Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Second Test for IMC

Act I. The Campaign

In attempting to market District 9 to American audiences, Sony Pictures had a difficult task. There were no big stars in the film, save for the producer-attachment of Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson. Though the Sci-Fi element and the aliens that come with the genre intrigue people, the extraterrestrials in the film were grotesque-looking, labeled as “prawns” throughout the movie. District 9 was not based on a series of novels by a Philip Dick or a H.G. Wells; nor was the film shot and released in 3-D, an element of today’s movie market that contributed to a 10% year-over-year increase in domestic box office receipts, according to the MPAA. So, why did the movie end up grossing, according to Box Office Mojo, $115.6 million domestically? Sure the Oscar®-nominated product itself was a great film, but there had to be some strong marketing that generated buzz for its August 14, 2009 opening weekend. Let me take you through Sony’s campaign.

The promotion for District 9 began, like many movies that may attract geeks (a term of endearment for science fiction fans), at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2008. One of the signs displayed near restrooms at the multi-genre arts conference showed an insectoid alien with a red ‘X’ going across its body, and stating that the restrooms were only for human use; a website link to (where users could choose to be either human or non-human) was displayed at the bottom of the sign. One Comic-Con visitor also noticed that, throughout the halls and the walls of the conference center, similarly mysterious banners hung, also with the website link featured. At that point, the website only had a few features so as to keep the story and the content a secret; users could input a human access code to tour digitally the various areas in the South African region, looked over by the fictional Multi-National United (MNU).

This passive demonstration (and website) began the rollercoaster of buzz that Sony would create for District 9. Once the end of May 2009 hit, Sony got into full swing trying to get the buzz going. (Note that, by this point, there had been some interest in the movie and movie geeks were desperate to learn more about the story and content.) It began the welding of traditional and viral tactics by placing outdoor billboards with similarly cryptic messages (It also displayed a new toll-free phone number that offered humans advice for living in District 9 and integrated more content into the original website.) like, “All non-humans banned from this area.” The advertisers involved were deft in their copywriting (considering that many pieces were placed in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles) by specifying that the targets of these billboards were “non-humans,” as opposed to “illegal aliens.” (Note, however, that the segregation theme still aroused much interest regardless.) In areas with more available space (understandably present considering the Great Recession), the marketers placed area-specific boards with the actual movie posters; these offerings rolled out as the August 14th release date neared. In addition to standard billboard spots, the marketers also placed pieces (again, the level of mysteriousness decreased as the released date approached) at bus stops, bus benches, on buses, inside of buses, and near public restrooms. Also, about a month before the movie was released, the marketers began placing these signs in the windows of movie theaters; unlike the outdoor efforts, these offerings were more ubiquitous because of the theaters’ vested interest.

Before I move on to the film’s more traditional movie marketing, it is important to note that Sony toed the annoying-intriguing line perfectly. Not only did many moviegoers take and share pictures of the boards, they investigated them on blogs and Google, and attempted to gain more insight from During a two-week period in June, the phone hotline (on which callers could also report illegal non-humans to the MNU) received more than 33,000 calls; additionally, the initial teaser trailer on YouTube received more than 20 million views for the month. Also, District 9 was the third most frequent trending topic on microblogging service Twitter (for movies); not only was the buzz after the release date brimming, the buzz beforehand increased interest considerably. As demonstrated in this study, the amount of attention on Twitter given to a movie correlates highly (more highly than a box office prediction market) to that movie’s opening box office ranking. This demonstrates not that Sony’s intention was to drum up high amounts of Tweets, but to create a substantial amount of buzz that led to high levels of interest in the movie.

It is also important to discuss the extensiveness of the online offering Sony brought to the table for District 9. In addition to the general site (which gradually added trailers and content as it related to the story from MNU’s point of view), Sony created five other sites (which went live as the summer of 2009 approached) for added engagement with the film’s world. There included: an MNU training simulation, an MNU alert game, the main site for Multi-National United, a site that featured a mathematical aptitude test for humans, and a blog authored by character Christopher Johnson who, a prawn himself, provided the non-human perspective. (The blog featured actual protests.) Other than the math site, which was too pedestrian, these sites all engaged users and brought them closer to the experience of the world of District 9. For late adopters of the movie or just simply rabid fans, the sites are still live, as of April 2010. For the even more rabid and more technologically advanced fans, District 9 became one of the first movies to utilize augmented reality in its campaign. Interestingly enough, this recently conceived term is not in reference to a consumer’s potential involvement in the product’s story. Instead augmented reality, as explained by the producer of D9’s application, refers to a technology wherein a physical image can be identified by a camera (either on a computer or mobile device) and allow a user to access some sort of multimedia engagement tool (in D9’s case, a game). At this point, the technology is so new and so in need of small shifts in consumer behavior that it probably is not profitable; however, the AR was fun for early adopters and will become more ubiquitous.

