Fans of Joan Jett and The Runaways have endured decades of incredulous stares from people who only think of Joan Jett in terms of “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and have no idea that she has been making music and touring steadily since her first band in 1975. Fans of Kristen Stewart are desperate to prove that Kristen is more than just Bella Swan.
The Runaways movie was a sanctuary for all of us, even with all of its imperfections. But our joy at its creation has been tarnished by watching this rare gem of a film get treated like trash by the people responsible for its success.
I refuse to call The Runaways a failure, because the movie itself was great despite all of the forces working against it. But the box office numbers tell a different story, and, unfortunately, that is how this film will be remembered.
But it didn’t have to be this way. People were excited to see this movie and waited patiently for its release for nearly three years. It was the most-buzzed about movie at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in January. And it took Apparition Entertainment less than three months to unravel everything.
Part one of my analysis of what went wrong with The Runaways focused on the sick way Apparition built our hopes up by promising a wide release and changing their plans at the last minute. They cited poor box office numbers as the reason for the change, but their lazy promotion efforts were the reason the numbers were low to begin with. Welcome to part two.
Someone dropped the ball
I wish I could ask Apparition what they had been thinking, to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Because to me, it looks like they cared more about selling a product than they cared about the story of The Runaways. I know that selling product is their job, and that would have been fine, if they had only understood the product they were trying to sell and who they were trying to sell it to.
I should disclose here that I do not have a degree in marketing, and I have no idea how film promotion works, independent or otherwise. But I have been a fan of something since I could talk and recognize people on TV. I think that qualifies me as an expert on how fans think and how to reach them.
The mystery ingredient: Fans
When you look at the relationship between fans and the art we are linked to, it is perfectly logical to see the fans as consumers and the artists as suppliers. But if that is all you see, you are leaving out the most important variable in this equation: Love. Fans don’t consume art, we love it. We integrate it into ourselves. We reflect it. We amplify it. We make it real, and in return, it makes us feel alive. Love defies logic, and no amount of empirical data will allow you to predict the next cultural phenomenon.
You can’t manufacture an audience, you have to find it. You have to mine us out of the earth like diamonds, or sniff us out like a truffle-seeking pig. We are made for you, and you are made for us. It’s the greatest love story ever told.
Figuring out where to look for an audience, and how to keep their interest when you find them, is an art, not a science. And it takes time and money to pull that off. Time and money that Apparition didn’t have. So instead of finding an audience that was made for The Runaways, they took a shortcut and tried to steal one instead.
I take that back. They didn’t actually try. I believe that Apparition thought that the Twilight fans, who are an enormous force of nature and highly connected to one another, would automatically flock to The Runaways just because Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning were in it. Some of them did, but Apparition put no effort into harnessing the power of those fans and focusing their efforts. Maybe they didn’t know they had to.
All fans DON’T share a brain?!? *GASP!*
If you want to understand a particular audience, you must realize that no audience is ever homogeneous. Accept that as a given, and don’t fight it. We are individuals first and fans second. It is possible for a group of people who all love the same actor or musician to have nothing else in common. Great relationships are forged in fandoms all the time, but it is naive to believe that we all like each other or agree on everything.
I don’t think Apparition, or any corporate entity in charge of selling art, understands this at all. They seem to always fall into the trap of trying to figure us out with numbers and statistics, and the media loves to perpetuate the stereotypes that these numbers generate. But we’re not numbers, we’re people.
The Twilight phenomenon is an excellent example: the books and films have wide appeal across many generations and racial groups. As much as the media wants to reduce the Twilight audience to consisting of only 13-year-old girls, they can’t. I’ll never understand why they insist on denying this. I haven’t seen 13 in more than 20 years. Doesn’t my money count?
Who is the audience for The Runaways?
I first saw The Runaways at the midnight showing on April 9th in Pittsburgh. I preordered my tickets, but I didn’t need to. No one was in line. The theater did not have a Runaways poster on display, and the kids working the concession stand did not know what the movie was about until I told them. It was pretty dismal.
I walked into the theater alone and took my seat near the back. I thought I would at least be able to dance and sing along to the music without disturbing anyone else, but no such luck. Just before the movie started, three more people walked in, and the four of us enjoyed the film.
Poll time. (Go ahead and raise your hands like the dorks I know you are.;) ) How many of you think they were Joan Jett fans? How many of you think they were Kristen Stewart/Twilight fans?
*looks around* You’re all wrong.
They were Motley Crue fans. They’ve loved Joan Jett for years, but they participate in the Motley Crue Street Team, not Joan Jett’s or Kristen Stewart’s.
