Do you miss the days when fabulous soundtracks were often integral to movie making and marketing? In the 1990s, three of the top-selling albums of the year were soundtracks: The Bodyguard by Whitney Houston, The Lion King by Elton John and Titanic by James Horner. It has been over a decade since a soundtrack was top seller of the year; the last one was Disney’s High School Musical in 2006.
Soundtracks can enable powerful movie marketing. The hit Titanic song "My Heart Will Go On," sung by Céline Dion, was a great marketing tool. Titanic went on to become the second-highest grossing film of all time, and the soundtrack is in the top 50 album sales of all time. Some say the movie made the soundtrack, but this misses the obvious synergy between a movie and its soundtrack.
The most recent soundtrack breakthrough was a YouTube music video. The single from Furious 7—"See You Again"—was published on YouTube in 2015. It was a tribute to Paul Walker, a franchise star who died in an off-location car crash during the filming of Furious 7. "See You Again" is the second most popular YouTube video ever, with 4.7 billion views. The video includes ballads, rap, pop, hot cars, shots of Paul Walker and other Furious family members, and touching lyrics promising to “see you in a better place.” It’s a dangerously complex mix of artistic and emotional elements, but they are combined masterfully.
Clearly the video played a major role in the movie’s success. Furious 7 generated $1.5 billion worldwide at the box office and is the seventh-highest grossing film of all time. The video’s 4.7 billion YouTube views produced unprecedented advertising for the film. These two successes went hand-in-hand. One could not have been so wildly successful without the other.
It is interesting to note that the two lead musicians for "See You Again," Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, were up-and-coming rather than top-selling artists when they were commissioned for Furious 7. Charlie Puth had no award credits prior to "See You Again," and although Wiz Khalifa had won Top New Artist in 2011 (BET) and 2012 (Billboard), he was far from being a best-selling artist. The single became their biggest hit and took their careers to new levels. The lesson is this: you don’t always need to commission a leading musician to create a viral music video for a movie.
It seems like movie makers commission fewer musical works these days. Attention is focused on scripts, actors, directors and trailers. Granted, these aspects are mission critical, but plenty of great movies end up with low grosses because their marketing efforts never break through (check out my analysis of Solo’s box office flop). Music streaming and videos are now highly popular and can be a powerful marketing tool. But if you don’t plan and budget for a single or a music video at the outset, it won’t happen.
Soundtracks, or perhaps more importantly, singles and music videos, can also benefit from more sophisticated analytics. For example, is it better to release them when the movie opens or beforehand? Can their timing be used to enhance trailer views? Do the answers differ by movie and music genre? Are singles different from videos? These questions imply there is considerable need for experimentation, which is the best way to learn. Today’s marketing leaders are constantly testing and comparing alternatives to find the best approach for a given situation. While the movie business has produced some great stand-out marketing successes, common movie marketing practice seems to be governed more by conventional wisdom than modern marketing science.
As is proven time and again, a message needs to be repeated three to seven times before it sinks in and generates a response. The same holds true with movies. The challenge for today’s movie makers is to embrace a sophisticated marketing approach from the start. This way more movies will reach broader audiences and succeed in today’s highly complex world of entertainment.