Movie ads in newspapers: Going, going ... gone?
Last Friday, I heard some kids in my neighborhood talking about a new movie called "Dragonball: Evolution" that was opening in theaters that day. Curious, I went to my local newspaper to see who had made it. But even though the film was playing in nearly 2,200 theaters last weekend, there was no ad in the Los Angeles Times or, for that matter, in any other paper in the country.
20th Century Fox, the studio that released the film, had decided that newspapers -- whose readers have a median age of 50 or more -- weren't really the best place to market a film geared to an under-25 audience. (You couldn't find a review of the film in any Friday newspaper either, since the studio, figuring the movie -- which scored a lowly 15 at Rotten Tomatoes -- was too juvenile for critics, didn't screen it for them either.)
Since the film only earned $4.7 million last weekend, a cynic might say that Fox, not wanting to waste money on promoting a stinker, was dumping the picture. But it turns out that the "Dragonball" marketing strategy is just another part of a shift away from print advertising. While studios, many of which have remained fairly loyal to print advertising, have been running smaller movie ads in recent years, Fox has made a bolder break with tradition, releasing four movies this year alone where the studio has run minimal newspaper ads or, in the case of "Dragonball" and "Street Fighter," released in late February, no ads at all. Even "Taken," the genre thriller that opened on Super Bowl weekend and became one of the year's biggest box-office hits, only received full-sized newspaper ads in New York and Los Angeles. In a host of other cities around the country, there were no print ads at all.
This is, of course, part of a much bigger trend, with newspaper industry analysts saying that print advertising, already in its worst slump since the Depression, has continued to decline as much as 25% to 30% in the first quarter of 2009. And while Fox has been perhaps the most aggressive in cutting its newspaper advertising for youth-oriented films, it is not alone. A survey of marketers at other studios finds that with youth-oriented movies -- especially in the horror, slasher, teen-comedy and comic book adaptation genres -- studios are cutting back significantly on their newspaper ad buys. While most studios still buy newspaper ads on the Friday of release, the ads are smaller in size and in frequency. For many youth-oriented films, studios have stopped buying print ads the Sunday before release, as well as for the Saturday paper after opening day.
I can't pretend to be objective about this, since all that advertising is what keeps my newspaper afloat, which in turn is what keeps me churning out this blog instead of being a full-time Little League coach. So I have a dog in this hunt. Every movie ad that appears in our paper helps keep the lights on. But being a reporter, I'm also naturally curious about understanding why people in the business I cover do the things they do.
So why are studios slowly but surely cutting back on their print ad budgets? The obvious reason is that younger moviegoers simply aren't reading newspapers, certainly not the print edition of the paper. In fact, several of the studio marketers I spoke with said they've made the switch as well, now only reading the online editions of the L.A. Times and the New York Times. Newspapers ads are still an important marketing tool for general audience films, but if studios are promoting what's known as a one-quadrant picture (one that only appeals to either under-25 men or women) they prefer online ads or TV buys that could air on shows aimed at that precise sector.
According to Pam Levine, Fox's co-president of marketing , the studio hasn't given up on newspapers. It's simply making ad buys on a case-by-case basis. "We look at the audience on every movie and try to do a good job of going and finding them," she says. "We had, for example, a very strong newspaper ad presence on 'Marley & Me,' because we wanted moms -- and moms read the newspaper. We also did a massive newspaper ad buy for 'Slumdog Millionaire.'
"But when it comes to youth-oriented films or films like 'Taken,' where you can market the visual excitement of the movie, you tend to go in a different direction. You'd rather the moviegoers see the visual fun and thrills on TV or online and go tell their parents and friends about it."
Since Fox is held in high regard for its marketing savvy, it's possible other studios will follow in its footsteps when it comes to being even more selective about buying print ads. In terms of spending outlays, print is now No. 4 on the list of priorities, following TV, outdoor and radio, with only online advertising still lagging behind, though growing fast. Several studios have used different movies as test cases, pulling their newspaper ads in most major markets, only to discover the absence of print ads had little if any impact on the film's grosses.
"Print advertising is ultimately going to become a seasonal business," says one studio marketing chief. "You need newspaper exposure during the summer and during the holiday season for all your big four-quadrant films and your Oscar pictures. But during much of the rest of the year, unless you're going after families or multi-generational audiences, or pushing an art-house picture, you're going to see less and less print ads. The money is just going to migrate online because you have to go to where your audience is."
Not everyone is giving up on newspapers. In fact, many Hollywood marketers still advertise in print, finding it an indispensable way of reaching a certain key audience. Who might that be? Keep reading:
Luckily for a major newspaper like the L.A. Times or the N.Y. Times, movie ads aren't just aimed at general audiences. They are often designed to impress a very select group of readers. "I have to admit that a lot of times we're not really buying the print ads for us or for the audience," says one marketing chief. "We're often buying them, pure and simple, for the filmmakers and key people in the industry. For a certain generation of producer or executive or agent, if they don't see the art and the billing block in the newspaper, they think you're not supporting their movie. Being in print still gives the film a certain extra boost of credibility."
As another marketer put it: "If you know your boss at the studio still reads the print edition of the L.A. Times, you buy the ad. It's not so different from buying a billboard that's conveniently on the route the head of the studio takes to work. I know it's not entirely a rational explanation, but it makes a difference. People want to see their ad dollars at work."
In an industry that worries so much about image -- where perception is often reality -- newspapers still have a built-in advantage when it comes to sending a message that will be read across a broad spectrum of Hollywood. It's one reason why studios, even while laying off employees during a brutal recession, continue to spend millions on Oscar advertising in newspapers and the Hollywood trades.
"When we want to send a message to the industry, we still use the newspaper," says one marketing chief. "TV is great for reaching movie consumers. But if you want people in the industry to see that you're really behind a picture, that you think it's going to be big, you still want to take out a full-page ad in the hometown newspaper."
Studio marketers say they wish newspapers were more aggressive in reaching out to younger readers, either through their movie coverage or by developing more online technology that would make it easier for readers to buy tickets and identify theaters in their neighborhood. "You guys should be thankful for Hollywood vanity," one marketer says. "But in the long run, our commitment to print ads is going to keep getting smaller and smaller. If you're being bottom-line oriented, there's just not enough evidence that it matters as much as it used to."