The era of bad marketing is over, to rephrase President Clinton’s famous 1996 State of the Union line.
More specifically, the marketing of 2004 is over.
For the past 12 years, movie marketers within the so-called (but grossly generic term) faith-based genre have recycled, cut and pasted, and heralded the importance of the film phenomenon “The Passion of the Christ.” Whether the marketer actually ran the campaign or simply designed the promo fliers, everyone claims to have had a hand in Mel Gibson’s success.
Then came 2007 and the digital revolution of “ones and zeroes” that changed the way content was produced (“Juno,” “Once”), distributed (Netflix mailing DVDs), and connected with audiences (MySpace). Movie marketing became about measurable momentum and activating tastemakers and networks, a strategy deployed best by Participant and Walden Media while saving money and creating direct-to-consumer approaches. One example: The abolitionist political thriller “Amazing Grace” was praised by the Los Angeles Times for integrating a fundraising campaign to end modern-day slavery with a massive petition drive for human rights and organizing 6,000 churches to sing the hymn on Amazing Grace Sunday.
Christianity in America, despite marketers’ oversimplification of the category, is akin to the United Nations General Assembly — thousands of beliefs, territories and languages all trying to work together. What worked for the Southern Baptist-led “Fireproof” was the antithesis of art and honesty by the “Christians Who Drink Beer” audience that preferred “Slumdog Millionaire” that year. What works for justice-minded, mainline congregants doesn’t work for the “vote with your ticket” audience of “God’s Not Dead.”
“Faith,” sadly, has become a term that means everything and nothing at the same time.
The dilution of the term “faith,” the every-other-month (or more) release of a faith movie and the outdated tactics of marketing are not serving the audience well. The genre and those who believe in its viability should take a pluralistic “moment of silence” to reflect on the audience trends, the importance of story — and the “why” — before greenlighting the next project.
The conversation should begin with an understanding of the five categories of belief films — something we spent over a year researching. The categories are:
• Conversion to belief. Think “War Room” as a film created for the “faithful” and their unbelieving friends and neighbors.
• Confirmation of belief. Think “God’s Not Dead” and other bumper-sticker movies that rally like-minded people into the theater as a statement to Hollywood, Washington or the wider culture.
• Commercialization of belief. Think “Noah” and “Ben-Hur,” where a popular story garners top talent and big financing for a global story, which means everyone will have an opinion and few will feel as if the movie were “made for me.”
• Causation from belief. Think “Blind Side” and “Selma.” These are stories of human triumph over tragedy that spring from a protagonist’s deepest convictions, and as a result are universally appealing, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.
• Conversation around belief. Think “Calvary” or “Last Days in the Desert,” the more gritty, ambiguous and layered art house films that haunt the audience long after the credits roll, and therefore are attractive to millennials who, unlike their parents, believe faith should have soft edges and open windows.
All categories have examples of past successes, but only three will be the future: confirmation films, causation films and conversation films. The tragic mistake of “Ben-Hur” — as seen by the marketing tactics and quotes from producers — was to land solely in the “commercialization of belief” category and miss out on the causation of the story and an audience looking for confirmation of beliefs.
No place is this more clearly played out than on the opening weekend of a theatrical release. In politics, the goal is to get millions of people to do one thing on a single day: vote. In movie marketing, the goal is to get millions of people to do one thing on a single weekend: buy a ticket. The strategy should never just be awareness — a 1990s term; the strategy must be action, and that means making the movie personal and the marketing participatory.
Furthermore, theatrical releases work best when “specialty” audiences, i.e, like-minded people, make opening weekend an event. As big as “Star Wars” fans or as narrow as Iditarod Race followers, audiences are moving away from “a dark room with strangers” toward “a full room with friends.” Events come naturally to the faith community. What other demographic gathers 90 minutes every week by the tens of millions to sit quietly and focus on a presentation? Eventizing is in the DNA of the church attender.
That is why Fathom and the upstart TheatriCast created one-night experiences in theaters. On Oct. 25, Grammy-award-winning artist Chris Tomlin and six other worship leaders, along with pastors Louie Giglio and Max Lucado, are hosting “Worship Night in America: An Evening of Unity and Prayer for Our Country.” Just two weeks after announcement, TheatriCast reported sold-out markets, more theaters added by audience demands and nearly 400 churches raising their hands to be a part of the experience.
Marketing is in jeopardy of becoming a car alarm in a mall parking lot: Everyone hears the noise but ignores it. Nowhere is this more true than with faith films, in which marketers and publicists have tried the strategy of more noise and more activity. Pastors and organizations are ignoring the daily emails from film marketing teams, and the biggest names are being paid to promote from the pulpit.
The current state of marketing directly affects the future slate of productions, so we must get it right. That means:
• Finally proving with real-time data that the marketing actually sells tickets.
• Knowing audience trends and content categories.
• Sunsetting any expectation that what worked 12 years ago (or two years ago) will work today or in the future.
• Erik Lokkesmoe is a producer of marketing and distribution with Different Drummer, an entertainment marketing agency known for “smart films for soulful people.” He executive produced the Ewan McGregor film “Last Days in the Desert.” His latest book, “Different Drummer,” was released Aug. 23.
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