Marketing This Is It: How Sony Created a Global Event

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Kevin Mazur / AEG / Getty / AP

Michael Jackson during rehearsals at the Staples Center on June 23, 2009, in Los Angeles

It was supposed to be the tour that brought Michael Jackson's magic back — and sure enough, when This Is It the movie opens Tuesday night with simultaneous premieres in 16 cities across the globe, the King of Pop will take the world stage once more. Only in Hollywood could the unfinished dream become celluloid reality, in part because only in Hollywood do they know how to sell it. "This is a testament not only to Jackson's worldwide appeal and the outpouring of grief around his death but also to the marketing of this movie, which has been straight out of a business-school demo," says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety. Sony spokesman Steve Elzer says the many features of the movie's release have created a "unique cinematic event." He may be right. Here's why:

The Two-Week Window
One of Sony's first marketing moves was to set a deadline for the film public, proclaiming that This Is It would play in theaters for a two-week run. Can't you just feel the sense of urgency? "It has event-ized this thing in a huge way," marvels an industry exec. The prospect of an end date lit a fire under the devoted and even the Jackson-ambivalent. Setting a deadline "creates a sense of scarcity for a major event that you have to see," says Harry Medved, a spokesman for the movie-ticketing website "That's exciting for people." A marketing exec from a rival studio acknowledges the success but sniffs, "It's that old Vegas-concert, Disney-movie hypo-o-meter trick." The exec adds, "If sales go well and there's demand, then they suddenly find a way to extend the engagement." So, yes, there may be more "It" to This Is It.

The Advance Sales
Sure, people were lined up with tickets in hand for Heath Ledger's posthumous turn in The Dark Knight, but Jackson has a more enthusiastic and far more universal fan base, now encouraged by the pressure of a deadline. Sony made a hard push for advance ticket sales over and above what most movies command, with the same thrust and hype that live-concert sales get. The result has been impressive: since the Sept. 27 on-sale date, there have been reports of 1,600 advance sellouts. "This is a movie that's tailormade for advance ticketing," says Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst for "People want to have peace of mind that they will not be turned away." The question remains, though, whether an audience exists beyond the first weekend's rush of fans. "There are a lot of unknowns," admits director-choreographer Kenny Ortega. "There's been a quick response by the diehards, the people who cannot miss the film. But it's not for sure if there's anyone beyond Michael's fan base who will make up an audience for something like this."

The Quick Turnaround
"The Champagne loses its fizz the longer you wait," says Gaydos. "Sony wants to get this thing out while people are still talking about it, while it's still a phenomenon. It will only diminish." Although the frenzy over Jackson's death has abated, there was a clear mandate to honor — some might say tap into — the international outpouring of grief. "It's not about exploiting," Ortega says. "Every corner of this planet, people were reaching out saying, 'Show us something.' " Ortega was originally asked to edit the 120 hours of mixed rehearsal film for a release around Jackson's birthday in August. He declined, and the mutual decision was for an October release.

The Mystery Factor
The movie is one of the great secrets in Hollywood. Only a select group of insiders and family members has seen it, and certainly no critics have. Ortega chalks this up to Jackson's need for opening-night magic. "It was always, Don't ruin the secrets, don't ruin the surprises," says Ortega. "Michael always protected that." Gaydos believes the movie is "review-proof." "What are they going to say — that the film is out of focus, that they don't like the music?" he asks. "I don't think anyone thinks it's going to be a cinematic masterpiece." Rather than a fear of bad reviews, he chalks up the lack of advance screenings to Sony's need to build anticipation. "You've got one chance at uncorking this bottle," Gaydos says. "This is great show biz."

That said, one obvious hurdle the film faces is that it's a concert film with no concertgoers — just 18,000 silent seats. That's a whole lot less boisterous than the normal adrenaline-fueled arena chaos. It could be a point of strength: Ortega insists there "is something quite special" about the fact that there is an "emptiness where there would have been a roar of applause." But as a viewing experience, it will doubtless take some getting used to.

The Global Reach
Perhaps only Michael Jackson could command premieres around the world, from the main event in Los Angeles to London to Seoul. All told, there will be 33 premieres, with 16 synched to begin at the same time and eight featuring a satellite feed showing red-carpet arrivals from the gala in Los Angeles. The numbers are staggering even to folks used to marquee-name statistics. Vivian Mayer-Siskind, who worked in the marketing department at Summit Entertainment for the launch of that other worldwide obsession Twilight, says she's impressed. "Michael Jackson is of a level that is really quite unique," she says. "He was and clearly still is a true worldwide performer. And as of Tuesday, this movie is going to be a worldwide event."