In a crowded theatrical landscape, how do local films with smaller budgets find a path to audience when competing against studio tentpoles and blockbusters?
A key way to get cut-through is via carefully crafted publicity and marketing campaigns, which speak to not only what the film is but who it is for.
Despite their importance in creating interest in a project, the quality and quantity of the materials that make up a campaign are often at the mercy of the available budget, time and producer priorities.
The perception that a movie is ‘sold’ to audiences only after it is wrapped and completed means unit publicists tasked with devising a publicity plan do not always have access to the areas they need in order to capture effective assets during production.
In the last few years, a shift towards streaming and subsequent changes to the traditional modes of distribution, such as shorter theatrical windows and less emphasis on box office takings, have added further ambiguity to an already subjective process.
It’s no surprise then that those charged with navigating this climate are taking it upon themselves to push for marketing and publicity campaigns to be better integrated into production, in order to give Aussie films the best chance to succeed.
Gabrielle Oldaker has nearly two decades of marketing experience, including stints at Madman Entertainment, Roadshow Entertainment, The Walt Disney Company, The Mail on Sunday (UK), and the Herald Sun.
In July, she joined entertainment consultancy Nixco in the newly-created role of director of marketing and integrated strategy.
The position is designed to assist with integrated marketing assets and campaigns for film and TV projects from pre-production through the lifecycle of product release, working with producers, distributors, and streamers, as well as global studios producing and launching content in Australia.
Oldaker says her employment at Nixco is the culmination of a plan that began to develop during the more than five years she spent at Village Roadshow, where she
was responsible for overseeing the original content and local production team.
“It became very evident that time and time again when we would go to create the campaign, we wouldn’t have imagery we needed, or the best kind of content we could pull together to make the best marketing campaign.”
While at Village Roadshow, Oldaker led marketing strategies for films such Animal Kingdom, Snowtown, Mad Max: Fury Road, Red Dog: True Blue, Breath, and Go!, as well as managing pre-production marketing for Rams, The Dry and Penguin Bloom.
She singles out Rams, The Dry, Penguin Bloom and Go! as examples of projects where the marketing strategies were thought about early in the production process.
“It is a case of doing some commercial modelling to determine where it will sit in terms of box office, to know how much you can invest upfront in materials, and then, while shooting, set up all of the right frameworks to come out the other side with some really rich content assets for the marketing campaign. I definitely found that with The Dry and Rams.
“We were able to then know we had the content groupings for the poster, how we might run a campaign about those characters, get the right headshots and all that
stuff that, once the film is done, it’s too late to get.”
There is often a practical need to create marketing assets at the point of production, as actors may later change their physical appearance and no longer look like their characters – or be simply not available.
That was true of Owen Trevor’s debut feature Go!, due to the young actors at the centre of the family film.
“At the point at which Go! was being shot, I created a piece of social content featuring the kids in character, the idea being that when we release the film a year later, the kids are going to look very different and would be very hard to get them all back together to create content in character because they are not going to look the same,” Oldaker says.
The disconnect between production and marketing is hardly a new phenomenon. A common obstacle in the early collation of assets such as socials, EPK, unit stills, specials and key art is budget.
While producers may be required to outline what portion of their overall spend will go towards marketing and distribution when applying for funding from agencies such as Screen Australia, it may be a different story once production is underway.
In a piece written for IF last year, stills photographer Mark Rogers, who has worked on a range of international and local productions like Lion and Alien: Covenant, reflected on how financial limitations can impact how much priority publicity is given on set.
“Local projects understandably often have a cultural remit over profit, and so budgets are usually very tight,” he said.
“When producers have barely got enough money to make the film, publicity and marketing is often an afterthought.
“I sometimes get booked a week before production starts and it maybe for just two days a week, or a block of a week or two here and there if it’s outside Sydney.”
Rogers’ experience is corroborated by Tracey Mair, a unit publicist with more than 25 years’ experience in film and television industry whose company, TM Publicity, covers production, distribution, broadcast, exhibition and strategic communications.
She says the role of the unit publicist continues to expand year on year, primarily due to social media, with resources not necessarily commensurate with this larger scope of work.
“The unit publicist is required to deliver more and more assets – socials, EPK, unit stills, specials, key art – which require access to cast during production and access to the director and other key creatives with limited budgets and even more limited time,” she says.
Mair has found a like-minded ally in Transmission’s former head of marketing, Rowen Smith, who launched new marketing agency Screenkind this year.
The pair had previously collaborated on titles such as Lion and Ride Like A Girl, where the former was both a unit publicist and release publicist and Transmission the ANZ distributor.
Mair is looking forward to pairing with Smith further on marketing strategies.
“I’ve had a view for a long time that we need to engage more with a marketing strategy from well before the first day of principal photography and involve experts in developing that strategy,” she says.
“Rowen is also very focused on strategic brand partnerships for film, as well screen content more broadly, and opening up opportunities for collaboration as early as possible.”
So how can productions get on the front foot with publicity campaigns while keeping budget concerns in check?
Anthony Grundy, Screen Australia’s distribution manager for the better part of a decade, tells IF that while a marketing plan may add to an already long list of considerations for producers on set, early formulation may prove to be financially beneficial in the long run.
“The irony is that if you use a bit more strategy earlier on, it can actually save you money because you’re not cutting an extra trailer as a result of the distributor not liking the first one you cut,” he said.
“There’s this duplication and backtracking that occurs down the track. If you did it earlier and you have a better strategy with what your unit photography is going to look like, you can have the unit photographer there in the moments someone has done some thinking around.”
In-production marketing is already a well-established practice in other markets. US studios such as Marvel/Disney show the scale campaigns can reach, often allocating in excess of $US100 million to promote major releases.
Grundy says while comparing Australian and American productions is not a case of “apples with apples”, it is worth noting that international productions are facing similar issues when it comes to selling their product.
“What I think we could look at internationally is more to do with the audience engagement space and what is happening with the way people find out about films.
“This can be with technology or social media or other ways.
“It’s those insights that could be happening anywhere in the world that would be relevant for Australia.”
Grundy said the fragmentation of the media landscape and change in audience behaviour is a “really big problem” that is being faced globally.
“We’re really seeing a shift in the way people are watching certain types of content and what that ultimately means for the theatrical
moment,” he says.
“The way cinemas are responding to the change in windows, and what type of films are being made, makes for a very interesting time for cinema.”
This story originally appeared in IF Magazine #202. Subscribe to the magazine here, and take advantage of our digital subscription special that will get you 2 issues for $2 and access to 30 back issues.