 2011 <http://2020mediafutures.ca/The+Prosumer%3A+Consumer+as+content+producer>. 2 Kerrigan, Finola. Film Marketing. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd., 2010. pg. 7. 1


In this paper, I would like to stress Finola Kerrigan’s claim that “film marketing begins right from a film's conception and continues through to the act of consumption.” This means that a film must contain 1) marketable content at production, 2) sellable buzz to be circulated at distribution and 3) must be released at the perfect time at exhibition. Each step of the process must be carried out comprehensively, with many factors taken into consideration at every stage. This is in concordance with the complexity theory, which “is concerned with the relationship between apparently random chaotic phenomena and the emergence of simplified patterns.” 3 Although there are many facets of film phenomena that are out of a marketer's control, there is still an underlying pattern in the sensational marketing campaigns for these films. “Applying complexity theory to strategy and decision-making, individual decisions can have large and sometimes unexpected consequences if they are reinforced by other events in the system,” which is why each step of marketing in the film-release journey can make or break a campaign. A majority of my paper will explore in-depth the complex practices used to market distribution gems. This section of my paper will be divided into film production/content, distribution and exhibition. Although the marketing at each of these steps of the film industry often intertwine, I am deciding to create these three large sections in order to stress the importance of each step in the film-release process, because failure to effectively market a film at any one of these stages could result in the film never reaching the public. The empirical statistics and facts used in these sections will help grasp the nature of the film case studies that point towards the larger theoretical desires of a film-going audience. I will be focusing on American works only, because low-budget films are especially at a disadvantage within the American Hollywood system. I also will be focusing on films from the

3

Bilton, Chris. Management and creativity: From creative industries to creative management . Malden: Blackwell, 2007.


early nineties and on, due to innovations in marketing allowed by the Internet, a resource that was not available prior to this time. I am also going to only be considering box-office results as monetary evidence, because cinema releases create a marquee value for films that carry over to DVD, TV, pay-per-view and other trajectories. Also, these forms of viewing will never have a never-ending cap on their totals, while box-office prices are limited to the short period of a film's release. The films I will be examining are extremely successful low-budget films such as Owen Peli's Paranormal Activity (2007), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999), Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me (2004) and Jared Hess' Napoleon Dynamite (2004). I also will investigate low-budget films with more modest revenues that garnered a considerable cult following, such as Rian Johnson's Brick (2005), Henry Joost's Catfish (2010), Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994), Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Doug Liman's Swingers (1996). Through a series of calculated strategies at each step of the supplychain market, I will demonstrate how a film starts as a shoestring production and becomes a profitable and memorable phenomenon. Production: Interactivity & Body Genres as Formula for Marketable Content In order to have a marketable film, one must have marketable content. Distributors will not pick up a film if it's content does not appeal to audiences, whether with independent or mainstream intention, because “the most daunting challenge is selling movies that audiences really don't want to see.” In order to market a successful film, the targeted audience must be established at the initial stages of production, setting the groundwork for subsequent marketing strategies for distributors and exhibitors. If a demographic is not established at the outset, “screenwriters, film-company development executives, stars and directors [might]... misjudge


popular tastes, which results in films that have little audience appeal.” 4 But what exactly is considered marketable? What content brings moviegoers to theaters? There are no easy answers to these questions, but there certainly are recorded trends in popularity and failure. For example, in 2007, a series of Iraq and Afghanistan-related war films were released, but flopped in box offices very quickly. A USA Today article stated, “Look at the lowest grossing movies of the year, and they are littered with stories with something political to say.”5 As general entertainment, audiences often seek to be dazzled, not preached to. Special effect films, films featuring casts of glamorous stars, and more recently 3D films have all catered to audiences' desires to be impressed. Film endeavors of this nature are indisputably expensive, require massive studio backing, and must have access to resources that low-budget films do not. Mark Litwak, entertainment attorney and producer's representative for independent filmmakers explains, “You have to eliminate anything that's potentially expensive: herds of wild animals, films that require lots of expensive costumes or locations, films that require a lot of outdoor shooting, where it might be subject to inclement weather, films that involve young children or scenes on water... Independent filmmakers tend to take a lot more creative risks than major studios. They're not trying to compete in the same [financial] arena.”6 It is with this reductive mind-set that independent films are associated with lower box-office gross than even some of the worst big-studio productions. But the distribution gems have somehow penetrated the mainstream market without the financial access to these moneymaking trends, not only competing in the same financial arena as major studios, but also conquering it. This is why I will have to respectfully disagree with Mr. 4

Marich, Robert. Marketing to Movie Goers. Oxford: Elsevier, 2005. Bowles, Scott. Film's big year could have been even bigger. 25 December 2007. 22 March 2011 <http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2007-12-25-year-in-review-box-office_N.htm>. 6 Lukk, Tiiu. Movie Marketing: Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997. pg. 115 5


Litwak. His statement seems to claim that it is because of these financial restrictions that independent films cannot commercially compete with major studio films. But this statement is reductive, and overlooks the underlying reason for the success of films with SFX, stars, or 3Dâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; an audience is looking to be dazzled, to be wrapped up in the world of the film. If a low-budget film can accomplish this, it too can be a marketable and successful piece of work. A film can dazzle its audience by grasping the visceral desires of a viewer without these high-budget luxuries. How have low-budget distribution gems managed to take budgets of $500,000 or less and create such sensational and complex interactive experiences for viewers? I propose that the winning combination is content that incorporates both the experience of the body genre as theorized by Linda Williams to appeal to mass audiences and interactivity that makes the film stand out amongst all other body genre films. In the article â&#x20AC;&#x153;Film Modes: Gender, Genre and Excess,â&#x20AC;? theorist Linda Williams draws attention to the instinctual, physical responses audiences have to the popular genres horror, melodrama and pornography, deeming them the body genres.7 She describes how horror induces fear (cringing, grimacing), melodrama induces sadness (tears) and pornography produces arousal (and sometimes orgasm). The article uses the notion of the body genre to explore how the role of women in each of these genres is used to create a spectacle of the female body in response to sexual pleasure, fear, violence and pain. Inspired by Williams' original article, I would like to suggest incorporating several other genres to the theory. My interpretation of the genres that fall under body genres also include comedy, which induces laughter, and action, which induces thrill (pulse rising, rush of adrenaline), as they too can elicit bodily responses. I would like to repurpose Linda's theory of the body genre to understand how eliciting bodily response can make 7

Williams, Linda. "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess." Film Quarterly 44.Summer (1991): 2-13.


