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How Does Hollywood Create a Buzz?

Natasha Foutz Photo by Sarah Cramer Shields

In entertainment, there are no fixed rules for success. “That’s the fun part of the industry,” says McIntire professor Natasha Foutz. “You never know what will become successful.” Foutz researches and teaches media and marketing, and she says that for entertainment products—movies, music, books, games and events—demand is uncertain, and life cycles are short. So what creates a buzz around a movie? First, of course, the product itself matters. Celebrities and interesting plots draw us in. Ever notice how many sequels are playing at the multiplex? Sequels tend to generate hype and fare better at the box office than nonsequels, says Foutz. Many of those with bankable names and big-name actors—think James Bond or Star Wars—have made their producers very rich.

But how can a marketing campaign support the success of a movie?

According to Foutz, novelty is essential. The 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans was advertised with a one-minute commercial instead of the 30-second industry standard. The longer preview attracted attention for being something of an event rather than simply a commercial. The fresh marketing approach of the one-minute commercial only worked that once. Later, one minute just seemed long.

“By the time you teach a once-novel strategy, it’s been done,” says Foutz. “Babies, dogs, beautiful women, humor; they’ve all been done.”

Not every movie needs the same kind of campaign, says Foutz. Tent-pole movies— Hollywood blockbusters—are marketed to appeal to wide audiences and have big marketing budgets. In 2009, 20th Century Fox spent about $150 million marketing Avatar. Tent-pole movies rely on traditional and expensive marketing platforms: TV, magazines and billboards.

In contrast, art house films target specific audiences and rely on word-of-mouth and other creative marketing strategies. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ—while not exactly “art house”—is an example of a target-audience film that became one of the highest grossing movies in history, earning more than $610 million. The film started as an independent project that was turned down by major studios but gained momentum as church leaders and churchgoers previewed it and generated tremendous pre-release buzz. Media outlets focused on controversial aspects of the film, and people like to talk about controversy, says Foutz, so they went to see the film.

Fun humor is shared with friends, but dark humor is typically enjoyed alone.

In celebrity culture, one might believe the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Media critics note that though the movie Borat ridiculed Kazakhstan, after its release online searches for the country increased by 300 percent.

Foutz explains that bad publicity and controversy may attract attention, so it might help a movie that no one has heard of, but might hurt a franchise already familiar to the movie-going public. Paramount pictures estimated that negative publicity cost Mission Impossible 3 more than $100 million in ticket sales.

The bottom line is that money can help a good product but is wasted on a bad one. Most marketing dollars have already been spent by the time you find yourself at the ticket window at your local movie theater. Once reviews are out, studios quickly stop spending money on movies that bomb.

The Wisdom of the Masses

How will the public respond to a movie? It’s hard to predict, but one might find help online. Hollywood Stock Exchange (, a website where people trade virtual shares of celebrities and movies, is fantasy football for movie buffs. It’s also a tool for Foutz’s research. A few years before release, a film is listed as a virtual stock whose value represents predicted box-office success.

Stock values change as traders gain or lose confidence in a film. “People do it because it’s like gambling,” says Foutz. “It’s entertaining.” HSX generates useful market research for entertainment and financial institutions. Foutz’s research suggests the opinions of a large group of regular people predict success better than those of a few experts.

Famous Flops

The 2005 movie Sahara had a production budget of $160 million and $81 million was spent on its promotion and distribution, but it earned only half of what was spent. Matthew McConaughey promoted the film by traveling across the U.S. in a branded Airstream trailer.

The 1995 action adventure Cutthroat Island is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest box office flop of all time. The movie was made for $98 million and its U.S. gross was approximately $10 million. The studio that made it, Carolco, was already in financial trouble and later filed for bankruptcy.