Saturday, October 07, 2006

Marketing 201: Why Dane Cook is a marketing tool, “Snakes on a Plane” was destined to fail, and demographics no longer matter

MySpace: The Final Frontier

When people talk about Dane Cook, comedian and star of this week’s big screen release “Employee of the Month,” they often describe him as something of an internet phenom, a proprietor of the MySpace revolution, someone whose “friend” tally once rivaled Tom himself. (Cook made news when his total number of “friends” on MySpace topped one million.) And despite how you might feel about Dane Cook as a comedian (here I am repressing my own critical judgments) – there is an undeniable fact – Dane Cook is a marketing tool.

Cook proved that he could build a brand – or rather, build himself into a brand by providing his own fan base. MySpace provided the perfect opportunity for Cook to bring himself to his fans, and ultimately gather new fans. Together with his own website, Cook built a buzz for himself by himself online, and did so rather quickly.

What may be often overlooked by reporters bringing the “Dane Cook overnight success” story is that he’s actually been at for a long time. And by “at it,” I mean, pursuing a career in entertainment. (Yes, his filmography includes roles as The Waffler in 1999’s “Mystery Men” and as Sausage Mascot in 2004’s “Mr. 3000.”) Dane Cook may not be so much a comedian as he is an entertainer – and he may not be so much an entertainer as he is a brilliant marketer and shameless self-promoter. And let’s face it, that’s what it really takes to make it in Hollywood. Just look at Paris Hilton.

When it comes right down to it, talent, personality, and even sex appeal can all be bought. You can hire people to train you to memorize clever lines, you can perfect your musical sound with in-studio technology, and you can go under the knife or get a fabulous fake tan, provided you have enough cash. But tirelessly promoting yourself takes endurance and hard work. This is where Ms. Hilton excels better than anyone.

Here you might roll your eyes and say “Aack, she’s everywhere!” and you’d be right. Actively provoking people to watch her show, grab her CD, or buy her perfume and hand bags, Paris is a one-woman show. And despite the flack that she may incur multiple times a day, few would argue that Paris is a brilliant marketer.

Despite her wealthy upbringing, it was really a little sex tape that found its way onto the internet that moved Ms. Hilton from the secluded recesses of posh city life to the noisy screens of every television in America. As you can imagine, the girl is heavily Googled.

So it seems that with the right placement, the right target audience, and the right combination of kitsch and sex appeal, most anyone could build a brand and sell it online, right? Right?

When Shameless Promotion Goes Too Far

We all knew it was coming and we were waiting with baited breath. We watched the trailer, we heard the rumors, we saw Sam Jackson everywhere from MTV to The Tonight Show, we even heard him on our phones telling us to go see his new movie. We voted in online contests, we watched Dave Chappelle mock Samuel L., we bought T-shirts, but ultimately we did not go to the theater. Why?

“Snakes on a Plane” is a prime example of brilliant marketing. The buzz surrounding the film before it was released was enormous, and it seemed that a film that ought to be destined for the “straight to DVD” section at Blockbuster, would actually be a blockbuster. Backed by a high level of audience participation—so high that viewers of early cuts voted to add in Mr. Jackson’s now-infamous lines, and get “Snakes” a sexier R-rating – most everyone expected the film to have a huge turn-out in theaters.

But when it came time to perform at the box office, it ultimately bit the big one.
(As of the weekend ending October 1, “Snakes” had grossed some $33.8 million. “Accepted”- the teen comedy about a kid who makes up a fake college – opened the same weekend as “Snakes” and has grossed nearly $36 million. The production budget for “Snakes” was $33 million. For “Accepted” it was $23 million.) Why?

There are three reasons why this plane may have crashed prematurely:

1) Essentially “Snakes on a Plane” is a punchline. No doubt, it’s a good punchline, but there’s no joke to accompany it. It’s not like you’re going to a movie called “Snakes…” (the set-up)– and that’s all you know – and when you get to the theater “…on a plane” is the punchline. No, you’re getting the punchline up front – without the joke. What does that mean? It means that once you’ve heard the line a few times, you’re satisfied, and asking you to take a trip to the theater, is really asking a lot.

2) The R-rating. Audiences asked for it – and they got it. And truly, the R-rating is what makes the film rather great, and what makes the film worth trekking to the theater for. But ultimately the rating may have inhibited “Snakes” core audience – the MySpace 13– 16 year old sweet spot. The 16-year-old male is largely regarded as prime target movie-goer – and he may have been kept out of the theater.

3) Overmarketing. By the time “Snakes on a Plane” debuted in theaters, audiences had seen promotions for the movie everywhere. Interest had peaked weeks before the film opened, and when it finally debuted – to surprisingly nice treatment from critics (The New York Times gave it three out of four stars, and most outlets commended it) – the public didn’t turn out to see it. Truth is, they’d had their fill and already moved on.

Marketing is all about timing. And while the film couldn’t have asked for better exposure – it could have exposed itself a little less before it’s debut, and peaked its promotions after a few weeks in the theaters. If people only know a little and they’re interested – they’ll make the trip to the Cineplex.

Case in point: “The Blair Witch Project”

Touted as a “real” horror flick that followed three disappearing film students into the woods to meet their untimely death, much of the initial success of “Blair Witch” must be attributed to savvy marketing. Debuting in 1999, the film’s marketers were just enough ahead of the curve that they were able to cash in (literally) on a burgeoning phenomenon – that’s right – the internet.

Rumors began circulating online just before the film was released, and while the film had already won over critics at Sundance and Cannes, nothing was revealed about the “reality” of the film until it had already been released and was making money. Turns out that the young student filmmakers had never really disappeared, and had hardly been consumed by an evil witch in the forest. It had all been a clever marketing ploy. Clever enough that even while people were in theaters, they were asking, “Is this real?”

The secret to the “Blair Witch” success was that the marketers were able to keep things as secretive as possible, without over-promoting or creating too much buzz too soon. Turns out, their internet marketing scheme and keen timing proved successful – “Blair Witch” grossed more than $248 million.

We’re all watching the Tube

The truth is, when it comes to internet promotions, standard demographics don’t matter. That is, they don’t matter as much as channels. By “channels” I mean, the outlets through which something is promoted – be it CNN, Yahoo, MySpace, MTV, etc. Marketers are necessarily limiting themselves, or spreading themselves widely, through the channels they promote through.

There have emerged a number of channels that have so wide an appeal that demographics no longer really matter. Google, YouTube, AIM, all serve as channels with so wide an appeal and reach that they cannot adequately categorize a “type” of user. MySpace functions this way to a much lesser extent. There seems to be (at least) a pretty solid demographic associated with the service – mostly teens and pre-teens. (“Creepy old people” has yet to become it’s own demographic.)

On the internet, there is no “prime time” or “family hour.” I’m free to watch videos on, or listen to tracks from Paris Hilton’s CD in the privacy of my own room in front of my own computer – things I might not do in a more public place, such as a store or a common area of my home.

Undoubtedly the internet has opened the floodgates for marketers, and everyone from Dane Cook to Paris Hilton is jumping on board. Let’s just hope they don’t go overboard.

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