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David Poland

By David Poland

Are Marketing Screenings At Festivals Good Or Bad?

SXSW seems to have reached Peak Sundance this year.

That’s not a compliment.

Four South Bys from Bridesmaids and the trend of big studio films doing early (or not-so-early) reach out to geek audiences has become the norm, not the surprise. For Team Apatow/Feig/Stoller, it’s become a tradition. Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008, Bridesmaids in 2011, Neighbors in 2013, and this year, two films, Trainwreck and Spy.

Worth noting, Universal, Universal, Universal, Universal, Fox.

Also worth noting: No The Five-Year Engagement, no Begin Again, no The Heat, no Get Him To The Greek, no Ted.

2012: Cabin In The Woods ($42m), 21 Jump Street ($138m)
2013: Evil Dead ($54m), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone ($23m)
2914: Neighbors ($150m), Veronica Mars ($3.3m), Chef ($31m), Cesar Chavez ($6m)

What will be the results for Get Hard, Spy, Trainwreck, and Universal’s Ex Machina this year? Most likely, very strong.

But why?

This is the eternal question about these premieres at film festivals, whether the biggest in the world or the high middle or the low end… or ComicCon, for that matter.

It is completely understandable that the media has grabbed onto the idea that SWSW is “The Raunchy Comedy Fest.” It’s not that. But that is what has become the lead story now, year after year.

This is the devil’s bargain that festivals are faced with… do they try to focus attention on the high quality films that can’t afford to chase national media attention or do the festivals grab media attention with studio films with studio marketing budgets (and stars) and try to spread it around?

Like it or not, the history of film festival growth seems to be directly related the “pandering” to movies that don’t need festivals, aside from as a cheap marketing event to a targeted demographic group.

The conversation gets a little different in the fall, when Telluride, Toronto, and New York all spread ’em for the “awards films” that draw attention. Some of those have smaller budgets for marketing and really need to catapult effect from these festivals. And, for the most part, the films themselves are more ambitious than summer comedy or horror.

But that is really a different issue. And I have written about ComicCon many times… that I don’t think anyone can legitimately point to a single movie that was going to do a lot of business that would have done a noticeable amount less had they not gone to ComicCon. Inversely, there is a long list of films that got LOVE at the Con and ended up bombing anyway.

For studios, “premiere” at festivals like SXSW are just word-of-mouth screenings in a fan-oriented environment. Each festival has a personality. And the tone is set with the critics in attendance as well. Of course, critics mean little with commercial comedies and horror films, as has been proven repeatedly by films that are loved in these circumstances, but then are considered commercial underperformers. And I can’t recall a single case of a film in which the movie was destined for relative modesty at the box office but was then raised to the heavens by a festival screening.

It was great for Universal to have the in-house enthusiasm for Bridesmaids that was stoked by a successful sneak at SXSW – which is really what these are – and they rode that wave all the way to May (2 months away). The film opened to a solid, but unspectacular $26 million and then proceeded to do more than 6x opening weekend domestically… which is spectacular. Likewise, Ted, opened in late June with no festivals… opened stronger and did a tremendous (in that context) 4x opening. In other words, two R-rated comedies that Universal knew were good opened – one lesser but with longer legs and one stronger with strong but not as long legs – and which one would expect got the festival bump?

So indulge me when I say that these screenings mean a lot to the people involved and nearly nothing to the ultimate marketing of these movies. And none of these movies – or any other wide release – opens without successful marketing.

That said, does it matter?

In the end, it only matters to me because I do not want my experience of discovering a movie derailed by “buzz” from a million different buzzers, large and small. I can’t be swayed and I don’t want to concern myself with avoiding positive or negative context for a film when I first see it… as a consumer or as a critic.

What do The Hollywood Reporter and Variety think? I could not care less. Both have been right about movies and both have been wrong. And unless the critic is one with whose work I am deeply familiar, I have no reason to trust anyone just because they write under a journalistic banner whose name I know. This is also true with, say, The NY Times. I read Manohla and Tony for criticism, not that paper.

Is it bad for the lower profile films at these festivals? Good question. Answer is, “both” and every story as to why and to what degree is different.

Is this bad or good for MOVIES? Meaningless, really. There is more accessible movie writing than ever in the history of the world and has it changed the financials a whit? Not that I can see.

