Movie Marketing Insiders Talk Rotten Tomatoes, 'Parasite' Success and Online Haters

Courtesy of Tony Ung
THR's Matthew Belloni, far left, moderates a conversation with Google's Angie Barrick, Neon's Tom Quinn, Participant's Christina Kounelias, and Universal's Dwight Caines.

Universal, Participant, Neon and Google executives gathered at Clio Entertainment's Creative Fest for a lively discussion on all things movie marketing, including their most valuable career lessons, such as "Nobody knows anything."

Is Cats actually going to be good? What are best practices when it comes to calming online haters? How did Parasite break through the clutter to become one of the year's biggest box office surprises? Do movie marketers love, hate or love to hate Rotten Tomatoes?

Those were just a few of the subjects covered during "Marketing Masterminds Roundtable: How to Break Through the Noise," a Wednesday afternoon featured panel during Clio Entertainment's Creative Fest at NeueHouse Hollywood. Moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's editorial director, Matthew Belloni, it featured Dwight Caines, co-president of domestic marketing at Universal; Christina Kounelias, president of worldwide marketing at Participant; Tom Quinn, founder and CEO of Neon; and Angie Barrick, head of industry, media and entertainment at Google.

The first question Belloni tossed to the group at the event — billed as "a community gathering that celebrates the art of entertainment marketing to create superfans around the globe," presented in partnership with THR — was their take on the year’s biggest big-screen surprises, successes or failures. Caines quipped that he knows well enough “never to speak about other people’s failures,” so instead he talked about his studio's recent success Good Boys. The performance of director Gene Stupnitsky’s August release proved, to Caines, that “the R-rated comedy is viable.”

“We went into the campaign not fully knowing if we could get it done,” he said. “It was surprising that we were able to break through.” He chalked the win up to multiple factors, including “some key art that was just extraordinary” that told the story in an effective way, including bold red coloring and the tagline “You must be this tall to see this movie.” The film opened to $21 million and has done more than $110 globally, he said. 

Kounelias turned her attention to Quinn and his company, praising their handling of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and how the indie distributor created a “must-see” event that she called a cultural touchpoint. “They’ve done an amazing job with that,” she said. “It just popped. … It feels urgent and strikes a lot of chords.”

“How did you do that, Tom?” Belloni asked Quinn, who gave a layered answer that ended with him giving full credit to the filmmaker. He said Bong Joon-Ho went to Cannes with the idea of asking journalists and fans not to include spoilers in their coverage, something that was largely respected by everyone. Quinn added that the veteran filmmaker is intimately involved in the marketing process. “Every single frame of this campaign has been signed off on by Bong. Bong is a huge film fan. He loves the poster and trailer and just as much as he loves making the movie,” Quinn said. “All of that together, working together with the filmmaker, helped inform the campaign.”

The group then spent a fair amount of time on the day’s buzziest topic: Rotten Tomatoes. Belloni wanted to know how it influences moviegoers today, and if that has changed in recent years. “I love Rotten Tomatoes,” Kounelias said before quickly adding that her company’s next release — Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters — is currently sitting with a glowing 94 percent. “It’s a useful shorthand. It’s the modern-day version of [two thumbs up].” 

Quinn got some laughs when he said that he used to loathe the rating system aggregated from critic reviews, but now that Neon has a lot of movies in the top 20 of the year, "I love it.” He said Neon has used the 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating for Parasite and Apollo 11 in marketing materials by putting it “front and center.”

“It’s one more wonderful third-party affirmation that we desperately seek,” Quinn continued. He did say, however, that he believes rival Metacritic will one day “be more impactful,” because “it’s definitely more accurate,” as it relies on a more curated group of critics. That said, “There is true merit to a Rotten Tomatoes score.”

Caines entered the debate with the disclaimer that Universal owns Rotten Tomatoes. With that out of the way, he said he agreed with Kounelias that the service provides a shorthand. “We like it and good matters,” he said, after explaining that one casualty is that it has taken the need to read thoughtful analysis and whittled it down to a juicy red tomato of approval or a negative green splat. That said, “We can survive a bad Rotten Tomatoes score if we have a movie that is a crowd pleaser.”