films marketable and appealing. Audiences react to the moving images on screen with bodily responses that materialize into tangible emotions. Body genres add a human element to films, allowing audiences to respond to films in the way that they might respond to a real life event. A viewer is not simply buying a product, but a ticket to an experience that imitates a thrilling, tragic or terrifying life event without the actual potential of real-life emotional or physical danger. This experience can serve to transition into a discussion of interactivity as part of the formula for marketable content. Audiences want to interact with the screen, not simply react to it. They want to be a part of the film— to escape into the mise en scène, get to know the characters and be a part of the experience. Some throwaway big-budget films are known to fall back on the evocation of physical responses, perpetuating body genre traditions such as thrillers and weepies. Although audiences connect with these repetitive films on a visceral level, these films never become memorable film phenomenon. To become a phenomenon, a film needs to achieve true communication with moviegoers. It must be interactive, without neglecting to appeal to the masses that still physically and emotionally respond to the body genre. In the next several subsections, I will explore the different ways in which a film can be interactive in nature. Although I will go into detail in regards to interactivity, it is important to remember the underlying traditions of the body genre in each of the examples I make use of. The Intimate but Humble Presence of the Artist One form of interaction is the formation of a relationship between the artist/director and the viewer. There is a trust that is established, whether misguided or not, when a documentarian is present as him or herself on the screen. The audience finds a protagonist in the director and empathy for him or her as a “real” character. The trust is formed because of the illusion that the


filmmaker is exposing him or herself. If the filmmaker is likeable and not self-righteous enough to turn viewers off, then audiences will respond to him as down-to-earth or relatable. Conversely, a poor on-screen presence can sometimes attract just as much attention. On-screen presence can help or hurt a director, as seen in the notable case of political documentarian Michael Moore. Film critic Josh Nelson states, “His on-screen presence serves up a near perfect combination of charisma, charm, and compassion. Underscored with a cynical wit, Moore’s infectious screen persona works well to his political advantage.”8 On the other hand, Moore's deceptive facade leads “some people [to] think Michael Moore’s onscreen presence is the worst thing about his movies.”9 His manipulating presence has stirred controversy throughout his career, and has been the backbone of anti-Moore projects such as Michael Moore Hates America (2004), and Farenhype 9/11 (2004), and antithesis to Moore's political film Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). But regardless of one's opinion of him, it is undeniable that his presence has attracted more attention and buzz to his films than if his presence was otherwise withdrawn from the screen. Audiences are provided grounds for discourse of opinion. If a director is willing to put him or herself under scrutiny by viewers by associating him or herself with an opinion or a cause, this can often prove to be very marketable. This was the idea behind one documentary distribution gem: Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. The film focused on Spurlock's interrogation of the corporation McDonald's, testing the company's guarantee of health by eating nothing by McDonald's for 30 days. The film was marketable in content, but not necessarily because of its subject matter. Of course, the film was political in nature, chastising corporate greed and misleading advertising,

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Nelson, Josh. How much Moore is too much? 1 September 2007. 16 April 2011 <http://www.philmology.com/? p=514>. 9 Schrager, Norm. PREVIEW: Michael Moore’s “Captain Mike Across America” . 30 August 2007. 16 April 2011 <http://meetinthelobby.com/preview-michael-moores-captain-mike-across-america.html>.


which according to cinematic trends would mean that the film would usually have been a flop. This was the case with other films that had criticized fast food, such as CNBC's forgotten 2008 program Big Mac: Inside the McDonalds Empire and Richard Linklater's 2006 Fast Food Nation, deemed “preachy instead of insightful” by critics.10 But the success of Spurlock's film can be identified by two notable differences— Spurlock's presence in the film itself and the emphasis on the “gross-out” consequences. Spurlock's presence was fairly universally relatable. Unlike Michael Moore, his character was seen as unanimously likeable, mostly due to the fact that he did not alienate any groups of audiences by preaching a message that attacked specifically left or right wing politics. The story of the common Joe that was represented in this film hit close to home for viewers. Although Spurlock carefully crafted his persona, he did not forget to appeal to the visceral attraction to the body genre. In the film, Spurlock indulged in so much food, that he often vomited, and the camera spared none of the gory details. The film transformed a dry, cliché message of anti-McDonald's sentiments into a spectacle of just how fat, depressed and sick Spurlock could get from the food. His dedication to the disgusting evoked physical responses from audiences such as grimacing, stomach churning and audible outcries from moviegoers. Physical investment in the repulsive scenes and emotional investment in Morgan as the main character made Super Size Me a marketable hit. Other distribution gems in which the director had on-screen presence included Catfish, The Blair Witch Project and Clerks, although their use of directorial presence will be explored in other ways throughout this paper. The Creation of a Philosophy: How DIY is “Cool” Another way that a film can form marketable interaction between viewer and screen is 10

Thomas, Rob. Passive Fast Food Nation Leaves Bad Taste. 23 November 2006. 4 April 2011 <http://host.madison.com/entertainment/article_3a1b9dd3-3713-5508-837a-f5275dbc29b3.html>.


through building a philosophy. This means that audiences have the potential to find a new way of thinking from the film. Films like this are attractive to distributors because they often guarantee a life after release in the form of a devoted cult following. They can tap into in midnight screenings, books on the film, endless merchandizing, and other profitable post-theatrical trajectories. Cult films are inherently interactive because the communities built around them are not created by the producer, but rather involve action on part of the consumer. Notable examples of such cases include David Fincher's philosophy-driven film Fight Club (1999) which promoted freedom from corporate enslavement, or The Cohen Brothers' classic The Big Lebowski (1998), which promoted â&#x20AC;&#x153;Dudeism,â&#x20AC;? a philosophy built to combat societal inclinations towards aggression and excess. These films grew in popularity beyond initial box office release, and were publicized largely through word-of-mouth. The formation of a philosophy can be found in the distribution gem Clerks (1994), Kevin Smith's quirky comedy about two directionless store clerks trapped in the monotony of New Jersey. Although the film employs comedic gags to attract viewers, it's success lies beyond a simple adherence to the conventional body genre. It is more than simply a collection of feel-good laughs. The film promotes a contemporary philosophy that targets young movie-going audiences who find humor in the every-day life of loitering in New Jersey culture. The script created casual but clever dialogue that raises questions about the characters' theoretical beliefs on Star Wars, love vs. sex, and modern success. It celebrated friendly banter and friendship within the everyday mundane lives of the people who were likely to see the film in theaters. Bringing meaning to the every-day became a philosophy for Kevin Smith's cult followers, a theme that has continued to permeate throughout the director's work. The narrative of Clerks may have established the slacker philosophy, but the film itself


