by Toby Barlow
“As an employee in an agency creative department, you will spend most of your time with your feet up on a desk working on an ad. Across the desk, also with his feet up, will be your partner… and he will want to talk about movies.”
Hey Whipple, Squeeze This
It’s every client’s worst nightmare. You’re paying your agency to launch your product, but, instead of slaving away to find ways to crack the assignment, your creatives are sitting around talking about their favorite scenes from Die Hard, Dumb and Dumber, or Diabolique — what pretentious bastards!
But here’s the thing, you can actually learn a lot about launches by studying the movies.
Of course, you could learn about launches from other launches, but, as I’ve pointed out before, we don’t. Somewhere between a desperate desire to reinvent the wheel and an overall preciousness about the unique product we’re launching, agencies and clients repeatedly fail to learn from our own best practices. We want to think different.
So, fine, let’s not talk about other launches. Let’s talk about the movies! What are the secrets of their launches?!
Influencers have amazing influence.
In our modern media landscape, it’s impossible to leave influencers out of your marketing plan and yet — having already been burned in this hyper-marketed social economy — so many launches do exactly that, writing them off as too pricey and unreliable. But mostly, they’re only considering the hysterically overblown “influencers” currently flooding the market. There are other influencers out there, and if you connect with them, organize them, and manage them correctly, you can make amazing things happen.
For instance, in the fall of 1985 the Los Angeles Film Critics gave Terry Gilliam’s brilliant, imaginative film Brazil well-deserved awards for “Best Screenplay” “Best Director” and “Best Picture.” Yet, in 1985, not a single ticket to Brazil had even been sold. In fact, the studio wasn’t even planning to release the film.
The studio had hated the way Gilliam had ended his movie. It was, they said, too dark and too cynical. And so, as the studio stonewalled him, Gilliam did a very canny thing, he began hosting private screenings for local film critics all around LA. And they loved the film. Apparently, they loved it enough to give it the award for best picture of the year. Even though it had never even been released.
After that, of course, the studio had to release it. And Brazil became an instant classic, one movie nerds still talk about today.
What we think of as “Influencers” today are only one kind of influencer. There are swarms of others out there. Sometimes all you have to do is ask. When I was working on Ford — before “social media” had even showed up — we build an army of influencers for the Fiesta Movement. We simply put out the call to anyone who wanted to drive the car around and asked them to make a case for why we should give them one. We received a sea of applicants. We selected a hundred and gave them cars along with “missions.” Completing the missions, they posted videos and stories about their adventures. A few of them had blogs and an internet presence when they started, but they weren’t “stars” by any stretch, they certainly didn’t cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars. They did help us tell our story though, and together we built an even bigger audience and successfully launched the car. Just like Terry Gilliam, we went out and found our influencers, bringing them onboard to enthusiastically join in on our battle. That’s how we won.
Testing the Test
I love testing. I love quizzes, investigations, mysteries, trivia, and tests. If I could take the SAT’s again, I would. I just want to make sure we’re testing the right thing.
Wait, trivia? Did I say trivia?! Here’s some great trivia: Al Pacino almost played Han Solo. John Travolta almost played Forrest Gump. OJ Simpson almost played The Terminator. Which would have led to very, very different films. Seriously, can you imagine? Of course you can’t. Or if David Lynch had directed Return of the Jedi or the aforementioned Terry Gilliam had directed Braveheart, both of which they were offered and which each director turned down.
Seriously, can you imagine Lynch’s Return of the Jedi? It might have actually been good! The point is that any creative production is enriched with so many different elements, whether it’s actors, cinematographers, stylists, etc., all coming together to exercise their professionalism.
Which is why “test commercials” don’t work. “Test commercials” often called “animatics” are weird cartoons mimicking what you would eventually film real actors doing. It’s like having a cartoon of Al Pacino pretending to be Han Solo.
