By Emily Freehling
The questions that consume groups of students on a Tuesday evening in Woodard Hall are the kinds of details that can make or break multimillion-dollar motion pictures:
Does a film about Formula 1 racing, 2013’s Rush, stand a chance in a country where NASCAR is the dominant motorsport?
Is there a way to make the coveted 18- to 24-year-old demographic excited about 1999’s The Hurricane?
Does the title October Sky really tell a potential audience much about this 1999 film about Cold War-inspired amateur rocketry?
The movies were released in the past, but this is September 2018, and the individuals discussing them are students in Marketing Movies, a first-of-its-kind class in the College of Business.
The class is the brainchild of Dan Wolfe ’84, who created this group assignment to introduce students to lessons he learned during a career of movie marketing that included 25 years at NBC Universal.
In the 10 minutes he’s given the groups to fine-tune their presentations in class, Wolfe moves around the room, checking their progress.
The students are to critique their assigned film’s marketing, then present how they would market the film if they were releasing it today.
“You can’t control what the movie is,” Wolfe tells the class, “but you can control your marketing, the message.”
That message was the focus of Wolfe’s professional life for the release of hundreds of films, including Best Picture Academy Award winners Shakespeare in Love, Schindler’s List, and A Beautiful Mind.
A Virginia Beach native, Wolfe studied business at Mary Washington. His postgraduate experience and career have played out amid some seemingly serendipitous connections to his alma mater.
After graduating, Wolfe returned to Virginia Beach and worked a job he was apathetic about. A classmate’s death in an auto accident was a wake-up call to stop accepting the status quo and start living his life.
He was strolling Campus Walk on a return visit when he saw a flyer for film school at Emerson College and immediately knew he wanted to apply to Emerson for a master’s degree. He earned his graduate degree in communication management and moved to Los Angeles to work for Orion Films. That led to his next job at New Line Cinema, and then Universal Pictures.
A passion for movies got Wolfe into the business, but he also came to love the role an executive can play in improving an organization.
Wolfe was executive vice president for worldwide creative operations at NBC Universal until he left the position in 2016. The job was the product of his vision to eliminate redundancies in the way movies were marketed across Universal’s various platforms – from theatrical releases to home entertainment to theme parks.
“You’d build a marketing campaign and then home entertainment would do a different marketing campaign and then international,” he said. “A lot of the creative [work] was being repeated, and we were spending a lot of money to create it again. … I saw an opportunity to tie together theatrical, home entertainment, and international so that they weren’t just straight silos, to really be the hub for all these areas.”
His work to institute a more holistic approach to marketing major films included establishing an office in London to act as a base for worldwide marketing.
“It was great, because in many ways I love building things. I enjoyed eliminating a lot of redundancy that was going on,” Wolfe said.
Selling a movie is vastly different from marketing a consumer product.
Whereas Procter & Gamble has a lifetime to hammer its brand names into consumers’ minds, movie marketers must compel theatergoers to act during the first week after release, which often determines a picture’s success or failure.
“It’s like your fast food of marketing,” Wolfe said. “With movies, you basically have a six-week window where most of your marketing takes place before opening. Once it’s out, it’s out. You let it go.”
To try to simulate these high stakes in the classroom, Wolfe plans a final project where student groups will market the release of a movie he’s made up. He’ll give them the synopsis, the stars, and other basics. Then he’ll throw in curveballs that replicate situations he dealt with during his career – stars who get arrested or other potential blockbusters that claim the same release date.
“You have to make adjustments on the fly,” he said. “These kinds of things happen.”
As Wolfe’s career advanced, his work was satisfying. But the lifestyle wasn’t easy. “My 30s and 40s were a blur,” he said of the demanding schedule and Los Angeles-area commute that put him on the road 15 hours a week.
When the first of Wolfe’s two children was born 22 years ago, he made changes and hired dependable people so that he could bring work and life into slightly better balance. But four or five years ago, he felt it might be time for something different.
“You’re making really good money and it’s hard to walk away, but at some point, you say, ‘It doesn’t matter. There’s got to be something else,’” Wolfe said.
For Wolfe, that “something else” kept bringing him back to Mary Washington during his years on the West Coast. He was named Distinguished Alumnus in 2004, served as Distinguished Graduate in Residence in 2007, and was the 2010 commencement speaker.
When Vice President for Administration and Finance Lynne Richardson came to Mary Washington as dean of the College of Business in 2011, she learned about Wolfe’s credentials and recruited him for the College of Business Advisory Board she was putting together at the time.
“He was one of the first people I invited,” Richardson said.
The two hit it off and stayed in touch about ways that Wolfe could contribute to the university.
“It was when I started realizing I could do more,” Wolfe said.
Last spring, as Wolfe was going to job interviews and trying to figure out his next professional move, he asked Richardson what he’d need to do to transition to the world of education. Richardson told him that with his master’s degree and professional credentials, he could teach at the college level. Then she asked how serious he was about wanting to make the move.
As it turned out, she’d just had a resignation on the marketing faculty and was looking to fill a vacancy for fall 2018.
“It was just kind of one of those timing things,” Richardson said. “If he had not asked then, and if we had not had that resignation, it might have never happened.”
In August, Wolfe dropped his daughter off for her freshman year at the University of Kansas, where her older brother was already studying. Wolfe returned to L.A., drove cross-country with his two dogs, and arrived at his new home in Fredericksburg days before Mary Washington students moved into their residence halls.
“I talk on the phone to my daughter about being new on campus, and I realize we’re going through some of the same things,” Wolfe said. “She’ll talk about professors, and I’ll ask, ‘What’s that professor like?’ I’m trying to get a read on what she likes and what she doesn’t like.”
Richardson said the transition to teaching can be rewarding for those who come from demanding careers – but it’s never easy.
“These are people who had very busy, fast-paced, travel-all-the-time lifestyles, and they are realizing teaching is hard, the preparation, the time it takes,” she said.
Wolfe said it’s been a learning curve, and he’s been grateful for the support he’s received from fellow faculty and Kenneth Machande, interim dean of the College of Business.
Working with college students has given him an up-close look at a demographic that many marketers consider to be the holy grail. It’s been eye-opening but also humbling, he admits.
“You go from being ‘the guy,’ and in many ways, it is an adjustment,” he said. “But I tell you, I love the energy of students. I’m seeing a lot of engagement.”
Zach Mayhall ’19 was drawn to Wolfe’s class because of a lifelong love of movies. The business administration major is interested in a career in marketing, possibly for movies or video games.
When his group was assigned to critique the marketing of October Sky, he went to imdb.com
to find out all he could about the title. To him, the producers’ decision to choose the title in part because it was an anagram of Rocket Boys, the book the movie is based on, seemed a little boneheaded.
“I don’t understand why some executives in Hollywood make the decisions they do,” he said. Now he’s taking full advantage of the opportunity to question one in person.
“You can talk to him about why certain decisions got made,” Mayhall said. “I like the fact that he has real-world experience. He wasn’t just some random person in the company, he was an executive, and he really has a lot of knowledge about the industry.”
Wolfe has made clear to his students that he hopes they’ll use him as a resource, share their résumés, and let him help them prepare for the ultimate marketing project: promoting themselves to a potential employer.
The experience takes him back to his own days at Mary Washington.
“There’s definitely a sense of déjà vu,” he said. “Being here just feels like home. It brings you back to that memory of starting off somewhere new.
“Mary Washington sent me out into the world and set the stage for me to be successful. Now it has drawn me back, and I’m hoping to help a lot of these young people who remind me of how I was at that age, just not sure about ‘Where does life take you next?’
“I hope I can help them creatively see the possibilities.”