Cast a wider net
Off the top of my head, I can think of four main categories of people that make up the audience for any given music film:
- Diehard fans of the artist(s) in question and the actors in the film,
- Other music fans,
- People who see a lot of films, and
- All other people
Please note that none of these categories have anything to do with gender, race, or age. Traditional demographics insult us and ignore our individuality, so forget them.
I think you need to try to reach people in all of these categories to successfully market a film like The Runaways. These people don’t always hang out with each other, so you’ll need a different approach for each category. Any particular individual, of course, could fall into any combination of these categories, so don’t use them to pigeon-hole people. We hate that.
The Twilight fandom is a good place to start looking, because it’s large enough to likely contain people in each category. But remember when I said that not all diehards share a brain? Just because the river is full of fish doesn’t mean you don’t have to bait the hook.
Let’s look at these categories in more detail and see how Apparition reached, or did not reach, the people in them.
1. Joan Jett, Runaways, and Kristen Stewart fans
You would think that reaching these people would be easy. Just show up on the internet, add water and stir, and presto! Instant fanbase. But the only fans you will reach on the internet are the fans who spend time on the internet. What about the fans who are doctors, who work 36-hour shifts? What about the fans who are lawyers, who spend 18 hours a day writing legal briefs? What about the fans who work all day and take care of their children, or elderly parents, all night?
Not all fans have time to Google and tweet about all of their favorite artists all day long. “Worker bee diehards,” as I like to call them, are really only a small subset of a fandom. They are not more dedicated than the other fans, they just like to express themselves differently. Many fans are content with simply wearing t-shirts, buying cds, and going to concerts. But I have a “shout it from the rooftops” personality. It almost causes me physical pain to NOT talk about Joan Jett to everyone I meet. That’s why the Motley Crue fans I met at the midnight showing identified themselves as such within 15 seconds of meeting me, without being asked. People with enough passion to work on a street team are in promo mode all the time.
Apparition did a good job of finding the worker bee diehards, but they could have found us blindfolded. I refuse to give them credit for that.
Apparition did the requisite website, Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace pages, but they started them too late. The official website was up in December 2009, the Facebook page and Twitter account started in January 2010, and the MySpace page started in February 2010. With an initial release date of March 19, 2010, this was not enough time for anything to go viral.
They should have started the social networking effort in 2009, the day they knew when the first day of filming was going to be, if not sooner. I know that Apparition didn’t get involved until they picked up the distribution in December 2009, but River Road Entertainment, who funded and produced the film, should have started the promotion earlier. (Bill Pohlad runs both companies.) Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace are all free, and they could have had a few interns run them for very little money.
The mechanics of reaching diehards is not your only concern. Once you find them, you have to figure out what you’re going to tell them to make them interested in your project. Diehards are fiercely protective of the artists they love, and they won’t support a movie that disrespects them in any way. The Runaways movie has been controversial among fans, because the film does not tell the whole story of the band. Details were left out or changed to satisfy artistic or legal interests. Fans of Lita Ford, Jackie Fox, and the other band members are angry that those women were not represented in the film. Putting the story in the hands of a first-time film director also made us nervous.
Apparition should have attempted to smooth out this controversy by emphasizing how well the music we all love was taken care of in the film, and not letting the media latch on to confusing words like “biopic” and “parallel narrative.” I also wish that Lita, Jackie, and the other girls had been a bigger part of the movie, but I also understand that it was based on Cherie Currie’s book and naturally focused more on her life. Apparition could have said that the movie was “Based on true events in the lives of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie”. That is true enough and would not have misrepresented their intentions.
Again, Apparition needed more than a couple of weeks to make that happen. Instead, Apparition ignored the controversy and focused all of the advertising on makeup, clothes, sex, and drugs, which only angered segments of the Runaways fandom more.
2. Other music fans
Not only do some Joan Jett fans spend most of their time in other fandoms, like the Motley Crue fans I mentioned earlier, but some people may want to see a good rock and roll movie just because there’s rock and roll in it.
MTV and other music news outlets talked about The Runaways quite a lot, so fans of other bands had some exposure to the film. But Apparition could have done better in this segment, because very little attention was paid to the actual music in any of Apparition’s advertising campaigns.
The only times the promotional efforts ventured into three-dimensional space were when Sephora sold a line of makeup from the film and when Urban Outfitters sold a Runaways-based clothing line. Fashion was a big part of The Runaways, but true music fans don’t care about that exclusively. They want to know about the music and the stories of how it was created. (By the way, I checked those stores’ websites, and seven states don’t have Sephora and fourteen states don’t have Urban Outfitters, so how did Apparition think those promotions were going to support a nationwide film release?)
