May 29, 2006

Da Vinci, Da Movies, Da Money, Da Lost Opportunity

"Here's the gospel on The Da Vinci Code: It's a total snore." - Detroit News
"The most controversial thriller of the year turns out to be about as exciting as watching your parents play Sudoku." - Washington Post
"How can a film contain so many clues yet remain utterly clueless?" - Chicago Tribune
"Plodding, tedious, deathly dull." - Philadelphia Inquirer
"A melodramatic, sometimes lifeless film." - USA Today

The newspaper critics hated it. The public loves it. What would you think if you were a Hollywood exec? Who needs the critics, right?

That's David Carr's point today in his New York Times column - Hollywood is increasingly skipping the traditional pre-screening of movies for press critics because it sees the Web as a more powerful, more influential tool to attract movie audiences. The bad news for newspapers is not just the dissing of their (usually) well-paid critics, but the accompanying loss of ad money.

Hollywood spends $1 billion a year on newspaper advertising, Carr says, but more and more of that money is headed elsewhere - most to the Net. He reports:

"The industry cut back newspaper advertising last year - down $60 million compared with the year previous - the first time in five years, according to TNS Media Intelligence, a market research firm."

(TNS also reported that general retail advertising, upon which newspapers depend heavily - those big department store ads - fell 1.1 percent in 2005, a year in which the overall ad spend rose 3 percent. Overall advertising spending on newspapers did rise last year, but only 1.1 percent - less than the rate of inflation - while spending on cable TV and Internet advertising grew 11.4 and 13.3 percent, respectively.)

Enough numbers. You get the point. A core newspaper advertiser - the Hollywood entertainment complex - is increasingly seeing newspapers as irrelevant to its primary business: Filling theater seats.

This is the issue newspapers face on all fronts: Relevancy. The competition for audience is not about news, not about the quality of journalism, not even about whether the great unwashed cares more about Branjelina than global warming, but the relevancy of the medium to the lives people lead.

And, the battleground for that competition is digital.

As recently as 2001, a year after some of the biggest companies in Hollywood formed Fandango, the theater ticket direct seller that bypasses a consumer's need to look in a newspaper for movie locations and times, the newspaper industry still had its head buried in a bucket of buttered popcorn about entertainment advertising dollars. Here's Presstime magazine, the house organ of the Newspaper Association of America, reporting on a panel at the group's annual convention:

"The idea that newspaper movie advertising is becoming obsolete was reduced to an unsubstantiated myth."

Uh-huh. Sure. Yeah, that's right. Compare that with this item from Carr's column:

"Back when he first took hold of the newly formed AOL Time Warner, Steve Case talked of a holy grail in which companies could open movies without buying significant print ads. That never came to pass, but now a new division of Fox Film Entertainment aimed at teenagers, Fox Atomic, will produce eight films a year with a print budget of exactly zero."

Print advertising for newspapers will soon be reduced to ego-feeding posters that celebrate awards season. The message is clear: The conversation about entertainment - just as the one about news - has moved on while newspapers stood still. Influence - and relevance - today belongs to those enable (and guide) conversation, not to those who tell everyone else what to think.

Credit: Opening blurbs via Rotten Tomatoes.

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 29, 2006 09:19 AM


the DaVinci Code might not be the best movie to prove the point you're trying to make. The thing that makes the public like the DaVinci Code is that it plays to conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, art history, and DaVinci--more than any web advertising. As a biblical scholar with a smattering of art history and new age feminist sprituality, I, like the critics, found the movie deadly dull. But anyone who knows nothing about the scriptures pertaining to Mary Magdalene or about art history, and who's maybe heard some of the pop culture whispers about the "slaughter" of 10 million women by the Inquisition will love the movie.

Just because something plays to popular misconceptions doesn't mean that it's a triumph of the 'net over newspapers. It's more or less proves that what the public is willing to believe about a particular subject, and where it wants to validate those perceptions might be from "trusted" entertainment products. Oliver Stone's JFK is another piece of evidence on that theory.

Perhaps, though, Hollywood's interest in keeping certain films from critics is, because, quite frankly, they stink--but if critics say they stink, it will keep the movies from making even a small sum at the box office. Keeping critics out of the screening room is actually a nicely contrived strategy to get *some* box office cash from the unsuspecting public. The movies Carr mentions in his piece spent very little time at the box office (because even word of mouth said they sucked--the Underworld sequel was in theaters two weeks or less) and a lot of time lounging on the shelves at Blockbuster.

Let's also look at the dollars necessary to put up a flash-enabled website to promote a film than to put out a print ad. Right now, movies are banking on savvy marketing and the attention of young people, which can be gained thru pouring more money into fancy flash websites. But the sites stay up for years after the film closes--the eyes of young people are only one factor here. Essentially, if you're interested promoting for a serious clinker (like The Excorcism of Emily Rose) after it leaves the box office, the public can still check out a website years after the film closed and judge for itself if they want to rent it. The age demographic that checks out an old web promotion for a clunker could be different from the age demographic that initially viewed it. Nobody's checked that stat though.

Web advertising, though, is perpetual--print isn't, and nothing can change that. It reaches a wider audience over the long haul. So, the net investment in a web-based advertising campaign is perhaps cheaper than print over the long haul--then it indeed trumps print. Also, most of the big ads have been traditionally placed in newspapers of major metropolitan areas, where the populace has moved a significant portion of its attention to the 'net. Beacuse big ads usually don't extend to small-town papers, splashy web and tv adverts help reach the populace there, too. Geography as much as age demographic may be an unspoken factor in the shift from newsprint to the web.

Are newspapers then irrelevant to movie advertising? are critics irrelevant? Perhaps a yes on the former, but I think it's a bit premature to judge on the latter, given the way Hollywood manipulates the process to squeeze a buck out of its most rancid products.

Posted by: tish grier on May 31, 2006 06:15 AM
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