Mark Cuban recently put out a challenge to get someone to come up with a solution to get 5 million people off their collective butt and into the movie theatre at the weekend. There was a job for anyone who came up with a good idea (perhaps as spin-doctor for the next President of the US?)
It wasn't exactly clear whether he wanted them to go to see a specific film or just any film, but Robert Young, writing on Gigaom came up with a very "touchy-feely" solution where people could hold on to their ticket stub and volunteer it to a friend over coffee (no doubt Fair Trade) and some organic carrot cake, so that they could get a $1 discount to go and see the film themselves. Perhaps Robert values a $1 discount more than I do...
The problem is that the cinema no longer has any unique selling point. Why would I go there instead of watching the film at home? The other thing is that the hype for these films allows us to know most of the story and the best bits, before we even see the movie. I think that the current approach to selling movies potentially reduces demand.
We need to use word of mouth (as Robert says) and the power of community (which he fails to tap) to generate increased demand to see the film.
By releasing the movie early, to a key demographic, and actively restricting the amount of information available about the film, except that it is out there and available to the select few, you create a demand to find out what is going on. You allow increased distribution of the film only by invitation from the original invitees (ala gmail or orkut) and give each person, say, 5 or 6 invitations they can pass on.
By restricting access to those people who are likely to enjoy the film, you increase the amount of positive feedback and by giving the invitations you allow them to create their own community around the film.
One of those who posted a comment on Mark Cuban's site equated a movie theatre with a bar selling beers at $20. His solution: lower the prices! Creating an 'invitation only' approach can increase demand, even for $20 beers, if the 'membership' kudos is great enough.
Let's have a quick (simplistic) analysis of the figures. A good movie might take in $100 million in the first week which would equate to about 10 million people watching the film. If you're seed group was 25,000 people then after 4 showings, your potential audience would be 15.5 million, after 5 it would be 78 million. Through the invitation system this could be tracked and if the film viewing figures are growing beyond a particular rate, then you flip it out to the more traditional marketing, which will allow you to maximize the 'buzz' return (though I suspect that it may make just as much by being kept in stealth). If the growth is small, or not significant then you leave it in the community (but keep monitoring the viewing - Chris Anderson didn't discover the Long tail for nothing!)
People love being part of the 'in-crowd' and that typically means excluding the masses. The way films are marketed at the moment creates mass appeal but it is short-lived.
Of course, if it's a crap film, it'll lose you money no matter what you do. At least with the viral approach you don't lose much money.
There could be a follow-on approach to this, drawing on agile development techniques, where the film goes out in beta, only to be refined before mass release. The Directors Cut (iterative).