Much like the outdoor work that welded traditional and viral/social, there were some newspaper advertisements with the campaign messages. Although the D9 posters would also be placed in newspapers, the fact that Sony distributed the intriguing banner along the side of the Entertainment section demonstrated great confidence in their efforts to stimulate interest. Note that much of the intrigue element of this campaign was effective because moviegoers had very little information about the actual movie. The advertising had to deliver information gradually while also rewarding those who became more deeply engaged in the content (say, by combing through the MNU site). Sony returned to Comic-Con in 2009 (in late July, right before the big release date of August 14th), this time fully equipped with MNU vehicles from the movie and more human vs. non-human boards (though slightly more informational this time). At the convention, producer Peter Jackson and writer/director Neill Blomkamp spoke about the film and offered a screening of the entire film. The buzz became tremendous.

The last piece of marketing to discuss is, many times, the most important for a movie: the trailer. The trailer is THE advertisement for a film. Like most wide release movies, Sony introduced District 9 visually (though obviously fans had had multiple opportunities to visit images from the sites) via a teaser trailer in front of a blockbuster opener, in this case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What was interesting about the back story behind D9 was that the film itself was based on a short film that Blomkamp had done in 2005 called Alive in Joburg (which had been viewable online since 2006). The short film is a documentary-style piece ruminating on apartheid in South Africa as it would relate to actual extraterrestrials. This film, which is quite good, served as a trailer before the trailer, an exhibition of Blomkamp’s potential with the subject matter. Shortly after the teaser hit theaters, Rolling Stone revealed more details about the movie. Soon after, on May 6th, a trailer without the blurred out alien’s face appeared, revealing some of the awesome digital effects rendered by the film’s artists. As moviegoers began to itch in their seats waiting for more details on the film, Sony rolled out the billboards and the websites (this trailer accompanied the D-9 website.); as this blogger said about the promotional materials, “they don't indicate they're for District 9… they bring you into a world that is straight out of the movie.” Then, on July 8th, the full length trailer preceded Bruno; a second full length trailer was released soon after. Needless to say, these trailers (which, these days, must be online and circulating the influential blogs and relevant message boards as they break in theaters if not before) gained massive plays on YouTube, TrailerAddict,, etc. Though the trailers were viewed millions of times online, Sony still dedicated part of its (according to Variety) $20 million marketing budget to getting the spots on television to reach the masses. (Note that industry insiders estimate that perhaps close to 20% of that budget was spent on outdoor work.)

Thanks to all the buzz, District 9 finished atop the box office for the August 14-16 weekend, recording a $37.4 million opening, a terrific total considering that its production budget was an astonishingly low $30 million. The strong word-of-mouth (physical and online) kept the movie afloat in the following weeks, eventually totally a $115.6 million cume (Don’t worry about “cume” not being a word; it’s an industry term.) for the film. All this without the help of a previously-established franchise, star power, big budget, or a PG-13 rating (The film was ‘R’-rated.). District 9, considering its four Oscar® nominations and very high ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, is a very well-liked movie. But I cannot help but think that both its high levels of viewer/critic esteem and box office successes (especially the opening) were not attributable in many ways to Sony’s fantastic, buzz-creating marketing campaign.

Act II. The Creative Brief

Target Audience – The first thing Sony probably thought was: science fiction. So the core target segment was made up of young males between the ages of about 13 and 25. These young men probably are not the ones leading the team to the state finals. They are instead, quite simply, the geeks: the early adopters of technology, the internet-philes, the future entrepreneurs whose companies might replace Pandora or FourSquare. These young men have compulsions to know the latest information about their interests; if engaged, they can spend gratuitous amounts of time learning about and interacting with their subject. These are the moviegoers who check the cinema blogs every day, looking for the newest updates on Ridley Scott’s upcoming projects or Christopher Nolan’s latest summer blockbuster. They keep tabs on, or even attend, events like San Diego’s Comic-Con. They will spread the word if you empower them to do so; they also view themselves as influencers and rely much more on person-person interaction to their general and movie-watching problems.