promoted a more artistic conviction for low-budget filmmaking. The film's aesthetics reveled in its low budget, promoting a do-it-yourself philosophy. It was filmed in black and white on 16mm film “that [was] only a hair more sophisticated than a day's worth of surveillance-camera footage.”11 Amateur actors who were friends of Kevin Smith played the roles and the entire film took place in one shooting location (See Figure 2). At no point, however, did the film or filmmaker apologize for this. The film took pride in its lack of funding, evidenced in the credits, where the “Boom Operator” was credited to “whoever happened to be holding the pole.” Kevin Smith's own presence in the film represented the lack of funding for professional actors. Scott Tobias describes, “There have been plenty of inspiring DIY success stories in independent film past and present, but Smith remains a special case. He's a true outsider: a Jersey boy who's downto-earth and fundamentally unpretentious; who likes Star Wars, comic books, and dirty jokes; and who could never be mistaken for a Hollywood phony.” The film was marketable because the low-budget nature of the film and nonchalance of its director created for an ultimate philosophy of “cool.” This is later reflected in the film's marketing, which will be discussed in a latter section. A Call for Imitation Another form of interactivity that makes a sellable film is imitable content. If a film promotes for audiences to imitate the main character or the dialogue, the film may have a financially successful future through merchandising and cult following. An audience's desire to emulate the behavior on screen catalyzes action on behalf of the consumer, in essence making the film interactive. If a film is influential, then it can continue to exist in a world beyond theaters and can penetrate other facets of the market. Notable films that have invited imitation include

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Tobia Scott. The New Cult Canon: Clerks. 2 April 2008. 6 April 2011 <http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-newcult-canon-clerks,2239/>.


Clueless (1995) for its valley girl dialect and Superbad (2009) for its vulgar and profane friendly banter. This imitability made Jared Hess' offbeat comedy Napoleon Dynamite such a marketable piece of work. The film followed the story of a high school outcast living in an eccentric western suburb. The film fell under the comedy body genre, but of course, did not gain such sweeping success by simply being funny. The oddball costumes, props and settings were ideal for merchandise marketing. The film simply screamed cult following. Its characters and their idiosyncrasies were remarkably iconic, and the dialogue was begging for imitation (See Figure 3). Napoleon's vernacular was inventive, unconventional, but most of all, emulatable. His characteristic catchphrases “Gosh!” Sweet!” and “Heck, Yeah!” created a new inheritable dictionary for viewers. On this same vein, the formation of a new dialect can be found in Rian Johnson’s neofilm noir crime drama Brick. The film told the story of a lonely teenager in search of the killer of his dead girlfriend within a tangled high-school crime circuit. The dialogue of the characters infused film noir with modern youth lingo to create a rich, flowery and imitable cool language that impressed and influenced viewers. An MTV article stated, “Thanks to the innovative new

film Brick, those old-school gangster words are flowing out of new-school gangsta mouths.”12 New terms such as “duck soup” (to be in trouble), “burg” (neighborhood) and “heel” (to get out as quickly as possible) left an impression on audiences. Another distribution gem that succeeded in creating a new vernacular was Swingers, which coined several casino terms and the use of the word "money" as an endearing adjective. As seen in the case of Napoleon Dynamite, Brick and Swingers were marketable because of their potential to create a new fad or trend. 12

Carrol, Larry. 'Brick' Star Compares Slang-Slingin' Film To Wu-Tang Clan. 30 March 2006. 25 March 2011 <http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1527217/brick-star-compares-film-wutang-clan.jhtml>.


The Dissolution of the Line between Reality and Fantasy Interaction with the screen can also be achieved when a film forces an audience to ask questions. This is the case with films that blur the line of reality and fiction in their aesthetics. This is often achieved with non-recognizable or amateur actors, a shaky handheld camera that implies it is not being operated by a professional and a natural setting that do not appear too lit or modified. “The aesthetics of the camcorder look, the shaky frame, the movement in and out of focus, the inability to keep the subject(s) within the frame, and the camcorder's portability,” 13 create an amateur look of authenticity that audiences are conditioned to trust. This “shaky cam” can only have this effect on viewers because movie-going audiences are so familiar with the manipulation of the scene in a Hollywood big-budget film that the amateur aesthetic seems to be a trustworthy antithesis by comparison. Presenting a fiction work as nonfiction “creates doubts, questions, rumors, a strong subject” and allows for “additional content, and the renewal of information.”14 The first film to popularize the “shaky cam” aesthetic to imply realism was not a big-budget film, but a distribution gem. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's mock-documentary The Blair Witch Project surprised audiences worldwide with its overwhelming success. The film was constructed from the allegedly “found footage” of the three student filmmakers who went missing in the Maryland woods while making a documentary about the myth of the Blair Witch. While the film could certainly be categorized under the horror body genre, intending to spook the audience, its success should be more attributed to the blending of the horror and documentary genres. Sanchez stated, “We wanted to shoot this thing in such a way that when you see it on the screen, it looks totally genuine, like a real documentary. Like a real home movie." Throughout the process of 13

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Roscoe, Jane. "The Blair Witch Project: Mock Documentary Goes Mainstream." Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 43.July (2000): 3-8. Godest, Olivier. Study Case : The Blair Witch Project, a transmedia reference ? 10 March 2011. 4 April 2011 <http://www.transmedialab.org/en/2011/03/10/etude-de-cas-the-blair-witch-project-une-reference-transmedia/>.


production, the filmmakers strove for naturalism, only divulging parts of the script daily to the three actors. They also used Global Positioning Systems to mark points in the woods, which the actors had to reach by map. They were never told what to expect when they reached certain points in the forest. Therefore, many of their on screen reactions were authentic and unscripted. The film's interactivity stemmed from the voyeuristic nature of the home movie, which allowed the audience to feel as if they were entering an uncensored, unedited reality alongside the characters. (See Figure 4) This created for an exceptionally marketable film. It is important to remember, though, that the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project presented the film as truth, a tactic that created debate amongst moviegoers. This campaign will be described further in the next section. Films that have blurred reality and fiction can find benefits in the “realist aesthetic” without having to claim that they are based on a truth. While big-budget films use 3D effects and special effects to make a film seem more “real,” the shaky cam style is another way to achieve this. The shaky cam trend has appealed mostly to the horror genre, in which a heightened sense of reality creates more fear in the viewer. This has been used in countless high-budget films after The Blair Witch Project, such as Cloverfield (2008) and District 9 (2009). The trend has become so popular in fact, that the shaky cam is beginning to receive backlash from audiences. The technique has been taken to extremes that can sometimes even cause motion sickness. Despite the backlash, one distribution gem that still succeeded in its use of the handheld camera aesthetic was the grossly successful film Paranormal Activity, directed by Oren Peli. The film chronicled a couple's journey in identifying the supernatural presence that was haunting their home, mostly at night. They set up a camera in the bedroom on a tripod every night, as the audience watched at the edge of their seats for any paranormal changes in the frame. Like The


