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Rewind 2017: How social media played into cinema marketing

From the fight between Lipstick Under My Burkha and Pahlaj Nihalani to Irrfan Khan's viral videos, we look at how the medium is increasingly having a say in the way our stars function.

Shriram Iyengar

The release of Tiger Zinda Hai's first song 'Swag Se Swagat' set a record of sorts with 120 million views on YouTube. Naturally, the makers of the film, Yash Raj Films, celebrated the event and shared it with fans on their Twitter account.

With Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif's action-packed presence, the film sold itself. But Yash Raj Films' touting of its digital credentials points to a deeper systemic change that has become pivotal to Hindi cinema's new marketing gurus.

Traditional marketing strategy depended on the presence of stars and good word-of-mouth publicity to help create a buzz around films and propel sales. Outdoor marketing, banners, posters, and television commercials played a major role. Well, that is now changing.

The nature and marketing of a film changed quite drastically in the past decade. Rather than change its core content, Indian cinema, in particular, has chosen to use new media of communication to reach out to changing audiences and attract them.

It is no surprise that cinema has turned to social media, the cutting edge of modern communication, to draw in the audiences.

Since the turn of the first decade of the third millennium, journalists, bloggers and communicators have been using Twitter and Facebook as media to share ideas, compete, and create a forum for discussion. It took some time for production houses to catch up, but artistes, celebrities, directors and production houses have started building their own communities in these spaces.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of social media and the digital medium on films today. An improved chunk of promotional spending goes towards associations with portals and campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, to target users at much lower rates.

The reason lies in the two-way communication these portals offer, says exhibitor Akshaye Rathi. “Of all the modes of marketing, whether hoarding or television or the digital medium, digital is the only one with two-way communication. With a hoarding or print media, you can only tell the audience that this is a film and it is coming out. With TV, you can show the trailer. But digital is the only medium where you can get feedback. Direct feedback. That makes it a much more effective medium.”

This two-way communication is not natural. It has to be nurtured and built through several weeks of association with portals, fanbases, and brands. A digital campaign for promotion functions on the basis of three things, says digital media firm Studio Unees founder Amit Tuli.

How a campaign begins

“The first and foremost factor of a digital campaign is the positioning the film is trying to achieve. The films are bracketed into independent film, commercial film, or the genre that it fits into. Second is the cast that is involved, and how much the movie would be accessible to the audience. And however less or more, organic marketing an agency would have to do to reach the audience," says Tuli.

"Third is if the film is related to any social cause. Maybe on TV, in print, or at the box office, films with social causes, gender issues may not work as well as general entertainment movies do. But on social media, most of the platforms have come out with a vision,” he added.

The rush for marketing a film online begins with the announcement of its trailer release. A couple of years ago, the trailer was the big product online. Digital agencies would vie with one another to make a pitch for the trailer release of a film. However, with time, production houses have started to build a buzz before the trailer even hits the market.

This buzz is created by means of tactics like promotional associations, teaser trailers, first looks, motion posters and other such gimmicks. All of these gimmicks lead up to the release of the first saleable commodity of the film, the trailer. The reason for spreading a campaign thin around the trailer, experts suggest, is the duration of campaigns.

Tuli says, “Now, in the past 1-1.5 years, campaigns have become smaller by every film. Even a film like Golmaal Again (2017) had a tight 30-day campaign. A film like Fukrey Returns  (2017) will have a 20-25-day campaign. Marketing agencies cannot wait for a trailer to come out, be viral, and then make an association. They need to start associations, get the barter, and a lot of films these days are relying on gimmicks. So they are coordinating with brands, co-branded tickets and stuff.”

As an example, he pointed to Rohit Shetty’s Golmaal Again (2017) associating with ticket accumulator BookMyShow for promotion. There are several such examples. For instance, before the release of her film Jia Aur Jia (2017), Kalki Koechlin also released several videos of her poetry performances with the portal, Blush.

Rajkummar Rao, who is the rising indie star, was not exempt from these marketing strategies either. Just before the release of Vikramaditya Motwane's Trapped, Rao collaborated with digital content generators Buzzfeed India to create a video that showcased his 'acting' talent.

Through these strategies, production houses are moving on from a single-channel promotion strategy to multi-dimensional routes. Tapping into content creators and publishers, they are teaming up to create more effective deliverance of the message.

While Koechlin’s tryst with poetry is well known, the release of these performances close to a film’s trailer definitely enhances visibility. The advantage is two-fold.

Digital content consultant Keyrun Rao points out that while campaigns serve to build a film’s and the star’s fan base, the reverse is also true. “The stars use the campaign to peak their own numbers. If the movie is bigger than them, they can use the movie's clout to help increase their numbers and engagement with the fans. That is another way in which things are changing. Now, everybody wants to take advantage. They realize something is happening, and want to be in that space,” says Rao.

Cue artistes tweeting about their latest releases, reactions, and getting re-tweeted by fellow artistes. Rao, however, points out that most of these retweets are personal favours, with only a few possessing the elements to go viral.

