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bob levin

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Bob Levin is the president of worldwide marketing and distribution at MGM, and was formerly president of worldwide theatrical marketing for Disney. He oversaw the marketing campaigns for films including "As Good As It Gets" (1997), "Men In Black" (1997), "Jerry Maguire" (1996), and more recently, "Charlie's Angels" (2000). Here, he discusses how "Jaws" changed the Hollywood landscape, the differences between today's movie stars and those of yesteryear, and the evolution of marketing in Hollywood.

This interview was conducted in May 2001.

What was the biggest shock for you in changing from the normal corporate world to [entertainment marketing]?

I think I was initially very surprised at how important marketing was in the entertainment industry. I had no sense of it. They talked about it, but I didn't quite understand how committed everyone was to the marketing process, and how important it was to the success of projects. ...

How early does marketing get involved in the project?

Oh, it varies greatly. I would say that there's no general behavior. It's very different from company to company. There are companies that will not put a movie into production without the endorsement of the marketing department. They are as involved in reading scripts, making the decisions on whether or not that movie is going to get made or not as is the production element.

And then you have every grade going all the way through, until some companies really could care less what the marketing department says at that time in the process. It's "We'll make the film. You'll figure out how to sell it." So it's a wide range of involvement on the actual movie that gets made.

How about in your experience?

My experience has always been involvement at very early stages, which I've always respected, because I always thought in my own way of viewing it that it's sort of a dangerous kind of potential involvement, depending upon the individuals who are involved. I think if a marketing person approaches the process of green-lighting a movie, looking for what will be easy to market, making themselves look good in their career, it could lead to a lot of really bad films. It could lead to a lot of really cynical films. ... So I think you can't approach the process on the basis of what's going to be easy for me as the marketing person. ...

What kinds of considerations do you have when you receive a script?

... Trying to determine what is going to be a good movie based on a script is a very difficult proposition. Everyone thinks they can do it. But the people who can really realize what they're reading and what it's going to look like on screen or what the creative elements that are brought to it [and] how they are going to affect those script elements -- it's a very dangerous proposition. So I don't claim to have any great intense skill in doing it.

But when I look at that script, I do take it through the "who-what-where-and-when" proposition. ... "Who do I think is going to be sitting in that audience the first night? Who's going to be the audience most eager to see that movie?" ... Then, "Why are the people who aren't there not sitting there, and what is the potential to get them, in a marketing sense, to be interested in the film? What can I say to them? ... What are going to be the elements that are going to intrigue them?" In some cases, it may be pure casting. You have a big enough star in the right genre, and the audience is going to be interested.

If everything becomes the financial projections and passion doesn't have a place in that environment, then I think we're going to see fewer and fewer great movies coming out of the big studios. And we'll see more and more of it sort of blossom from independent places.

Then other times it's a high-concept idea. "What's the genre? How popular is that genre? What do I see as the kind of sale that I'm going to be able to make to the audience? How much publicity am I going to be able to get with this cast? How much am I going to be able to become dependent on advertising versus publicity? And is it a movie in which I'm going to able to get promotional partners, so that suddenly I can get other people's money in support of the movie?"

... "Is this a summer movie? Is this when we're going to really go out and look for a big push on? Is it a fall movie? When could this kind of movie be released and not to be overwhelmed by competition? Is it such a strong film in and of itself that it will scare away competition?" You think through all those propositions.

Do you see an evolution in the importance of marketing of films?

Yes, I have seen a great change, but I also think there's a great change that goes back a little further which helps explain the great change. The movie that everyone always references as the big change in how movies were distributed and marketed was "Jaws," because "Jaws" was the first movie ever truly supported by network television. And the concept was that, instead of going out in a few number of theaters in a city and then expanding more and more and more, if you went and advertised a movie on network television and successfully interested an audience in that movie, you could open everywhere at the same time. So "Jaws" was the first thousand-screen release, a big release using media to really support it.

[Note: For an overview of the impact that "Jaws" had on Hollywood movie-making, see "Jaws: The Monster That Ate Hollywood" in the "Anatomy of a Monster" section of this website.]

Before that, what we now call marketing departments were called publicity departments, because it was a publicity-driven business. You can't go back and find in the early days in the movie business vast amounts spent in advertising. The magazines were fan magazines. It was publicity driven. There was a movie preview, we call it a trailer, but not a lot of advertising.

