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What Hollywood Taught Me About Content Marketing

Larry Madill
What Hollywood Taught Me About Content Marketing

In David Ayer’s 2014 World War II film "Fury," the main characters are stranded in a crippled Sherman tank, waiting for the penultimate battle with the oncoming SS War Machine, and Brad Pitt’s tank commander character boldly declares with a sip of bourbon, “BEST JOB I EVER HAD!” It is a classic moment, and after I saw it, I wondered when I would say that about my own life.

On quiet nights, looking out over the bright lights of Hollywood, I often reflect on the first act of my adult life. The boy-not-yet-a-man who moved to Hollywood with $1,000 and a Dodge Neon, deep in the grip of youth and smitten with a heedless creative drive. All I wanted to do was write and make movies. I didn’t know anyone but I knew that on some small level I was going to do it.

And I did; from 21 to 33 I worked on multiple movies and a handful of TV shows. Eventually, I wrote four screenplays that became minor independent movies and produced three independent movies.

So, on those quiet nights, when I look back with the right eyes and let the warm Santa Ana winds skip over me, I smile and whisper: best job I ever had.

Life as a struggling independent filmmaker in my 20s shaped and informed every aspect of my life in my 30s, including my second act career as an SEO specialist and content marketer.

These are the 5 lessons I took from Hollywood and incorporated into my marketing career.

1. Doing More with Less Makes You More Creative

I produced low-budget movies; the kind of movies that would end up straight to DVD in the mid-2000s, or straight to Netflix in today’s world. The theory was that you produce a couple of well-received low budgets and eventually “the right people” at the studios will see it, then your third movie is a 25 million dollar theatrical film.

Every low-budget movie has a moment of “Oh man if we only had X number of dollars we could do this and that would be so cool …” But then there is reality in the form of a budget and an ever-dwindling bank account. So what do you do? You get creative. You stretch your budget, you jury-rig cameras bought from Best Buy, you rewrite scenes the night before because you couldn’t afford another night with your lead actor.

You get creative.

Marketers rarely get the budget we deserve. We get the budget our clients are willing to spend. It is easy to fall into the trap of “Well, we only have X and we want to do Y but we can’t…” Do not become a prisoner of your budget.

My friend desperately needed a Kickstarter video to fund his comic book project. He tried raising money for a video, getting investors, etc. Nothing worked. Eventually, I said, "well, I have an iPhone and I have a Macbook with Final Cut. Let’s shoot a video." Who needs money, right?

Did I make the Ben Hur of Kickstarter videos? Absolutely not. I made a video that was rough around the edges and featured my considerably rickety editing skills. I also made a video that helped him fully fund his project. All for the price of a 12 pack of beer and a pizza.

Ninety percent of the time there is a way for you to accomplish your content objectives without a huge budget. You just need to get creative.

2. Planning Makes or Breaks Your Content

A film set is a giant, angry machine filled with egos, actors who want vegan gummy bears instead of vegetarian gummy worms, and crew who just want to know if they are going into overtime or double overtime today. Independent film comes with an added layer of complexity. You only have a tiny budget and no way to get more money if you go over-budget. Mess up and you have no movie at all.

The best way to avoid trouble on a film set (although trouble will always find you) is to plan. The last movie I produced I spent two months planning and one month shooting. I reshuffled the budget and schedule daily, I scouted and re-scouted locations with my co-producer and crew, and I constantly asked myself, “What is going to go wrong? How can I plan for it? How can I bulletproof this even further?”

Content marketers may not have the luxury of two or three months of pre-production; however, I still advocate for spending more time planning content than you do creating or marketing that content.

Attention to detail and process are everything in our business. Never just write a bunch of blogs and call it content marketing. Plan. Ask yourself, “What are my objectives? How does this help? Who is my audience? How can I bulletproof my keyword research?” Then plan some more. Outline a content calendar and then plan out a complete production and launch schedule. Anticipate problems before they arise and ask yourself, “How can I avoid them?”

A great plan makes your content better.

