Bringing Down The House: Disruptive Branding & Films

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In Bringing Down The House we explore television and film industry trends.

The marketing push behind films like Gravity, Blue Is The Warmest Colour and 12 Years A Slave show a growing trend. In an industry now dominated by franchises, remakes, sequels and blockbusters previously contained to the 2-3 month summer. In order for substantial dramatic fair to break through the clutter, they must rely increasingly on what the branding/advertising world calls ‘disruptive branding’ or ‘disruption marketing’.

At its essence, what this means is that to connect with audiences and combat the massive marketing dollars of multi-studio, multi-distributor projects — those projects with huge economies of scale — is to create a disruptive and transcendent sales proposition. Consumer product lines — like computers, TVs or automobiles — usually disrupt the market with innovative technological or service oriented product re-designs. Or even more disruptive, a completely new product — like the iPod or the iPad — which invents a whole new product category. It seems though that in order for films to compete they have to do this every single time out. There’s a marginal utility to these ‘upgrades’, and also a marginal impact — because unlike the seemingly infinite quantum leaps of technology, film is ultimately about one core transition: Captured images delivered to a captive (or passive) audience on a projected medium (cinema, TV, iPhone, computer). No matter how fancy things get, that’s ultimately all that’s required to deliver story — the rest is sales.

In Gravity, it’s the groundbreaking visuals and thrilling camera work as well as a visceral perspective on space that’s never been experienced on-screen. In Blue Is the Warmest Colour it’s the perceived ‘controversy’ in prolonged, exploitive sex scenes between two young women. In 12 Years A Slave, it’s the brutal, non-romantic and explicit violence in an under-explored slavery epic.

Let me be clear: I’m talking strictly what sells these films and what rewards them wide distribution. This is what it takes to sell movie tickets — no amount of naiveté can distract from the core aim of recouping investments made. And studios, big and small, rely on what they can to create word of mouth — whether it’s sex, VFX or sociopolitical narratives. Not a revelation, but it seems that the ante has been upped on these selling points to unreasonable and untenable levels.

As a comparative point of reference  — Blue Jasmine could barely be found when it was released in late summer. In some cities it played in older, smaller theatres and stayed there for weeks before finally building enough word of mouth and critical clout to migrate into the multiplexes. Depressing considering it came from one of the masters of filmmaking — one whose remaining filmography is a rapidly becoming a perishable asset.

A great story, formidable direction, critical praise and reliable performances were enough. In the past, every decade or so a JAWS, Star wars, Terminator, Jurassic Park or Matrix would change the rules of their respective genres, push the industry forward and pull all of filmmaking along with it (major studio and independent projects alike). Now each film hoping for success, even during the ‘prestige picture’ fall film season has to have an ‘iPhone’ moment or risk going unnoticed. Case in point 2013 award-season hopefuls like Monuments Men, Grace of Monaco, The Immigrant and Foxcatcher have all been pushed back from their Fall 2013 releases into the moribund Spring 2014 schedule. Spring time has been a notorious no-man’s land for passion projects that go forgotten by the end of the year (save a few exceptions — Erin Brockovich anyone?). Even Martin Scorsese (Scorcese!) had to consider pushing back Wolf On Wall Street. It’s a sad state of affairs when mythic filmmakers have to ponder if their latest and greatest can stand out. The counter is that it’s a good sign — more critically acclaimed prestige films released in the early months of January and February maybe be good. I might only slightly agree with this, but one gets a sense its a symptom of decay and not positive sign of recovery.

The real reason might be that these moves are pragmatic decisions, as producers are now facing increasing amounts of pressure to bring to the table that one transcendent ‘product innovation’ that earlier (or subsequent) films in its class didn’t. As release day looms closer and closer and the competition — like Gravity and 12 Years A Slave or Dallas Buyers Club — seem busy redefining how to compete and dominate the discussion, the usual suspects seem to be cornered into strategic retreats. Monuments Men producers Clooney and Heslov, for their part, are pinning the blame on a condensed post-production schedule (which on face value may be true). I’d say they are hedging their bets and relying on the success and casting clout of August: Osage County. Who can blame them. Meryl Streep is as sure a bet as any that some things will never change.

Now even the smallest film needs to have that disruptive quality and while that may seem like a good thing — it’s instead leading to ‘innovation fatigue’ (again, Apple is a great example) where innovative product offerings are becoming increasingly incremental. A great example are some of the horror franchises — like SAW or Paranormal Activity — both invented their product categories. Did they push us forward? That depends. Did Gravity give us the next great leap forward like Jurassic Park did? Maybe. An honest assessment seems to be that they only brought with them incremental steps. Just an evolution in an existing product. Like a thinner iPad with retina display. Or an iPhone with a slightly larger screen, or a camera with more megapixels.

Here’s an exercise: Watch JAWS again. Tell me it doesn’t play like an independent character piece. Seriously. The next great leap forward for films is actually one that I’d like to see taken in the opposite direction: Backwards. Back to simple stories, smaller stories, essential non-superfilous casting (one of the redeeming qualities of Gravity), bigger ideas and even bigger stakes. Where we don’t have to scour the theatre listings, obscure film festivals or direct-to-iTunes releases to experience them. In other words, film needs to do what television has done. Think big and go small.

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One Response to Bringing Down The House: Disruptive Branding & Films

  1. Jennifer Sibert says:

    You would find Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture (Ligensa & Kreimeier) extremely interesting.

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