The t-shirts and posters had nothing to do with music either, and I discuss those in more detail later in this post. But every movie sells t-shirts and posters, so why not try something new?
A simple gray t-shirt that says “The Runaways” on it doesn’t tell anyone anything. But guitar picks, drumsticks, guitar straps, or a small amplifier with The Runaways’ logo on it might clue people into the fact that we’re talking about a band. You could sell that stuff at Guitar Center, with a big display featuring pictures of the girls playing their instruments. They could have paired up with Gibson to advertise the movie and the Joan Jett Gibson Melody Maker at the same time. They could have included a song book with the soundtrack that included guitar tabs for all of the Runaways’ songs.
If Guitar Center is too mainstream for you, stay indie. Partner with independent music stores and list the participating stores on the film’s official website. I’m sure those stores would appreciate the cross-promotion.
I have to admit, I don’t know if Apparition was fully responsible for the film’s merchandising efforts, so maybe Blackheart Records needs to take some of this blame too.
3. People who see a lot of films, and 4. All other people
You can’t see a film if you don’t know it exists.
People who see a lot of films are always in theaters looking at movie posters. I wanted to see The Blair Witch Project because I saw the poster, before all of the hype that eventually came with the film. The story looked creepy, and I remembered it for months. Posters can and do sell movies. But I don’t know what a tagline like “It’s 1975 and they’re about to explode” on the first teaser poster for The Runaways is supposed to sell.
If I walked past that poster and didn’t know what the film was about, I would have thought it was porn. There is nothing visually striking about it, other than the sexual connotations, and only diehards familiar with The Runaways’ music will even get the cherry bomb reference.
The second poster was not effective either. It’s just a shot of Kristen and Dakota looking too cool for school in their shades. The amp pasted into the background is barely noticeable, and I didn’t really see it until now.
With a title like “The Runaways”, this poster makes the movie look like a teenaged Thelma and Louise. Would it have killed them to put a musical instrument somewhere in the picture? Or a shot of them sweaty, onstage after a gig, in front of an audience?
And why couldn’t they have had more than one poster? One for Joan/Kristen, and one for Cherie/Dakota?
When posters aren’t enough to convey a message, you need a good trailer, and you need to show it on TV, as often as possible. Aside from the support the film received from television entertainment outlets like ET, and the interviews given by the actors, Joan Jett, and Cherie Currie, Apparition relied almost exclusively on print media and the internet, which are both passive approaches to advertising that depend on people picking up the publication in question and seeing the article or advertisement. Not everyone has time to read.
The trailer for The Runaways was decent, although certain scenes should have been included but weren’t, like watching Joan’s response to hearing that girls don’t play electric guitars. What repressed female can’t identify with that? In Pittsburgh, and I’ve also heard this from fans in other cities, The Runaways trailer was only aired on television during the late night talk shows that featured appearances from the actors in the film. Robert Pattinson’s Remember Me, on the other hand, was advertised heavily on television for weeks before its release, and had a much more impressive showing at the box office. People knew it was in theaters, even if they didn’t want to make out with Rob.
Put your money where your heart is
People like to tell me that The Runaways was an indie film with an indie budget, so I had no right to expect TV ads. Fine. And maybe Apparition didn’t have the money to buy 1,400 prints of the film at once. Fine. So why not just plan a limited release from the start and concentrate your efforts in those cities? If you plan your budget right, with a little creativity, you can do more with less money. Had they advertised the cities showing the film months in advance, diehards like me would have had time to plan trips to see it elsewhere, and we all would have been a lot less angry.
The Runaways is a film about girls who started a band when everybody told them not to. It’s music, it’s sweat, it’s growing up and trying to get noticed. It’s about going through the pain of adolescence and coming through whole on the other side. It’s about letting go of your fears and choosing the kind of person you want to be. It’s about friendship, and loyalty, and following your dreams. These are universal themes that many people can identify with, even those who don’t own a single band t-shirt or poster. Apparition would have reached a larger audience if they had put forth the slightest bit of effort to try and connect with people instead of trying to exploit demographics.
“Apparition” is an actual word in the English language that I won’t be able to say in a sentence without choking for a long time. Bob Berney was smart to leave the company, and if Bill Pohlad wants to continue in the movie distribution business, he should do everyone a favor and change the company’s name to something that doesn’t make us gag.