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The film business has had to battle its way through everything from COVID shutdowns to strike-induced box office delays to steep competition from a tidal wave of high-priced streaming content over the past seven years.

The contraction in theatrical releases and the post-pandemic downturn at the box office has raised the stakes for every film release, from blockbusters to arty fare — so said a group of top theatrical marketing executives who spoke April 24 during a roundtable panel at Variety’s annual Entertainment Marketing Summit, presented by Deloitte.

“If you’re not an event movie for someone, you’re a movie for no one,” said Josh Goldstine, president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures Group, during the daylong, SRO event at the Beverly Hilton.

Goldstine noted the ante for theatrical films has been raised by “an extra $100 billion worth of streaming content that has entered the marketplace” since about 2017. Dwight Caines, president of domestic marketing for Universal Pictures, concurred: “Our movies have to be undeniably an event — big screen, immersive experiences that get you off the couch.”

So did Marc Weinstock, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for Paramount Pictures. “You got to be so undeniable that the infrequent moviegoer says, ‘Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about this, I hear it’s really good. The reviews look great. It’s everywhere in culture.’”

Netflix’s Lee brought the perspective of a subscription-based platform.

“For us, every night is movie night,” she said. But the challenge isn’t that different from a studio looking to pack the multiplexes. “We have to enter that conversation. We have to be part of the zeitgeist. And then we know that at least when you come to watch a movie, or a show that’s in the zeitgeist right now, we think that you’re going to stay to because you’re going to be served something else. We know you that well that we can personalize the content that will get delivered to you. But the challenge remains the same. You’re competing for attention.”

Steered by moderator Brent Lang, Variety’s executive editor, the five marketing mavens touched on the weaving social media into marketing plans, the balancing act of reboots and revivals; working with filmmakers as “midwives” in birthing films; the Tiktok effect on promotion; the elusiveness of the infrequent moviegoer; and the continued primacy of the trailer as a marketing vehicle that sets the tone for the movie to come.

“The thing that is really unbelievably so key about trailers is that you are capturing people right in the place where they’re going to come and see your movie,” said Rebecca Kearey, executive VP and head of international marketing and business operations for Searchlight Pictures. “Nothing replaces it in terms of hitting people in the house where you want to them to see.”

Paramount’s Marc Weinstock, Searchlight’s Rebecca Kearey, Warner Bros.’ Josh Goldstine, Netflix’s Marian Lee and Universal Pictures’ Dwight Caines at Variety‘s Entertainment Marketing Summit
Variety via Getty Images

One big change in the world of trailers is the end of the decades-long tradition of having entirely different reels for international markets outside the U.S. It had been common practice to have “a completely different international trailer and never the two to ever meet,” Kearey said. “Now, every single puzzle piece is so interconnected. The world is a much smaller place.”

It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon that took over last summer’s box office. For the teams behind Warner Bros.’ “Barbie” and Universal’s “Oppenheimer,” it was all the more impressive and impactful because the moment came entirely from the grassroots of TikTok and other social media.

Goldstine saw the fan-fueled “Barbenheimer” memes and videos as reflected a rare feel-good moment of national unity.

“It really just hit this kind of cultural nerve, and it just happened to be that you had these two movies open on the same day [July 21],” Goldstein said. “The most compelling and positive thing about it was that – the internet is a tool of division – you’re team this or team that… There was this moment there where there was an idea that people can be both.”

Goldstine noted that Warner Bros. was “too busy dealing with all that was ‘Barbie’ and the way in which it was seeping into culture in the most unexpected ways” to have launched a covert campaign to promote the “Barbenheimer” concept.

Caines acknowledged that Universal’s options were limited by the serious subject matter of Christopher Nolan’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. But that didn’t mean the studio didn’t recognize the significance of the “Barbenheimer” moment.

“Our positioning was, this was the most important guy in the world who, who invented with a team of scientists the thing that changed the world most significantly,” Caines said. “So we did not lean into the fun of ‘Barbenheimer.’ But what we wanted to do was say, ‘Wow, something is happening in culture.’ The audience has decided these two movies are the two movies we want. And they felt ownership of them in a way that you get to see if you’re lucky once in your career, and that’s what happened.”

Lang asked the fivesome of marketing mavens about the balancing act of relaunching well-loved franchises, such as Netflix’s upcoming revival of Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop” action-drama film series. “Nostalgia is huge,” Lee said. “You do have to introduce like a whole new audience who didn’t know even who Axel Foley is, and then hopefully you’re starting a rewatch campaign. And then they’re going back to watch everything. And that’s an event unto itself in advance of the movie coming out.”

Weinstock acknowledged Paramount Pictures’ stumble in 2019 with its first take on a film featuring the beloved Sonic the Hedgehog video game character. When launching reboots and revivals, “it’s always easier to get the core fans excited first and radiate outwards. If you don’t get them first – like we had a little unfortunate incident with Sonic. But we rectified it.”

The level of two-way communication that Paramount’s redo on its plans for what became 2024’s successful “Sonic the Hedgehog” release reflects the harsh reality of a turbulent environment for movies, Goldstine said.

“One of the things that we’re all realizing is that we no longer can buy movie openings. We live in a world where it is a combination of earned media and paid media and how those two things work together,” he said. “Advertising is something that is very easy to avoid in the digital space. We have to make compelling content that people want to see. And we have to launch it in ways that are incredibly persuasive.”

(Pictured top: Brent Lang, Josh Goldstine, Rebecca Kearey, Marian Lee, Dwight Caines and Marc Weinstock)

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