Cinema anywhere in the world is forever grappling with the issue of how to bring audiences into theatres. The entire industry is hinged and carved round solving this one perennial riddle — right from the way the films are made to the way they are marketed and opened.
Because box office is known to be merciless and unpredictable, and no two filmmakers agree on a single ‘formula’ for success that would work for all times, the publicity campaigns are expected to do some magic trick and lure in the audiences. This is often an expensive proposition and means adding on a huge marketing budget.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, it used to be just the hoardings, billboard posters, newspaper advertisements, and a film’s trailer that was broadcast as spot ads in a programme break on tv and radio. We also saw product tie-ins, and merchandising tools being employed. The lead actors would make time for press junkets. All this would traditionally climax in a star-studded premiere of the movie, leading to additional buzz. As tv became more common, the cast — and sometimes even the director or producer — began to appear on prime-time shows to talk about their film. More recently, shopping malls have become a favourite venue for film promotions where the actors get to engage with a crowd of thousands. The trend has famously crossed over from Bollywood.
The internet age presents both a challenge and opportunities to filmmakers in terms of cross promotion. At a time when most people have the option to stay at home and stream their favourite movies on their smartphones and/or their laptops, which is not only cheap but also spares them the hassle, the conventional methods of marketing are being combined increasingly with non-intrusive ‘pull marketing’ strategies wherein the consumer is drawn to a brand through search engine optimisation (SEO), RSS feeds, and social media hashtags and hyperlinks. This often involves publishing “custom content on specific destination sites” respected and visited by your target audience. The idea is to foster demand for your product.
The makers of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the cult American horror movie about three students who disappear in a Maryland forest while filming a documentary, leaving behind their footage, are said to have mainly used internet for promotions. Instead of releasing an official trailer, they ‘unleashed’ terror by putting up on a website “fake police reports and newsreel-style interviews” that piqued the public curiosity. At the film’s screenings, the people were handed out posters and asked to “come forward with any information about the missing students.” The film’s page on IMDB listed the actors as “missing, presumed dead” for the first year after release, and the production company hired outside actors who filmed videos as police officers and investigators involved in the case. It didn’t cost the company a lot, and yet worked wonders for them.
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The idea is to let your imagination run wild. But ethics must not be disregarded. Film critic and academic Mira Hashmi recalls how a publicity stunt by the makers of a Hindi film, titled Criminal (1995), starring Manisha Koirala, backfired: “She is murdered halfway through the film, so they [the makers] printed stories about the actress’s death. While it didn’t work for the film, it upset Koirala’s family in Nepal a great deal. This one wasn’t in good taste.”
She insists that a publicity campaign ought to stay relevant to the film’s theme, especially if it’s a serious one. “If the film deals with a serious subject, such as sexual assault, then the way you publicise it, particularly during personal appearances by the cast or director, should reflect that seriousness; it shouldn’t come off as frivolous. And the people who design these publicity materials should be mindful of that.
“Also, it’s wrong to assume that a crowd of, say, 5,000 people that shows up at a shopping mall and is cheering for you means they will come to the cinema and pay to watch your film.”
That is precisely where Shoaib Mansoor’s recent Verna campaign went wrong.
Hashmi also speaks of our morning show comperes who host the publicity junkets: “[They] should make an effort to ensure that they treat the cast, crew, and film with respect, and not turn these appearances into a frivolous tamasha.”
The digital age offers a mixed bag to movie marketers. As Hashmi puts it, “Small-budget, indie films now stand a chance [at the ticket windows] because they can be promoted on the internet without much cost.
“On the flip side, however, a teaser may get you a stream of negative comments on the social media ahead of the film’s release, which is in no way wanted.”
For Hashmi, nothing beats the good, “old-school trailer,” when it comes to generating interest in a film.
Marketing has always been an integral part of filmmaking. But today it has become a full-blown department that is usually looked after by a PR company. According to Samra Muslim, the founder of Walnut PR, a Karachi-based company that claims to have handled accounts of over a dozen films in the past three years since it was set up, “Earlier, the PR companies were hired to manage guests’ lists for red-carpet premieres only. Wrong No  was the first time that a PR company came forward for proper narrative development. With Ho Mann Jahan [‘16], we upped the game by working for two months on the promotional campaign. We did magazine cover shoots, created the entire ‘Shakkar wandaan’ phenomenon through Dubsmash videos, etc. The film turned out to be the year’s biggest hit.”
Muslim, who calls herself the company’s “Chief Nut,” says: “You’ve to seed the idea, and things start happening organically. For instance, while watching Punjab Nahi Jaungi in the theatre, I noticed how the audience lapped up every time the dialogue, ‘Help me Durdana,’ was spoken. So I created a meme on it on my mobile phone and uploaded it. Later, we know that the social media was flooded with ‘Help me Durdana’ memes.”
A promotional campaign that is fun, creative, and also relevant goes a long way.