Blair Witch Project, the film was presented as a documentary, although the claims over its authenticity were not present in the marketing of the film. But despite the lack of extra-textual claims of authenticity, the film felt real, with a common camcorder playing the part of the voyeuristic eye. Scenes in which the couple recorded themselves sleeping were shot by a still handheld camera resting on a tripod, which proved a camcorder could look “real” without overplaying the “shaky cam.” What distinguished Paranormal from Blair Witch was how far Peli was willing to push the audience's faith in the camera and its operator. The appearance of a low-budget handheld camera strengthened the audience's suspension of disbelief. However, in the final minutes of the film, the director employed special effects when the character of Katie gets dragged by her foot out of bed and down the hall by an invisible force. The audience may have forgotten for a moment that a professional was in fact capturing the film with access to special effects; a form of post-production that would be unavailable to the layperson that audiences had begun to believe was controlling the cinematic apparatus. By building a world in which viewers put faith in the camera and its operator, then betraying that trust by employing special effects, Oren Peli created an incredibly believable horror sequence. And the more belief a viewer is able to place in a horror film’s reality, the greater the interactive bodily response of terror will be formed. Distribution & Marketing: How Selling Buzz Creates Interactivity No matter how marketable a final produced film may be, it still requires the backing of a marketing and distribution team to bring attention to the film and to get it into theaters. The distribution gems I am examining represent ideal transactions for distributors— the distributor buys the film from the producer for an extremely low price, works with a marketing team to market the film, and earns millions off of the film's success in theaters. Distributors and


marketers specialize in advertising a film appropriately in order to grab the attention of the public sphere. Of course, this is easier said than done when the film has no recognizable stars, no special effects and no 3D gimmick to draw audiences with. Gerard Hauser defines the public sphere as “a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment.”15 By definition, it may seem as if the public sphere relies on the creative industries for valuable entertainment off which to base its opinion, but there is actually a two-way dependence between the producer and consumer. While producers generate creative media for the viewer to consume, they rely on the opinions and actions of the viewer to support their endeavors. This means that the choice of films that distributors adopt is dictated by the judgments of consumers in the public sphere. Theorist Chris Bilton describes, “Cultural products are increasingly valued on the consumer's own terms... [there is a] shift in the value chain towards the consumer as the site where value is ultimately determined... Consumers make their own sense out of the products of the creative industries; they participate in a collective creative process, seeking out shared sources of value, identity and meaning from the raw materials presented to them.... [these meanings] may be at several removes from anything conceived by the product's originators.”16 This has become a growing concern for producers, especially since the emergence of the web generation. The Internet has created an accessible, global arena for discourse relating films, directors, actors etc. amongst the very audience that these films are targeting. What this means for distributors and marketers is that audiences cannot simply be coerced into seeing and enjoying a film. Marketers and distributors must accept that there is, to some 15

16

Hauser, Gerard A. "Vernacular dialogue and the rhetoricality of public opinion." Communication Monographs 65.2 (1998): 83-107. Bilton, Chris. Management and creativity: From creative industries to creative management . Malden: Blackwell, 2007.


degree, a lack of control over how the public sphere will consume a production. There are two ways in which word of a film can reach audiences— from deliberately conceived marketing plans organized by marketers and distributors, or emerging from random, unplanned interactions such as word-of-mouth. But marketing should not be thought of as either emergent or deliberate. Chris Bilton states, “The reality... is that successful films contain elements of both 'emergent' and 'deliberate' approaches to their marketing.” A good deliberate marketing campaign will promote the emergence of word-of-mouth if it builds through its deliberate marketing if it builds enough interactive buzz. Interactive buzz both sheds light upon a film and promotes the involvement of the public sphere that will inevitably force its own meanings and values onto the film. Greg Thomas Jr. defines buzz as, “the interaction of consumers and users of a product or service which serves to amplify the original marketing message.”17 By this definition, it is clear to see that interactivity and buzz go hand in hand. Without buzz, a film's marketing campaign cannot involve audiences, but without interactivity, audiences have no reason to perpetuate the buzz. Initiating an interactive buzz is the cheapest way to spread attention to a film because it ends in the hands of the consumer and is carried word-of-mouth by the very filmgoers that marketers are trying to reach. Word-of-mouth is essential because it provides free marketing, and because moviegoers trust friends, family and even critics more than they trust advertisers. Buzz is what makes audiences become active moviegoers. In the next following subsections, I will identify several strategies that have been used by marketers of distribution gems in order to create interactive buzz. These strategies were vital to these films' campaigns because without the consumer’s participation, any film's marketing

17

Jr., Greg Metz Thomas. "Building the Buzz in the Hive Mind." Journal of Consumer Behavior 4.1 (2006): 6472.


campaign is likely to fail. The Moviegoer as Detective Al Lieberman and Patricia Esgate explain, “One of the most unique aspects of the independent filmgoer is that he/she enjoys discovering a movie for him/herself. The independent audience does not like in-your-face marketing. Independent marketers are challenged to reach their audience without the audience knowing.”18 Viewers sometimes prefer to dig deep into the worlds of films like investigators or detectives on their own accord, and do not need to be coerced into seeing the film if enough buzz is created. A marketing campaign can create an air of mystery around a film to lure an audience to theaters for answers. This was the aspiration behind the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project, debatably the most famous marketing campaign of the nineties and on. Artisan maintained their poker face in asserting that The Blair Witch Project was a work of nonfiction with unanswered questions. Sanchez created the website www.blairwitch.com to perpetuate the myth of the Blair Witch. Artisan posted fake newspaper clippings of the characters' alleged disappearance, folklore of the Maryland woods they were lost in, and police photos of their abandoned car. Sixteen hours of “lost” footage were leaked weekly onto the site so that audience could discover the myth on their own terms. By nature, urban legend is meant to be passed on word-of-mouth, making it a perfect starting point for interactive buzz. Curious detective-like viewers did all of the work for Artisan. “By the time Artisan picked up the movie at the Sundance Film Festival in January, there already was a community of Web-surfing tastemakers who knew the fate of student auteurs Heather, Josh and Mike, and were anticipating the movie's release.”19 At some point, the site was logging 3 18

19

Lieberman, Al. The Entertainment Marketing Revolution: Bringing the Moguls, the Media and the Magic to the World. Upper Saddle River: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002. Stanley, T. L. "High-Tech Throwback - Marketing of "Blair Witch Project"." 27 September 1999. BNet. 18 April 2011 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0BDW/is_36_40/ai_56023086/pg_2/?tag=mantle_skin;content>.


