Screen sensations

Tourism destinations are now vying with movie stars for a place on the red carpet. Jon Murrie looks at locations blessed by cinema, and what tourism bodies are doing to harness the power of Hollywood. 

WHEN Luke Skywalker stood dramatically atop the cliffs of a tiny Irish island at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he created a whole new tourism destination without drawing more than a few amps of power from the Force.

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr did much the same thing back in 1953 when they took a passionate roll in the surf in From Here to Eternity, inspiring generations of visitors to frolic upon the same stretch of Hawaiian sand.

And when five-year-old Saroo Brierley was snatched from his family by the bewildering Indian rail network in the 1980s, he could never have imagined that decades later Tasmania’s tourism marketing budgets would swing behind his true-life account in this year’s Oscar nominee Lion.

It’s a pattern repeated all over the world – that beach on Phi Phi; that deli where Harry met Sally; those hills, seemingly alive with the sound of music, just outside Salzburg.

Whether through cinematic magic or freakish good fortune, there are countless instances where the hand of Hollywood has plucked locations from obscurity and thrust them onto the red carpet.

Destinations suddenly become screen icons, as if they’d just had an unnerving encounter on the casting couch. Tourism authorities become publicity agents, startled into action by flashbulbs and film reviewers.

Dev Patel in Lion, copyright Mark Rogers

Yet increasingly, the rise of movie locations as tourism destinations is more strategic than accidental, and the connection between film studios and tourism bodies is becoming as familiar as the association between popcorn and celluloid.

The Garth Davis-directed movie Lion with Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham is the most recent screen success to bring Australian landscapes to the fore.

Nominated for six Academy Awards at last month’s Oscars, it tells the story of Saroo Brierley and his incredible quest to locate his Indian mother, more than two decades after his misadventure on the railways and adoption by an Australian couple from Hobart.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser contrasts dry and crowded Indian scenes with the secluded forests and coastline of Tasmania, creating a prime opportunity for the state’s tourism marketers.

“We saw the potential because we knew the original book,” said Tourism Tasmania’s director of consumer marketing Tony Quarmby. “To then hear that Nicole Kidman had signed on, and then Dev Patel, that just ramped up expectations.”

Through film financing body Screen Tasmania, the tourism organisation connected early with the movie’s producers, the Weinstein Company, and local film distributors, giving it an opportunity to plan its marketing strategy around the movie’s release.

“We worked very closely with Screen Tasmania and also with the distributors and their corresponding agencies,” Quarmby said. “We worked out what their marketing activities were going to be, how they were going to promote the film, how they would like our assistance and how we could repurpose things to suit our own strategic needs,” he said.

Activities were planned around linking Tasmania to the film wherever possible.

“It’s branding by association. When someone thinks of Lion, we want them to think Tasmania.

“If there’s an article from an interview with one of the cast, how do we get Tasmania to be mentioned? If the distributor is promoting the screening times, how do we put an ad next to the listings linking the movie to Tasmania?”

With budgets only a fraction the size of the movie studios, Tourism Tasmania put its focus on PR, digital initiatives and promotions. It partnered with Qantas and the Nine Network’s Today Show to offer a Tasmanian hiking holiday.

In the US, it teamed with a holiday wholesaler to connect Tasmanian travel packages with the movie’s promotion. Similar projects in the UK linked with PR activity, capitalising on Dev Patel’s local fame and a publicity tour by the real Saroo Brierly, now an avid Tasmanian salesman.

“I think Saroo is an ambassador for Tasmania whether we want it or not,” said Quarmby. “He loves Tasmania and he’s happy to spruik it.”

A microsite on Tourism Tasmania’s web platform draws on the state’s ‘Go Behind the Scenery’ catchline and offers a video in which Brierley talks of his love for the island’s natural assets. He takes a boating trip and dives for lobster, interspersed with scenes from the movie.

Across the world, VisitBritain is capitalising on a booming local film industry, tapping into live-action thrillers like the 007 franchise as well as computer-generated characters like Paddington and Roald Dalh’s BFG.

“VisitBritain has worked on film tourism for about 15 years,” said the organisation’s senior brand marketing manager Emma Wilkinson. “Back in the day, we started with printed movie maps and DVD inserts. As time has gone on and technology has changed, it’s now much more about digital and social media, and being as innovative as we can with those channels.”

Using movies as a springboard to international promotion is now a key function at VisitBritain.

“It’s really important to what we do and it’s a great way for us to raise awareness of Britain overseas,” Wilkinson said. “We also use it to change perceptions, challenge stereotypes and reach new audiences.”

The UK’s movie industry is among the biggest in the world outside Hollywood and Bollywood, last year posting a record 1.6 billion in film production and providing ample opportunity for tourism marketing.

Country manors, historic sites, London landmarks and Scottish landscapes are all routine cast members in British film, appearing in everything from Jane Austen costume dramas to Harry Potter fantasies.

Downton Abbey, Carnival Films and Television

The impact is notoriously difficult to measure, but almost universally accepted to be huge.

“From our research we know that around 40% of potential visitors would be very likely to look at places they’ve seen in film or on TV, so that’s over a third of visitors driven by something they’ve seen on the screen,” Wilkinson said.

“There was also research released by the British Film Institute in 2015 that showed around 840 million of UK tourism spend could be attributed to film.”

VisitBritain’s film partnerships are each considered on a movie’s particular merits, Wilkinson said, working from a fixed set of criteria. Among them is the need for films to have strong links to British culture, literature or history.