I’ll never forget a meeting — one of the loveliest, best meetings I’ve ever been in — where a client said “We are intelligent people, we can judge the work better than a room full of people looking at cartoons.” Everyone nodded along, and that was the last time we did any pre-launch testing on creative for the next ten years. It was heaven. The brand didn’t suffer and the company saved probably a few million in unnecessary production and testing.
Today, marketers are looking for efficiencies, and there are fewer animatics than there used to be. I would argue there should be none. It’s like throwing money down the garbage disposal.
But again, for the record, I do love research. And data. Any insight, really, helps to guide and inform.
There has always been testing in Hollywood. Way back in 1939, they didn’t know if audiences would laugh at Greta Garbo in a comedy. So, the director Ernst Lubitsch and the writer Billy Wilder drove up out of Hollywood, all the way up to the San Fernando Valley for a test screening of their Garbo comedy Ninotchka. Afterwards they collected the comment cards from the test audience and headed back into town. Reading the audience response cards in the car, Lubitsch suddenly started laughing hysterically. Wilder asked what was so funny and Lubitsch passed him the card. It read, “Great movie! I laughed so hard, I peed in my girlfriend’s hand.” Now that is the sort of response you get if you do the right kind of research.
Failure to Launch
What do The Big Lebowski, Blade Runner, Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life all have in common? They were box office disappointments. The Big Lebowski finished sixth the weekend it opened, behind two movies — Hush and Twilight — which I don’t even remember. It’s a Wonderful Life lost a half a million dollars, which was a lot back then (maybe partly because the FBI said it was communist propaganda).
But whatever the disdain of the popular market, the films hung on and went on to be recognized as masterpieces.
I always thought there would be a great business model in being the “relaunch” agency. If a client didn’t have a launch go the way they wanted it to, but they knew the product was worthwhile, they’d hire the relaunchers to come in, inventory the remaining resources, and make the thing a hit.
Spoiler alert: I once had to do this. A CEO wasn’t happy with his auto launch. They had already spent something like 40 million dollars, but the product was only enjoying lackluster sales. The CEO believed in the product though, he knew it was great, so I was asked to help launch it again. Our campaign worked, and the vehicle is still one of the top sellers in its category today.
The key element to that story was that leadership believed in the product. The CEO would not accept anything but success. He was like Warren Beatty with Bonnie and Clyde.
Back in 1967, despite Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s star power, Warner Bros. thought so little of Bonnie and Clyde that, when it was released in the late summer, they put it out as a “B” movie, dumping it into drive-ins and second-tier theaters. The critics mostly hated it. Joe Morgenstern, writing for Newsweek, initially panned the film as a “squalid shoot-’em-up for the moron trade.”
But Warren Beatty refused to accept this verdict. He went back and he pushed to redo the film’s launch entirely. He roped in the original screenwriters to come up with a new ad campaign, creating one of the most memorable taglines for a movie ever: ‘They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people.’
Reframing the movie worked. It played on bigger screens to larger audiences. Joe Morgenstern even wrote a second article saying he had misjudged Bonnie and Clyde. Now he praised the film. When does a critic ever do that? He did it because Warren Beatty would not stop, he would not give up. And Bonnie and Clyde became a smash hit.
There are a lot of different lessons to be gleaned from the way films launch. It continues to be a fascinating business that evolves as quickly as any marketing out there. But what always amazes me is how rapidly innovations — like sharing content at Comic-Con or screenings at SXSW — evolve into standard operating procedure. But if you look at the examples above, what really shines through is the idea that, in the end, no matter what levers you’re pulling, it’s dogged persistence that wins. Whether you’re Terry Gilliam, Warren Beatty, or Ernst Lubitsch, to make your launch work, you’re simply going to have to work harder, whether it means finding and recruiting your own kind of influencers, reframing and rereleasing an initial flop, or, perhaps the toughest of all, driving all the way up to the San Fernando Valley.
Toby Barlow is the Chief Creative Officer of Lafayette American, a creative agency located in Detroit.