How has one of the oldest and most high profile industries adapted to the rise of social media?

Two years ago, social was something that the publicity department did on the side. Universal has since built a specific social team and overseen a complete change in marketing strategy.

Albert Hogan is the head of digital strategy at Universal Pictures UK and he talked at our Festival of Marketing this morning about how the studio has learnt to engage with a very vocal film-loving audience across social.

The current state of the UK film industry

Universal releases 30 – 35 films a year, which is one of the largest slates in the industry. The UK marketing team consists of 28 people, with a digital team of just two, including Hogan himself, who manages between 50 – 60 communities at any one time.

Currently cinema admissions are down: 172m in 2012 compared to 165m in 2013. There are more out of town multiplexes and unfortunately less art-house cinemas, although this has resulted in a rise of actual screens. 

The number of films released has also gone up, 734 in 2012 to 801 in 2013, with the number likely to hit 900 in 2015. 

There is still a massive amount of money to be made. Interestingly if you look at the top 10 most profitable films of the last 12 months, all of them carry a certificate of 12a or under. Family films are obviously key in capturing the widest possible audience. Only 3% of films released last year had an 18 certificate.

Problems that Universal has to consider

Because of the sheer amount of new releases every year, the average film is only in cinemas for three weeks.

There are many misconceptions about the price of cinema tickets. The average ticket costs between £6 and £7, rather than the bubble of lofty prices we seem to experience in London and the south-east.

Cinema is the most pre-booked form of entertainment, with 80% of tickets booked on the day or the day before. This makes things difficult to make a conversion at the point of engagement.

Piracy is still a major problem, however it has flattened thanks to the rise in legitimate video on demand and streaming services. It’s also interesting to note that people who are most likely to pirate are also most likely to visit the cinema regularly.

Existing resources

Social used to be a PR afterthought, now social is having a direct influence on how films are being made.

As a brand, the social team has access to an incredible amount of content and of course very glamorous and attractive celebrities. This is some of the easiest content to publicise.

Film going audiences already anticipate content from studios. There’s an inbuilt desire for it from the moment a film is greenlit. Fans often create their own social accounts, pages and forums for their favourite upcoming and existing movies.

Access to high budgets and media partners. The social team also has a remit to be as highly creative as possible, and luckily it has a wealth of access to cinema quality assets.

Existing problems

The social team are telling someone else’s story. Other brands have the freedom to craft their own narratives and dictate their own stories. Universal has to be careful in considering the film-makers, writers and producers.

Fear of spoilers is quite a major problem. The social team receives a lot of long, angry feedback when spoilers are let slip on social, so extra care needs to be taken.

Social campaigns begin the moment a film is greenlit. In fact the team is not just working on its current slate but also films being released in 2017 and 2018.

Working with restricted content is also a problem. How do you market an 18 certificate horror movie appropriately to a wide audience?

Sunny weather can also be an unpredictable box office killer.

Everyone’s a critic

Negative comments often achieve the most number of comments and likes and thanks to social algorithms this pushes the comment to the top of the newsfeed.

The question is whether Universal should engage here or let the film do the talking for itself.

When the 50 Shades of Grey casting was announced there was huge controversy, which obliterated social feeds with 5,000 negative comments and many online petitions. 

Universal chose not to interact with the comments, thinking that “well people hated it when Sean Connery was cast as James Bond, people just need to get used to it”.

The social team tactically released images of the actors in character and once the trailer was released (achieving 1m views in one week) comments soon dried up. Fans also began self-moderating, telling others to calm down and give it time.

When it comes to the future, it seems that Universal is also using social data to influence its franchises. The next instalment of Fast and Furious will film in locations where its biggest fans are situated.

Further reading...

For more on movie marketing from the blog, check out the following posts:

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 13 November, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (1)

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paul ferrer

Your article has many inaccurate comments like Universal Pictures releasing 30-35 films a year. For 2014 it will be 25, with Warner bros and eOne releasing more films.

The reason why films are in cinemas for about three weeks is not because of the amount of releases but because the blockbusters will open big and drop big. With many films final box office about 3 times their openings. It used to be films would play for many more weeks and build on from its opening. These days films aren't given that chance.

Cinema ticket prices have increased by 58% since 2001, in the last 5 years alone they are up 27%. The average ticket price in the UK is about £9 even though cinema trade organisations will say that its £6.53. But I cannot remember the last time I paid less than £9 to see a film.

Cinema attendance was growing faster from 1985 - 2001 going from 54m to 155m but in the last 12 years they haven't increased as dramatically as ticket prices have increased. From 2009 onwards box office has been artificially inflated from the extra charges exhibitors charge for 3D films. When film started being released in 3D they were popular and would often take more than 2D. But in years since only Gravity has taken more in 3D than 2D even though ticket prices are a third more expensive.

This year could be the worst year for admissions since 2001 exhibitors will blame the films but there have been many successes but are lacking the bigger numbers that similar films took in recent years.

There has been a lot spoken about film and social media films often get massive social media coverage but rarely does that match its box office. There has been mass social media attention for 50 Shades of Grey but will this turn into box office? In the days after the first One Direction film This Is Us there were millions Tweets about the film but the film opening a week later opened with £3.5m. You might of expected with the media attention and the social media coverage pre-release that those numbers would be double.

The same could be said for 50 Shades of Grey people are talking a lot about the film, there has been much hype but Universal Pictures are in a very awkward position make the close to the book it will be an 18 an alienate wider audience make a softer version it will alienate the millions of fans of the books. Sex dramas rarely are successful at the box office away from thrillers like Basic Instinct. Will it be comfortable viewing in a cinema, is it the type of film that you want to watch with strangers or more in the comfort of your own home?

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