Movie Marketing Madness: Secretariat

Every once in a while something truly special happens in your life. It could be as simple as ending the work day and feeling exhausted but with a rush of having truly accomplished something substantive. It could be cosmic in scale as you look through a telescope your back yard and see a comet streaking across the nighttime sky. It could be any number of moments involving your children, from seeing them born to watching them be married and have children of their own.

In sports there are a number of similarly special moments to witness. Watching a pitcher complete a perfect game certainly ranks right up there. Watching a basketball player score 50+ points while suffering from the flu or a football running back rush for an incredible number of yards. In their own ways these moments stick with us every bit as much as those involving members of our family or friends.

Seeing a horse win all three parts of the Triple Crown would certainly rank among those moments and that’s exactly what a horse did in 1973 and that’s the story that’s told in Secretariat. In the movie version of the story we follow the horse’s owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) as she transitions from struggling house wife to horse owner. Believing that Secretariat, one of many horses on her father’s ranch, is something special, she hires eccentric trainer Lucian Laurin (John Malkovich) to overcome the obstacles that have been put in front of her to bring to reality the dreams she has not only for the horse but for herself and her family.

The Posters

The first poster for the movie sets the expectation that the audience is in for a wistful, soft-colored and inspirational story. Lane is seen caring for the titular horse, both of them standing in front of racetrack grandstands that are only seen through a thick, rrainbow-huedcloud of fog.

It’s very gentle very inspirational, even just this simple image since it shows the bonds of love between the horse and its keeper. Below the title treatment the copy “The impossible true story” reinforces the inspirational nature of the movie while also making it clear that we’re watching a real story here, which only adds to that.

That copy becomes even more prominent on the second poster since it appears at the top there. This time, though, the design is more about the horse since it is all that’s shown along with the jockey that is riding it. Gone is the fuzzy sentimentality in favor of something a little more concrete.

The Trailers

The movie’s first trailer is actually quite good. Some beginning narration and montage footage sets the stage like the beginning of a storybook before giving way to the introduction of Lane’s character as she seeks to start out making something of her father’s horse-breeding operation. So she seeks out Malkovich’s trainer character, who is a unique and vibrant personality. But the two of them form a good pair as they seek to do the seemingly impossible – win the Triple Crown – after a rocky start and against some formidable opposition from other entrenched interests.

It’s well paced and interesting despite the potential for schmaltz and sentimentality that this sort of material is ripe for. A lot of that is largely due to the performance of Malkovich, who seems to be giving one of those “I think I’m in a completely different movie” kind of turns.

Online

The movie’s official website is surprisingly simple and, extra-surprisingly, does not make the obvious and often-used move of playing the trailer as soon as the page loads.

The first section of content is “About” and it’s there you’ll find a Story synopsis that’s just a paragraph long, a Cast & Crew area that just has information on the characters played by Lane and Malkovich as well a the real life Secretariat and some downloadable Production Notes. Ordinarily I’d be a little miffed (and still am) that there isn’t more information on the actors themselves but I understand that providing background on the people the actors are playing is important in selling a historical movie like this.

The “Gallery” has 20 stills from the film give or take. “Videos” has a good amount of content, from the Trailer and a TV Spot to a Music Video featuring AJ Michalka and several extended clips from the movie. Finally, “Downloads” has five Wallpapers and four Buddy Icons you can grab for yourself.

Down toward the bottom of the page there are three boxes with various information. First is “Real Facts” which gives you a rotating array of factoids about the real Secretariat. Next to that is “Posted on Twitter,” displaying a curated (presumably) collection of Twitter updates about the movie or mentioning its official Twitter feed. The last box shows pull quotes from reviews of the movie from various critics.

There are also links to the movie’s various social outlets. The Facebook page has video clips, photos and more information, including an “Inspire Application” that lets you share with others what inspires you. Twitter has a similar list of updates, including mentions of the cast’s publicity appearances and more. There’s also a ubiquitous use of the #gobigred hashtag, though I’m not sure how widely that was used by others. Lastly there’s a link to Disney’s YouTube channel, which has all the video content that was on the site as well as extended spots that feature interviews with the cast and crew.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The TV spot that’s on the official site splits its time between showing off the horse and showing Chenery’s struggles to achieve her dream, making the case to the audience that the movie is as much inspiring horse story as it is inspiring feminist story.

There was also a bit of online advertising done. In particular what I came across where tower units that featured video from the movie interspersed with interviews with the cast alongside some of the movie’s poster key art, units that also contained the ability to find showtimes near your zip code. There was some outdoor advertising done as well, I believe, that heavily featured the horse as the central theme of the movie.

I am a bit surprised to not see any promotional partners listed on the site, though I imagine the period setting made product placement difficult. Still, I would have expected some companies would have been eager to get on board a wholesome inspirational story such as this.

Media and Publicity

The studio got some press for running a publicity campaign that leaned heavily on influential Christian websites and audiences (Hollywood Reporter, 9/29/10), an attempt to appeal to the same groups that made The Blind Side a hit last year. Getting those groups on the bandwagon for the film was seen as a key component to its potential success since they tend to spread word-of-mouth to each other as well as externally and, it’s hoped, will come out to support a movie they see as important more than once.

There was also a focus on the fact that the movie, which should have been just another entry in the “animal overcomes disbelief” genre, couldn’t really do that because the real life horse was such an undisputed champion. So instead the filmmakers focused on Chenery’s story (New York Times, 10/3/10) since hers more closely follows the traditional dramatic arc that is looked for in these types of stories.

Indeed much of the press seemed to focus on the movie’s marketing, including a story on how Disney was willing to give the film some breathing room in theaters and allow for word-of-mouth (Los Angeles Times, 10/7/10) to turn the movie into the hit the studio was confident it could be.

Overall

I like this campaign a lot but not for the reasons you might think. The trailer, posters and other official material are good and certainly sell the idea of this being an inspiring horse movie. But what I really like are the moves Disney made to appeal to the audience in different ways through some targeted outreach and by trying to generate some word-of-mouth.

Those more official elements, the actual marketing materials, are well- and consistently-branded, though your particular tolerance for the soft and lush toned visuals may vary. Mine is pretty low, but I can appreciate that this approach allows for the message that this is a heart-warming and family friendly movie to be conveyed through the use of some shared visual cues.

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