Going viral

The mysterious ‘viral’ element is what most digital campaigns aim for. Since there is no certainty what content can go viral at a given point of time, production houses and digital agencies create multi-pronged campaigns for films. These include Facebook Live chats, Twitter question-and-answer sessions with fans, and collaborating with other digital and online platforms for videos with viral potential.

Prime examples would be Irrfan Khan’s collaboration with the comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB), Vidya Balan’s collaboration with Arre, and Kangana Ranaut teaming up with, again, AIB during the promotions of her film, Simran.

These collaborations are built in association with portals and brands that share certain characteristics with the film. Tuli’s Studio Unees collaborated with politically active portals like Logical Indian, Frustrated Indian during the promotion of Madhur Bhandarkar’s politically charged Indu Sarkar (2017).

However, contrary to belief, these creative associations are built with care. The agency often consults the star, more than the film’s director, when working on these viral video campaigns. Rao says, “It depends on how hands-on or fussy the filmmaker is. But it has to be the star first, then the filmmaker. The star always headlines the promotional activity. If the actor has to make a spoof out of himself, he has to approve the joke. If it is a parody of the film, the filmmaker has to take a call.”

Take Nitesh Tiwari's Dangal (2016). The film already had the star presence of Aamir Khan and required little online marketing. However, the campaign was built around the perfectionist image of Aamir. The campaign turned Aamir's physical transformation, first into a fat old man and then into a wrestler with a six-pack abdomen, into an effective viral video.

The video's viral success preceded the film’s own success at the box office. Dangal went on to become the first Hindi film to cross the mark of Rs1,000 crore box-office collections worldwide.

Any publicity, good publicity?

Rao explains that a campaign’s approval also depends on “who is the first person to be affected by the promotional activity.” He adds, “Also depending on the availability. If you are involving the star, you have to get the star's manager, social media experts and all that.”  Most stars today have an independent digital agency of their own handling their social media accounts and online reputation management.

In the age of the Twitter troll, reputation management on the internet is serious business. From Hrithik Roshan’s debacle with Ranaut to Karan Johar’s Twitter break-up with best friend Kajol (and later patch up), the internet is the public platform on which industry feuds unfold.

Sometimes, not always, these fights work in favour of a star’s upcoming films. For instance, the feud between Hrithik and Shah Rukh Khan earlier this year, helped build more publicity for both their films, Kaabil and Raees. Both sets of fans queued up to ensure their star was a success at the box-office, resulting in the films making a decent collection despite being pitted against each other.

On the other hand, Ajay Devgn’s all open attack on Johar during the release of his directorial Shivaay against Ae Dil Hai Mushkil last year, resulted in a bitter loss. It also affected Devgn’s positioning in the industry.

Jaa Shivaay Kar De Vinaash: Ajay Devgn puts KJo and his Ae Dil.. in Mushkil?   

Rao suggests, “A buzz is okay, but you never know which direction it will go. If it is a negative buzz, you want it to die out as soon as possible. You start populating the internet with other things to make them look the other way.”  

One of the biggest examples is the unending controversy over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati. The support though, started to wane as the controversy dragged on. Soon, questions were being raised over whether the entire controversy is a PR stunt.

The trick is to adapt, says Rao, “If the trailer gets some negative response, or there is a controversy, there is a lot of damage control that needs to be done. These are dynamic campaigns that change every hour, every day. It changes drastically, and the agency has to prepare.”

So what advantage does the digital medium offer agencies when things go wrong, we ask. Flexibility is the unanimous answer. Tuli points out that agencies have the flexibility to reinvent their game plan every day.

“With digital, you have the flexibility to reinvent yourself every day. With social media, you get to know the response quick. Suppose the trailer is out tomorrow, by the weekend you know what the response was. By the next day, we can modify the strategy. Modifying the strategy does not mean you stop a social media campaign, just that you go a different way,” he says.

Facebook or Twitter?

This increasing influence of the digital medium on film promotions is a direct result of India’s growing stature as a digital power. A recent survey by Deloitte suggests that the country’s mobile data consumption is almost 1 million GB as on 2017, and will touch 1.6 billion GB by 2020. 30% of this usage comes from smartphone users with access to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

When it comes to films, and actors, there are certain social media platforms more effective than others. Unlike popular perception about Twitter, digital media professionals agree that Facebook is a more effective platform when it comes to interaction.

The portal offers the fans a chance to interact with the stars better, thus ensuring better mileage for the film as well. Rao points out, “The fans feel more connected on Facebook than on Twitter. It is like a little community thing where even fans become friends of each other. It goes beyond the stars themselves.”

A search for Shah Rukh Khan groups on Facebook reveal more than 30 such collectives with over 10,000 members. This is a sign of the fan power existent on the portal. Imagine channeling this into a promotional blitzkrieg, and the publicity it can unleash.

