Mitt Romney of Mars: What Movie Studios Can Learn From the GOP Primary

By  · Published on March 19th, 2012

Mitt Romney currently leads the Republican Presidential nominee field in two distinct ways. The first is in spending, where he’s made it rain $100m so far in order to not clinch the nomination. The second is in delegates, which is it where it counts. Still, he’s facing the possibility of not getting enough delegates before the National Convention in late August which means there’s a chance (albeit a slim one) he won’t be the eventual nominee. He’s also facing difficult internal numbers and that general feeling of, you know, meh-ness from potential supporters.

So, he’s John Carter.

The correlations are clear: both are inevitable successes by a traditional standpoint, both are flawed in ways that injure their ability to connect with an audience, they’re both in danger of failing, and they both spent a ton of money to get to where they are.

There’s a lesson in all of this and hopefully the major studios are paying close attention.

Disney should have listened to its own advice from 1991, and John Carter is currently fighting its own numbers. There’s no doubt about that. Let’s pretend that we’ve gone hardcore in-depth on that topic in order to beat a dead horse that isn’t even done racing yet. Agreed? Excellent. Enough has been written already about it. There’s also enough written about the Blockbuster Mentality cornering marketing teams and studios into spending a giant amount of money on a singular project that gets a production budget equal to or eclipsed by its advertising dollars.

Therein lies the problem. John Carter probably won’t come close to reaching the top of the list when it comes to biggest box office bombs (it’s no Pluto Nash), but it’s not alone. Even adjusted for inflation, there are 13 movies from 2000 onward in the Top 20 money-losers all-time. Why? Because there are more huge risks being taken these days, and the only marketing principle behind them is “spend more money.”

Author David Hughes (“Tales From Development Hell”) stated it nicely recently when he laid out all the costs that go into ensuring that your massive budget wonder is a success – from securing talent for press tours, to flying journalists out to set visits and junkets, to crafting huge media blitzes through television ads. For a tentpole movie with a lot riding on it (including hidden costs like studio operating fees), the advertising budget can easily balloon into the hundreds of millions. It’s time to challenge that mentality.

Movie Marketing as a Campaign Trail

The problem there is two-fold, as we can see from the Romney campaign:

  1. Buying the pot is not the only way to win at poker, and it doesn’t even guarantee you’ll take all the chips.
  2. Advertising cannot build brands, no matter how much you purchase.

On the first note, Romney has already thrown more money at the next primary state after outpacing his rivals last Super Tuesday. It’s important to note that he’s currently far ahead in the delegate count but, like a movie that opens at $100m worldwide and is still considered a failure, he has yet to catch any real fire or secure true enthusiasm. That’s what propels candidates and movies these days (like it always has). Word of mouth rules.

Which is where that second note comes in. As marketing experts Laura and Al Ries point out in “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR,” it’s impossible to build a brand with advertising – which is effectively the hurdle facing every movie production. Sure, a studio name can be helpful, especially when it’s Disney, but each individual flick has got to create a name or feeling for itself so that the public can identify with it. We don’t tend to trust advertising because we consider the source.

Thus, studios have learned over the years that the best way to create that is to have third parties do their work for them. This is effectively the same principle that candidates work on when creating buzz-worthy claims or commercials in hopes of getting free air time on news networks.

Why else would studios feed movie sites (like the very one you’re reading) exclusive trailers and images? Movie sites become ambassadors for projects, but the problem for the marketing department is that they have no control over how their message is presented. Disney might grant a site access to a bunch of images, but they can’t control if the writer thinks they’re garbage. The good news is that the internet isn’t where movies are made or broken. Still, they can be instrumental in getting the initial word out.

On that front, it’s hard to argue that John Carter crafted a laser-specific ad campaign from the starting block. That can also be said of several big-budget bombs – like The 13th Warrior and Sahara. Disney’s latest sci-fi adventure was flip-flopping in its trailers between thoughtful character piece and mindless action explosion. Now, alongside a cinematic example, movie studios also have a living, breathing example of a product that is sinking in popularity in spite of the giant amount of money being burned at its feet. Unfortunately for Romney, if the Presidential bid doesn’t work out, he can’t count on DVD sales to help him out.

The irony here is, of course, that movies like Chronicle aren’t given a fraction of the advertising budget that a behemoth like John Carter might get, but it’s in a far safer place financially. To date, it’s grossed around $100m worldwide, and even if Fox spent $50m on its marketing (an unlikely, high number), they’ve still scored $50m in profit which is continuing to grow. The reason is that “less was at stake” with Chronicle. If you shell out $12m for a movie, it’s easy to be confident even if things start heading south. When you pour $250m into a project, the sweat starts to form.

A Radical Idea

Imagine if Disney had spent $30m on the advertising for John Carter. It’s a scary idea, but maybe that’s the point.

It would have severely limited what their team would have been able to do, but sometimes the freedom that comes with a massive budget can hurt more than anything else. A tiny budget (as many an indie filmmaker will attest to) forces you to be creative, to think quickly and far outside the box. Plus, with the magic benefit of hindsight, it probably would have done as good as their theoretically massive budget did.

The other benefit? It would have dropped the bottom line of breaking even down significantly. Imagine needing to clear $300m instead of $600m in order to start building profits. Those numbers are absurdly simplified, but the principle is still there.

At the end of the day, this comes down to a question: if movies with small advertising budgets can utilize word of mouth to sail to $50m-$100m profits, why is a premium placed on inflated advertising budgets for movies?

The arguments against this idea are obvious. Chronicle is a rare example. Clearing only $50m-$100m won’t cover the production budgets of blockbuster contenders. There are giant advertising budgets that hit home runs for their movies. There are egos to contend with that demand an outsize advertising budget for their giant spectacle.

The answers are just as obvious. Lower budgets are safer to begin with, but making $100m is better than losing it, and there are lessons to be learned from smaller, successful campaigns. Giant advertising budgets can bring back money and appease egos, but smarter advertising budgets can do both without placing the tightrope so high off the ground.

Buying the Pot or the Farm

It turns out that throwing money at something, whether it be poker bets, tentpole films or political contenders, isn’t exactly a safe strategy. The point to all of this is that those who cannot play the game well are forced to reach deeper into their pockets. Sometimes the reward is huge, and there are certainly poker players, movie marketers and campaign managers who are gifted at utilizing giant sums of money. However, writing a big check is also an unchallenged given in the advertising world that must be rethought.

For every dollar spent on marketing, you have to make that back in order to break even, so why spend $300m on a product that cost $150m? The old answer is, “that’s how it’s done,” but that answer isn’t sufficient anymore. This is the real question facing studio executives right now who are learning hard lessons about motivating audiences to see their work. When movie attendance hit a 16 year low last year, it was a strong message that was hopefully received. You can raise ticket prices only to a certain balancing point before driving away a larger number of customers than you’re rendering neutral by dollar gains. You have to do better in telling your story and sharing the possibilities of that story with the world.

There are other lessons here which have been pointed out by many other writers, and it’s important not to single out John Carter. This questioning of inflated budgets and this lesson of burning cash unintelligently are both applicable to any would-be blockbuster out there. Currently, Mitt Romney is on track to win in Illinois and John Carter scored another $79m in worldwide ticket sales this weekend. Both are impressive feats, but they are buried underneath a bigger picture of failure.

Fortunately, it’s a failure to be learned from.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.