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A Movie's Musical Marketing

By Vivek Wadhwa I never thought that building a successful technology company and producing a Hollywood film would have so much in common. In both worlds, you have to start by building a great product that your customers really want, but success ultimately depends on your ability to effectively market what you've built. You deal with the same old battles between the creative and marketing staffs. And since things don't always go the way you planned, it takes a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work to make the difference.

In late 2003, I had signed up to help produce a film called My Bollywood Bride, set in India's film capital. Based on my experience as a CEO, I had asked for detailed project schedules, budgets, financial forecasts, market research, and distribution plans. The film's producer, Brad Listermann, agreed that we should run this project like a company. Yet we both came under fire from our creative staff for being "too businesslike." Brad almost had a rebellion on his hands early on, when he made the mistake of telling our screenwriter to speak to distributors to learn what sort of film they were looking for.

OTHER CROSS-CULTURAL HITS. In the entertainment industry, the values that are most cherished are creativity and art. Words such as "target audience" and "product positioning" are considered taboo. You're not supposed to tell a writer to produce something marketable, and unlike most of the business world, Hollywood has hard and fast rules designed to keep this separation. To help make his point, our screenwriter, Richard Martini, gave us a copy of the Directors Guild of America's handbook, which detailed his creative rights.

So even though Brad had written the original script, we hastily backed off and let the creative staff have their way during the entire production process. The good news was that they created a great film. Now it was time to get serious about sales and marketing.

We studied how other cross-cultural films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham had achieved so much success. Both of these were developed on shoestring budgets and didn't have major studios or big advertising campaigns behind them.

The key was word-of-mouth campaigns from their ethnic communities. Greeks and South Asians eventually encouraged their American friends to see these films, and the impact was felt at the box office. Greek Wedding grossed over $241 million in the U.S., and Bend It Like Beckham took in $32 million, according to Box Office Guru, an online database.

NET OVERTURE. We were facing the same cross-cultural challenge -- and opportunity. We had to create a new market and negotiate deals with distributors that knew little about our product. Based on our success at the American Film Market trade show, however (see BW Online, 12/7/04, "Seduction, Hollywood-Style"), we already had interest from a number of top Hollywood distributors. Now we needed to generate buzz from moviegoers.

America's roughly three million South Asians constitute the country's most affluent minority group. We learned that the most effective way of reaching them is through ethnic TV stations and hundreds of regional community organizations. The problem was that such TV networks only broadcast content created in India and therefore is targeted to residents there, not Indian Americans. And the community groups had no interest in helping promote a film.

I knew that these groups regularly held talent shows and were very much into Bollywood. Like Americans, most South Asians have dreams of being a star. It occurred to me that perhaps we could try something offbeat by holding an Internet music contest for our soundtrack, since we were finalizing the film and needed some original music. Finding the right mix was particularly challenging because we had a Hollywood film set in Bollywood and needed music that would cross over like the film itself. What if we opened the contest up to anyone in the U.S. and asked these organizations to have their members participate?

SETTING OFF SPARKS. Our creative team loved the idea of giving a big break to first-time artists, and the marketing side was equally intrigued. So we launched an Internet-based competition called Rock n' Dhol. (Dhol is a traditional Indian drum). Vying for $20,000 in prizes, contestants would submit music in electronic format via our film's Web site. (For legal reasons, this was restricted to the U.S.)

We launched the contest and asked Internet message boards and community groups to help spread the word. We created lots of initial excitement, and our inboxes were flooded with hundreds of inquiries. The problem was that most of these were from as far away as Australia and Indonesia, and there were surprisingly few actual entries. And after about two weeks, the e-mails dried up.

The Internet can be a powerful force when things come together, although fires often get extinguished as fast as they are lit. However, sometimes one spark sets off another fire that burns on its own.

PERFECT FIT. As luck would have it, we had caught the attention of Vimal Verma, a former American Express executive who was about to launch a 24-hour English-language TV network called American Desi (a term for someone of Indian descent), which would cater to the South Asian community. He had assembled an experienced, Emmy-winning executive and production team from major networks like ABC and NBC. His goal was to provide South Asians the same quality of programming that they were used to from the major American networks -- everything from soaps to talk shows to reality shows.

Armed with millions in institutional funding, Vimal was in the process of launching his network in a grand fashion from the studios of Good Morning America in Times Square. He had planned an American Idol type of competition, which would be held in several cities across the U.S., screen thousands of contestants, and offer the chance to have their music included in a major feature film as a prize. He thought that our film would be a perfect fit for his plans.

We inked a deal in January. American Desi will launch later this month, and A Star is Born will be one of its inaugural programs -- airing weekly and culminating with the announcement of the big winner just before the release of our film in late spring.

No doubt, this has turned out a little grander than our Internet competition, and we believe the publicity will provide a big boost for our film. So for now, it's time for us to Rock n' Dhol and let the good times roll. More to come. Wadhwa is the founder of Relativity Technologies in Raleigh, N.C. When not producing movies or battling venture capitalists, he mentors fledgling entrepreneurs

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