What’s your film’s hook? Perhaps you have heard this term before, but misunderstood what it meant. What does it mean to have a “marketing hook” for a film and why does it need one?
Hooks are the elements of your film that will be used during promotion to attract its core audience. Often hooks are comprised of things such as notable names, specific and recognizable locations, a title that can be visualized, gripping or familiar subject matter and something that solicits an emotional response. Hooks allow an audience to immediately recognize what is interesting about your story and decide whether they want to investigate further.
While the hook may make someone buy on the spot (at a pitch meeting, while flipping through the Netflix database or standing in front of a cinema marquee), usually the goal is to have the audience open up their minds to the idea that they are interested in potentially supporting/buying your project. A good hook may not pull the wallet out right away, but hearing about it over and over from different places eventually will make the target audience’s hands move closer to their credit cards.
A marketing hook can come in the form of subject matter that is compelling to a certain audience segment, like environmental causes, women’s rights, human rights – as long as it is being covered from an angle that hasn’t been seen before, or it offers new or normally inaccessible material. Food Inc on the surface is a documentary about where our food comes from, but the marketing hook was how the story lifted the veil on the surprising degradation of food quality and the millions in marketing money that goes into supplying food at an affordable cost to the consumer. It is not just a film about farming.
A hook can also come in the form of a recognizable property, like a book, or the talent attached to the project, like A-list actors or a well known director. Often the first words out of a person’s mouth when hearing about a film is “Who’s in it?” They are looking for the reason to hear more about the film or dismiss it as uninteresting. This is also the case when a publicist pitches journalists for media coverage. Notable names definitely turn a writer’s head in your direction and make media coverage a lot easier to obtain.
But a marketing hook can also be emotional. Such a hook presents a project in a way that people feel something when they choose to align themselves with it. It’s more than just presenting what the story is and why they should choose to see it – it’s telling them what they will feel. Very often a film’s trailer is more effective if it shows the emotional hook rather than the storyline or stars of the film. An emotional hook will stir the blood, affect people on a cellular level, make them feel something profound about themselves. Your story, and the associated marketing, should aspire to do this.
The reason many low budget independent films are difficult to market and sell is they fail to have clear hooks with which the audience can identify. Often they suffer from storylines that are so mundane that few are compelled to seek them out. Also, they have no cast that is recognizable to an audience to draw in their attention. While many moviemakers believe all they should have is a story well told, that is not enough to make a film stand out in a sea of entertainment choices. As the technology to make films and the ways of distributing them get cheaper, there is now an overwhelming quantity of films from which to choose. If the audience for the film was never identified, the film usually can’t attract the attention of anyone because it doesn’t have hooks built into it that reel in a clear audience segment.
According to Stephanie Palmer, author of Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience, “Hook is a word that, in my opinion, is often used too broadly. When someone in Hollywood says, ‘What’s the hook?’ what they are asking is, ‘What is interesting about this project?’ However, there are lots of ideas that are interesting and that (to me) don’t have a hook. For example, Aaron Sorkin is writing a movie about the life of Steve Jobs and the entire movie will be shot in three ‘real-time’ half-hour scenes. To me, Steve Jobs is interesting. Aaron Sorkin is interesting. The notion of three half-hour scenes is interesting. But, in my opinion, that’s not a pitch with a hook.”
Luckily, Blake Snyder, author of Save The Cat (crediting his former writing partner Colby Carr) defines the hook in a more specific way: in terms of irony. In his book, he writes:
“The number one thing a good logline (pitch) must have, the single most important element, is: irony. That goes for whether it’s a comedy or a drama. The hook is the ironic aspect of a short pitch.
A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists – Die Hard.
A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend – Pretty Woman.
I think both of these loglines reek of irony. Irony gets my attention. It’s what we (screenwriters) like to call the hook. I prefer this definition for two reasons. First, what’s interesting to one person isn’t always interesting to another, but whether a short pitch contains something ironic is less listener-dependent. Second, an ironic idea contains a reversal, and so does the shape of an actual hook.”
Biagio Messina and Joke Fincioen of Joke Productions in Hollywood make unscripted TV programs and documentaries. They think the key is really having two hooks to a story.
“What most filmmakers don’t realize is one hook is NOT enough… you really need two,” says Fincioen. “I learned this while working for producer Gayle Anne Hurd. Her movie Armageddon was originally just about a meteor aimed at earth. It wasn’t until the second hook was added — a group of oil drillers are sent into space to blow the meteor up — that the film was green lit. You’d be amazed how many projects are pitched that are the equivalent of “Meteor aimed at earth” without the “oil driller” twist.”
“On our own documentary Dying to do Letterman, there are two hooks. 1. A man chases his life long dream of performing on the David Letterman show. 2. He learns he only has five years to live. Either hook on it’s own is really not enough to carry the film. Combined, they made for a much deeper movie: When a man learns he only has five years to live, he dedicates his life to living his dream of performing on Letterman,” said Messina.
“Best example of how the hooks are used in marketing are in the movie trailers themselves,” says Messina. “Every film has a trailer, and the first hook – second hook structure can be seen very clearly in them. For instance, in Armegeddon, the trailer itself starts out with the bigger hook of every day life on earth being threatened by incoming meteors. The next part of the trailer begins with the second hook — quirky oil drillers who will need to save the planet.
“It was crucial in marketing Dying to do Letterman because starting a trailer out by focusing on the ‘dying/cancer’ part would literally scare people away. Thus, our trailer started with the first hook (guy chasing dream) and then introduces the second hook (five years to live).
“Ask yourself — what is my project’s second hook? It can help focus you when pitching your project, keep you on track while shooting and editing, and make it easier to finally promote your film when it’s finished.”
Your project’s execution should be just as passionate and thoughtful as the marketing of said film. No one likes feeling “tricked” by the marketing of a film, only to find that it doesn’t deliver. Word of mouth travels fast online so having a well crafted film with hooks that reel in a targeted audience is a winning combination to the success of an independent film.
Follow Sheri on Twitter @shericandler, Facebook/Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity, and on her G+ community dedicated to independent film marketing and distribution. If you live in the Atlanta area, Sheri will be teaching a workshop on film marketing and distribution hosted by Atlanta Film Festival 365 on July 27, 2013. To find ticket information, go here.
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