3. Edit Without Mercy or Compassion

The hardest part of writing a script? Rewriting a script. Every draft is accompanied by a set of notes from twenty different people with thirty different opinions. Then add in your own crushing self-doubt, the questioning of “Is this any good?”

I learned very quickly that to achieve even a small amount of success meant that I had to be tough, merciless and lack all compassion towards everything I wrote. Nothing could be off limits. The character I loved in the first draft that no longer makes sense by the 33rd draft? Gone. We have the money to produce this script but it needs to be rewritten for Hollywood, California instead of Hollywood, Florida? Okay done. Well-known actor doesn’t love the dialogue I spent two weeks rewriting? Fine. Rewrite it again.

It is a tiresome process. Ultimately, however, it makes you and your work better.

I approach every aspect of Internet marketing with the same merciless eyes. A client isn’t happy with the performance of his SEO campaign? Time to crack it open and make it better. Our content is classed as “good, unique content?”Not good enough, what do we need to do to make it great content?

Nothing is off limits. There are no sacred cows. Everything can be better.

Marketers sometimes shy away from obsessive perfectionism because they are worried that it stresses out the team, or burns out content creators. In my experience, when done in the right way, creative people will always rise to the challenge of doing something better.

The first step is to issue that challenge.

[caption id="attachment_21800" "alignright" width="300"]popcorn Popcorn Image: Pixabay, Free for Commercial Use[/caption]

4. Give Your Content a Story and a Heart

I think in everyone’s life there is a very early moment that defines who they are and what they will go on to do. For me that moment happened every Saturday afternoon.

From the age of five to well into my teens, my father would take me to the movies almost every Saturday. I loved the movie theater more than anything because it was there that I felt the closest to my dad. Here is the thing about my dad; he is one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. A whip-smart mechanical engineer and a spectacularly kind human being; he is also profoundly deaf. On Saturdays, however, that did not matter. We shared our own language. When Luke Skywalker clashed with Darth Vader we both understood. When Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back,” we both understood.

Movies were a visual story that transported you away for two hours to another place and another headspace. You could tell a story that had the potential to touch millions of lives and change the world. A story everyone could understand.

You may naturally scoff at such lofty goals. After all, “change the world” is an awfully big KPI, and, c’mon, we are not trying to make “The Godfather,” we are trying to sell gadgets and dog grooming services. But ask yourself: in a crowded marketplace, how can I reach the consumers and clients I want to reach?

Hook them with a story anyone can understand. Make them laugh, make them cry, and take them on a journey. You can write a blog about the 5 Ways to Groom a Dog with all the right keywords and tags. Or you can write that same blog and tell the story of Maddy the Belgium Shepherd puppy who is going to the dog groomer for the first time ever. Same title, same keywords, same technical underpinning, but now it is a story with a dash of humor and a dose of heart.

You want content that engages and converts? Next time spend a few extra hours and ask your content team, “How can we put a story in this content?”

5. Work is Hard So You Better Love Every Moment of It

Whether you are a production assistant or a producer, movies are brutally hard work. A 12 hour day is a really good day on a movie set. The average day runs 16 hours, six days a week with one day off. The longest I’ve ever worked is 20 hours straight and I was so exhausted when I got home I slept for two days straight.

Why did I do it? Because I loved every minute of it.

The 12 hour days are mostly a thing of the past now. I work 9 to 5 and get home at a reasonable hour. The work is still hard; the days spent trying to outline successful SEO strategies, the constant experiments with landing page ad copy, the hours of reading and researching new content marketing techniques, and, yes, trying to demonstrate ROI to clients who do not always understand the complexities of digital marketing.

So why do I do it? Because I love every minute of it.

So my last lesson is simple and it applies to filmmakers and marketers equally: Love what you do. That combination of dedication, passion and love will make you unstoppable.

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Larry Madill is a freelance writer and content marketing consultant, based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Twitter @larrymadill.
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Kathleen Garvin
"Do not become a prisoner of your budget."

It's sooo easy to fall into that trap, but I agree with you — scrap together and get creative!

As a whole, this was both an informative and beautiful essay. Thanks for sharing it on our blog!
Larry Madill
Kathleen Garvin
Thank you, Kathleen.