Hollywood blockbusters need astute marketing. Bill Hicks looks at a film studies series in a new night-time slot for BBC Education
There are few things which Hollywood likes more than good "scuttlebutt", and if the people responsible for the pre-release publicity for the latest Sylvester Stallone feature, Judge Dredd, have done their job, then scuttlebutt there should be in abundance, wherever teenage males congregate.
The word "scuttlebutt" has been adopted by the American film industry to denote the word-of-mouth factor which can be the making of a movie at the box- office. And this, along with other mysteries of film promotion, is explained in The Marketing of a Film Judge Dredd, A Case Study, a 30-minute programme produced by Film Education for BBC Education's revitalised pre-dawn open- access slot, designed for media studies teachers to record on to videotape.
This case study of the selling of Judge Dredd, an adventure film which opens in London this evening, is a pilot programme, which will be followed up in the autumn by a series of film-based studies, to be broadcast as part of a new overnight education schedule on BBC2.
These dark hours transmissions are a departure, both for Film Education which already has a track record in producing study guides and videos for schools as well as for BBC Education, which has only recently gained full control of the night-time hours following the winding-down of the former subscription service, BBC Select. The innovation is that the airtime is free to the producer, and the programmes (unlike those of the old Select, which were encrypted) are free for all to use.
Earlier this year, Film Education an industry-funded body with the aim of promoting film in schools and colleges despatched around 8,000 copies of Schindler's List, plus a 20-minute video documentary and study guide on the background to Spielberg's Holocaust movie, one to every secondary school in the country. "But it was a very expensive exercise our new link with BBC Education will enable us to provide far more visual materials to tie in with film study guides, illustrating specific areas of the film industry," says Cath Mercer, Film Education's special projects manager.
If it's hard to imagine a film more different in tone from Schindler's List than Judge Dredd, it's also difficult to think of a better movie from this year's crop of would-be blockbusters with which to illuminate the process of pre-release publicity-mongering. Although made with the co-operation of, and indeed paid for by Judge Dredd's distributor, Guild Films, the programme takes an admirably cool look at the implementation of Guild's six-month campaign, from the calculation of the publicity budget, to the climactic plastering of 96-sheet billboard posters at strategic road junctions.
The programme is a model of clarity in its well-paced unravelling of the commercial process. The tricks of the trade the way, for example, an early "teaser" campaign unfolds, with enigmatic posters appearing at tube stations and bus shelters, or the detailed specifications to which licensed manufacturers of merchandise must adhere should strike a particular chord with a school audience, which is also precisely the target age group of the movie.
Would-be journalists might be shocked to learn that potted reviews of the movie and biographies of the stars, prepared by publicists, often emerge unchanged in their local freesheets or that television and radio stations get electronic press kits with ready-to-use audio and video interviews.
The content of the film barely touched on in the television programme is scrutinised in more detail in the accompanying study guide, which examines Dredd's comic-book origins, the advisability or otherwise of turning comics into feature films, and the way Hollywood, unable to stomach a faceless anti- hero, unmasks Dredd to reveal that he's really as good a guy as, well, Sylvester Stallone.
Marketing director David Willing will know soon whether or not his campaign has succeeded; whether there really was any scuttlebutt, and whether the trade in Judge Dredd T-shirts, wallpaper and mugs will ever challenge Jurassic Park's $1 billion merchandising record.
For Film Education, though, Dredd is just a beginning. For the autumn term by which time BBC Education will have officially launched its 4.00-6.00am open access slot under a new name it will cover a different film, and a different aspect of the industry, each month, starting in September with the space-race drama Apollo 13.
In October, Walt Disney's Pocohontas will provide the focus for a programme aimed at primary schools; Goldeneye, the latest Bond epic, is under scrutiny in November (for GCSE and A-level film and media studies); and the term ends with Mission Impossible. As with Dredd, each will be shown fourtimes.
Film Education's programmes are just one component of BBC Education's plans to offer an "all night, integrated education and training service", which will include programmes for schools, the Open University and further education. In the place of BBC Select is the promise of a remarkably diverse range of educational material from numerous sources, all free to those with the ability to use a video recorder.
Film Education, 41-42 Berners Street, London W1P 3AA. Tel: 0171 637 9932 99359996(fax). The Marketing of a Film Judge Dredd, A Case Study will be broadcast for recording on BBC2, 5.30am, Wednesday, July 26