For a very long time, Vicky Donor was not even in the periphery of my vision. Its gushing reviews suggested it was an arty, multiplex kind of film. But soon the pressure to watch it grew. After more than 20 “have you watched Vicky Donor?” questions, we watched it. It is a well-written film that treats the complex issue of sperm donors with simplicity.
This, however, is not about Vicky Donor. It is about how critical word of mouth is even in this day and age. And how much film marketing needs to change so as to leverage it.
Consider the two main elements of a film-marketing exercise: distribution and publicity. For very long, the bulk of the money went into 35-mm prints that cost Rs 60,000 apiece. The more prints you could release, the better the chances of mopping up audience spends that the first flush of curiosity generates. Some of the biggest releases did 600-odd prints in a market with about 10,000 cinema screens. As digitisation of theatres has taken off, the cost of a print has plummeted to Rs 3,000 or so. As a result, it is now usual for a film to release in 5,000-6,000 screens.
With such wide releases, the pressure on squeezing the most out of the first weekend is huge. The idea is to generate curiosity, desire to see, etc before word of mouth takes over. So the guiding philosophy in film marketing is: bulldoze them.
Think of the typical campaign for, say, Agent Vinod or Ra.One. The stars will be on news channels, newspapers, radio and wherever they choose to be. The promos will be all over the place. There will be brand endorsements of anything from a vest to a pencil irrespective of its connect with the film.
This worked in the pre-multiplex/digital screen days when films were catering to a one-size-fits-all audience. Today many types of films are being made — niche, mass, middle-of-the-road. The film-viewing experience is also sharply segmented by price, location and time. In this day and age, then, do we need to carpet-bomb audiences? Also, films are planned and scripted in advance and pre-production is a critical function with the big studios. Why, then, is film marketing so delinked from what the film is about and who it is for?
Ra.One and Agent Vinod were not bad films. They would have done well on their own because of the awesome star casts. But by hyping them up ad nauseam the marketing machinery created expectations that were unrealistic. So when the films turned out to be regular entertainers, word of mouth on social media and elsewhere slammed both the movies. Instead of pre-empting word of mouth, over-marketing had given it fodder.
Ra.One, for instance, was hyped up to be a big film for the family. It is not. It is a gadget film for children. To sell it as a family film is like advertising a Mont Blanc pen on a saas-bahu serial. When the product defines so strictly who the target audience is, why waste the marketing effort and money?
“Eighty per cent of moviegoers go to two theatres in their neighbourhood. So we need to stop advertising in newspapers and popular media. What we need is point of sales,” believes Vikram Malhotra, COO, Viacom18 Motion Pictures. But one reason popular media gets used is the pressure from stars who always want to know, “Hamari hoarding kab lag rahi hai?” (When will our hoardings be up?)
On the other hand, in the name of doing things differently, a lot of money is wasted on “cute” campaigns. For example, somebody will take 500 autos in Mumbai or some coasters in a coffee chain. That may not always help. Every film doesn’t need to be on social media or have a ring tone.
Vidya Balan’s Kahaani is a good example of a film that did not use hype, in spite of the blockbuster success of her immediately previous film, The Dirty Picture. The producers stuck to a targeted and somewhat intriguing campaign. Without the sword of overexpectations and with the strength of a well-told story, the film was a hit. This is true for Vivah, a sleeper hit in 2006 that still makes money on television. It is a film that worked with small-town India and continues to draw those audiences.
Similarly, Vicky Donor never tried any cute campaigns involving infertility clinics. This was not for lack of money — the film is produced by John Abraham and distributed by India’s largest studio, Eros. It chose to use word of mouth. Vicky Donor simply came to the theatres and waited. That has worked for the subject of the film. It is turning out to be the most profitable film of the year, so far. The Rs 5-crore film has already crossed Rs 40 crore at the Indian box office. There is something to be said for good writing and a common-sensical marketing plan.