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How Hollywood Does Content Marketing

July 2, 2014

Let’s not deny it, content marketing is the bandwagon du jour and there’s been enough keynotes, conferences and conclaves in Singapore this year to prove it.  However I always think these get-togethers are missing one key element. The content makers. So, where are these elusive experts? A few content agencies notwithstanding they’re mostly still working in traditional content roles for publishers, TV stations, record labels, movie studios and the like.

So in the tradition of great personal sacrifice at Click2View we headed to Hollywood to study the content makers in their natural environment at this year’s 6th annual Produced By Conference.

Held on the Warner Bros. backlot, Produced By is the annual industry event for the Producers Guild of America which represents the best movie and television producers in the business. Scripted television has everyone talking at the moment and quite literally the producer of every hit show on television at the moment was there speaking candidly about how they do it, the challenges of keeping us all on the edge of our seats and hanging out for the next episode or screening. These included the producers of current hits like Homeland, Walking Dead, True Detective, Hannibal, and House of Cards.

Speakers included foul-mouthed funnyman Seth Rogen, Fight Club’s David Fincher, 91-year-old American sitcom veteran Norman Lear and the legendary writer, producer and director of The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse now Francis Ford Coppola, still spritely at 75.  Between them these accomplished individuals have produced the most compelling content of the last 50 years. We thought they might be able to teach us a thing or two about how to capture some of that stardust.

For the content business more than a couple of people said it is the best and worst of times. Best in that there’s never been stronger interest in motion pictures whether on the big or small or any screen for that matter. We heard in recent years there has been a six-fold increase in the number of scripted television dramas being made. Over the last 50 years America typically made 60-70 scripted dramas a year. This year it will be 350 and next year likely 400, FX Network CEO John Landgraf said.

Worst in that there is literally too much content, making it hard to cut through. ”There’s a massive oversupply of films!” Glen Basener, Founder & CEO of Film Nation, said. Having recently returned from the Cannes Film Festival, he said there were only so many eyeballs with only so much time to watch everything. And when you put those films online “you’re not just competing with the latest releases but the entire back catalogue of cinema”, which can be accessed on demand over a plethora of platforms, said Sam Tols, VP of Content Acquisition at Vimeo.

Now, we weren’t there to make the next great instalment of Singaporean cinema, well not quite yet. We did want some take aways for content marketing. How do you compete with kittens & babies, the world cup or even porn which, let us not forget, attracts more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined? According to producer Joe Roth, who was riding high that weekend with a stellar opening for his new box office hit Maleficent, the answer is “go deep”. Target a specific audience that have a passion for a subject and deliver content that has been made with the same passion. Roth said producers needed to ask themselves several questions about the content they were making. “Ask yourself, a) Do you love it? b) Can I create urgency amongst the audience? c) Is it about more than it’s about?”

Urgency, he said, was an essential element in driving audiences. You don’t want people bookmarking your content and planning to watch it later because they won’t. What are you doing to ensure they watch it now? The answer from several of the TV producers’ panels was “characters”, which in my experience are barely ever discussed in a content marketing brief. Brand? Sure. Product? Of course. Story? Maybe. But characters? Never. However, it is the development of the characters in everything from The Sopranos to True Detective via Hannibal, Homeland and The Walking Dead that keeps audiences tuning in. What is interesting is that many of these series take a season or more to become popular which makes patience every bit as essential as characters when trying to build a sustainable audience.

And that’s the difficulty for marketers when it comes to content marketing.  They want instant hits and guaranteed successes, which Hollywood realised years ago are impossible to predict.  Even big data can only tell what’s been successful before, it can’t tell you how to make the summer blockbuster (or viral video) of the future. In fact Amazon’s head of drama, Morgan Wardell, who has access to a little bit of big data, said it was only akin to giving your batting average a bit of a bump or, if you prefer a fishing analogy, telling you where the fish are biting. He said they preferred originality and creativity over attempting to follow the latest content trend as described by the data. Zombies anyone?

For content creators, whether working in film, TV, music or publishing the content is the product so they pour their heart, soul and budget into producing and promoting it. If marketers want Hollywood-sized hits, they need to do the same.

I’ll leave you with one quote from Shira Lazar, Co-Founder of www.whatstrending.com that I found particularly pertinent: “The audience IS your ROI.”