Leading man

Robert J. Dowling helped the Key Art Awards turn a light on the artists who market movie magic.

Movie marketing is an inexact science and an excruciatingly precise art. Films take years to develop and produce, and their success or failure depends largely on the few weeks marketers have to connect with audiences. The messages better be dead-on because there are no trial runs and no second chances.

Within their world, the stars of movie marketing shine bright. When Robert J. Dowling was named publisher of The Hollywood Reporter in 1988, he made it his mission to help them gain recognition across the broader filmmaking industry.

With that goal in mind, Dowling set about reinventing the annual Key Art Awards. Founded in 1972 by his predecessor, Tichi Wilkerson Miles (later Kassel), the competition and ceremony were conceived to honor excellence in the largely unrecognized art of movie marketing. Problem was, the awards themselves went largely unrecognized, and the annual ceremony -- while dutifully taking place each year -- was relegated to the sidelines.

For successfully reinventing the Key Art Awards as a bona fide industry event and helping to raise the profile of those who work in the theatrical and home-video marketing industries, Dowling is being honored this year with a Special Recognition Key Art Award.

"In the Key Art Awards, Bob Dowling inherited a humble awards show and turned it into the Oscars of the marketing industry," says Bob Israel, Aspect Ratio chairman emeritus and Key Art Awards executive producer. "Perhaps more than any one individual in Hollywood, he elevated the creative efforts of the movie advertising community."

Adds Walt Disney Studios president of marketing and chief creative officer Oren Aviv, "Bob has always been the driving force and the inspiration for the Key Arts because he has always understood the importance and the value of the creative community and the materials they create."

Dowling, who last year exited The Hollywood Reporter to form The Bob Dowling Group consultancy, is quick to share the credit for a show that has done much to instill the marketing industry with a sense of pride. Recalling the first Key Art Awards, which drew about 30 attendees for a certificate ceremony, Dowling says, "Fast-forward to 2005, at Hollywood & Highland with 1,800 people -- that's quite an accomplishment, and I credit Joel Wayne and the Key Art Advisory Board with that success."

It was Wayne, a longtime Warner Bros. Pictures marketing executive and 1997 Key Art Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, who focused Dowling on rejuvenating the competition after the new THR publisher attended his first show in 1988 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. "There was a certain amateur feel," Dowling says of that night's event. "It didn't work, but it was a great idea."

The next day, Dowling got a call from Wayne. "He said in no uncertain terms, 'If you don't fix this thing, we're going to abandon it, and it's going to go away,'" says Dowling, who along with some Reporter co-workers met Wayne at Hotel Bel-Air. "He was outspoken about what was wrong with it but also made clear that he thought it was a good idea."

Says Wayne: "Bob was respectful of the work and always wanted the work to be shown in the best way. I think Bob was a great patron to the show. He always wanted it to be good and wanted it to be special -- he didn't want it to get out of hand."

The group at Hotel Bel-Air decided to tap into the industry brain trust by establishing a board of advisers. The first meeting, later that year, took place at Wayne's office on the Warners lot. "It was funny because it was like a food fight: Everybody was talking at the same time, and it was loud," Dowling says. "But out of that grew this board of advisers, and it's really the board of advisers that can take all the credit for turning this around. It was a group of people; I was among them."

Dowling adds that the goal was "to have a Key Art Award really mean something," and the means of achieving that was the creation of a top-notch judging board on which the right people would participate.

"I wanted the winning of a Key Art Award to have validity in someone's career in the sense that they would get either greater recognition or greater compensation and be a career enhancement," he says. "The only way to do that was to have an efficacious voting board, and that was something that took years to work out. The idea was that people would know, when they won, that they were being judged by people they respected, they admired and who were totally qualified."

For 17 years, Dowling guided the Key Art program and its annual awards ceremony through an evolution in process and presentation.

"The success of it wasn't measured in one single thing but the continuity," he says. "We tried different things, eliminated what we didn't want and added new things that did work -- and over time, it became what it is."

With so much at stake in an ever-more-competitive entertainment landscape, marketers' work is of central importance.

"The real challenge of the movie business is to get that consumer in the theater that first weekend," Dowling says. "And that weekend, in my opinion, has always been the responsibility of the marketing department -- the materials and everything to do with marketing.

If the film holds up when the people are in there, that's the director's job, that's the second weekend because people will leave that theater in droves saying: 'What a great film! You've gotta to see this film!' -- and word-of-mouth builds. So Week 2 and Week 3 are the responsibility of the film, but it's marketing that gets the people in the theater that first weekend -- and if you don't get 'em there, there is no second weekend."

The Key Art Awards were only one component of a transformation Dowling initiated during his tenure at The Hollywood Reporter. When BPI Communications (later purchased by VNU) purchased The Reporter in 1988 and placed Dowling at the helm, he began the process of growing a small, family-owned newspaper into a high-impact international media brand. Under Dowling's guidance, The Reporter achieved steady and profitable growth.

In addition to adding the editor-in-chief title to his role as publisher of The Reporter, he went on to become executive vp of VNU, the world's largest network of entertainment-related publications and services, which also includes Billboard, Adweek, Back Stage West, the Entertainment News Wire and Broadcast Data Systems.

Dowling proved adept at identifying emerging growth areas, expanding coverage to include convergence and new media as well as a large concentration of international and political issues. He guided The Reporter to the Internet early on, launching The Hollywood Reporter Web site in 1995 as the industry's first real-time online delivery of entertainment news. Under his watch, the publication started THR East, an electronically distributed daily edition for East Coast readers.

It was via the East Coast that Dowling found his way to Hollywood. His career before joining The Reporter included a stint as president, editor-in-chief and publisher at Technical Marketing Corp., which offered a wide range of trade publications including Hi-Tech Marketing and Sports Marketing News, both created and launched by Dowling.

Looking back, Dowling notes that many things have changed about the marketing sector that is his personal passion.

"When I got to Hollywood, the average marketing budget (for a feature film) was $7.2 million; today, it's well in excess of $40 million, and on some of the big films it exceeds $70 million," he says. "With more than 400 films released per year (in the U.S.) -- nine per week -- marketing has become, arguably, the more important element in the release of a film."

Dowling's work in making the Key Art Awards the equal of the key role marketers play will be one of his most important legacies.

"He got who our community is and what the tone of the show needed to be, but he never let us get too far away from what the evening is all about: honoring excellence in movie advertising," Israel says. "This event has helped define us as a creative community, and Bob is responsible for what the show has become: the most important night of the year for the creative advertising community."

Adds Dowling: "These people are stars within this industry. They're people you can't help but take pride in honoring because they take great pride in what they do."