Colony Bay TV

Salesmen in Black French Berets(Distribution is Art)

May 19, 2011 James Riley

I have a humiliating confession to make.  I actually allowed myself to watch the first twenty minutes of Hot Tub Time Machine.   As bad movies go, it’s even worse than Cutthroat Island, which at least had art direction and tall ships going for it.  I guess I expected at least a moment of humanity from John Cusack, but I found the whole premise powerfully depressing and boring and grating in its vulgarity.    The point, for the sake of this here blog,  is this:  it was bad.  Really bad.

And yet, would it be fair to say that millions of people have seen it?   Or at least hundreds of thousands?   I think so.  As of this writing, Box Office Mojo claims it has grossed more than $64 million worldwide.

Well let’s just take a leap across the Snake River Gorge a minute and call it “art.”   Whether the story is good, bad, or ugly, the real artists are the salesmen and marketers who get this stuff watched by the theater going public.   There’s a convention in stories about filmmaking to depict “the suits” as the dreary corporate functionaries who show up on the set and smother creativity.  The “artists” are the writers and the directors and the actors.  The “bean counters” are the studio guys, driving nice cars and sporting cuff links, who write the big checks and pollute the pure poetry of the project.  The “artists” don’t care about money — even though some of them make a lot of it.   The bean-counters don’t care about story-telling, even though they have to be very good at it, indeed, to convince average people Hot Tub Time Machine is funny.

Well, again,  let’s just say we were actually talking about art.   Even if the story, and its execution, were a kind of glittering wet emerald, a picture of narrative perfection, it would still take the working capital of a major distribution company and the  publicity-genius of a master marketer to get people talking about it.     Money alone can’t buy an audience, any more than it can buy voters–or Meg Whitman would now be governor of California.  Since money alone can’t buy an audience, the people who create a following for a project deserve to be called artists themselves.

As near as I can tell, for my own education on the matter, the art supply box of a good story-seller includes:

  1. A willingness to exploit the “newness” of the story during its pregnancy.  People are more excited about the feature now in theaters or the new season of a show.  The phrase “Coming this Fall” has weight for a reason.
  2. How credentialed are the performers and the director?   Americans trust known faces.   Europeans trust known directors.  I’ve seen independent films marketed with what amounts to a borrowed celebrity face.   One of the performers may actually look like Robert Duvall, and if that picture is available, that’s the one that goes on the DVD case.
  3. Does the story involve the end of civilization or touch upon something cataclysmic?  Say so.   When we were kids around the campfire, we gravitated, against our better judgment, to scary stories.   I actually won’t watch a horror flick, but most stories have to at least appear brave about something that is gravely important.  Even comedies like Meet the Parents have an element of danger:  Ben Stiller has to measure up as a son-in-law for Robert De Niro?   The humor itself radiates out  from the coiled premise itself. 
  4. News.   Is the world currently obsessed with something the story confronts?    I watched a trailer for the movie The Conspirator and the dialogue seemed lifted right out of the War on Terror headlines–even though this was a post Civil War flick.     When Cinderella Man first appeared in theaters, there was a news story about Russell Crowe assaulting a hotel employee.  Coincidence?     It’s too expensive to pay for the world to talk about your story, if you’re doing it with display ads and billboards.   Sometimes, I guess you have to take the other way around.   You let your story speak to the country’s current gossip.  (But don’t assault a hotel employee.)
  5. Sometimes playing hard-to-get works.   This might be little more than a pricing strategy, but we pay $11 to see the movie in the theater and $2.95 to watch it, six months later, on Itunes.   On a metaphysical level, when you talk about your show or your film, you have to act like the audience will be lucky to get to see it.  (You don’t have public meditations like this one, in other words, but this only for subscribers anyway;  I figure you’re family if you’re reading this far.)
  6. Pitch the story to people who will talk about it.  Find a small, passionate group of story “heat-seekers” who want the newest story on your topic and spend money and time there first.  They buy your story because of its content, but they sell the story to their friends based on their credibility with them.
  7. Give it away, or give a little bit of it away.    Costco sells more pizza if there’s a lady on the end of the freezer aisle giving out samples.   Complimentary tickets to the premiere, free DVDS, that sort of thing.
  8. Don’t give very much of it away, just enough to get them addicted.   Remember, youtube is free, and mostly free for a reason.
  9. Computers and reference books are sold, in some measure, because parents fear they aren’t doing the best for their children if they don’t buy them the latest and the greatest.   If you are selling something of quality, don’t be afraid to take your customers on a bit of a guilt trip.
  10. Quote someone raving about it, preferably after someone actually does rave about it.

I suppose I should have a systematic blog post on whether we’re following these rules.  Maybe Wilson will take that one.

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