'Slumdog's' Only Hope Was Word of Mouth Marketing

By Robert Marich
   May 21, 2009 – Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire almost disappeared as a direct-to-video title in the U.S. because its original distributor folded, and its trip to the silver screen was short with no time for elaborate marketing.
   Fox Searchlight, which picked up domestic rights to the British-Indian co-production from the defunct Warner Independent Pictures, was impressed by the response to the gritty Indian drama at festival screenings atToronto and Telluride. Fox Searchlight mounted a desperate promotion that was one of few options available on short notice. Slumdog got 186 free word-of-mouth screenings in 64 cities in the U.S. and Canada—usually such a film gets none.
   Advertising Age’s Entertainment A-List for 2009 honored Fox Searchlight and the movie as the #5 entry on its Entertainment A-List for 2009 (Universal and its marketing chief Adam Fogelson together were #1 and at #4 is Twilight and its distributor Summit Entertainment).
      “Even with the lawyers still haggling, Searchlight execs set about forming a marketing plan for a picture they didn't technically even have the right to release” last autumn, notes an Ad Age article by Claude Brodesser-Akner. They pounced by scheduling Slumdog for a November release – on just six weeks advance notice -- when Paramount’s The Soloist unexpectedly was pushed back, creating an opening. The $15 million production went on to gross $141.3 million in the U.S. and Canada.
   “We do some of our best work under the gun,” Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight’s marketing head is quoted in the Ad Age article. “Often your first inclinations are the right ones. When you have too much time, you can second-guess your work.”
   There was no time to marshal promotion tie-ins, which would be hard anyway under the best of circumstances since the film carried a restrictive R-rating. Lonely Planet travel books would have come aboard if lead time was longer, notes Ad Age. The bottom line was Slumdog banked everything on festival buzz and scattered word of mouth, and won the Oscar for Best Picture.
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