10/25/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Box Office Hit -- Why Marketing Matters in Hollywood

To many of us in this generation, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is one of the best films ever. It was one of the very few films to have started out with a 10/10 rating on and even now it enjoys a position in the Top Ten movies out of the 250 best movies ever, according to the ratings generated by fans on the site.

Quite interestingly, the marketing for the film involved a grand viral campaign, which, very much like the plot itself, involved misdirection. The marketing team conjured up a fake campaign website showing pixels that said "I believe in Harvey Dent", but then when each of these was unlocked, the entire page revealed a close up shot of Heath Ledger as The Joker. Now, what you and I might wonder is why a film as good as The Dark Knight would feel the need to use a viral marketing campaign. Surely the crowd would have been interested in a sequel to the critically acclaimed Batman Begins that too directed by Christopher Nolan, right?

Well, in hindsight, maybe yes, but if you consider the fact that Batman Begins earned a little over $48 million in its opening weekend as opposed to $84 million earned by Superman Returns, a movie not so popular, you would realize that the suits in the movie business cannot afford to take any risks anymore. The marketing campaign did pay off -- the movie earned almost $200 million in its opening weekend.

There is a certain school of thought that believes that the true worth of a movie is its quality and how timeless it is. With the advent of collector's edition material on blu-rays and box sets, such movies also stand to earn a lot of revenue in the long run. Having said that, that amount of money is nothing compared to what a "hit" film earns in the theatres.

Let us look at two movies which make this point really clear.

Michael Bay's Transformer's trilogy has had mixed reactions from audiences. While the first film from the trilogy was lauded for reinventing a popular franchise on the big screen using state of the art CGI effects, the following two sequels, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, were panned by most critics who claimed that these films offered nothing new in terms of content or visual effects.

So why is it that these films were such box office hits?

Revenge of the Fallen got a Wednesday release. From its midnight premiere screenings alone, the film earned $16 million and the sum total for the whole day's earnings was a whopping $62 million. This is what happens when DreamWorks studio spends $150 million in marketing alone. Early in 2009, Hasbro, the toy company that owns the Transformers series, released the Revenge of the Fallen line of toys and merchandise and then revamped it again in August just before the movie release.

DreamWorks also roped in marketing partners in the form of brands such as Burger King, LG, Wal-Mart, YouTube and Nike. Popular stock car racer Kyle Busch also drove a Revenge of the Fallen themed race car at the Infineon Raceway in June that year. The film's star, actor Josh Duhamel, drove a 2010 Camaro (Bumblebee's car model) at the Indianapolis 500 racing event. The brains that strategized the marketing for this film ensured that they didn't pull any punches when it came to building the hype before the movie release. Not surprisingly, Revenge of the Fallen has a paltry 20 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Frank Darabont's 1994 adaptation The Shawshank Redemption, on the other hand, has a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and as of 2008, it jumped over The Godfather to clinch the number one position in the Top 250 Films list on The film was released by Castle Rock Studios, with a total budget of $25 million and at the box-office it earned a little over $28 million. That is hardly any profit for a big studio, which is why the film was declared a dud. This, however, had nothing to do with the quality of the film -- it went on to be nominated for seven Academy awards in 1995. But people are still purchasing or renting DVDs and Blu-ray copies of the film. It is what you would call, a timeless classic.
Had Castle Rock marketed the film like a blockbuster, there's a big chance this could very well have been a hit.

But here's the thing -- maybe, just maybe, there is a charm to The Shawshank Redemption that comes from it having had no marketing at all. It is one of those movies your friends tell you to watch, not a billboard. This is how cult hits defy all marketing logic. The studios ignored the cult fans in the nineties and got away with it in the last decade as well.

But now, there's a film festival every month and people attend these just to catch screenings of movies that have been ignored by big studios. Some recent hits like Garden State, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Squid and the Whale and Sideways owe their success and popularity to word of mouth recommendations and not marketing. And the number of people who, for some reason, believe that low key indie movies are somehow "better" than shamelessly marketed blockbusters, is steadily increasing. This increasing number is the new challenge for marketing now and it remains to be seen how the studio executives tap into circles that defy mainstream methods.