million hits a day. Ultimately, there was only one print advertisement for the film that marketed it as a successful product rather than a must-see narrative. Artisan took out a full-page advertisement in Variety to proclaim: Blairwitch.comâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; 21,222,589 hits to date. Focusing on the popularity of the website, rather than the film itself formed the buzz. From the marketing success of The Blair Witch Project, marketers found that by slowly releasing information about the myth and the film, there was space left for audiences to long for more. This creation of curiosity could also be seen in the marketing strategy for Catfish eleven years later that toted the tagline "Don't let anyone tell you what it is." The film tells the documentary-style story of a student who finds intrigue and deception in an Internet Facebook friend. The film's trailer builds to a climax that the marketing campaign stresses the audience must to discover on their own. Catfish provides audiences with the satisfaction of joining the filmmaker on a journey of solving a mystery. This leads to an emphasis on not just the plot line, but on the experience of movie-going itself. Promotion of the Theater-Going Experience In every one of the rare, phenomenal cases of distribution gems, a lot of attention has been given to promoting the actual timely act of theater going while the film is still in theatrical release. Promoting the movie-going experience is extremely important for several reasons. For one, the availability of infringed material on the Internet can hurt theater attendance. The Internet is an outlet for streaming films through legal sites such as Netflix and Hulu, as well as illegal sites that host pirated material. The accessibility from home may deter a viewer from coming to theaters. Additionally, successful cinema releases are essential because they create a marquee value for films that carry over to DVD, TV, pay-per-view and other viewing trajectories.20 Because low-budget distribution gems cannot not attract viewers with awe-inspiring technologies 20

Marich, Robert. Marketing to Movie Goers. Oxford: Elsevier, 2005. pg 15.


of 3D or bigger-than-life special effects, their marketing campaigns have to cleverly sell the cinematic experience in other ways. Paramount Pictures boosted a brilliant campaign that stressed the act of movie going for Paranormal Activity through an innovative trailer. Trailers have become an even more important form of publicity for low-budget films since presence of the Internet because â&#x20AC;&#x153;websites post trailers and TV commercials free, providing a huge promotional platform.â&#x20AC;?21 Paramount inexpensively produced a trailer that spread like wildfire over the Internet. It gave audiences a taste of what to expect in theaters. Rather than showing clips from the film as most traditional trailers do, Paramount went a different routeâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; they projected the faces of first-time viewers of the film through what looked like the lens of a hidden camera. The audience members in the trailer look terrified, clinging to one another in fear (See Figure 5). Those who watched the trailer were given an insight as to what to expect from watching the film, which was to be scared. This promoted the thrill of Williams' body genre as previously defined. The trailer also included shots showing the lines of people waiting outside screenings to watch the film, once again promoting popularity rather than the product. Although the content of the film itself was extremely overlooked in the trailer, moviegoers were drawn to research the film themselves in order to find out what had horrified the projected audience so badly. This, of course, returns to the idea of selling mystery to potential audiences. The Marketability of Controversy Marketers can sell an entirely different kind of experience in theaters through controversial publicity. If a film's marketing campaign is constructed to specifically stir controversy, it invites viewers to watch the film and form opinions for themselves. In the case of

21

Marich, Robert. Marketing to Movie Goers. Oxford: Elsevier, 2005. pg. 8


controversial marketing, the desire to watch the film in theaters is an extremely timely affair. If a controversial film gathers enough buzz through word-of-mouth, viewers will want to see the film in order to form an opinion of it while the film is still being discussed in the public sphere. Sometimes controversial publicity also simply appeals to the curiosity of viewers. This was the case with Morgan Spurlock's anti-McDonald's gimmick film Super Size Me. The film proved that sometimes there is no such thing as bad publicity. Spurlock admitted in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times that, “Every time McDonald's said something to attack the movie... it helped.” Each time that the film was rejected by a big corporation, Spurlock took this seemingly disadvantageous situation to promote the film's content. For example, the film won the MTV New Documentary prize, but the network could not play the film's commercial because of MTV's advertising ties (and reliance) on McDonald's funding. For a film without a specifically controversial stance against corporate fast-food chains, this would have been very detrimental to its marketing campaign. However, in the case of Super Size Me, MTV's refusal to air the commercial only strengthened Spurlock's claim as he announced, “It shows how much power is being wielded by the food industry— and how much information we're not getting.”22 For the ad to be approved, certain phrases such as “You'll die” and images of the filmmaker vomiting had to be omitted. But even though the censored trailer was eventually aired, news of the fast-food company's media manipulation caught in the news, and McDonalds' attempt to manage the situation crossed them. Exhibition: The Strategy of Bringing Buzz to the Screen Exhibition is the final area of control for the producer in film marketing before a film is released to the public. There are a lot of contingent factors to take into consider before releasing

22

Dutka, Elaine. "Super Size Me Controversy Not a Big Deal After All as MTV Runs Ad." 28 May 2004. Los Angeles Times. 19 February 2011.


a film. Despite a successful marketing campaign in both production and distribution, producers can fail in the final step of delivering the film properly to interested viewers, as previously stated by the complexity theory. There is no one general rule for exhibiting a film. Each individual production requires specific preparations and considerations on behalf of distributors when working in conjunction with exhibitors. The first major decision that is often made, though, is categorizing the film as either being in wide or narrow circulation. Hollywood films are projected widely throughout the nation through exhibition contracts with corporations such as Loews, AMC or Regal. Independent films often do not have the luxury of wide release. With a smaller assumed niche audience, it is too big of a risk to widely release a film if an audience is not certain to flock to theaters. If an independent film isn't screening in major theaters, there is a much smaller chance that the film will be watched by many. It may flourish within the independent circuit, but limited exhibition often keeps a film from going mainstream, and in turn, making money in box offices. On the other hand, overestimating an audience for an independent film can lead to empty theaters and major financial losses. It is the typical supply-demand struggle, with a fear of offering too much supply with too little demand, or not meeting the supply of an overwhelming demand. This is why there are several classes of releases. Releases range from exclusive runs, involving just one theater per city, limited releases, including several theaters per city, wide pattern releases that play at 600 to 1,999 theaters, and saturation releases, that range from 2,000 to 2,999. 23 Due to contingency, low-budget independent films are rarely released widely or saturated. So how did these distribution gem films manage to garner so much in the box office? Certainly they could not have restricted their audience to a couple of screens nationwide. In the following subsections, I will define the various strategies that the producers and distributors of these films 23

Marich, Robert. Marketing to Movie Goers. Oxford: Elsevier, 2005.


