The Upstream Effect

Film Marketing: How to Build an Audience from Day-One [Part 1]

First part of a conversation with Rob Kischuk of the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast, produced by Converge HQ, a digital marketing company backed by investor Mark Cuban.

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am very excited to be joined today by Erik Lokkesmoe, Principal at Aspiration and an author.  He’s based in Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome, Erik.

ERIK: Rob, good to be with you.

ROB: Great to have you on here. Why don’t you tell us what Aspiration is and what you’re great at? Go for it.

ERIK: That’s what my wife asks every day, like “What do you do all day?” [laughs] I get coffee and beer, basically with friends.

No, this is a long-term, long-time-coming type of work that I do. Just to go back a little bit, I started in politics out of college. Went to Washington, D.C., worked as a speechwriter and press secretary. About 10 years in, I was realizing I wanted to get out of this crazy world.

But it did teach me a lot about audiences, marketing. I had a real interest in the creative sector of Hollywood—arts, entertainment, media. Partly that was developed because we were seeing in politics that there was something upstream that was shaping hearts and minds and behavior and beliefs far more than political life.

You recognize quickly that it is really the storytellers, the creatives, the makers of society, of culture, of cultural goods that are far more powerful in shaping people than politics. We talked about that being politics is downstream from the creative, because as we all know, a song, a movie, fashion is much more interesting in how it shapes us and forms us internally than a bill passing on the floor. Both important.

But certainly I recognized that early on and got into entertainment, and really the last 12 years I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening with audience trends, technology, distribution, production. How do we, as a company, figure out 3 years ahead what is going to be the way audiences consume content? How do creators create better content? How do technology and distribution affirm that for an audience and for the maker?

ROB: Interesting. It seems to me largely there’s a promotional and marketing role to what you do, but there’s also production, there’s a broader storytelling piece. How does all that fit together, if someone’s saying, “I know what a marketing agency is”? What is the scope of what Aspiration does?

ERIK: We’re called producers of marketing distribution, and that is really a unique term and a new term. As more and more independent filmmakers have risen up and as the democratization of Hollywood has spread, more  and more, as you know, makers of content (whether it’s books, music, film) have to take more and more on as their own roles and their own work.

A producer of marketing distribution is really sitting next to them and saying, “Okay, you’re making something, you’ve made something. Maybe you’re in the first days of development of your script. How do we begin to think of audience from Day 1? How do we begin to acquire an audience?”

How do we begin to understand who we’re talking to—and then let’s talk-about distribution, which is now wide open. It’s not a closed system anymore. It makes sense to people who are in marketing that, “Oh, audiences. Consumers. You should think about audience/consumers with your product Day 1.”

But most of Hollywood traditionally has been “investment in an idea." Greenlight a project based upon a whim, a fancy, a talent, something that is really abstract, a comp, something that is trendy. Then, when they’re done with that production, they sit back and go, “Okay marketing team, who’s our audience?” and you’ve already invested upwards of tens of millions of dollars, potentially. That’s just, you’d think, completely insane, but that’s how it’s been run for so many years.

Now, more and more people like us are sitting there and saying we have to have a direct-to-consumer strategy. We have to know our audience. We can’t just ask them to buy a ticket or to swipe or to click; we have to involve them from Day 1, if we can.

Erik Lokkesmoe

(Originally published in

by Erik Lokkesmoe

If traditional movie marketing and advertising are becoming a car alarm in a mall parking lot — everyone hears the noise but no one pays any attention – what’s the solution? In the “most cluttered marketplace in history,” as best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin declared, unconventional (read: grassroots) marketing has the power and the potential to reach

distracted audiences more efficiently and effectively than TV, radio, and billboard ads.

That’s been the hope, at least.

We’ve architected grassroots marketing campaigns for more than 100 movies, but a question hovers over each one: “how do we know that our work sold tickets?” Everyone assumes advance screenings and outreach, social and publicity works, but no one can say for sure. All we know is that we led the horse to water; we just can’t prove we made it drink.

Without that proof the future of our type of marketing – grassroots, unconventional, specialty, high-touch – will become “decimal dust” in a studio or indie marketing budget. And rightly so: why pay for something that cannot be measured and monetized?

When we started on movie campaigns eight years ago we thought by 2015 the mystery of audience data would be solved. Real-time analytics, social tracking and digital ticketing got us closer: we could tell who bought tickets when and where and how many. That’s great. But if we cannot answer what led the consumer to purchase tickets and why, then grassroots marketing is nothing more than an understudy to the lead role of traditional marketing.

