The past few months have seen some frenetic activity around film
distributors' media planning and buying accounts. First there was the
United International Pictures review that was cancelled when the company
opted to sweep its entire global media business into The Media Edge.
Then came the pitches called by Sony and its Columbia Tristar division.
Finally, Entertainment Film Distributors last week awarded its pounds 12
million account to Optimedia after reviewing out of Universal
This is most likely no coincidence. An unprecedented crisis is set to
sweep the international movie industry this summer which could have
serious long-term repercussions for this specialist area of planning and
The US Screen Actors Guild is hurtling towards a general strike, set to
begin in June, that will make its boycott of commercials last year look
like a minor inconvenience. All SAG members - that means any actor who
has worked on a US film - will walk out on any film project which is
even partly funded by an American studio. The strike could last for more
than six months, perhaps as much as a year, and will effectively bring
the film industry to a grinding halt, since its breadth means US studios
will not be able to bypass the action by filming abroad.
The SAG is demanding more money for film actors and its resolve in
achieving this should not be questioned.
To make matters worse, a similar dispute between the studios and the
Writers Guild of America is set to result in a strike a month earlier
(in May). Even if a studio could persuade actors to risk their careers,
it would be unlikely to have a script to put in front of them.
'It's a mess,' the international editor of Screen International, Patrick
Frasier, says. 'The effects are already being felt now and they could
last until 2002 - and that's if the strike only lasts for a few months.
It affects not only what's coming down the pipe in America but in the
rest of the world as well.'
The first movies affected by the strike will be released towards the end
of the year. But film distribution companies are already feeling the
pinch. 'They've spent the last few months trying to stock up by buying
very busily,' Frasier adds. 'They're spending most of the year's
acquisition budgets now.' As if that wasn't enough to encourage a bit of
belt-tightening among producers, the need to rush films into production
before the deadline has placed actors and directors at a premium and
allowed them to jack up their prices.
These extra costs could tempt the distributors to make equivalent cuts
in their promotional budgets. However, the prospect of being told to
make money work harder is only the start of the impact on media
Planning and buying for film releases is, in many ways, a unique
discipline, and not only because the involvement of creative agencies in
the process is small. 'You are buying media in the short term,' BBJ's
board director, Matthew Platts, says. 'The first weekend's box office is
vitally important to a film's success. You're not necessarily looking to
build a brand.'
In getting those opening weekend bums on seats, buyers must balance a
unique set of interests as well as dealing with media owners who hold an
exceptionally high proportion of the cards. 'You tend to use the same
space a lot of the time and there are also a lot of editorial tie-ins
involved,' Andy Hearnshaw of New PHD says. 'This means that some places
have you over a barrel.'
With all this in mind, it's difficult to see how savings can be made if
they are demanded. Of course, if film releases were simply to dry up,
then we could expect accounts to lie dormant. However, it's more likely
that a different breed of films will dominate cinemas in the next year
or so. 'It's an opportunity for more films to be produced in Europe and
elsewhere,' Frasier says.
With a shift away from the special effects-drenched US blockbusters, a
new range of issues will confront planners and buyers. Ironically
enough, the promotion of smaller films demands a much larger spend than
that of event movies. 'Pearl Harbour will probably have so much word of
mouth that you won't have to do much,' says Platt of what will be one of
the last blockbusters produced before the strike. 'You tend to spend
more on the smaller titles.'
So, if the money turns out to be there, art house movies will generate
bigger spends for agencies. But if distributors do feel the need to shop
around for lower prices, then it will be increasingly difficult to meet
There are further complicating factors. If the quality of movies drops
because of rushed production schedules, then agencies may have to
abandon their policy of not throwing money at movies likely to be panned
by the critics. And if the frequency of releases is reduced, which seems
likely, then agencies will have to keep audiences coming in for much
longer than the opening week.
If distributors react to all this by allowing their agencies the freedom
to think around the problems, then the strike could yet be a liberating
experience for film promotion. Planners are not currently encouraged to
think beyond the formula of fast-cut trailers and Underground posters,
but a more imaginative and cheaper approach to the process could be
necessitated in the next few months.
Of course, like most films, this could be hypothetical. The strike may
yet be averted and the media challenge remain unchanged. But UIP, Sony
and EFD don't seem to be taking that chance.