As I write this in Los Angeles, Tropical Storm Hilary (née Hurricane Hilary) is dumping more rain on Southern California in a single day than we usually see all year. Los Angeles hasn’t seen a tropical storm since 1939, 84-years ago, so everyone has lost their collective minds. I’ll try to make this week’s Marquee editorial brief since the electric company is sending hourly text messages stating the power could go out at any moment. Just to add to the fun, the region had a 5.1 magnitude earthquake amidst the deluge. This has all left me wondering if there is a striking screenwriter out there tapping away at their laptop right now to turn all of this craziness into a future apocalyptic blockbuster.
Just over a month ago nobody in Los Angeles was giving any thought to hurricanes and tropical storms. On the eve of the opening weekend for two of 2023’s most successful films (so far) anyone in our business who was lucky enough to score an invite was at the grand opening party for the Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Inglewood IMAX. The latest Cinépolis multiplex cut the ribbon just two days before Barbenheimer took the world by storm (no pun intended).
Like most of Cinépolis’s venues here in the United States, it is yet another well executed example of premium cinema offerings. It has 12 screens with laser-projection, including one IMAX auditorium, full menu dine-in options and plenty of lobby space with a bar serving up an array of adult beverages. Cinépolis also happens to be one of the first tenants to open in Hollywood Park, the residential and retail district developed by Stanley Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams football team, on the grounds of what used to be a historic horse racing track. SoFi stadium, where Taylor Swift just played six sold out concerts, is across the parking lot.
Unlike the last Cinépolis theatre opening I attended in Los Angeles a few years ago, this one wasn’t a laid back affair meant just for exhibition and distribution insiders. Sure, representatives from IMAX, the National Association of Theatre Owners, Spotlight Cinema Networks, Venue Valet and Vista Cinema were among those present. However, greatly outnumbering the usual CinemaCon crowd was an army of boisterous young people, most of whom were clad in all pink for that evening’s screening of “Barbie.” Each one of them was more beautiful or charismatic than the next and almost all were wielding a camera of some kind. It turns out they were all social media influencers. After speaking with at least a dozen that evening and hearing all about their glamorous red carpet lives, I came to the conclusion that I might be in the wrong business.
As funny as that may sound (and as true as it may sometimes be), I didn’t race back to the office to pen a diatribe about how the movie business had lost its way by catering to influencers over industry denizens. Cinépolis was holding an event and inviting influencers expressly to raise the profile and build awareness of their new theatre. Given that every time I’ve tried to buy tickets to see a film at the theatre since it opened they’ve all been sold out, the marketing maneuver seems to have worked. Good for Cinépolis.
Yet a week later I was conflicted upon reading Manuela Lazic’s piece in The Guardian about how studios were relying more heavily on social media influencers to promote upcoming films than actual, legitimate film critics. On the one hand, Lazic’s piece seemed filled with resentment over not being able to see “Barbie” ahead of its release because, despite holding numerous screenings for a who’s who of social media celebrities, Warner Bros. Pictures wasn’t holding screenings for the media and/or critics in some territories.
On the other hand, all of Lazic’s frustrations about how the studios try to “control the narrative” by gatekeeping access to advance screenings, talent interviews, publicity material, etc. ahead of a release is spot on. In a world where the number of clicks determine income, importance and relevancy, it can be maddening to watch a studio favor the latest TikTok sensation only to turn back to you a week later when they have a lower profile film and need coverage.
That said, the movie business is just that, a business, and studios have a right to handle the publicity for upcoming films the same way any manufacturer would before a product is available to the public. Apple, for instance, is notorious for favoring certain media outlets and journalists over others, allowing them to review the latest iPhones on the day of release, instead of a week later. There’s even a term for this; shill marketing.
It might please Lazic to remember that, in the modern era, most shill marketing efforts eventually serve to raise the profile of those with independent, educated opinions whose guidance can be trusted. There are only so many times the public will fall for a pretty face telling them to see a movie or eat at a restaurant if the last three recommendations were rubbish.
As well, working with social media influencers can cut both ways. They can help generate positive word-of-mouth rather effectively, though this same rule applies if they ever turn against you. Anheuser-Busch learned this lesson the hard way after their recent Bud Light campaign featuring an influencer named Dylan Mulvaney.
So, like many things in life, there is no clear cut or definitive answer as to wether the the use of social media influencers to market movies or movie theatres is proper or worthwhile. Sometimes it is (as with Cinépolis) and sometimes it isn’t. Distributors have been lucky that, to date, that there haven’t been any major influencer marketing campaign stumbles, though they are all bound to have a Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment at some point if the practice continues.
Ultimately, those of us working in and around the film industry do so because we love cinema and want to see it thrive. That’s why maybe the most salient question Laciz asked about the use of influencers in marketing movies was, “If all discussion of a film’s merits before release is left to influencers, whose driving ambition is to receive free merchandise by speaking well of the studio’s products, what can we expect the film landscape to look like?”
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