Regardless of the studio, there is hardly a cinema poster or a TV commercial today in which the phrase “only in the cinemas” does not appear as prominently as the film title.
It’s not a coincidence. It’s a form of damage control.
Hollywood’s unified marketing push comes after a two-year period in which film distribution patterns incessantly changed and nearly every major film was released differently. In the time since cinemas have started to recover, studios have returned to the one-size-fits-most approach to bringing films to the masses. However, industry experts believe the effects of the COVID era are still reverberating.
“Because of these hybrid strategies, the lines are blurred,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “It has created confusion among consumers that needs to be addressed over time.”
During this period of mass experimentation, traditional studios were able to test strategies that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic, which is why Marvel’s Black Widow, The Matrix Resurrections, Dune, and The Matrix Resurrections debuted in theaters and on Disney+ simultaneously remainder of Warner Bros.’ slate also premiered on HBO Max, and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” moved to Paramount+ after just 45 days. These changes may have pumped a few extra millions into studios’ pockets from rentals and subscriptions during a trying time, but they’ve also given the industry a renewed appreciation for the money — and cultural awareness — that movies can generate .
Now that concerns about catching COVID-19 in multiplexes seem to have receded and experimental release patterns have eased, marketing executives are working to clear up that confusion so the average moviegoer can keep track of where to catch the latest blockbusters. In practice, this means that just having the release date on the poster is no longer sufficient.
“For people to see the difference, we have to insist,” said Josh Goldstine, president of marketing at Warner Bros.
With the line between streaming (thanks, Netflix!) and theatrical releases already blurred, traditional studios are working flat out to educate audiences that “Elvis” isn’t available at home on HBO Max. And no, paying an additional fee does not allow Disney+ subscribers to stream Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder.
“We use all media, paid or earned, as an avenue for in-theater messaging,” said Danielle Misher, Sony’s co-head of global cinema marketing. It’s not just billboards and trailers touting this information; Performers from Spider-Man: No Way Home, Where the Crawdads Sing, and other new releases have made a point of cheering up the theatrical experience in morning shows and late-night performances. It also appears on backdrops at red carpet events. “We keep repeating it so it’s clear,” Misher says.
The marketing push is starting to pay off. According to new information from industry researcher Guts + Data, the concept of cinema windows – the industry term for the period when a new film is only shown in theaters – is much clearer to consumers. Of the 600 active moviegoers surveyed, about half were able to tell where blockbusters will be shown first. The hope among executives tasked with selling the film to the public is that increased awareness will drive sales of Monster opening weekends.
A week prior to Thor: Love and Thunder’s release, 52% of respondents knew the Marvel adventure would be a theatrical exclusive. But there is still a lot to do. Case in point: 38% incorrectly believed the fourth Thor installment would have a hybrid release on Disney+, while 10% incorrectly believed the film would be stream-only.
For Universal and Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, which premiered over the July 4 bank holiday weekend, 48% correctly knew that the animated comedy was a theatrical exclusive for the first time, while 40% incorrectly believed the film would be released concurrently Theatrical and digital would debut and 12% thought it would be streamed only.
Part of the problem is that the lines between digital and cinema started to blur before the pandemic, as contemporary players like Amazon introduced shorter cinema windows (compared to the traditional 75-90 day framework) and Netflix big-star films the big ones mostly skipped screen. Therefore, when consumers see an ad on TikTok or walk past a movie poster on the subway, it cannot be assumed that the movie will be in theaters.
And there’s evidence that the average consumer can’t tell the difference between a movie from old-school players like Paramount and Sony and newcomers like Apple or Netflix. About 38% of consumers surveyed by Guts + Data thought Ryan Gosling’s action thriller The Gray Man would hit the big screen first, even though Netflix films rarely have solid theatrical releases. Though the film will have a limited theatrical run on July 15 before landing on Netflix on July 22, The Gray Man won’t hit most theaters across the nation.
All the more reason for these campaigns, studio execs say. “There’s so much content being marketed every day,” said Marc Weinstock, president of worldwide marketing and sales for Paramount. “It helps consumers, whether it’s subtle or overt, to know it’s a theatrical film.”