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Film promotions: how much is enough?

A film made in this day and age is as much about marketing as it is about content. But do overwhelming promotions benefit a film or just build it up for disappointment?

Film promotions: how much is enough?


Long gone are the days when a film, any film, found its way to fans through the sheer power of word of mouth and advertisements in newspapers. Today a film is not just about characters, stories, emotions and ideas alone. Nope, that alone won’t sell it or make a dent on the consciousness of the average film consumer. Or so filmmakers would have you believe.

While content will always be king, a film made in this day and age is as much about marketing as it is about technology and how it goes about achieving results through embracing both.

The social media age means your digital avatar is now surrounded by hashtags, Snapchats and Facebook posts, paid/sponsored content and barrages of videos, tweets and Instagram posts – all of which would feel excessive to anyone who doesn’t identify as a millennial. But those are the new rules.

That’s one half of it. The other is also about creating a direct link between stars and their audience in a much more hands-on kind of way, which is where promotional activities like visiting malls, colleges and universities kick in.

Pakistan’s nascent film industry too has taken to this rigorous model of promotional/marketing exercise, which is common to both Hollywood and Bollywood and an indispensable tool to all three.

But like the films that are being made in Pakistan, the promotional model, too, needs serious thought. The barometer should not and cannot be ‘we’re in early days’ or ‘this is better than the last film’.

As this piece is being penned, two major Pakistani films – Arth and Rangreza – have opened in theatres after weeks of promotional activities that included the cast hitting malls, universities, public forums, TV shows and participating in several one-on-one interviews with journalists.

And so it makes one wonder why Parchi, another upcoming film that is scheduled to release in January 2018, is also out there, promoting itself just as vigorously even though it is weeks away from release? A case in point: the cast of Parchi dancing at the opening ceremony of the inaugural T10 league in UAE that was held earlier this month. Apart from the fact that the whole thing lacked finesse and made you wonder about aesthetics, it did nothing for the film other than cannibalizing the attention of the audience from other releases. Dancing in stadiums and universities is not a question of morality, dubious or otherwise; it’s about pandering to the public and the trick is getting old, which is ironic since the film industry is just starting out again.

The problem we’re facing is that marketing exercises for films have, in most cases, become excessive, repetitive and one film promotional campaign spills into the next. Appearances on morning shows, game shows, and massive events to launch a trailer with the proverbial red carpet doled out, it all blurs together.

“Poor marketing efforts have proven to keep moviegoers out of seats. Blackhat, Cloud Atlas, and The Green Lantern are among flops whose poor performance has been linked to their marketing. On occasion, that attention is redirected away from the marketers and onto the influence of the director, like John Carter, but generally, it’s focused on the teams that sell the product to the audience,” noted Forbes in a piece on the subject.

This excessive exposure to a film, prior to its release, also means that anticipation reaches a level that simply cannot be matched by the actual product. Filmmaking then becomes, as a consequence, a marketing gimmick and not an artistic endeavour.

Not all ideas fail, particularly if there is ingenuity behind them. In the days leading up to the release of Ghajini, a 2008 film starring Aamir Khan, the creators of the film tied up with multiplexes across various cities to give their ushers and ticket sellers the same haircut Khan was supporting in the film. It worked; the memory of those ushers is still etched in the brain and managed to pique curiosity.

“The audiences of today have a limited attention span. A movie has to make an impact on the first day of release. Its fortune is decided in three-four days,” stated film marketer Tarun Tripathi.

In a similar vein, the cast of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara went on an adventurous road trip across multiple cities in India to promote their film, which dealt with the subject of road-tripping across Europe. The audience responded in kind and the film became a huge critical and commercial hit upon release.

“This is actually a Hollywood trend where the marketing of a movie costs almost the same as its budget. It’s everything for a movie. Such activities (celebrity participation, etc) are going to get your initial hype and initial footfalls. Then the audience in the first week will decide whether the movie is a rocket or a dud,” film critic Omar Qureshi told IANS on the matter.

In Hollywood, press junkets require members of the cast to travel across countries to promote their film. But in no scenario will you see a film like A Ghost Story – an intimate meditation on grief starring Rooney Mara – being promoted in the same way as say Thor: Ragnorak, a superhero film with a budget upwards of 100 million dollars. While A Ghost Story makes itself known through the festival circuit, and through critical acclaim, a Thor: Ragnarok will roar its way to the box office with the cast making stops at events like Comic-Con. Two separate films with two completely different marketing campaigns.

In Pakistan, we’re taking a page out of the Bollywood playbook. But even Bollywood is struggling to make its mark. As filmmaker Mohit Suri rightly noted, “Appearances at events and reality shows highlight the actors and the makers of a film, not the film itself. The film stands or falls based on its promo, the posters, and to an extent, its music videos. Baahubali 2 is the perfect example of a successful film where there were no promotions done at reality shows at all. And it’s become the biggest grossing film till date. In fact, I think that people should spend more time doing a good promo instead of making appearances, and then films would be a much bigger success.”

If the ultimate goal is reaching audiences, there are some campaigns we can learn from and embrace so a future precedent is set. The upcoming Pakistani film, Cake, is one great example. Starring Aamina Sheikh, Sanam Saeed and Adnan Malik in principal roles and directed by Asim Abbasi, the film officially announced itself earlier in the year by sending the media a mystery box filled with odd and somewhat eerie items, like a doll’s head. Last month it picked up where it had left with a series of illustrative posters designed by the brilliant Samya Arif, each revealing something about the characters. One poster, announcing Aamina Sheikh’s character (Zareen) is accompanied by the words, ‘Discover your dreams’. Another starring Adnan Malik’s Romeo is accompanied by the words, ‘Find love’. All major characters in the film have one such poster, which makes you realize that it’s the little details that matter and not everything has to be garish and overdone to register.

In addition to these illuminating character posters, another poster of the film featuring three children lying on the grass served as the announcement to the teaser. Apart from bringing to mind a Wes Anderson aesthetic, the poster carries the following words:  “Life prepares you for everything. Except your family.”

It’s simple, it’s short and it tells you everything you need to know about the film without resorting to unnecessary gimmicks.

Another strong example is the music video of ‘Power Di Game’ from Verna. Prior to the film’s release, the video (produced in partnership with Patari, Pakistan’s largest audio streaming platform) – meant to highlight the simmering tension between the lead pair – was released. Filmed in a warehouse in Lahore, it lacked the customary over-the-top film filmy aesthetic that is a staple of the post-revival cinema age in Pakistan and made us pay attention to the characters of Mahira Khan and Haroon Shahid, both dressed in black and both trying to bring the unsaid to the screen. The film, Verna, had its flaws but this particular video (on which Shoaib Mansoor had signed off) portrayed the many truths within the song in a manner that was refreshing and heartfelt in equal doze.

The Pakistani film revival will go on, with more films releasing but marketing every film in the same way is not a plan, at least not a good one. And it is time those who promote films pay attention to this facet or the actual product will not resonate on a personal level. The end.

Maheen Sabeeh

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