Although this group of moviegoers is a strong core, Sony needs to attract a broader audience to make up for the high costs of production and marketing (though not necessarily relative to the industry, in D9’s case). Thus, it seeks out the moviegoers who enjoy action movies; this is a broader group of individuals that includes the aforementioned young men, older male moviegoers, and young women (aged between 15 and 25), who are attracted to action films but usually are unable to find characters within them to relate to. The moviegoers who enjoy violent action movies generally identify movies as a one-and-a-half-to-two hour escapes from the monotony of reality; although many of these viewers lead active lifestyles, the surprise and “wow” factors of action movies draw them in. Like the geeks, these moviegoers are prone to spread their ideas about products and follow peer reviews.

Lastly, and much more trickily, Sony wants to reach out to the thinking moviegoers, the ones who are more likely to check the critical responses before watching a movie. These individuals may rely more on a New York Times review than a friend’s recommendation. These moviegoers are generally older than the core target audience (usually between 30 and 50) and are turned off by mindless action films. Thus, Sony must position the movie (although the filmmakers have done most of that for them) as a “thinking man’s” film, with emotional connection to characters and worldly relevance thematically. Note that the days of simply showing up at the movie theater are long gone; most patrons utilize online reviews and friend recommendations, and about a quarter (and the number has been growing) prefer to buy tickets online. Also, note that all of these moviegoers view the experience of going to and sitting in the theater as a relatively inexpensive and rewarding experience.

Single-minded proposition – Seeing District 9 will provide audiences with a science-fiction movie experience they’ve never been a part of before. This message is present in all of the teaser video footage, all of the experiential marketing (both outdoor and online), and, most importantly, in the product (the film) itself. Luckily, the Sony marketing team didn’t have to lie much at all.

Creative objectives – A lot of advertising these days is simply trying to get consumers to look twice; because most of the time they don’t even look at all. (Obviously, it’s easier to get a Comic-Con attendee to look twice than it is to get the average moviegoer, who watches movies in theaters only about once a month). The early creative work with the billboards wanted to accomplish two things: get the aforementioned geeks talking about D9; and influence the general target audience to explore the world that the filmmakers and marketers would make available to it. In the early stages, all of this interaction had the potential to occur online whether it be by conversation or by the film’s website. The two big words here: buzz and hype.

One key insight – At the end of the summer, audiences will be ready for a gritty, (relatively) lower budget, Sci-Fi action film. By this time, moviegoers have seen the big budget action movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or the big budget fantasy films like Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. They still want an escape with some cool special effects, but they want it on a more independent and thoughtful level. District 9 had to seem like box office underdog, a film that only die-hard Sci-Fi fans could help break the $100 million plateau.

Ultimate call to action – This is probably the simplest question to ask a movie marketer in the long term. Sony wants the movie to make a big profit, grossing past its production and marketing budgets. More specifically, though, this kind of movie is only as successful as its followers and fans will allow it to be. We obviously want them to pay for and see the movie, but, more importantly, we want them to spread the word (hopefully from the beginning, circa Comic-Con 2008). Most of the campaign, especially because the movie’s content requires some time investment to comprehend, would focus on trial, just getting moviegoers interested in some of the ideas being presented. The marketers want to give audiences a chance to connect with the movie’s atmosphere and they hope that the audiences will give the pre-release experience a chance.

Act III. Improving the Campaign

Honestly, I think the campaign was planned and executed masterfully. There are only minor details about it that I would alter, and, even then, I’m not sure those changes would result in higher grosses. The $115.6 million domestic gross (along with an $89 million overseas gross and a nearly $30 million Blu-ray/DVD total) is its own testament to how well the film performed.

I do think that the campaign could have targeted the third moviegoer group that I mentioned (the older-skewing, critic-following viewers) more strongly. Having shown this movie to a number of movie watchers in these age and taste ranges, I can confidently assert that they could have been theatergoers back in August. The problem is that they didn’t know about the movie or the viral-style marketing turned them off to the idea that the movie was actually quite good. Although District 9 received highly favorable reviews (A score of ‘81’ on Metacritic is wondrous.), those opinions were not communicated strongly enough to that audience. For this purpose, more traditional outlets would have attracted these moviegoers. Perhaps, take just a quarter of the nearly $4 million spent on outdoor advertising and try to get featured on CNN, BBC News (in relation to the film’s setting), or ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Reach out to these moviegoers who are not accustomed to being reached by online and viral tactics. Had they learned more about the story and thematic elements (The whole South African segregation issue would be ripe for this audience.), they may have gone to see the movie in theaters instead of in their living rooms. (Also, note that many members of the core target segment felt that the movie had received almost too much hype. Many critic-followers had not even heard of it. There has to be some middle ground here, especially considering some of the big (i.e. 50% or more) weekend drops that D9 took over the course of its 12-week showing.)

