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The secret of a big movie - get people talking before it opens

The final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith, has scored the most successful film opening in UK cinema history, making £14m in four days.

But why should this be? According to a study by Dr David Lane, reader in management science in LSE's Operational Research Department, the secret of earning movie millions in such a short time is less about the film itself than about the success of pre-publicity and word-of-mouth recommendations before release.

Dr Lane, alongside research collaborator Elke Husemann, studied the way companies release and distribute movies. The results give insight into how the marketing strategy of movies has changed in the last two or three decades.

The research found that:

  • Films are being opened on a bigger number of screens than previously. Why has Revenge of the Sith advertising and merchandising been ubiquitous for weeks and why was it opened on 490 screens? To get people talking about the film, creating pre-release interest and then to sell tickets - fast. The rush of sales is a classic 'blitz' opening.
  • Such movies have a short product life but can make money very fast. The Incredibles is another example of this strategy
  • Not all movies are released in a 'blitz' of screenings. Some are 'platformed' in a few locations, building interest over weeks or months via word-of-mouth based on the actual experience of seeing the movie. This is known in the industry as 'demand discovery'. Sideways is a recent example.

As film budgets have risen and multiplex capacity has grown, the last few decades have seen increasing use of the blitzing approach to movie marketing. This is a relatively new feature of the industry. What might be behind the increased reliance on this strategy?

  • Not all movies will discover high demand. Despite extensive research and test screenings, studios continue to be surprised by how audiences respond to movies. A movie like Alexander fails whilst The Fast And The Furious comes from nowhere to be a huge hit.
  • Platforming is for low budget films, foreign films, idiosyncratic films. Blitzing is for expensive films; those that might turn into 'blockbusters' - but also those that might be too expensive to expose to audience opinion, too expensive to 'discover' that demand is low.
  • Some commentators suggest that blitzing makes unappealing films 'audience-proof' but this is not so. Blitzing does not guarantee success. But it is a robust strategy: it improves things if the film does appeal to audiences and if it does not then it will still sell a few more tickets.

Dr Lane says: 'The movie industry seems to have settled on a shared concept; don't sell the movie, sell the anticipation of it. Create a frenzy of interest in a movie and then release in large volume which converts that 'hyped' interest into sales very fast. This can leave movie-goers standing outside the cinema in the rain thinking "That wasn't really very good". But a ticket has been sold. If they liked it, even better. They can tell all their friends about it and more ticket sales will follow.'

So what about Revenge of the Sith? 'The same mechanisms are operating but there are extra elements' says Dr Lane. 'Each film generated interest in the next one - which is why studios are always interested in sequels. Plus you see parents who enjoyed the first Star Wars movie in 1977 taking their children to this new series. And there is a merchandising juggernaut telling you about the film whether you are in a burger joint or a bookshop.'

Elke Husemann takes up this last point: 'Pre-sales of computer games and merchandising, and follow-on sales of merchandising and DVDs are becoming ever more important. In some cases they are bringing in more earnings than the actual film viewings. In marketing terms, the theatrical release could be viewed almost as just the catalyst, the hook for the network of anciliary products'.

Finally, how can we see these effects in action? Dr Lane has a suggestion. 'The campaign for Batman Begins is already on. The film opens on 16th June. Look out for the advertising frenzy and the toys and games, for how many screens it opens on and how quickly it goes away. The same kind of marketing effects are in play; it's still about getting people talking, creating public interest and then opening the film to convert that interest into ticket sales.'



Dr. David C. Lane, Interdisciplinary Institute of Management and Operational Research Department, LSE, tel: 020 7955 7336, email: d.c.lane@lse.ac.uk| 


To understand the underlying logic of marketing strategies Dr Lane and Elke Husemann built computer simulation models. They use ideas from epidemiology and sociology to create system dynamics models to explain the mechanisms underlying an audience's response to the marketing and release of a film.

Press cuttings

Hollywood hates pirates, but can it use them? (3 July 06)
In a May 2005 report on movie marketing by The London School of Economics and Political Science, researcher David Lane found that the secret to stimulating ticket sales "is less about the film itself than about the success of pre-publicity and word-of-mouth recommendations."

27 May 2005