employed to decide on release schedules and prepare for the film's release in theaters. Reveling in the Low-Budget Directors and distributors often see having a low budget in film production as a disadvantage. But with the right marketing strategy, this can be the very selling point that attracts viewers to the theater. The distribution gems I am examining never apologized for being low budget, but rather, reveled in the fact. The low-budget quality became the backbone of the marketing campaign. Often, distributors of independent films fear releasing the film opposite a heavily anticipated Hollywood rival. But this approach assumes that all moviegoers will overlook the film. In some cases, accentuating the non-Hollywood aspects of a film can be a marketing ploy in itself. Tom Bernard, a distributor at Sony Picture Classics, described the decision-making process that the team for Todd Solondz' 1996 film Welcome to the Dollhouse underwent in fighting this sort of opposition. He stated, â&#x20AC;&#x153;The reason we chose Memorial Day [as a release date] was because everyone else was running away from Memorial Day because that was the day Mission: Impossible was going to open. We purposefully wanted to open opposite Mission: Impossible because three years earlier we opened Orlando opposite Jurassic Park. We were really criticized, but we put in our ads for Orlando, 'If you don't want to see a dinosaur this weekend, there is always Orlando.' And the fact of the matter is, there is a sizeable audience out there... whose first choice is not Jurassic Park or Mission: Impossible.â&#x20AC;?24 These successful independent films have faith in their demographic, and use the opposing massive release as a way to draw viewers, rather than fall into a trap of helplessness that many other independent films undergo. Reveling in the low budget can also be a tactic for publicizing a film and it's director. Bernard explained, â&#x20AC;&#x153;A low-budget like [Welcome to the Dollhouse] was positioned as an 24

Lukk, Tiiu. Movie Marketing: Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997. pg. 123.


American independent movie made on a shoestring by a director, financed with his credit cards and by his parents and private investors... the goal was to make it a very cool, hip, entertaining this to go see.”25The distribution gem Clerks used a similar release strategy. As the film was exhibited in theaters, newspaper and magazine critics celebrated that “[Kevin Smith] wrote the screenplay for Clerks while working at a Quick Stop in Leonardo, New Jersey [and that he] shot in the store at night with $27,000 that he raised in part by selling his comic-book collection.”26 Smith's accessibility as a non-celebrity director was stressed in Clerks' exhibition to combat the Hollywood tyrants. But of course, there is a limit to what independent, or any film, can compete against on a release calendar. It is important to avoid releasing a film at the same time as events such as the Olympics, the World Series or the Superbowl, because these events often leave theaters empty, despite strong buzz or anticipation for the film. Measuring and Drawing Out Film Anticipation to Pack Theaters Another fact to take into consideration when releasing a film is how much buzz has already been generated about it. Michael Barker, another distributor at Sony Picture Classics, explained in regards to Welcome to the Dollhouse that, “It became obvious to us that the picture was going to have such great word-of-mouth that we shouldn't rush it... The more people buzz about this picture before it opens, the better off it is.”27 There is a fine line between releasing the film too early and releasing it too late. If a film is exhibited too early, then it is not reaching its full potential because not enough publicity and marketing has gone towards advertising it. If the film is released too late, audiences may have moved on from the buzz and abandoned it. It is best 25 26

27

Lukk, Tiiu. Movie Marketing: Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997. Wasserstein, Ben. "The Man with 50,000 Friends: how Kevin Smith Accidentally Invented the Future of Movie Marketing." 16 July 2006. New York Magazine. 30 March 2011 <http://nymag.com/movies/profiles/17663/>. Lukk, Tiiu. Movie Marketing: Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997.pg 121.


to project the film when the anticipation is at its absolute highest. There are ways to magnify this anticipation, though, by stalling wider release. Sometimes if there is an overwhelming demand, holding back immediate supply can be a good release strategy. This was the case with several of these distribution gems. Most notable was the release schedule for The Blair Witch Project, which generated much pent-up demand for exhibition. The anticipation for the film was astounding, yet Artisan did not make it instantly accessible for guaranteed audiences. “With the movie opening on so few screens, shows began selling out days in advance. Amir Malin, co-president of Artisan Entertainment said it was all part of the plan: 'it's a difficult ticket to get, which was part of the concept... People do have the experience of going and not being able to get in.... What we're doing is creating that buzz factor on the film. If you want to be in the know, if you want to be in the right place at the right time, you should be seeing Blair Witch.'"28 After the success of these original screenings, The Blair Witch Project went from playing as an exclusive run to a wide release, but this happened gradually. It expanded on July 30th to 800 screens, and even more on August 6th. Roger Ebert applauded the clever tactic, stating, “Had they opened the movie wide, Eyes Wide Shut would have been in first place that weekend, and Blair Witch would have been second or third.... Now they're able to say, 'Eyes Wide Shut opened at No. 1, but The Blair Witch Project is a sleeper success.'”29 Sony also employed this strategy for Welcome to the Dollhouse, in which Sony purposefully put the film in theaters so small that there would be long lines outside, drawing attention. Besides building pent-up demand, there is another benefit to a packed theater. The interaction between viewers in crowded theaters enhances the movie-going experience, 28

29

Carvell, Tim. "How The Blair Witch Project Built Up So Much Buzz." 16 August 1999. CNN Money: Fortune. 20 February 2011 <http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1999/08/16/264276/index.htm>. Silver, Jon. "The Blair Witch Project: A Marketing Case Study." 11 April 2011. Queensland University of Technology. 18 April 2011 <http://eprints.qut.edu.au/41191/>.


especially in the case of body genres. “Comedies and horror films both strive to inspire a highly specific emotional reactions — laughs and shrieks — and it’s easier to tune into those emotions when you’re in a crowd of fellow viewers. This is why the vast majority of comedies always seem less funny when you watch them alone.”30 Psychologists have found that the “intensity of the collective emotion of a crowd is favored by the fact that each member of a crowd tends to lose to some extent his sense of personal identity and responsibility— each man is apt to let himself go.”31 This group behavior was apparent to Michael Barker upon the first screening of Welcome to the Dollhouse. He described, “The audience viewed the film in a kind of communal spirit and the black comedy of the film really came out. When there were very few people in the audience, the picture was viewed as a very dark, depressing, bleak movie that wasn't funny at all. So we immediately came to the conclusion that this is a picture that needs to be seen with a large group of people.”32 A packed theater can deliberately help steer the emerging opinion of a developing public sphere. Because the horror and comedy genres are so reliant on the interactivity between the crowd and the screen, it is important to make sure theaters are packed at release for at-least opening weekend so that the critical reception and word-of-mouth can promote the fun in the experience of seeing the film. A wide release with under-filled seats is dangerous, because “the more play dates with screens a film has, the more likely the film's perscreen average will be diluted because each additional wave of theater bookings cannibalizes the audience further.”33 The Appeal of “Free” Merchandise Another tactic for releasing a film is not making the audience pay at all. Sometimes, the 30

31 32

33

Franich, Darren. 'Insidious' in a crowded theater: Are some films better with a loud, talking audience? 3 April 2011. 19 April 2011 <http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/04/03/insidious-audience/>. McDougall, William. Psychology: The Study of Behavior. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1912. pg 240. Lukk, Tiiu. Movie Marketing: Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997. pg 117. Marich, Robert. Marketing to Movie Goers. Oxford: Elsevier, 2005. pg 181.


