Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai has not opened too well this weekend. The momentum doesn’t suggest that it will score very well during the working week or on its second weekend either. For a film that has managed to get acclaim across the press and the elite, this is not the box office verdict the film should have settled for. What went wrong?
There has been a lot of rant on the Internet on why our audience have got de-sensitized to good cinema. Amusing. Because not too long ago, we were saying the opposite when Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani and Vicky Donor showed excellent box office performance despite all odds. Surely, we can’t decide to brand our audiences mature or immature according to our convenience.
So here’s what I think went wrong. Shanghai must take the discredit of being the worst marketed film of recent times. Unlike Paan Singh Tomar, where there was no attempt to market the film at all, Shanghai had a campaign being backed by respectable marketing moolah, but very poor messaging.
The entire campaign for the film came down to just one song. Yes, we got that they had a fairly popular track. But that’s all that registered over weeks of the film’s television campaign. The genre, the subject and the theme suffered from poor comprehension with the potential target audience. And here, I include the relatively elite audience, who are open to non-starcast films with different themes.
The meaning behind the title of the film was itself lost out to many. Only the first theatrical explained the context. But as the campaign reached a wider audience base, none of the subsequent messages spoke about why the film is called Shanghai.
Even if we were to exclude the title comprehension issue (after all, many didn’t know the meaning of ‘Dabangg’ either before the film released), nothing explains why the promos of the film did not build the central issue and premise, or why they didn’t work towards giving the film an edgy, tension-packed feel. Even now, when I see the promos after watching the film, I can barely register what’s being said – interesting scenes from the film have been picked out of context and showcased as promos. The impact they have in the film is infinitely more, when the context becomes clear. It’s almost as if the campaign was made for those who have already watched the film and are being targeted for repeat viewing!
That brings me to the key issue. So many films have promos where you can easily tell how the maker (who also happens to be the primary authority to approve the promos) could not see the promos independent of his/ her knowledge of the film. It is a humanly difficult situation to handle after all, given that the maker is so close to the product. That’s why we recommend testing the promos with the audience before putting them out in the media for mass consumption. Arguably, this is more important than testing the actual film itself, given the high dependence on the opening weekend today.
In case of Shanghai though, the problem is even wider. The campaign doesn’t seem to have any thought-out target group or marketing strategy. Were they trying to position the film as a taut political thriller? Or as a meaningful social film on the reality of India today? Or an underdog, coming-of-age film? Or an arthouse film you should watch, only so that good filmmaking can survive? At different times, all these four messages were given out. No surprise that none registered in the end.
So, here are a few tips for producers marketing non-starcast, niche films:
1. Define your target audience. But do it sharply. Everyone from 6-60 years doesn’t work. Be more specific. For Shanghai, it could have been “the Kahaani audience” or “18-34 year old males who watch movies in multiplexes”. It’s fine if your definition has some flaws. But at least, put a definition to the target audience.
2. Next, define a positioning statement or a key message that you want the campaign to give out to the target audience. Answer the question: “I want my target audience to watch my film because….”. Also, answer the question: “My film is best described as…..” Make sure the two answers are complimentary and not contradictory. Also make sure they are relevant to the target audience defined for the film.
3. Decide on creatives (promos, off-air, the works) basis just two guiding principles – Who’s the target audience and what’s the positioning/ key message. Nothing else (absolutely nothing) should come in the way. Remember, if it was not captured in the positioning statement, it is not important enough to begin with.
These three steps are simple yet incredibly complex. The process of crafting the first two is a long, careful one, and is often backed with orientation, discussion and market data. But once you get the three steps right, you will be sure that you did the best job you could have with the material at hand.
Things are changing, but slowly. There is growing sensitization to the marketing process. Of late, some producers have worked with us to write no. 1 & no. 2 and then test no. 3 with the consumers to ensure that they are on the right track. We just wish more producers took this approach, with or without our support. After all, we don’t get films like Shanghai very often. So, it’s such a shame when marketing lets down good content in such cases.
PS: This post is the result of a short but meaningful tweet exchange with @SinghAshwini. Thanks!