Success Isn’t Accidental

A movie has an extraordinary value proposition: If you give us 30 seconds of your attention, which is the average length of a television commercial, we will make such a compelling argument that in a couple of weeks you will give us two hours of your time and also some of your money.

This doesn’t just happen. Our techniques in the movie business create success that isn’t accidental, and can provide useful tools for your business, no matter what industry you are in.

We have one objective: to get as many people as possible into the cinema on opening day. It is a lot like launching any product, service or retail sale. Apple builds up enormous momentum in advance of releasing each new iPhone, to the extent that people line up for hours on the first day they can get it. New web apps create buzz and far in advance, in the hopes that at the moment of release many people will download them, moving the app into the “must have” category. In the retail market, stores create massive momentum leading up to Diwali and Public Holiday Sales, because they know if the store is crowded when it opens, sales for the day will be strong.

Films are the same.

For a movie, a full house creates critical mass and spreads word-of-mouth like wildfire, because movies play better when they are screened for large audiences. There’s something about being in a big group of people, all having the same experience in unison: it makes the experience stronger. And sells more tickets in the long run.

How do we do it?

The first thing we realize, on any film or enterprise, is that there is much we do not control. In the movie business, we cannot control the weather, the other movies opening on the same day, or what critics say. Therefore, we focus on what we can control. It takes advance planning.

A major motion picture starts planning three years ahead, which is when we set our opening date. (In fact, some movies now plan even farther ahead; Disney had announced a Star Wars movie for summer, 2019!) This is a first communication with our audience, and it gives them plenty of time to start getting ready for our big premiere.

Then, often before we start shooting, we start doing test marketing. We use research companies to find out who the most likely audience will be, and how they will feel about the concept of the movie and its stars. We use the information to craft the marketing campaign and to shape the finished movie. For example, if we find that audiences really like an actor who’s in a supporting role, we might emphasize that character. If we discover that women under 25 years will be more interested in the movie than men over 30 years, we’ll start to design messaging specifically for this target audience group.

Over the course of the next two years, we will keep up a steady drumbeat of messaging—teaser trailers and posters, social media and publicity, news “events” and paid commercials. As we get closer to our opening day, the tempo increases from, shall we say, a waltz to a double-time march. If we have done our jobs right, fans are lining up on opening day, and the cinema sells out.

Our success at building momentum depends, of course, on having a good movie to sell, and nothing takes the place of excellence. You can’t break trust with your audience by promising one thing and delivering another. When the combination works—a great movie coupled with a great, momentum-building campaign—the result is non-accidental box office success.

You can use this same approach in any business you are managing. Plan your launch far in advance, and begin market-testing right away. Listen to what the testing tells you—have “big ears” and keep your ego out of the way, because the audience will tell you who they are, how they like to be communicated with, and what they want. Then build a calendar of creative messaging that gets bigger, bolder and faster as you approach your launch day. You’ll have your momentum. Now all you have to do, and it is no small thing, is exceed what your audience is expecting.