With The Super Mario Bros. Movie smashing all sorts of records, are theatrical movie releases becoming just another part of the overall quest for long-term brand power?

As record profits roll in on the back of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Hollywood is breathing a huge sigh of post-pandemic relief. But as the industry renews its theatrical marriage vows after a misguided affair with streaming, one industry analyst thinks marketing may be a particularly compelling reason to stay together.

Speaking to Variety, Eric Handler of Roth Capital Partners hinted at how major players like Disney, Warner and Paramount made big moves and announcements around their streaming future during the darkest days of COVID, and how this may have been premature in terms of long-term profitability. Comparing the reignited interest in theatrical to a moment of religious enlightenment, Handler explains: “There’s a lot of marketing value in having your movie in cinemas.”

So, as fans, bloggers, analysts and journalists argue about the future of film and its relationship with both traditional and modern digital distribution channels, is there an argument to say theatres may eventually become just another part of the overall blockbuster marketing strategy? And what does that mean for smaller films, or at least those that may not have the budget, studio confidence or conceptual muscle to squeeze in a few screenings before making their VOD or awards circuit play?

Well, if there’s one thing we know, it’s that people are turning out for movies… at least when the product is right. And for now, that product seems to be primarily in one of two categories, the first being movies based around a recognisable IP. The success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (despite critical whining) for example, will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Nintendo. As a brand, the company knows its audience, its products, and more importantly its associated character portfolio – and has been very careful in how it has treated them for a number of years. As many have pointed out, part of this comes from the lessons learned around the 1993 Super Mario Bros Movie, which strayed far from what people knew of the characters – and did significant brand damage as a result. However, perhaps a bigger indicator of Nintendo’s tentative use of its assets can be seen in the way it has conducted itself in its core video game market.

Nintendo has weathered massive changes in gaming and has pretty successfully fought off a variety of challengers along the way. And it’s done this by refusing to follow trends, fight competitors in unfamiliar spaces, or compromise its own identity. As an example, the Nintendo Switch recently became the third best-selling console of all time – despite being considered technologically inferior to what has been on offer from Sony and Microsoft since its initial launch in 2017. The secret, according to Polygon, is “the simplicity of Nintendo’s pitch… plus the traditional strength of its in-house software”. And that clarity of message, and confidence in its identity, is exactly why Nintendo has seen such phenomenal success with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The film itself has such a clear target audience (kids and nostalgic parents), objective (remind them of the game) and platform (cinema, plus repeated VOD views) in mind, one could argue that it feels a lot like a marketing exercise, in and of itself. And while critics may have done so, expressing mean-spirited fury at the dashed hopes of having something more subversive, as the film becomes the highest-grossing video game of all time, I don’t expect Nintendo will hear the complaints over the ringing of coins being racked up by its brand mascot.

If The Super Mario Bros. Movie commits that most heinous crime of giving audiences what they want then, how do theatres also act as a marketing channel for movies people don’t yet know they want? While most of 2023’s global box office top twenty is made up of sequels or films based on popular IP, there are a handful that aren’t. And what connects films like Cocaine Bear (#10), 65 (#14), Knock at The Cabin (#15) and Plane (#16) is that they fall into a second category, by offering a simple premise that can be sold in a short sentence – or, more accurately for today’s audiences, a 60-second Insta reel or Tik Tok. At its core though, this is far from a new idea. According to Justin Wyatt, this kind of ‘high concept’ approach has been with us since the 1970s, having been used by television executive Barry Diller to approve projects that could then be easily ‘sold’ to viewers via a few words in the TV guide. Today though, that simplicity becomes a vital part of capturing our shortened attention spans and social media-numbed senses. So much so in fat that, a synopsis like ‘bear snorts cocaine, goes on murderous rampage’ ends up feeling much closer to likeable, sharable and meme-able social media content than an actual film narrative. Not only does this make the relationship between theatrical product and marketing seem even more symbiotic, it almost feels like the two are becoming increasingly impossible to untangle.

So between brand associations and clear, communicable ideas, it seems there are a couple of options for a film to make its way into theatres and enjoy the “marketing value” that comes with it. And if the real endgame in today’s market is to sustain some of those films for long enough through pre-release, theatrical release and VOD to justify a sequel or franchise, maybe there is a point to be made around it all feeling like one big marketing transaction – where the true product isn’t the movie, but its potential brand equity. It might feel dirty to reduce an art form to such terms, but would Star Wars have become the behemoth it is today had George Lucas not extended its life through merchandising? Would 80s films like Top Gun and The Lost Boys have enjoyed such cultural longevity had they not been preceded by massively successful soundtracks and hit singles? Whether its toys and t-shirts, comics and novelisations, video games and fast-food tie ins – or the promise of an Amazon Prime spin off series – there are more ways than ever to monetise a film while extending its wider brand shelf life and future equity. Most of these aren’t new, but in a world where attention is now the most precious commodity, understanding where all of them fit together alongside theatrical releases, has never felt more essential.

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