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New Directions in the Marketing of Bulgarian Popular Cinema

Bulgarian comedy Mission London was a hit in its homeland. Maya Nedyalkova examines how Hollywood-style marketing contributed to its success and what this says about wider trends in European film promotion and distribution.

The film industry in Bulgaria has experienced unprecedented ups and downs in recent years. While in 1972 approximately 3 million people attended the screenings of the most popular Bulgarian film to date, Metodi Andonov’s Koziyat rog [The Goat Horn], the most successful production of the period during the transition to democracy, Pismo do America [Letter to America] (dir. Iglika Trifonova, 2001), had a mere 8,000 domestic viewers.

That is why no one expected that in less than a decade the popular feature Misiya London [Mission London] (dir. Dimitar Mitovski, 2010) would top the Bulgarian box office. The comedy, in which a Bulgarian ambassador is sent to London to secure the Queen of England’s attendance at a concert celebrating Bulgaria’s entry into the EU, sold nearly 400,000 admissions, beating Hollywood rivals Clash of the Titans, How to Train Your Dragon and the 3D Alice in Wonderland.

There are complex dynamics at work behind the recent ‘resurrection’ of Bulgarian cinema. Among other factors, commercial-oriented distribution and innovative marketing strategies associated with the Hollywood blockbuster have proven crucial in achieving visibility for local productions and reaching a wider audience. In this sense, Mission London forms part of a more general tendency in recent European film promotion and exhibition.

Appropriating the Hollywood Model

Commercially-savvy individuals with a background across visual media prompted appropriations of blockbuster characteristics in Bulgarian popular film. Mission London’s director and producer, Dimitar Mitovski, came with a background in advertising, which helped him recognise the tastes and expectations of the Bulgarian mass audience. No stranger to entertainment, Mitovski was willing to learn from Hollywood’s experience without preconceived prejudice.

Theatrical trailer for Bulgarian box office hit, Mission London (2010).

The decisive factor that made Mission London a domestic blockbuster was the innovative marketing employed in its promotion. Based on a novel by Alek Popov, a contemporary Bulgarian writer much praised during the promotional campaign, Mission London’s literary origins were exploited with the book re-published in a limited collectors’ edition with drawings by Dimitar Mitovski and autographs from both authors.This aimed to appeal to intellectuals and contribute to the celebrity status of the creators.

The movie was further situated within the social and ideological tensions of contemporary Bulgarian society. Mocking the corrupted political elite as well as Bulgarian mentality abroad, the topic proved current with domestic audiences, used to poor state management and high emigration levels

Mission London was viewed as belonging to a tradition of constant renegotiation of Bulgaria’s place in Europe and, despite its humour, addressed political and economic issues of national importance. Described in the press as, “Bulgarian, interesting, funny, relatively cultured, obviously watchable, a guaranteed entertainment”, Mitovski’s film exploited the complex shifts in national identity to gain popularity.

While focusing on particularly ‘Bulgarian matters’, the production benefitted from classic Hollywood advertising strategies. The official marketing campaign started four months before the premiere with a teaser trailer released on all digital screens in the country. The gradual release of the posters and advertising materials via the film’s official Facebook page, national radio, television and press created additional excitement for the general public.

Dimitar Mitovski

Director and producer Dimitar Mitovski at the red carpet premier of his film Mission London (2010). Image: Sofia Echo.

The exposure provided by partnerships with national media strengthened the claims that Mission London was the most important cinematic happening in Bulgarian culture. Saturation marketing helped fill the public space with information about the upcoming premiere of the film. Very few people in Bulgaria remained ignorant about its existence.

To re-affirm the high cultural status of the film, its domestic distribution was launched with a lavish premiere in the multiplex Arena Mladost. In typical Hollywood fashion, the event featured a red carpet, sleek limousines, many photographers, the whole cast and creative team as well as special guests from the Bulgarian government

Like American blockbusters, Mission London then opened simultaneously across the majority of the Bulgarian multiplexes. The picture remained at the top of the box office for almost a month, destroying the twenty-year-old myths that the contemporary domestic viewer was not interested in Bulgarian films. Thanks to its aggressive promotion and distribution, Mission London achieved an immediate and uncompromising success.

Shifts in European Film Distribution

The business-oriented new generation of Bulgarian producers and directors are convinced that a good marketing campaign pre-determined the successful distribution of a picture. Especially following the astonishing box office success of Mission London, aggressive advertising is justified as the most secure strategy to bring audiences into cinemas during the first two weeks of the film’s release.

The shift towards bigger promotional campaigns in Bulgaria is, in fact, part of broader tendencies in European film. In recent years European marketing budgets have soared since a successful cinema run guarantees the distributors higher revenues from ancillary rights (which include everything from television to other non-theatrical outlets).

The shrinking theatrical windows thanks to the advance of digital technology and alternative distribution also put a stress on advertising. A picture is expected to make a profit in cinemas in a much shorter time.

Competition is intense and the large European players are now investing in huge publicity campaigns (with matching budgets) to build up audience anticipation. The recognition of the power of marketing in Bulgaria should, therefore, be attributed not only to the insight of commercially-savvy producers but also to changes in the general European audio-visual distribution and exhibition climate.

Maya Nedyalkova is a PhD student in Film Studies at the University of Southampton. Her thesis examines the resurrection of Bulgarian cinema in the twenty-first century.

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