Publicity departments evolved very slowly after that "Jaws" experience in the 1970s into marketing departments, and they became multi-disciplined. You had your publicity department; you had your advertising department that created the advertising; you had your advertising department that bought the advertising; you had your promotion department that went out and sought product placement -- putting products into movies and getting a fee for that -- to going out and getting a quick service restaurant, a McDonald's, to give away Happy Meals and support a movie. So everything started to branch out. And lately the Internet has come in and added to this whole mix of things. ...

When you're looking at your broad films with significant box office potential, the trick seemed to be television advertising. Nothing drove it like television advertising. And studios got more and more enamored with the power of television to open more screens, more theaters. ... They found television to be this powerhouse. Therefore you've seen a sort of a transition of marketing, to where people who are more involved in how you put together television commercials -- the creative folks who do that kind of work -- have risen in importance in these marketing departments. The publicity people have been diminished a little bit against the creative people, and the budgets have soared.

The movie industry is not enough of a force ... that it can control the markets, so it has to go along with the increases that come with supply and demand in that marketplace. It becomes a big gambling game. Two movies are opening very close together. "OK, I'll spend $10,000." "I'll meet your $10,000." "I'll spend $15,000, $20,000," and pretty soon these budgets are going up, up, and up.

Talk about that weekly horse race for the marketing departments.

It's very intense. Someone told me the first week I came into the business, "Understand one thing about your role as a person in marketing. If a movie is successful, it was a great movie. If a movie fails, you did a bad job marketing it." And I've never known that philosophy to ever change over my period of time doing it. So there's a great intensity that's brought to that opening weekend, where the marketing department is really responsible for getting the movie opened correctly.

There are few war stories that you can find where a movie [that] has not opened well turned itself around because the movie is of such quality. A bad opening will usually kill a movie and kills all the potentials of the movie. Because while ... the preponderance of income and the revenue strings in the movie business today are no longer from that domestic box office -- ... the money really is coming in from worldwide box office -- sales to television, home video, DVD, and all those other revenue strings on a global basis are so driven by that success or failure in the domestic box office. And that is so driven by that opening. It becomes critical for the entire life of the movie.

What happens if you open at number five?

It really depends so much on the economics of the movie, because you could actually open number five and have planned to open number five. ... I think the real question is, "What if you open number five if you really wanted to be number one?" If that happens, it's very difficult to recover. You've done something wrong. You either didn't respect competition enough, or you didn't get your message across in a powerful enough way. Again, it depends on the audience. [Some films] can have everything lined up correctly and then be hugely destroyed by very negative reviews at the last minute. ...

Has it gotten harder to emerge from all the noise?

The box office for the movie business is a contracting and expanding pie. It's different week in to week out. ... That expansion and contraction is what leads you to start to think about when you want to release the movie. It's been hard to defy that total-box-office kind of concept for what's available on a weekend.

First of all, you look at who your competition is and how much you respect their capability and how tough a game are you taking on to begin with. And is there a way to make your game a little easier when you release the movie -- what weekend, and against what competition? Once you do that, then it turns into a marketing game.

In the motion picture business, all of the studios get reports that start three weeks out that tell them how their movie and all the other movies that are releasing into the same time frame are doing in consumer awareness. ... It's across all segments. It's broken down in total, and against young, old, small town, big town, regular moviegoers. How aware are they of it? How interested are they compared to the other movies? Where does this exist in choice? So for the last three weeks, you're playing sort of this open poker hand, where I know everything, they know everything, and it starts to lead this intensity of, "Maybe we've got to spend more. We're falling a little bit behind. Maybe we've got to spend more, maybe we've got to step it up."

I would say it's hyper-competitive. And compared to many other businesses, you can't back off. You're so committed. I'm releasing my movie on June 4, and by God, even if things aren't exactly set up right, I'm on a train that's going down that path to that station at that time.

Were you involved in test screenings?

Yes, because what you find out in test screenings for the marketing side of it is what segment of the audience likes it the best. ... Out of that information, you can start shaping the marketing materials for the film, because usually what the audience is telling you they like about it is the best thing to interest an unknown audience into coming to see it.

Are there ways to overcome a bad test in a market?

Again, it's all in the math. I have seen bad test screenings, where the director of the film has final cut and the head of the studio wants the director to change the movie, fix the ending. ... And the director, who's of great stature, said, "I understand what they want. I understand they'll like the movie better if I did that. But if you sent me the script for the movie they want, I never would have directed it. You sent me the script [and] I shot the script that we agreed upon. I'm not changing this movie. I like it this way. This is the movie we agreed to make." So you'd have that kind of response to it.

