The techno beat was pounding loud and hard outside the Arena nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. Security guards posted at every entrance checked IDs carefully, stopping several wannabe nightclubbers at the door for being under 18.
This is one of the hippest places in L.A. for the 18-to-21 crowd. With girls in tight, little miniskirts and slim tees, the boys sort of gather around, feasting their eyes and minds on the potential opportunities that lie ahead for them tonight.
In this setting full of teen hormonal energy, Self Allah has a job to do. Allah is a guerrilla marketer, the guy who hands out fliers, posters, hats, cigarette lighters, T-shirts, whatever paraphernalia Hollywood studios give him to get the word out on their movie.
"Wha's up, G? You already got a flashlight?" Allah asks one young customer as he hands out mini-flashlights for the new film "Pootie Tang," based on a character on Chris Rock's HBO show. "You can light up the club. After you've had a few drinks, you can look at her and see if she's really fine." The breath mints with the movie's title on them, he adds, may also come in handy tonight.
What Allah calls his "hand to hand" approach works well, and the young man takes the flashlight, smiling as he walks into the club.
Allah, who is in his mid-20s, is one of a growing group of street marketers in the country. Despite their youth, they are veterans of the streets, having learned the tricks of the trade, marketing such goods as rap albums, clothing and Web sites. Increasingly, major studios are picking up on this trend.
Out of economic necessity, smaller, niche studios such as Artisan Entertainment have been doing street campaigns for a few years. Artisan first used street marketing for its 1998 film "Pi." It has become an effective way to reach an elusive and finicky audience--the college-age and teen market, said Amorette Jones, executive vice president of worldwide marketing for Artisan.
"We are very reliant on street campaigns," said Jones, who came to Artisan from Loud Records, which puts out the Wu-Tang Clan. "We don't have the luxury of enormous ad budgets. It almost becomes like a political campaign where you have that access on an individual basis. . . . [The major studios] have not had to rely on these types of tactics, but they have seen that they are very effective. I would imagine they are having to develop some alternative ways to reach this audience they have not been able to deliver."
Indeed, in an increasingly saturated marketplace, major studios are finding street marketers to be a successful and cheap way to get the word out on movies targeting the 35-and-younger crowd.
"What is clearly true is that lots of people are cynical about advertising, in particular the teen and urban market, and that increasingly the way to advertise is through these peer-based street campaigns," said Michael A. Vorhaus, a consultant at Frank N. Magid Associates, an entertainment marketing firm.
Last year, Fox hired Musicblitz Inc., a record label and marketing service firm, to handle a college campus promotion of the teen comedy "Dude, Where's My Car?" The campaign was part of a contest to find a band that would play in the movie, said Kevin Nakao, CEO of Musicblitz.
"It's peer-to-peer marketing," Nakao said. "College students are distrustful of authority. . . . The key is making sure that the right person passes out the fliers to the right people in the right context."
One of the more successful examples of studio street marketing came with "The Original Kings of Comedy," released by Paramount and produced by MTV Films last year.
Walter Latham, producer of "Kings," said he requested that Paramount budget for a street marketing campaign. Coming from a background in concert promotion, he knew how effective this type of marketing could be. The film, which cost $3 million, grossed $11 million in its first weekend and $39 million domestically.
"We didn't have the money to saturate television and radio," said Latham. "We had to be more creative and do wild postings and such. ["Kings"] was successful in large part because of the street marketing."
While a major studio marketing blitz including television, radio and billboards can cost between $20 million and $30 million, a good national street campaign can be done for about $100,000, said Larry Robinson, head of Avatar Records, which contracts out to studios such as Paramount and Sony to run the studios' street campaigns.
"It was a logical next step in our business," Robinson said. "We are applying some of the street marketing techniques for marketing records to movies."
The success of "Kings of Comedy" not only gave Latham's production company a three-year first-look deal with Paramount, it also persuaded studio executives to return to Avatar for street campaigns on "Save the Last Dance," "Down to Earth" and now "Pootie Tang."