I can’t tell you the first thing about movie marketing, but that didn’t stop me reading every word of a long, interesting article in the New Yorker which delves into the life of a top movie marketer – a man known as The Cobra.

Letter from California: The New Yorker

While I’m not suggesting you immediately adopt Hollywood methodologies, the article’s still a fascinating read for any lifelong student of marketing:

Publicity is selling what you have: the film’s stars and sometimes its director. Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have; it’s the art of the tease. A première lets the marketing and publicity teams join in a final effort to “eventize” a film, to move it to the top of the nation’s long to-do list. Many premières feel slack and dutiful, but this one had the fizz of a genuine event.

The article is long and involved (as New Yorker articles often are). In this case, the thread runs through literally months of the subject’s life, and the narrative’s spotted with intriguing personal glimpses.

Still, my marketing-oriented readers will be most interested in the glimpses behind the Hollywood marketing curtain, including the passages about playbooks, audience segmentation, and even the standard campaign layout:

Modern campaigns have three acts: a year or more before the film débuts, you introduce it with ninety-second teaser trailers and viral Internet “leaks” of gossip or early footage, in preparation for the main trailer, which appears four months before the release; five weeks before the film opens, you start saturating with a “flight” of thirty-second TV spots; and, at the end, you remind with fifteen-second spots, newspaper ads, and billboards.

Studios typically spend about ten million dollars on the “basics” (cutting trailers and designing posters, conducting market research, flying the film’s talent to the junket and the première, and the première itself) and thirty million on the media buy. Between seventy and eighty per cent of that is spent on television advertising (enough so that viewers should see the ads an average of fifteen times), eight or nine per cent on Internet ads, and the remainder on newspaper and outdoor advertising.

The hope is that a potential viewer will be prodded just enough to make him decide to see what all the fuss is about. It’s the “belt and suspenders and corset and parachute harness” approach.

How do Hollywood’s marketers keep from reinventing the wheel?

Each maneuver and ad buy in Palen’s campaigns is detailed in a confidential playbook. For marketers, much of the science of marketing is determining which old movie your new movie is most like, so you can turn to that movie’s playbook as a rough guide. Much of the art of marketing is developing a campaign that reassures moviegoers that the new film is very similar to (or at least “from the director of”) another one they liked.

Like most long New Yorker articles, the writer wraps up a lot of loose ends at the finish, typically offering us one final (often startling) glimpse at the character, and this is no exception:

Many film marketers grow disillusioned with their jobs, with the lying and the cheating. But when I asked Palen whether the job had affected his understanding of our primary levers—of the human eagerness to give way to laughter, fear, sorrow, and passion—he looked at me sharply and said, “I hope not. Because owning the secrets of cattle mentality is not aspirational. I love my job, I love being a part of all this, of staying fresh and young.” He was thinking aloud, not his favorite mode of self-presentation. “I mean . . . my mom still listens to Patsy Cline. I have this—not a fear—but she stopped at a certain age, and I don’t want to stop, to get old.”

Brilliantly told, it’s an article worth reading – even if you don’t glean one useful marketing hint from it.

Keep reading, Tom Chandler.