On the other hand I've seen directors -- especially in comedies -- who will change subtle things about the movie and they'll want to go back in and see what works and doesn't work. They're of the sense [that] if they aren't laughing, something still isn't right about it. So some filmmakers are very responsive; some aren't. ...

What's the dark side to all this?

... I think when -- and some people have suggested this, and I don't think it's ever worked too well -- when you try to go out and have the audience design the film, I think it becomes pretty impossible. I don't think people know what they want. I think that's why we have creative people. I remember a cartoon I saw years and years ago about an advertising agency type presenting a storyboard for a new commercial to a client. And the client's caption reaction was "What? You call that creative? I've never seen anything like that before!"

And ultimately, I think that's what you could lead to, if you have research and marketing driving the creative process. I think the marketing's responsibility and what it can bring to it is to try to bring that creative process to the audience and show them films that they'd be interested in.

As the big corporations take over the studios, is there more pressure to do that kind of thing?

I think there's a greater business orientation. If you go back in the short-term history of these studios, they were independent companies tending to be run by gambling-type souls. If you go back into the history of the studios as they built up through the 1930s and 1940s, they were constantly in financial jeopardy. The people who were running them were constantly almost on their last dime, and then they'd have the big hit that blew them onto the next level. They were sharp businessmen. Some of them were gentlemanly and nice, and some were thugs. They had a range of personalities. But they wanted to entertain the audience.

I think that the studios now are smaller parts of giant corporations. And I think the real challenge in that environment is, can you maintain the passion that existed when they were freestanding entities? Can you maintain the passion for trying to entertain the audiences, to try to stimulate the creative talents to work with in these environments? ... Can you produce out of this environment the same great moments that we've all seen on the films from the past with that kind of passion, where the studios are now diminished in their corporate worlds?

Do you have a sense you can give us?

I don't know. I think we're at a real point in time where we'll have to see if that's played out. I think if you look at some of what has been written by journalists who cover the industry, they thought last year was a pretty sad year in movies. ... So I think we're at a real threshold, and I don't think it's on the filmmakers' side. I don't think it's about the people who do it. It's the appetite of the studios to help creative people realize these visions and these passions versus everything being driven by numbers. I think that's where it stands. ...

If the business side is coming too strongly, if everything becomes the financial projections and passion doesn't have a place in that environment, then I think we're going to see fewer and fewer great movies coming out of the big studios. And we'll see more and more of it sort of blossom from independent places.

How has the importance of stars driving a movie grown?

I don't know if star power has grown. Again, if you look back in the history of business, there have always been movie stars. The public has always seen them as living the glamorous lives beyond any lives that mere mortals can live. I think they've always been important, and they're still very, very important.

The real difference that we've gone through is stars as chattel possessions of the studios to stars now as free agents. And in that free agent world, [stars are] earning more than any of the old stars ever thought would have been possible [and] picking and choosing their own projects very carefully. ... I wouldn't say movie stars have been diminished at all. Just fewer of them, probably. ...

What has been the most exciting part of your job?

There is something very, very energizing and very exciting about the whole puzzle process of figuring out how you are going to put these pieces together, and what's going to work and what doesn't work. ... Then you see that opening weekend blossom and you say, "My God, I've done that job well." And then there's a next stratosphere that you step up to -- not all the time, and not very often really -- where you're part of something that becomes a cultural phenomenon. And to have been part of that from the beginning is just an intriguing energizing thing to go through.

When I was marketing "Lion King" -- which was such a unique worldwide phenomenon giving rebirth to Disney animation back in those days -- it's very exciting to be part of that.

What's been your biggest frustration over the years?

Biggest frustration would be those times where you have a movie that you think is a good movie, that you just can't figure out how to get audiences interested in it. Frustration sometimes is where, as a marketer, this studio's going to make this movie [and] you haven't supported making it. ... And then it comes back again and now you have to try to figure out how to sell it and you can't, and you were right in the first place. It's just like "I'm going down. I knew I was going to go down, and I don't know why I'm here." ...

Can you take us through what a marketing strategy is?

In developing marketing programs for films, there's a lot of different layers of doing it. But you have your departmental people -- and this was a major revolution that I sort of brought into the business -- that you try to keep coordinated and moving together so that you're trying to put out a single message. You have a lot of interaction with your advertising people, your publicity people, your promotions people, your Internet people, to try to figure out what each one of them sees as an opportunity in this film, so that you can start to think about where you're going to put your resources.

