Monday, 23 January 2012

What can make the difference?

Photo taken from
War Horse is a production of the National Theatre in London which premiered in October 2007. In 2009 it moved to the West End. In 2011 it crossed the Atlantic to be presented in Broadway. In 2012 it will tour the US. It is a multi-award-winning production, adored by the public and theatre critics alike, and a huge commercial success. The annual profit of 3 million pounds from the West End presentations made the cuts in the Arts Council England´s grant insignificant for the National Theatre (read article here).

In May 2010, the Guardian published the article Theatre trailers: missing an opportunity. The journalist was encouraging theatres to become a bit more ambitious in the promotion of their productions, citing as good examples the National Theatre and Sadler´s Wells. It was in that article that I found the link for this trailer:

It was the first time I had seen a piece of this kind, reminding of film publicity, for the promotion of a theatre play. I remember to have felt delighted: the whole trailer edition (the rhythm, the choice of scenes, the music) made me wish to see the play, to get to know the story, to find out what happens in the end. Could this trailer be War Horse´s secret of success? Probably not. The secret – which is not a secret at all – is that those people who had seen the play loved it and told many-many more people about it. Could this trailer have made the difference in the decision process of those who saw the play in the opening? I don´t have concrete data, of course, but it is quite probable that it influenced them, a lot even, given that, among so much competition, among so many other options in London´s theatre offer, and not only, this approach marked a difference, generated emotions, fed word-of.mouth, created the need not to miss this play (in a much more tangible and effective way than the statement “Not to be missed!”, which many producers, especially in the music field, insist on using on every possible promotional material, from press releases to posters).

This issue of trailers for theatre plays came up once again recently in an article in the New York Times, Trailers to tempt the theatergoer. A more technical text, that presents some examples and makes available information regarding the producers, means and techniques, costs and, above all, the objectives set to achieve through the use of this medium: from presenting the aesthetics of a company to clarifying possible prejudices regarding the content of a play and, of course, reinforcing in people´s mind the strengths of a production, the reasons why one shouldn´t miss it.

These trailers made me think once again of the challenges Communication professionals keep facing when constantly looking for new ways and new means of reaching the audiences. The environment in which we operate is constantly and quickly changing: the offer is bigger; the purchasing power, at this moment, smaller; the technological means at our disposal (and that of the public) are deeply affecting the relationship between ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’. What can make the difference in the minds and hearts of people? What is needed in order to draw their attention, arouse interest, generate enthusiasm, convince them to come all the way to our theatre, museum, gallery, auditorium?

I am certain of onw thing: no more publicity is needed. ‘Publicity’ in the format of a newspaper ad with information regarding what, where, when. I believe that this medium is still useful, although it is not the main one anymore, in order to keep informed those people who normally follow the city´s cultural offer, who attend performances, who visit exhibitions and who bring along or recommend a specific activity to other people; and it is also useful, mainly useful, in order to reinforce a cultural institution´s image, to ‘mark territory’. The newspaper ad – as well as the TV spot, I could add here – is today a means for institutional marketing and not programmatic marketing. Actually, was it ever, given the not so inspired use we have given it?

What can make the difference, then? Imagination. Innovation. Simplicity. The intention to demystify, to make accessible. The wish to touch, marvel, inspire people. To make them think. And also to make them forget.

How can this be done? It can be a trailer like the one of War Horse; it can be a campaign like “Do you want to see in 3D? Come to the theatre”, promoted two years ago by the D.Maria II National Theatre - Lisbon (a bright exception, in my opinion, in what is normally understood as “publicity campaign” by portuguese cultural institutions);

it can be a video like this one of the series Le Louvre Invisible, which shares brief moments of our institutions´ day-to-day life; it can be a programming director who makes a point of explaining to the employees at the box office what are the strengths of each project, why the public cannot miss each of the proposals, in a way they, the employees, and, through them, the audience may feel more clear and informed, curious and interested, and maybe even more prone to take a risk with something new (I am referring here to João Godinho´s practice when he was responsible for programming music at the Belem Cultural Centre, Lisbon); it can be the simple emails more and more artists, museum directors, curators, programming directors send to their, more or less extensive, circle of friends and acquaintances, personally presenting their work and inviting to attend/visit, in a much more direct, personal, accessible and enthusiastic way – inevitably turning that same circle of people into messengers; it can be an initiative as simple, funny and involving as It´s Time we Met of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now in its fourth edition;  it can be a special way of wishing “Happy New Year”:

Disconnected examples of things I have read and seen recently. What is common in all of them is the wish to reach people, to extend the invitation, to make a connection, to demonstrate relevance, to create involvement and complicity.

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