hardest obstacle in marketing a film is convincing the audience why they need to pay to see the film, as opposed to downloading pirated content online in their homes or skipping the film altogether. Consumers are fans of anything labeled “free.” Fox Searchlight Pictures kept this in mind when exhibiting Napoleon Dynamite. To spread word of the film, the company offered completely free screenings to introduce Napoleon to audiences. Enough faith was put into the marketable, entertaining film that they believed (and rightfully so) that those who had seen the film at a free screening would spread good word-of-mouth to friends and family. This would ultimately attract “virgin” viewers to screenings that charged. Fox Searchlight also drew viewers with attractive and free merchandise. “T-shirts went to 70,000 attendees of 350 screenings in 65 cities who were given in-jokey gee-gaws (pins, Chapsticks) when they presented a 'frequent viewer card' at subsequent screenings. About 1,000 saw it three times.” 34 Nancy Utley, the studio's marketing president, stated, “We spent a disproportionate amount of our ad budget on promo items to make the fans walking billboards.” This created a marketing campaign in which the consumer was fully interacting with the product. By offering the film for free, fans felt less coerced and more willing to spread the word by their own accord, which resulted in a successful word-of-mouth campaign. Giving the Power of Distribution to the People A new, but extremely successful method of release that has just recently become a more common custom for independent films is mediating the divide between distribution and exhibition by giving the power of distribution to the people. Through several interactive websites, consumers are able to “demand” a film to come to a theater near them. This method is an innovative way to eliminate a lot of the risk in the distribution-exhibition relationship. It gives distributors a better idea of which areas to make exhibition contracts with, what type of consumer 34

Ebenkam, Becky. "Fox Searchlight Gets out the Vote (Sweet!)." Brandweek 45.42 (2004): 32.


the film is attracting, and guarantees a minimum audience of people already devoted to the buzz of the film. This is an enormous relief for distributors who have been forced to make estimations of potential viewers for years based off of past trends and market research, and helps avoid catastrophic film flops. Paramount Pictures utilized this tactic when releasing Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity. “After midnight screenings in Los Angeles and select college towns elicited unprecedented amounts of demand at the studio and at local theaters, Ms. Colligan and her co-president of marketing, Josh Greenstein, teamed up with Eventful, a user-generated entertainment booking site of sorts... Fans across the country could demand — literally, it turns out, by hitting a "Demand" button on its website — that the movie screen in their area... Once "Paranormal Activity" [reached] 1 million Demands on its Eventful page, Paramount [released] the movie within a reasonable radius of all the fans who demanded the movie by providing their age and zip code. ”35 This campaign proved that a film does not have to be successful in immediate wide release for it to succeed; it just has to reach the audience it is intended for first. Once the original group of fans had the opportunity to watch the film (and brought friends), the word-of-mouth came naturally. This was the case with the website for Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman's documentary Catfish as well, which allowed fans to request the film in their area. 36 Of course, the “demand-it” tactic would not have worked for Paranormal Activity and Catfish if they hadn't had a considerable amount of buzz already circling the film, because audiences must be familiar with the film in order to demand it. Both film campaigns released compelling trailers that they pushed through contemporary social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Sarah Hoftetter, Senior VP-emerging media and client strategy for 360i, described 35

36

Hempp, Andrew. How Paranormal Activity Hit it Big. 12 Oct 2009. 28 January 2011 <http://adage.com/print? article_id=139588>>. Rogue Network. Catfish. <http://www.iamrogue.com/catfish>.


how "using social media as a marketing vehicle as well as a market-research vehicle is a major advantage. Not only do they know who's interested in it from a geographic perspective, they can quantify the demand from a buzz perspective."37 Being able to quantify the buzz is a distributor's dream come true, as it produces a quota that can be used to dictate exhibition funding more accurately than an educated guess. This means that distributors may not have to waste money on large-scale TV campaigns if they can speak directly to the fans. Confidence in the Film Festival Tradition Perhaps the most popular way in which an independent low-budget film is initially exhibited is through film festivals, although this is not the final destination of exhibition for these films. Often, films that are presented at festivals appeal to a smaller, independent niche audience, and have not been signed to a distribution deal yet. S. Montal describes, â&#x20AC;&#x153;Festivals are a more accessible route to looking for distribution deals as films are submitted through open call, they have very low entry fees and the outcomes of the festival are publicized.â&#x20AC;?

38

This means that

films with low-budgets stand a chance being screened for audiences that can carry word-ofmouth for them and distributors and marketers who can bring the film to a wider public. Film festivals muddle the roles of distribution and exhibition, as the exhibition of the film leads to the distribution, which leads to a wider release of exhibition. The benefit of this is that distributors get an idea of how initial audiences responded to the initial exhibition, which can help with determining the key demographic their marketing strategies should try to reach. Conclusion: Keeping up with the Public Sphere Although it may seem as if I have outlined a blueprint for future successes of distribution gems through production, distribution and exhibition strategies, it still is important to recognize 37

Dukky. Dukky. 26 October 2009. 16 April 2011 <http://dukky.com/2009/10/%E2%80%9Cparanormal-activity %E2%80%9D-and-the-power-of-social-media/>.

38

Montal, S. The Movie Business Book. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, 2006.


that there is no formula for box office success. These distribution gems succeeded in part because of the marketing strategies, but also because their innovations were temporally phenomenal in nature. Most distribution gems were one-of-a-kind at the time of their release in either their marketing strategies or narrative content. There is plenty to be learned from the case studies presented, but they can never be exactly replicated, only expanded upon. Often there are sequels produced for distribution gems. This is because, as established in the introduction, the film industry is a high-risk trade that grants little power of prediction. “The industry capitalizes in emergent opportunities with a decisive commitment of resources,” and if an original film is successful, then it reduces the risk of the sequel entering theaters with no expected market.39 Sequels of these distribution gems have proven that some tactics are simply not replicable. For example, the appeal of the original Blair Witch Project came from the curiosity of viewers discovering if the myth was fact or fiction. The sequel to the original hit Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), proved that without the blurring of fantasy and reality, audiences were not as intrigued by the urban legend. The $15 million film garnered roughly $26 million40 in box offices, significantly less profit than the original blockbuster, and received atrocious reviews. According to critic Michael Phillips Jr., “In addition to being ill-advised, this film ranks on lists of: Worst Sequels, Worst Movies, and Worst Example of Film-making to Cash in on a Trend. It bears little to no resemblance to its much superior namesake. It completely abandoned the pseudo-documentary style that made the original so, well, original.” 41 Despite some unsuccessful sequels, several distribution gems have inspired profitable follow-ups by not employing the exact marketing strategies of the original. By keeping and 39

