Marketing Lessons From the Box Office Success of 'Hidden Figures'

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Oscar nominations came out yesterday, and it was heartening to see some very good films rewarded. One of those, Hidden Figures—about the huge contributions of African American women to the NASA space program—received three well-deserved nominations, including Best Picture, and has turned out to be a box office hit. Let's look at some of the reasons why, with publishing in mind.

  • It's positive in the face of lots of downers. People like positive and uplifting. Most I've spoken to agree that Manchester by the Sea is an excellent film, but the first words out of their mouth are, "It's depressing but..." Not the best recommendation for spending money on Saturday night. When marketing your programs, think uplifting. We all have enough tsuris—troubles—in our lives. Give us happy and helpful. "Talk about benefits, not features," Jim Sinkinson has often said. "A benefit makes a positive, tangible change in someone's life."
  • Consider your timing. Historically, January and February do not offer many quality movies. That's usually when studios empty their canister of films they don't think too highly of. So instead of releasing their film widely around Christmas—like many others—the smart marketers of Hidden Figures waited until mid-January when interest in other big movies waned, and they could stand out. Plus, people want something pleasant in their wintry mix. Is there a supposed down time in your niche that you can take advantage of? Maybe try a small event first and see the reaction. I've also heard positive feedback about weekend emails.
  • Consider – and try to use - your history. Hidden Figures is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father worked as a research scientist for NASA. Through her father, she uncovered these amazing stories of women who helped propel the first American to orbit the earth. We like history like that. If your company has been around a while, try "A Five (or 10) Years Ago Today" feature. Try a turn-back-the-clock price (on something small) and share occasional stories of your early days. There's a reason Facebook gives us those corny entries of something from 5/7/10 years ago.
  • Come up with tie-ins. Rogue One who? Hidden Figures will be shown at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., starting Friday through Feb. 7. (I just noticed 41 people signed up through a Meetup group called Geek Nite Out, two being good friends of mine.) Thousands visit that museum, and it has a big social media presence—that's a lot of publicity. Write a guest blog post for another website in your field. Maybe your speaker is affiliated with a college or association and an audience you can connect with. Maybe there's a film that mentions your niche—go on their Facebook page or a prominent review to point this out.
  • Seek all types of stories to tell. According to opening-weekend surveys, 64% of moviegoers seeing the film were women and 37% were African American. "Moreover, Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock added that Hidden Figures is like a missing chapter from a history book," an article in TheWrap related. "'... audiences love when that happens.' So the movie educated audiences on something they might've overlooked." The article added: "The [marketing] campaign didn't only work to tell people about a part of history they might've missed, but also wanted to emphasize civil rights in that era." Dig a little into your subscribers/members to find some stories that haven't been told.
  • And finally, math, science—almost any topic really—can be cool. "Films like Gravity, Interstellar and in particular The Martian proved that the brain is mightier than the sword, and that mathematicians and scientists can be the heroes!" comScore senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. The film does make the solving of math problems quite sexy. Okay, Kevin Costner and Janelle Monae help, but whatever your niche, there should be exciting ways—quizzes, brackets (it's almost March!), video—to portray it.
Oh, it also has a clever title, and that never hurts.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…