The tourism body focuses on one or two major movie projects each year, often working with other arms of government to draw benefits from trade, investment and education perspectives.

The James Bond franchise has produced among the most visible activities recently, involving tourism cooperation that extended as far as placing branding from the current ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign on a taxi seen in Spectre starring Daniel Craig.

“The majority of our campaign took place through digital and social media and some of the valuations that we’ve run show that 64% of people who engaged with that campaign said the activity made them think that Britain was an exciting destination.”

Activities around Spectre included the creation of a dedicated website with information on the movie and its shooting locations, along with suggested travel itineraries. A partnership with the website Buzzfeed included further content and an online quiz, while other activity took place on Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

In LA, VisitBritain posted billboards and partnered with Sony to produce a 30-second ‘Bond is Great’ video linking Bond movies of the past with locations in the UK. The organisation’s PR teams hosted media and influencers on Bond-themed itineraries around Britain to generate coverage online and in lifestyle publications, while a worldwide competition offered a “money can’t buy” holiday and 007 experience.

Wilkinson points to a “dual screen” phenomenon among cinema goers, in which their experience on the big screen is extended by their actions on their phones and devices, giving VisitBritain further opportunity to engage.

“Social media is very important in our campaigns because we can measure the whole customer journey,” Wilkinson said. “In terms of our metrics and evaluation, it’s much easier to track when we run on digital and social compared to billboards and things like that.”

The digital revolution might be important, but old fashion nostalgia still plays a huge role in a destination’s screen image.

For the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Australian country manager Kerri Anderson, movies screened on TV over many a wintry Saturday afternoon have left an indelible image.

“To me it’s those old movies — the Elvis movies, the Gidget movies, even the Brady Bunch specials. They really stick in my personal memories, and that was my first introduction to Hawaii as a kid,” Anderson said.

Hawaii’s screen image began developing relatively early in films like From Here to Eternity and Blue Hawaii starring the young Elvis Presley.

“I don’t know that people would go to Hawaii specifically to do movie type tours, but once you’re there those sorts of activities are really popular and it’s cool to say you’ve stood where Elvis once stood or you’ve been to the beach where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissed.”

These and more recent movies like Jurassic Park have spawned location tours among Hawaii’s coastal landscape and lush volcanic mountains. “There are helicopter tours in Kauai among the cliffs and waterfalls where they’ll play the Jurassic Park theme song as you’re flying along,” Anderson said.

Another Kauai tour, by land, takes in locations used in Jurassic Park and in the more recent George Clooney film The Descendants.

“I saw the movie a second time after doing that tour and I remember getting a whole new perspective and thinking, wow, I’ve stood on the same spot that George Clooney stood on,” Anderson said.

The impact of film and television comes not just from the destination’s exposure, but also from the economic contribution of the production itself. The chief of the Hawaiian Government’s creative industries division Georja Skinner says an average television series like Hawaii Five-O or Lost can generate more than $80 million per season in economic input including jobs and tax revenue.

Sometimes a movie’s location has as much impact on the actors as it does on the audience.

To capitalise on Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie Australia in 2008, Tourism Western Australia embarked on a $2.2 million marketing and public relations campaign that included cinema, print, online advertisements and in-flight television across Australia and the globe.

The tourism body’s CEO Gwyn Dolphin cites the campaign as one of state’s most creative, with the WA Government partnering with Tourism Australia, 20th Century Fox and the local tourism industry to promote the Kimberley region. Visitor centres in Kununurra and Broome recorded their busiest tourist numbers in the year after the movie’s release.

“Thanks to her work on Australia, Nicole Kidman continues to name Kununurra as one of her favourite places, including during an interview on the high-rating international talk-show, Ellen,” Dolphin said.

If there’s one country whose tourism identity has been transformed by cinema more than any other, it’s New Zealand.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy and subsequent Hobbit films by Peter Jackson brought the country to the big screen in ways few destinations have ever known.

“These films really catapulted New Zealand onto a world stage,” said Tourism New Zealand general manager of PR and major events Rebecca Ingram. “And they did it through multiple lenses. They did it through the film itself, through the special effects and the amazing work of Weta Workshops here in New Zealand. But they also took our landscapes and turned them into a character in the film and put them in front of hundreds of millions of people around the world.”

The impact has been profound, maintaining momentum over a 15-year period since the first movie’s release.

“To this day approximately one third of visitors to New Zealand are intending to have what we call a Hobbit experience,” Ingram said. “It might be a visit to Hobbiton (the movie set attraction), it might be traversing some mountains from the film which are free experiences but put you in the footsteps of the characters, or it could be here in Wellington heading up Mount Victoria where some of the scenes for Lord of the Rings were shot.

Tourism NZ prefers to remain tight-lipped on the strategies it deploys around movies, but has caught the attention of others.

“Globally it’s quite carefully looked at,” Ingram said. “I would probably get one to two queries a week from academics or destination marketers or students writing papers who are interested in the formula of film tourism.”

The organisation works in tandem with the New Zealand Film Commission, which helps fund both domestic and international film production, to identify films it is able to work with. It then unites with film producers and their PR teams, along with industry partners like Air New Zealand, to create campaigns around the film’s release.

Recent productions like Pete’s Dragon have created additional opportunities, but Lord of the Rings remains the “bedrock” of film tourism in New Zealand even after 15 years, Ingram said. “I think the impact of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit has been profound on New Zealand Tourism.

“Tourism is now our number one export earner. We employ about 185,000 people full time equivalent, so it’s a really sizeable industry for NZ and you can certainly draw a line between the growth NZ has experienced and the impact of film on tourism.”