To me -- and I was never anything beyond a private in the military, so this isn't from a West Point grad or anything -- it's sort of like planning a military invasion. You can't plan to have your air force do something, your artillery do something, and your infantry do something, without any knowledge of their power. So you have to assess the power of each one of your organizations to implement a program before you can design a battle plan.

It's also very important in the early stages to meet with the filmmakers, because no one understands their film really better than the filmmakers do. And they can give you a tremendous amount of insight into what they think they've accomplished.

What I like to do is put together a timetable. Now, for a big summer event movie, that timetable can be two years out, two and a half years out. For other movies, it might be a simple four-week timetable. But it's a chain of events put down on a pictorial timetable, so that you can really sort of see the flow of potential activity and understand where that's going to exist.

Then you try to come to some understanding again on a battle plan program -- who's your competition? What are they likely going to do? What kind of respect do you have for their marketing departments? Is this someone you can say, "Well, they're really good?" ...

You think of how you're going to measure up. [You] put together who you think the audience is, what you think you're going to say to them. You start developing materials, put the materials into test to try to get a response mechanism back. "OK, I've shown you a trailer. I've shown you a television commercial. How interested are you in seeing this movie? How interested would you be seeing it opening weekend?" Develop it against different measures that we have to understand that level of intensity.

Start to shape all of that material together. Start to work with the talent. ... "What kind of cover time will you commit to getting photos taken to be on covers of magazines?" So it's sort of a grand plan with thousands of details. And the real grand ability to do it well is to be able to put together a great strategy, but to be able to tactically implement it. It's the combination of those two elements that I think really make it work.

What kind of budgets are set aside for marketing, and how has it changed?

The MPAA, which is the Motion Picture Association of the studios, last year said that the average movie cost somewhere around $28 million, I think, to market. So that's the average movie of all the movies released. About $3 million to $5 million dollars of that is in producing materials and running all of the elements of a marketing campaign; the balance being in the actual cost of media. And that has gone up dramatically.

I think I can remember when I first joined the business in 1984, you felt comfortable releasing -- even in the middle of summer, where you had some real ambition for the film -- with maybe a $10 million to $12 million total marketing budget. I would say that the films that really have ambition being released this summer are in the $40 million range. So that's where it's changed.

Do you know generally if the movie will be successful?

What you know from the test screens is how playable the movie is. So you know what kind of elements you're dealing with to say, "OK, I know that if I don't get a good opening weekend ... this movie's dead, because anyone who sees it doesn't like it. There's going to be no word of mouth." And so you get a great sense of what going to happen to the life of the film after you open it. ... You're going to open at a certain level, and you're going to decay after that. It's how rapid your decay is, how much money you make ultimately. And word of mouth has such an effect on that. So you know what your playability is.

And then in the process, you get a pretty good concept of your marketability. You know what kind of power you have, ranges you can start to deal in. You can be tricked now and then. But I would say if you're objective -- in a cold-hearted way, if you aren't emotionally so involved that you won't even read the truth when it's there in front of you -- you have a pretty good idea by the time the movie opens what's going to happen. There are exceptions, but they're probably more rare.

How important are structural elements in the product-related promotions like fast food restaurants?

Product placement and promotion are gaining in importance. I don't think that the lack of one has ever killed a film. But what's happened is that we've moved from an unstructured era of product placement -- where products got into movies ... because $50 was put in the pocket of the prop master if he would put that soft drink in front of the camera -- to where companies are professionally reading scripts, looking for opportunities for their clients, and paying fees directly to the production to have that product in the movie.

Many times within a film production being budgeted, there is a hope for a certain cost reduction to the negative by those fees being applied to the production of the movie. Then there is the second part of negotiation, which is what the marketing department looks for: Can you turn a product placement into a promotion? You can have promotions with no product placement. McDonald's can decide that they want to support a Disney film but have no McDonald's in the film, because they think it will help stimulate their business. People want to come to their store to get that Happy Meal or premium or whatever program they have. ...

But what the marketing department's hoping for [is that] you get that product placement that can get you to a promotion. The value of a promotion to the marketing department is if you can have other people supporting the movie -- and it's their money, not the studio money -- it just adds to the pressure in the marketplace. It adds to the awareness of the movie. ... It's not only the studio that's talking about it. It's on the front page of Time magazine. "Dateline" had it on last night with the star. I go to my 7-Eleven, the soft drink I buy is doing it. ... It's everywhere. ...

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