40 41

Bilton, Chris. Management and creativity: From creative industries to creative management . Malden: Blackwell, 2007. Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo. 23 April 2011 Jr., Michael Phillips. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. 21 April 2011


expanding on elements of the originals that could timelessly work with audiences and by eliminating gimmicks that could not be repeated, some sequels have seen success both in box offices and in their critical reception. Two notable examples are Kevin Smith’s Clerks II (2006) that garnered over $24 million domestically with a $5 million budget, and Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) that made over $84 million with a $3 million budget. 42 Clerks II was filmed as a more conventional Hollywood film with star Rosario Dawson, although the original amateur cast members Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson returned as well. The beloved friendly banter of the characters was maintained, but the aesthetics of the film no longer reveled in the low budget. Rather, it celebrated Kevin Smith’s success from his humble beginnings with 16mm black-and-white film. This is evident in the first scene of the film that transitions from a black-and-white shot of the convenience store the main characters work in, to a colored, high-quality image of the store on fire. Paranormal Activity 2 preserved the blending of reality and fiction in its aesthetics but, as critic Vic Holtreman describes, “The film managed to take what made the first film interesting and expand and intensify it.” 43 The film still played with the anticipation and thrill of discovering a paranormal commotion on screen through drawn out static shots of security tapes, but appropriated this concept into a larger, more unnerving space. What can we learn from the success and flops of these sequels? Temporality plays an enormous role in how the public sphere will consume a film. As the role of the consumer grows in importance, it is essential for marketing practices to keep up with moviegoers' understanding of film marketing. Film marketing must mature from simply projecting advertising upon the viewer to creating interactivity with the viewer, but it also must constantly evolve in order to still draw the attention of the public sphere which ultimately has the last say on a film’s future. 42 43

Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo. 23 April 2011 Holtreman, Vic. Paranormal Activity 2 Review. 21 April 2011 http://screenrant.com/paranormal-activity-2reviews-vic-84004/.


Works Cited Bilton, Chris. Management and creativity: From creative industries to creative management . Malden: Blackwell, 2007. Bowles, Scott. Film's big year could have been even bigger. 25 December 2007. 22 March 2011 <http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2007-12-25-year-in-review-box-office_N.htm>. Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo. 23 April 2011 <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/? id=blairwitch2.htm)>. Carrol, Larry. 'Brick' Star Compares Slang-Slingin' Film To Wu-Tang Clan. 30 March 2006. 25 March 2011 <http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1527217/brick-star-compares-film-wutangclan.jhtml>. Carvell, Tim. "How The Blair Witch Project Built Up So Much Buzz." 16 August 1999. CNN Money: Fortune. 20 February 2011 <http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1999/08/16/264276/index.htm>. Chandler, Zan. "Prosumer: The Consumer as Content Producer." 22 August 2010. 2020 Media Features. 6 April 2011 <http://2020mediafutures.ca/The+Prosumer %3A+Consumer+as+content+producer>. Dukky. Dukky. 26 October 2009. 16 April 2011 <http://dukky.com/2009/10/%E2%80%9Cparanormal-activity%E2%80%9D-and-the-power-ofsocial-media/>. Dutka, Elaine. "Super Size Me Controversy Not a Big Deal After All as MTV Runs Ad." 28 May 2004. Los Angeles Times. 19 February 2011. Ebenkam, Becky. "Fox Searchlight Gets out the Vote (Sweet!)." Brandweek 45.42 (2004): 32. Fish, Stanley. "Interpreting the "Variorum"." Critical Inquiry 2.3 (1976): 465-485. Franich, Darren. 'Insidious' in a crowded theater: Are some films better with a loud, talking audience? 3 April 2011. 19 April 2011 <http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/04/03/insidiousaudience/>. Godest, Olivier. Study Case : The Blair Witch Project, a transmedia reference ? 10 March 2011. 4 April 2011 <http://www.transmedialab.org/en/2011/03/10/etude-de-cas-the-blair-witch-projectune-reference-transmedia/>. Hauser, Gerard A. "Vernacular dialogue and the rhetoricality of public opinion." Communication


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Filmography Big Mac: Inside the McDonalds Empire . Dir. CNBC. 2007. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Dir. Joe Berlinger. Perf. Stephen Barker Turner, Erica Leerhsen Jeffrey Donovan. 2000. Brick. Dir. Rian Johnson. Perf. Lukas Haas Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 2005. Catfish. Dir. Henry Joost. Perf. Ariel Schulman, Yaniv Schulman Melody C. Roscher. 2010. Clerks. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti Brian O'Halloran. 1994. Clerks II. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson Brian O'Halloran. 2006. Cloverfield. Dir. Matt Reeves. Perf. Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan Mike Vogel. 2008. Clueless. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Perf. Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy Alicia Silverstone. 1995. District 9. Dir. Neill Blomkamp. Perf. David James, Jason Cope Sharlto Copley. 2009. Fahrenheit 9/11. Dir. Michael Moore. Perf. Michael Moore. 2004. Fahrenhype 9/11. Dir. Alan Peterson. Perf. Eileen McGann, Edward Koch Dick Morris. 2004. Fast Food Nation. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Bruce Willis, Catalina Sandino Moreno Greg Kinnear. 2006. Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter Brad Pitt. 1999.


Jurassic Park. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum Sam Neill. 1993. Michael Moore Hates America. Dir. Michael Wilson. Perf. Dinesh D'Souza and Peter Damon Andrew Breitbart. 2004. Mission: Impossible. Dir. Brian de Palma. Perf. Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart Tom Cruise. 1996. Napoleon Dynamite. Dir. Jared Hess. Perf. Efren Ramirez Jon Heder. 2004. Orlando. Dir. Sally Potter. Perf. Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp Tilda Swinton. 1992. Paranormal Activity 2. Dir. Tod Williams. Perf. Micah Sloat, Molly Ephraim Katie Featherson. 2010. Paranormal Activity. Dir. Oren Peli. Perf. Micah Sloat Katie Featherston. 2007. Pi. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Perf. Sean Gullette. 1998. Slacker. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Rudy Basquez, Jean Caffeine Richard Linklater. 1991. Super Size Me. Dir. Morgan Spurlock. Perf. Daryl Isaacs, Lisa Ganjhu Morgan Spurlock. 2004. Swingers. Dir. Heather Graham, Jon Favreau Vince Vaughn. Perf. Doug Liman. 1996. The Big Lebowski. Dir. Ethan Cohen Joel Cohen. Perf. John Goodman, Julianna Moore Jeff Bridges. 1998. The Blair Witch Project. Dir. Eduardo Sanchez Daniel Myrick. Perf. Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard Heather Donahue. 1999. The Brothers McMullen. Dir. Edward Burns. Perf. Mike McGlone, Edward Burns Jack Mulcahy. 1995. Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dir. Todd Solondz. Perf. Christina Brucato, Victoria Davis Heather Matarazzo. 1995.


Low-Budget, High-Profit: The Journey of the Distribution Gem from Production to Consumption