Did you see Eli Roth’s new movie, The Green Inferno? Did you even hear about it? If you’re like me, the answer to both questions is no. But this won’t hurt Roth’s feelings, because chances are, he didn’t want you to.
Historically, film-making is a hit-driven business – only the big guys survive and succeed. This is due to the high costs behind making, marketing, and distributing films along with the high demands of major movie studios to make back their investments. Something can be said about the universally-appealing themes that often link all the hits together: love, family, revenge, triumph, etc. So what if you are making an independent film about people eating and torturing each other in the South American rainforest? Aiming to capture the mass audience seems unrealistic. Eli Roth, the director of The Green Inferno, is known for his explicitly violent and bloody horror films (e.g., Cabin Fever, Hostel). With the movie industry shifting away from supporting works that may be deemed more risky, Roth needed to reach the right audience with the least amount of marketing spend possible in order for his new movie to be viable.
Currently, low-end movie releases require $30-$35 million. For The Green Inferno, Roth had $8 million in total, covering editing, marketing and distribution. Roth was once quoted saying
“If I’ve really done my job as a director, nobody can actually watch my movie. They’re watching the inside of their hand. You don’t want people walking out of a movie; you want them running out of the theater screaming. When that happens, that’s like a standing ovation for me.”
Given The Green Inferno’s unique cinematic experience (gore, gore, gore!), it doesn’t make sense to aim for maximum reach. The important task is to figure out who the audience are and tap into their world. Using data, Roth and his business partners can tell where the promotional content will be best received. When a clip of the movie performs well, Roth can track who watched it, how much of it the clip they watched, who are the users that have a high propensity to like it, share it, and comment on it.
Roth then leverages the data to decide where to market next and how to deliver the right content to the highest level engagers. This has led to some surprising outcomes. For example, when the team tested a gore clip from the movie against Selena Gomez’s audience and Taylor Swift’s audience, they found that teenage girls responded positively. This process is quite different from the traditional approach of using focus groups to test rough cuts of movies. The digital approach of using tracking pixels on sites leverages a wider audience for more accurate data. By using data to identify the interested groups, Roth’s team can optimize trailer cuts, know where to direct them, and increase the conversion rate to purchase. The data also drives decision on whether ideas expand into a larger film or TV franchise. Roth believes that the goal is to “listen to the data and only reach people that are interested.”
There’s a reason why I never saw or heard anything about this movie – I’m not the right target market. Roth never had to waste a dollar to market to me; I would have never gone to see it anyway. However, for people who are fans of the cannibalistic horror film genre, they will receive tailored updates about The Green Inferno, where it’s playing, and how they can see it. The effectiveness of the digital marketing strategy has implications on the larger film industry. If films from any genre can be profitable due to effective advertising, then the pressure on high box office returns can be lessened and the film creators can be less dependent on movie studios to succeed.
One challenge in a data-driven film-making business is convincing the creatives to listen to the data. Most creatives are not like Roth – they go off of intuition and have a general mistrust for aggregate data. This approach could drive a further divide between the creative and the business side of the industry.