Film Biz 101: Marketability vs Playability
by Michael D. SellersOne of my mentors in the business is Lenny Shapiro, a spry, delightful sixty-something guy who was formerly the head of Avco Embassy pictures “back in the day” when that company was a major theatrical player. Lennie is one of the most genuinely likeable people in the business — he’s got an infections laugh and a twinkle in his eye that the rest of us can just hope to have when we hit the big 6-0.Lenny was the first one who taught me the mantra of “marketability” versus “playability”, and I’ve never forgotten it — and over the years, I’ve heard many in the higher reaches of theatrical releasing say things that indicate Lenny was right in breaking it down this way.First, if you think about it — a film has to in the first instance sell itself as an idea. Meaning — we all go see a movie because the idea of that movie is attractive to us. That’s “marketability” — the ability of a film to attract an audience into the theater. The most common aspect of markeability is cast — if you have a Brad Pitt movie, it’s marketable by definition because it has Brad Pitt in it. There are several dozen, perhaps as many as fifty, directors whose names attached to a movie automatically make it marketable. Most movies derive their marketability from some combination of stars, director, underlying literary property (famous book, comic book,etc). At the indie level, festival acclaim comes into play, and reviews count, a MySpace buzz matters. But in analyzing the film from this aspect — the entire point is to answer the question, “Can the film attract moviegoers into the theater”?”Playability” is the analysis of what happens to that audience once they are in the theater. Never mind what got them there — what is their experience once they sit down and watch the movie. How well does the movie “play”? Will it generate favorable word of mouth? Will it catch the fancy of reviewers?Studios are often confronted with a movie which they know is “marketable” — they know that it will attract a great first weekend audience. But they also may know that the reviewers will clobber the film, and filmgoers will be disappointed. Even so — such a film can be financially successfull if the “marketability” is good and the marketing campaign is carefully designed and executed with flair and vision. A great marketing campaign — a strong opening weekend — damn the dropoff and get on to the DVD — it can still work.By contrast, a good film that delivers good “playability” but doesn’t have marketable elements is a problem. How do you get the warm bodies in theater seats to begin with? This is the true challenge to most good indie films. Such films usually don’t have major stars, they aren’t laden with multi-million dollar special effects and so the marketing hook must come from something else. Festival and critical acclaim helps, and starting small gives the disributor an opportunity to concentrate on fewer markets and build a reputation for the film as it rolls out.Marketability and Playability — we’ll be talking about this more as the release of Eye of the Dolphin approaches.