What came first: The movie or its online marketing? There are increasingly times when the answer to such an obvious question is anything but straightforward. As the movie business grows ever more concerned about audiences, even as an increasing amount of titles struggle to carve out a profitable audience, the sway of marketing grows stronger. Apparently it's the not the film you have, it's how well you tell people about it that matters.
Take Bright Star, Jane Campion's period drama about the early 19th century romance between poet John Keats and his neighbour Fanny Brawne. With young stars Ben Whishaw (Perfume) and Abbie Cornish (Candy, Stop-Loss) as her leads, Campion has reportedly crafted a tender, accomplished tale that defies period conventions. Previewed at Cannes in May, it's already drawn some of her best reviews since The Piano and opens in Australia on Boxing Day.
As a staged independent release in the U.S., on at most just 380 screens, Bright Star has earnt just under $4 million over the last six weeks. But that doesn't matter, according to digital consultant Chris Dorr, who has singled out the film, and the filmmaker, for dropping the ball when it came to online marketing.
He says the movie's website looks great, but it's nothing more than an elaborate magazine ad. What's worse he contends is that, at the time he wrote his piece, the film had only 21 friends on MySpace, 1409 fans for the Facebook page and 261 followers on Twitter. Seven Facebook posts and 59 Twitter tweets in two months of American promotional activity are dismal, he adds.
But wait, there's more: “The distributor is not selling the right brand to organize and deliver the audience they seek,” he writes. “The brand that needs to be “sold” here is not BRIGHT STAR. It is JANE CAMPION. Why? Audiences want to EXPERIENCE BRIGHT STAR but they want to CONNECT with JANE CAMPION. In the social web that makes all the difference.”
We probably already have enough filmmakers who are brands. Whatever you may make of each of her films – and they really are her films – there's no doubt Jane Campion is a distinct artistic voice. Perhaps part of being that is Campion's reluctance to connect with every person who wants a piece of her online. Boundaries, let alone mystery, can be a good thing.
Perhaps Dorr would have been happy if the producers opened a fake Twitter for John Keats, so the leading Romantic poet of his age could shout out some release dates – in no more than 140 characters – to his followers? Perhaps a film about the love wrought by great poetry should have a little bit of poetry in how it presents itself to the world.
The very website that Dorr idly writes off is in fact a treasure trove of material. There are production stills, blogs by department heads, a diary from Campion, notes on rehearsals, design sketches and background to the historic story. Assembled into print it would be a compelling book, but notions of depth and discovery mean little against the idea of marketing push and message brevity.
Sometimes the tail really does wag the dog.