Marvel Studios, and the marketing model template

The bit of Marvel Studios that everyone's really trying to copy? The seemingly unstoppable marketing machine...

The sizeable box office success of Marvel and director James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy continued a winning streak for the studio that goes back to film number one, when it put its own money behind Iron Man. It’s an extraordinary success story, where time after time a nine figure gamble is made, and the jackpot is hit. Nobody is expecting that not to happen again with next year’s Avengers sequel, that Joss Whedon recently wrapped production on.

It’s little secret that pretty much every major studio is now building a cinematic universe off the back of the Marvel model. Disney has another, with Star Wars, whilst Fox is playing with X-Men and Fantastic Four. Sony is juggling Spider-Man. Universal has put a classic monsters universe into motion. Warner Bros is lining up its DC properties, even if it’s not naming most of them yet. Even Paramount was looking to do a spin-off from its recent Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit movie, before its muted box office put pay to that. But you can bet it’s looking at similar spin-offs elsewhere.

Yet even when studios have had some success with cinematic universes, and there’s a sense that Fox made a real breakthrough this year with X-Men: Days Of Future Past, none of them come anywhere close to the marketing stronghold in particular that Marvel seems to hold.

This is particularly evident when a new film comes around, and Marvel’s machine is particularly well oiled in this regard. You’re all likely to be familiar with the process. The early press screening of the film has an embargo on it, prohibiting reviews from running until a certain date. However, Twitter reactions tend to be encouraged. Thus, for pretty much every Marvel film, the initial swarm of Twitter responses is hugely positive. Articles compiling these reactions follow, and the balloon of hype gets yet more air.

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Then the reviews proper land. Because there’s a worldwide embargo in place, and because Marvel tries to get as many press in to see its films early, the effect of this is that hundreds of reviews land online within minutes of each other. Even if there are naysayers in there, it’s often very hard to find them.

For there’s such enthusiasm for what Marvel does, that there’s a major thread of positivity for the movies. Granted, the quality of the films themselves has much to do with that. But what’s interesting is that when a Marvel film lands on DVD/Blu-ray/on demand, you get a far more critical assessment. Thor: The Dark World is the most obvious example of this, where many some of those four star reviews had sunk to a three on reflection.

This groundswell of enthusiasm following by a deeper, later reflection is, in truth, part and parcel of a broader trend with blockbuster movies at the moment. But it seems particularly pronounced with Marvel. No studio has harnessed fan interest and positivity as compellingly, and every announcement is savoured.

We’re guilty of good chunks of this, we should note. And it’s at the point now where publicity for the studio is generated without it even having to do anything. The other week, for instance, Joaquin Phoenix was linked with the role of Doctor Strange. That was the first bit of the story. But then, the web was ignited again when someone said they’d seen Phoenix buying Doctor Strange comic books. Done deal, it seemed. Free publicity for a new Marvel movie, without it lifting a finger.

Even when Marvel has a blip, it’s temporary. It’s ridden out, for the time being at least, the backlash of sorts when Edgar Wright departed Ant-Man earlier this year, having developed the project for the best part of a decade. By the time the first official production still is released, Marvel’s marketing dark arts will have the enthusiasm levels pumped right back up, we suspect.

Marvel has, though, earned its position. It’s shown a way to push and promote films that actually talks to fans, and respects them for the most part. You don’t have to like all the movies to enjoy hearing Kevin Feige, for instance, talking about them. Its filmmakers have an infectious love of the material they’re dealing with too, and there’s a perception that if we turned up at their houses, they’d be the first to get the kettle on.

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The truth is some way away from that of course. Marvel does have a bunch of films that abruptly changed director, and it has projects where the helmer opted not to return for a sequel. Behind the proverbial walls of Marvel Towers, there’s clearly some harsher stuff going on.

Yet when it’s presented to us, it all seems to work. Contrast that with the troubles Sony has had in persuading fans of Spider-Man that it’s the correct custodian for the webslinger’s movies. You can also contrast the differing approaches both employed when they hit a critical blip. Marvel’s Iron Man 2 and Sony’s Spider-Man 3 both got less appreciative critical notices, and more fan criticism, than their immediate predecessors. Marvel stayed with the process, brought in a new director, but didn’t change its narrative path. Sony hit the reboot button, started again, changed personnel, and left the core fans scratching their heads.

And that’s the key here: the core fans. Marvel has them more on side than any other studio because there’s a sense – rightly or wrongly – that it treats what matters to them properly. Everyone else is struggling with that. There’s plenty of interest, for instance, in Warner Bros’ upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but part of that is suspicion. Man Of Steel divided Superman purists quite heavily.

The argument runs that you target comic book movies at the mass market now, and that’s where Warner Bros is going. It’s following in in Marvel’s path in teasing release dates too as well, the latest Hollywood trend. Last week, it reserved dates for lots of new films, through to 2020, without naming any of them. It knows, as Marvel has proven, it’ll get a second flurry of publicity now once it starts putting names to those dates.

Back to the fanbase, though. Bad word of mouth from a group of people who really care about a property, and have long bought into it, can be and usually is poisonous. It may not make an immediate box office impact, but if you lose the core, then there’s a longer term danger that you lose the support for whatever universe you’re building. You can announce as many release dates as you like, but enthusiasm will be in lesser supply.

Marvel, notwithstanding the Ant-Man blip, has kept that core ofr enthusiasm in tact, and tended to it first. It makes good to very good films, that get very good to excellent reviews. And when it announces something major and new, the owners of Twitter and Facebook have to get the emergency generators out.

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Whilst many, therefore, share a longer term target to build compelling movie universes and to lessen the risks involved in blockbuster movies, it’s the marketing model that shouldn’t be ignored by important studio people in posh clothes. Surprisingly, perhaps, Marvel’s marketing elixir is comprised of surprisingly straightforward ingredients. Which makes it all the more surprising that nobody has managed to really come close to matching it yet.

As Warner Bros showed last week, though, it’s not for the want of trying. For the time being, though, Marvel remains the firm experts.

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