I will admit… when I started writing this, my eyes were rolling. I look forward to seeing Trainwreck and Spy, but I also know that they wouldn’t have gone if they weren’t already testing pretty well. Amy Schumer is the great comedic mind of the moment – Lorne Michaels missed that one, big time – Apatow knows comedy and Hader is always a joy. Melissa McCarthy is funny even when she isn’t and Spy sounds like the great John Belushi or Chris Farley or Jim Carrey movie that wasn’t. But I don’t really need to know what trades or geeks think of these films months in advance. I’ll know what to think when the lights come on.

On the other hand… who cares? God bless SXSW and all the festivals and all the people who go and enjoy the films and the event of it all.

There is a natural conflict. These movies aren’t there as art. They are there as a piece of a business plan. But… even if it doesn’t earn any of the films a single extra dime… who cares? And if it distracts from more serious work at SXSW, that is SXSW’s choice and they will navigate it as they see fit.

I guess in the end, it is how I feel about Sundance too. “Paris Hilton is taking up too much oxygen!” Well, then YOU are the one paying too much attention to Paris Hilton, because you could well go through all 10 days of the festival and never see her, never know where she is, and never care.

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13 Responses to “Are Marketing Screenings At Festivals Good Or Bad?”

  1. michael bergeron says:

    Hey Girl meme is out …. Grumpy Cat meme is in

  2. cadavra says:

    “Amy Schumer is the great comedic mind of the moment.”

    That doesn’t say much for the moment, given that pretty much her entire act consists of her discussing the various objects she places in her various orifices.

  3. Stella's Boy says:

    I haven’t seen many episodes of Schumer’s show, but I’ve seen a bunch of clips (and found them hilarious), and not a single one featured her talking about placing objects in an orifice. Did I just happen to stumble upon the only clips that avoid orifice object placement?

  4. Stella's Boy says:

    The Get Hard Q&A with Etan Cohen sounds like it was, ah, interesting.

  5. Phogmahone says:

    I would have thought that Universal would have an idea of the prospects of Ex Machina given that it was already out in Britain and Ireland .Maybe it’s even why they have that screening .

    That’s just the American premiere

  6. leahnz says:

    i remember ages ago i fractured my foot and did a stint at home watching daytime woe-is-me tv, got to watching (daily reruns i think) of some show called ‘last comic standing’ on which schumer was one of the comics; she was just starting out and got eliminated i believe, i remember thinking she was a frustrating one because her concepts were humorous enough and she had a certain relatable, dorky style in her observations but she’d kind of fail to really bring it home and nail her punchlines in the delivery — it’s amazing watching her now how much she’s grown and improved in her writing and honed her act, my ‘most improved’ trophy goes to schumer for sure, good on the schu.
    (i’ve watched a fair bit of her recently – my boy watches her stuff a lot online – and the assertion that her comedy revolves around object orifice placement is bizarre, i think i’ve seen that exactly once in her act/show)

  7. movieman says:

    Isn’t A24 distributing “Ex Machina” in the U.S.?

  8. EtGuild2 says:

    It sure didn’t help “Get Hard.” How long before Kevin Hart destroys his stand-up goodwill as a leading man? Weird that his best movie as a lead is his least seen.

  9. jesse says:

    Again, cadavra, have to ask: how old are you that you (a.) so despise any kind of explicitness in comedy and (b.) upon hearing any kind of explicitness in comedy, seem incapable of seeing ANYTHING else? You sound like you’re about 70, but I’m pretty sure you’re around my age.

    It’s like the rap about Rogen being all sex and excrement jokes. Rogen/Apatow/Segel/etc. have written way more referential jokes, relationship jokes, and general dialogue-driven jokes than gross-out stuff.

  10. palmtree says:

    “That doesn’t say much for the moment, given that pretty much her entire act consists of her discussing the various objects she places in her various orifices.”

    So food and sex aren’t big enough topics for you?

  11. Joe Leydon says:

    This is old, old news about an old, old phenomenon. More than 20 years ago, people were complaining that movie junkets for major studio (and, occasionally, indie distributor) releases were taking up too much time for journalists at the Toronto Film Festival, and overshadowing the smaller films that desperately need attention. Like it or not, it is the nature of the beast.

  12. cadavra says:

    Jesse: I don’t despise explicitness in comedy. In fact, I think any topic is fit for humor, even race and religion. (I just saw a new Broadway play called HAND TO GOD, in which the line “I just fucked your mother!” is one of the least outrageous things said or done.) My objection to comics like Schumer is that they talk dirty without being actually funny. Sarah Silverman is just as offensive as Schumer, perhaps moreso, but she IS funny–that’s the difference. As someone once said about Dice Clay, “Where’s the joke? I can’t find the joke!”

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