Over the past few years, the marketing of expensive films has fallen into a predictable rhythm: the teaser trailers, the posters, the flashy websites, all building over a period of several long months before the eventual release of the movie itself.
Film promotion has become such a practiced art that it could even be argued that the run-up to a film’s release can be a bigger deal than the movie itself; the anticipation builds and builds over a year or more of casting announcements, cool images and snippets of tantalising footage, and then – just like that – the movie’s out and our attention’s diverted elsewhere.
When it comes to drumming up interest in films, the San Diego Comic-Con is now one of the major tools in a film studio’s arsenal. The convention’s been going since 1970, yet its scale and impact has mushroomed in recent years, as attendances have swelled and studios like Marvel and Warner Bros. have begun to use the event as a platform to build excitement for their future releases.
One of the most popular ways of getting visitors to Hall H in a lather is to show off some previously unseen footage – and why not? Showing off a few minutes of, say, some early Godzilla sequences is a sure fire way of getting people talking about your film a whole year before release. And if people are talking about your film, you can bet that some of them will soon be writing about them on the web – and thus the snowball starts to gather momentum.
But as we’ve seen time and again, showing off early footage or exclusive trailers comes with a built-in risk: leakage. Even though every screening begins with pleas for visitors to put away their phones, it’s inevitable that someone will whip out a mobile phone, take a sneaky video and upload it to the web.
This year’s Comic-Con alone saw footage of Warcraft, Deadpool, Suicide Squad and X-Men: Apocalypse all leak online. That this happened isn’t a surprise. What is surprising is how publically annoyed studios seem to have been by it all. Consider Warner as one example: shortly after the footage of Suicide Squad leaked, the studio put an official version of the footage online. Simultaneously, it released the following statement:
Warner Bros Pictures and our anti-piracy team have worked tirelessly over the last 48 hours to contain the Suicide Squad footage that was pirated from Hall H on Saturday. We have been unable to achieve that goal. Today we will release the same footage that has been illegally circulating on the web, in the form it was created and high quality with which it was intended to be enjoyed. We regret this decision as it was our intention to keep the footage as a unique experience for the Comic Con crowd, but we cannot continue to allow the film to be represented by the poor quality of the pirated footage stolen from our presentation.
You don’t need us to point out the grumpy tone of those words. Nor has Warner Bros. been alone in voicing its irritation at this latest batch of leaks. X-Men: Apocalypse producer Hutch Parker said this to Collider about the early appearance of his film’s promo footage:
“I don’t actually think it’s good marketing. Leaking footage a year in advance of a movie’s release is not such a good thing. The reason you don’t see footage out that far is you run the risk of it getting stale.”
Now, it should be pointed out that we’re not condoning piracy of any kind. But at the same time, those statements above beg the question:What did they expect? By showing off footage at a convention with thousands of people in the room, studios are banking on those people to spread the word of what they’ve seen with their friends. It’s inevitable that one or two of them will attempt to share what they’ve seen in a way the studio will dislike – that is, by filming it on their phones.
X-Men: Apocalypse‘s producer talks, elsewhere in his Collider interview, about the use of the Comic-Con crowd as a kind of gigantic focus group. “From a marketing perspective, what they want is to share it with the most discerning eyes that are out there for this material,” Parker said. “It’s the biggest and probably most intense focus group any of us ever have.”
From a studio perspective, this makes perfect sense. If you want an idea of what your core audience is going to make of your next superhero movie, there’s no more receptive or honest a group of people to consult than the attendees of a comic convention. If they think the outfits or casting in your film suck, then they’ll soon let you know.
But from the perspective of Comic-Con’s visitors, they’re not in Hall H to be part of a focus group. They want to share in their passion and love of pop culture with like-minded people. They want to find out about the films, shows and comics they’re most interested in as early as they possibly can, and they’re willing to spend a considerable amount of their money and time in doing so. Movie studios are lucky to have such people all assembled in one place.
I’d argue, in fact, that far from being angry about footage leaks, studios should treat Comic-Con and events like it as their fans do: as a celebration. Rather than rage against the inevitable, studios should show off their trailers and footage to Comic-Con fans first, and then upload the same footage to the net a few hours later. This way, fans get to see the footage early, on a large screen surrounded by the atmosphere of the event, fans at home who can’t make the pilgrimage to Comic-Con get to see a decent (albeit much smaller) version of the same clip, and the studios are saved the effort of combing through the web and removing dozens of shaky-cam videos taken on mobile phones.
Again, we’re not condoning piracy or suggesting that it’s right to upload sneakily-taken footage to the web. But it’s important to make a distinction between pirating a film and uploading it – an act which, it hardly needs to be said, is highly damaging to movie production – and uploading a video of what is essentially a piece of promotion that was never intended to be sold in any case.
When it comes to marketing movies, studios are engaging in a kind of dance with their prospective customers: testing the ground with early announcements, whipping up early chatter with sneak previews, building up a following with celebrity interviews, posters and trailers. It may be frustrating when Comic-Con attendees don’t play the game in the way the studios want them to, but then again, isn’t showing off early footage all part of the risk-reward process of movie promotion?
By giving thousands of visitors to the convention an early look at their film, a studio inevitably opens itself up to the possibility of a leak, but that risk is surely offset by the reward: a receptive audience willing to spread the word of a forthcoming movie far and wide.