So here’s a question that indie filmmakers should ask: Is grassroots marketing worth the investment? Is it really selling tickets?

Or is it just “window-dressing,” an “insurance policy,” a “checked-box” and a “cheaper way of marketing” – all comments we’ve heard over the years? Or could it be the future of marketing and publicity, getting consumers to become participants by turning awareness into action into attendance?

We believe it’s the latter – but there’s only one way to prove it:  hold agencies and consultants accountable by requiring all of us to show that what we sold tickets. Millions have been spent on grassroots marketing over the years and millions have been made to generate impressions and clip views, Facebook likes and tweets and detailed Excel reports delivered to busy executives and indie producers. But no one can say with total certainty that it worked.

The democratization of Hollywood is only increasing the clutter of content and the splintering of audiences. Conventional tactics make content popular, but unconventional tactics make content personal. Advertising and publicity are not enough anymore. For all our sakes, we need unconventional marketing and publicity to work – but it is doomed if we cannot prove that it sells tickets.

Next time you consider doing a grassroots or specialty marketing campaign – especially in the “faith and family” market – ask agencies and consultants this fair question: how will you prove that you sold tickets? Delivering 200-page reports of screenshots and publicity hits and Facebook likes is not enough anymore; it’s time to deliver ticket sales reports. That will only help to make everyone – audiences, studios, marketers, exhibitors and filmmakers – more successful. And that is one box that we all want to check.

Erik Lokkesmoe

What’s easier to ask of audiences?

To spend $12 dollars or to spend 2 hours captive without access to your phone.

Paying for entertainment is not the problem. The issue is partly getting audiences to pay attention (The average attention span is now less than a goldfish.) More importantly, asking audiences to block off 2+ hours with strangers and no use of their phones — good luck with that.

More than a theory, this is why more and more are viewing at home. And why more and more films and television will be, what we term, “screen-forward” entertainment. There is something else happening before, around, in, and after you view. The film or show is one part of a larger audience experience, even expectation. The programming causes the audience to lean forward in anticipation of what can be done next. You feel compelled long after the credits roll. It makes sense. Escapism can be achieved a thousand different ways. Entering (entertainment) into something to feel again, to believe, to move — that is an increasing factor in audience behavior.

Some films cause you to lean back. Others to the side. More and more will ask audiences to lean forward.

Erik Lokkesmoe

Adults are not shunning adult entertainment, but they are shunning adult entertainment at the multiplex. The modern tentpole has become a dangerous feat of cross-generational engineering whereby the MCU flick or the Fast/Furious sequel has really become a one-size-fits-all offering. Since adults can get a deluge of good-to-great adult-skewing entertainment via cable, streaming and VOD, be it the movies they ignored in theaters or quality episodic television, the theatrical adult movie now faces a massive uphill battle. To survive today, especially if you’re not a tentpole, you almost have to either be a kids flick that adults can enjoy (Jumanji) or an adult movie that kids can enjoy (Greatest Showman).”

Read full article

Erik Lokkesmoe

“Strangers in a dark room” sounds like the title of a horror film not the historic definition of a theatrical experience. That idea, however, is fading away.  The future is, in fact, friends and fans in a dark room. Shared experiences with people just like you. Sad, but true. 

Whether Star Wars or War Room, big or small budget, wide or limited release, theater seats will be filled with like-minded audiences — and while that’s a troubling thing for culture it may not be a bad thing for exhibitors. As “stranger danger” creeps into public spaces, audiences will look for entertainment that creates a homogenous community of similar people. Theaters will become experience centers. Entertainment will become eventertainment. As a result, marketing and publicity are maximized with efficiencies and effectiveness. Distribution is direct. And like a street side magazine rack in New York City, content programming will serve the niches.

Erik Lokkesmoe

73% of 16-21 year olds prefer to stay-at-home than go out. The answer? The most overused but absolutely true word: experiences. Unique, participatory, personal experiences with like-minded people. That’s the answer to get this demo out of their homes.

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Erik Lokkesmoe

The purpose and priorities of Upstream Marketing vs. Downstream Marketing are quite unique. One is not more important than the other, however the creative industries have traditionally ignored any UPSTREAM efforts because of timing, resources, and a perceived lack of measurability and effectiveness — which I disagree with entirely.

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(c) Erik Lokkesmoe, 2019

Erik Lokkesmoe

Downstream marketing begins the moment the film, book, album, cause, etc. is announced. Upstream marketing is everything that happens before that point. The sample below is for a movie campaign.

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Erik Lokkesmoe