As fine a job as the Sony marketing team did to keep the campaign fresh with new and upgraded sites along with the anticipation of new trailers, there were periods of stale air in between the 2008 Comic-Con appearance and the beginning of the 2009 summer marketing push. Some bloggers and commenters expressed frustration with the lack of updates. I would have introduced the MNU website and its games a couple of months before Sony ended up doing it. (Although, to be fair, the crew was still shooting the movie at the end of 2008.) The Math From Outer Space execution simply should not have existed; it was too linear, dull, and felt like a website from 1995. I also would have considered altering the content of the MNU site and the games slightly, making the MNU seem even more respectable and the non-human even more inhuman. If the core followers go into the theaters even more anti-alien, their eventual siding with the prawns will be even more emotionally impactful. Of course, we would not want to sway them too far or we will lose their trust and their positive word-of-mouth.

The outdoor executions, the purpose of which is to intrigue and spark interest, were basically perfect. Hypothetically, I would want more of a shot at interaction: perhaps a sign that changes with the light or an actual MNU officer guarding certain areas. Though I was not living in an area where the billboards were prominent, I would imagine that the same old ones may become old; keeping the campaign fresh for the experience, as mentioned before, is a near-impossible task. I did have some minor complaints about the trailers. Firstly, the teaser and full length trailers, though highly intriguing, proved to have too much of a narrative. It seemed too planned out: the exact opposite of the sprawled-out billboards and restroom signs. Certain shots like the ones showing a prawn being interrogated were not even in the theatrical version of the movie; although I admit that this is a minor point, consumers are too used to false advertising and will remember a negative experience far more vividly than a positive one. The problem was also that the narrative focused too much on setting up the film’s world at the expense of its human protagonist. The trailer focused so much on expositing District 9’s first act and not disclosing the second and third acts that the most potent emotional connection (to the human protagonist whose actor gave an impressive performance) was downplayed. Lastly, there were really no thirty-second spots that could have targeted more specific segments. Here is where the marketers could have reached the fringes of the general target audience.

The final message here is the toughest aspect of the marketing to settle on. I agree with the marketers’ insistence of selling the movie’s setting. It’s unique and intriguing. However, it takes away from the action/adventure elements as well as the thought-provoking/thematic elements, missing out on the second and third target segments, respectively. I would have tried to convey these viewpoints with thirty-second television spots. I would have tried to reach the audiences who were having difficulties understanding what exactly they should get out of the movie and the advertising that preceded it. Here, though the technology is expensive and the bandwidth difficult to secure, an interactive online trailer would have aided the information dissemination. (As far as I know, only two marketing campaigns have effectively utilized an interactive trailer: Avatar with its $150 marketing budget, and the upcoming Iron Man 2. Well, the number is actually three if you count the animated short film I made during winter term. But you probably don’t.) Having loaded the trailer online, viewers would be able to interact with objects within the trailer over the duration of the clip; one section of the trailer could be devoted to explaining the setting, another could explain the main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, and so forth.

Epilogue: Final Thoughts

I think that is ultimately what did not hold up for the campaign. It was terrific initially when District 9 was all about the billboards. But, at some point, it had to be about more than that. The movie definitely was; but the marketing did not quite reach that level with its intended audiences. The film had terrific word-of-mouth on social networks; however, the Tweeters and the Facebook users were not the moviegoers D9 needed to reach. The word never got (at least, not effectively enough) to the older action buffs or the thoughtful movie watchers. This is not to take anything away from Sony’s campaign. The work created more buzz than most marketers could ever hope for; and the film eclipsed its production budget by the end of the first weekend and made back nearly four times its production budget from total domestic receipts.

There is a key lesson here in terms of viral marketing. If you want to go viral, you have to understand the behavior of the people who are going to spread your message. All in all, I think the people behind marketing District 9 totally got it. I just think they missed on some of the laggards who did not have an opportunity to get hip to the movie. It’s too bad; there could have been thousands of thirty-to-fifty-year-old men tweeting about Wikus, the prawns, and District 9.

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