Belloni then broached the subject of online backlash and asked the panelists how they determine when to respond to criticism of films and/or specific creative decisions. For example, he noted how Paramount responded after the studio weathered criticism over the look of the title character in its upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog film. Caines applauded Paramount’s decision, particularly because he grew up with a Sega Genesis and considers himself a fan boy. “That was a smart move,” he added.

Kounelias, who worked with Caines and his team on the Oscar-winning Green Book, said they received lots of feedback about that film during its long awards season haul. She said marketers don’t necessarily have to act in response to “whatever the thing” is at the moment. “Stay ahead of the audience,” she said. “Be with them. Be one of them. That’s where the art comes in with the science. You have to understand what’s happening culturally, emotionally with people and how you are relating to them, and what they want from you. They often want a relationship."

Barrick jumped in with a point about how Google picks up on what the audience wants by digging through comments as well as seeing where users may rewind and replay specific moments in trailers. For example, she said after the launch of the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood trailer, analytics showed a large number of people were zeroing in on the Bruce Lee scene. “The amount of rewinding that happened for Bruce Lee was really incredible for us to see,” she said.

Speaking of trailers, Caines addressed the phenomenon that is the Cats trailer, a subject initially brought up by Belloni. “The response to Cats is that it’s tracking just like Cats the musical. It’s a very polarizing property,” he said, before defending what he’s seen as the opposite of what many critics or skeptics believe it will be. He called the finished film delightful. “It’s a dance movie. It’s really great family entertainment. The cast is amazing.”

Even if it may take a beat for audiences to accept the latter. “The first time I saw the movie, they weren’t cats, they were people. It was like seeing the characters from Avatar, or the way people reacted to Will Smith as the Genie [in Aladdin]. It took a couple beats, and then you were in.”

Quinn said the Cats trailer was a big subject in his office, as well. “It is so much fun to hate on that trailer, and there’s a pocket of people in my office who are going to go out as a group and see it,” he said.

It hits theaters Dec. 20, a date that puts it “intentionally” up against the new Star Wars installment, Caines added. “We have an audience in mind for that movie, and we are very bullish about it,” he said. “As a marketer, you have to know who you are speaking to and have a strong flavor and go after that audience.” 

Belloni then asked the panelists to give the audience at Neuehouse an answer for the following: Do you have a lesson you learned early in your career that guides you today?

“It’s the simple one, and it’s kind of stupid,” said Quinn. “Nobody knows anything. We try to do everything [at Neon] as this highly functioning amoeba. Everyone in the room has equal voice and equal opportunity to fight for what they believe in.”

Kounelias said hers was a two-parter. “Don’t give up, and don’t be afraid. … Those are two things that have served me well.”

Caines responded, “Trust the people around you. Surround yourself with smart people, and don’t take credit.”

For Barrick, the lesson learned was when there is a problem, don’t rush to a Band-Aid-style solution. “Take a step back. Think about the problem differently as a whole.”

Following the panel, Creative Fest continued with an afternoon and evening filled with programming including "Brands Go Hollywood: Learning the Secrets of Entertainment," "Trailer Geeks and Teaser Gods Podscast," "The Renaissance of the Soundtrack," "Keeping the Fans Fulfilled and Following: Fan First Digital Campaigns," "Case Study: Maisel Day" and "Trailer Fest." THR's digital editor Natalie Jarvey moderated the digital panel with panelists including Damian Bazadona from Situation, Matt Sample from hi5.agency, Ashley Tyra from Engine US, and Snapchat's Leah Rubin-Cadrain. 

On the film side, senior film editor Piya Sinha-Roy moderated a discussion with Sony's David Fruchbom, BLT Communications' Dawn Baillie, Sony's Elane Beyrodt, and Buddha Jones' Bill Neil about the marketing campaign for Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Other programming at the event included a trailer screening room, a fireside chat, a cocktail hour and networking opportunities. More information about the event can be found here. Scroll down for more images from inside the event.