However, it does not always work. An exhibitor, Rathi says that despite all strategies, a film’s box office success depends on its content. “I am a bit old school in that I believe 90% of people who go to a movie decide right after watching the trailer. After that, any kind of marketing whether it is digital media, television or hoardings is only to create more awareness about the film.”

“Any amount of digital campaigning or hoardings cannot convince people to walk in. It can only make them aware of the fact that it is coming,” Rathi concludes.

The statement is proved by a recent study by The Hollywood Reporter which polled that almost 40% of audiences based their decision of watching a movie in theatres on the effect of its trailer.

Is the future digital?

This is a view agreed upon. Despite the growing intensity of online campaigns and promotions, experts believe that the online marketing frenzy does not exceed 15% of any film’s eventual promotion and advertising (P& A) budget. According to Rao, television still scores the highest when it comes to promotional strategies.

The digital medium, however, has offered a platform to mid-budget and small films. In an industry that makes more than 500 films every year, small films run the risk of vanishing from theatres without audiences hearing about them.

This risk has been minimised by the digital media. Rao points out, “The makers have now realised that even films which are not Dangal or Sultan can bring bums on the seat with digital marketing. It is a very easy way to reach out to the 20-35 age group. Digital has become the space to tap them. Even films with serious subjects like Rustom, Airlift, Newton.”

A prime example cited by several experts was Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017). The film, which ran into serious trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), received tremendous backing online for its radical take on female desires.

Made on a modest budget of Rs6 crore, the film went on to bag more than Rs16 crore nett, with a presence in less than 400 screens in the metros.

However, exhibitor Rathi does not believe social media influences footfalls in the theatres yet. Emphasising on the limited reach of social media in the rural centres, Rathi said, “While digital is on the rise, and print and other media are on the decline, in a country like India it will take a substantial amount of time before digital can take over entirely. For the simple reason that, in the smaller parts of India, the awareness about digital media is still not as wide.”

Yet, there are certain advantages. With the rise of aggregators of various kinds (BookMyShow, Netflix, Amazon Prime etc), a film’s revenue also includes the sale of its digital rights, and overseas rights. This, Tuli points out, is influenced a great deal by social media.

“Where it has really worked is in terms of satellite and digital buying. If a film has performed really well on the visible and digital marketing, and has good content, they are fetching good prices on the digital and overseas rights. If there is a researcher who could do an analysis about it, I am sure you would find a pattern in which films that have done well in digital marketing have fetched better prices in digital selling,” he says.

Salman Khan signs exclusive content deal with Amazon Prime Video

The signs are there. Two of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, have signed on deals with Netflix and Amazon respectively for their film’s video contents. The video aggregator giants have also tapped into the small film market with films like Trapped (2017), Newton (2017) and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), making it to the online platform in a few months after their release.

In addition, filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, and Kabir Khan are set to direct their own webseries in association with digital mediums. Zoya Akhtar's Made In Heaven is part of 11 such projects taken up under the umbrella of Amazon Prime.

Shweta Tripathi roped in Zoya Akhtar's web-series Made In Heaven

What does the future hold?

Does this mean the death knell for theatres? Not really, say the experts. While footfalls are going down, and a majority of the audience is going online to get their fill of cinema, theatres are still a major source of revenue for films.

However, the unanimous agreement is that there needs to be a change. Tuli says, “Right now, theatres are on the cusp. They have to either evolve, or they will collapse completely. People are shifting to Amazon, Netflix, TV sizes are getting bigger, screen sizes are getting smaller. Why would people pay as much to step out of their homes?”

Actress Richa Chadha, who starred in the Amazon Prime series, Inside Edge, adds, “You don't just rely on the box office weekend. I know that Inside Edge released on 10 July. But people might watch it on 10 August till October till whenever they can. Particularly when tickets are expensive, screens are low, and taxes are high, no one is going to the theatres. We have to address that problem.”

In all, there will be a need for a paradigm shift in the budget/revenue model. The most successful, and acclaimed, films of 2017 were Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), Newton (2017), Trapped (2017) and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017). None of these films had star power, a big brand, or a high production cost going for them. The rise of actors like Rajkummar, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ayushmann Khurrana also marks a trend that the industry is seeking to break out of the star-power.

However, Tuli does not see it making any difference to the theatrical model. “I don't see a lot of films recovering a break with their theatre runs. Right now, you only get one week for your entire word of mouth to culminate into a successful/not so successful weekend. With big films running every week almost, and a backlog from 2016 coming into play to 2017 and spilling into 2018, I don't think the theatre will undergo a revolutionary change,” he concludes.

On 1 July 2015, prime minister Narendra Modi launched the Digital India campaign. In 2017, the success of Lipstick Under My Burkha, buoyed by its online supporters, was followed by the resignation of CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani. Nihalani was roundly pilloried by the online media for his stance on films. There can be no greater proof of the influence of social media on cinema than its opposition of the greatest threat the industry faces — censorship.