Marketing Milk: One container doesn't fit all

By Mike Jones | April 21, 2009
The Milk website The Milk website

In the third of his articles on the synergetic relationship between film and the web, Mike Jones looks at juggling different media, messages, and dates to promote a single film.

This is part of a series of articles on FilmInFocus in which Mike Jones examines the role played by the internet in both film production (on Medicine for Melancholy and Taking Woodstock) and film promotion (Bottle Shock, Fast & Furious, Milk and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.)

When and where a film’s trailer gets released is a crucial marketing decision. Before the web, celebrity shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” were the go-to places to debut new marketing material. Broadcast television reaches a national audience instantly and studios still make it a practice to save trailers and "behind-the-scenes" footage for broadcast exclusives. When a film's trailer is released in theaters is equally important. But now, as Nicole Butte, Focus Features’ Vice President of New Media says, placing a trailer on the web is just as important. So when it came to the online launch of the trailer for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Butte had a clear plan.

"The minute the trailer goes out online, that's when the consumer starts learning about the film,” explains Butte. “And that's when all the editors start to pick up on the film, from IMDb to Rotten Tomatoes to AOL Moviefone to Yahoo Movies." 

And while watching trailers online may have been a wait-(and-wait)-and-see experience a few years ago, faster broadband connections, now available in nearly every household, make trailers one of the most common types of video online. For Butte, “the way it's really changing is ultimately online will give you so much more exposure than what broadcast alone can give you. A big trailer on Yahoo Movies or Apple Trailers gets up to 20 million unique viewers a month. The impact online is substantial."

And rather than be competitive with broadcast media over the debut of a film trailer, Butte pushes for a more cooperative approach: "Day-and-date is best for everyone. Otherwise someone will rip it off the broadcast debut and post an inferior version online. Why would we want that?"

Knowing who you want to reach is the first step in picking a trailer's online "theater." "If the film, for example, is more of a female film,” explains Butte, “we might go with AOL Moviefone. For the hipster audience, maybe it'll be better at Apple Trailers. For fanboys, maybe IGN is better." 

Milk Facebook page

The Milk Facebook page

The same can be said about online advertising. Since Milk is a biopic about the life (and death) of one of America’s first gay elected officials, Focus pushed Milk's message where there would be the most eyes. A film about a politician coming out just after the elections dovetailed nicely with political coverage. "We created a whole campaign that centered around the presidential debates,” explains Butte. “We ran ads on all the sites covering the debates, like CNN because we knew everyone would be going online to check it out. LA Times Politics, NY Times Politics, The Huffington Post. It was a very targeted political, liberal outreach tied to a message of hope."

And while Milk’s message of hope could speak to a general audience, it historically speaks most loudly to the LGBT community. So Butte targeted LGBT issue and lifestyle sites like Logo, 365 Media, After Ellen in a very specific way: proudly enough for its gay fans, but meaningful to all. "We knew the film had to have a broader reach as well. We certainly wanted to bring in our core to evangelize the film for us, but broad enough not to turn anyone off."

Butte realizes that the web is a quickly shifting landscape and marketing on it must be equally nimble. While an official site is important, it’s less so than before. "I believe it's about branding and engagement,” says Butte. “The media is fragmented. People aren't necessarily going to know to go to Milkthemovie.com for the film's information. They are going to go where they usually go, like Facebook, CNN, Yahoo Movies. So we have to reach them at those places and give them the best experience."

After the film's opening, the job is far from done. Specialty distributors usually bring their films out carefully with a more targeted rollout, where perhaps theaters in Dallas and Detroit play the film weeks after New York and Los Angeles. So to make every audience feel special, the site must acknowledge these delayed openings. “It's about getting butts in seats,” comments Butte. ”And on the internet there may be a ton of messaging about the movie, yet it's not in theaters for everyone. And that's a big issue for a specialty distributor." So Butte's job is to follow the roll-out wherever it goes, which means re-doing much of the work of the film opening. Again and again. "You have to look at your entire media campaign, from broadcast spots, to cable spots, to outdoor advertising, to print, to online,” Butte sums up. “It's not just about one form of media, you have to hit them in all outlets."

Mike Jones

Mike Jones is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s held staff positions at Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, Variety and currently blogs on the film festival beat at The Circuit. He's written scripts for Columbia, HBO, MGM/UA, among others. Recently The Gotham Group optioned his adaptation of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

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