It may be a channel known for soft-lit black-and-white films that drift across the screen like a dream on a lazy afternoon, but Turner Classic Movies is also a quietly powerful multi-platform brand with a knack for on-point marketing executions.
This month, TCM is in the thick of what could be its most innovative project to date, a free online multimedia course called Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies.
Powered by the Canvas Network, the six-week class is a follow-up to the first online course TCM rolled out, last fall’s Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir. Both classes have paired with on-air programming endeavors, and Painfully Funny’s weekly lessons sync up to Ouch! A Salute to Slapstick, a 56-film, month-long festival of comedies with titles ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus to the 1988 crime spoof The Naked Gun.
“Everything TCM does is about giving good context to these movies to show why they continue to be so relevant and so timeless,” said Shannon Clute, the network’s director of business development and strategy. “To do an experience like this course is just to provide a deeper dive on the things we’re famous for… This is really an experiment in putting the fan at the center of the experience.”
To develop Painfully Funny, TCM once again partnered with iLearn Research, an integrated educational program at Ball State University. The course is designed and taught by the institute’s executive director, Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D. Through initiatives like Painfully Funny, Edwards told Daily Brief, iLearn and TCM are embracing questions “around how 21st-century individuals engage with content in new ways, how they curate information, how they are able to create communities around shared objects of love such as classic film.”
Traveling through four distinct eras of classic Hollywood film history, both the course and the on-air programming initiative start in the Silent Era, move through the “talkies” of the 1930s and ‘40s with key players such as the Marxx Brothers and W.C. Fields, and head on into the ‘50s and ‘60s, when stars like Jerry Lewis and Lucille Ball helped usher in a new era of comedy on television. Both wrap up in the ‘70s and beyond, when Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and even Will Ferrell began getting meta with slapstick by using physical gags to spoof the genre itself. As one might expect, the course presents a weekly lesson plan packed with supplemental reading, clips and quizzes, but it also features elements one might not expect, innovative engagement opportunities that neatly walk the line between learning curriculum and entertainment product.
“These courses are intended to be massive,” Edwards said. “The goal is to have thousands upon thousands of learners, and when I design them I try to think through the value of three prepositions: If something is open, online and massive, what can we do as educators and as TCM, the network, to encourage robust learning on an incredible scale?”
One thing they have done is take a cue from that great uniting force that guides us all, social media, and make Painfully Funny very much an online communal experience for students.
A feature titled Club Slapstick is “like a virtual fandom conference inside the course,” said Clute, where film buffs can submit themselves as possible participants in weekly fan panels. Select contributors then connect with Edwards over Google Hangouts and share their own, slapstick-themed, 7-10-minute presentation with the group at large, across the vast virtual globe.
“We learned in the film noir class that we had so many students that are already experts, whether professors themselves, writers or performers,” Edwards said. “I wanted to flip that around and say, ‘hey, you don’t have to just listen to me, I want to listen to you, too.’”
The class also includes an email component called the Daily Dose of Doozy, which sends a single clip from a select film right to their inboxes every Monday-Thursday, along with a brief intro and three discussion questions.
“The goal is to encourage a learning habit so that students who are very busy don’t have to do much more time on the daily dose than 5-10 minutes a day,” Edwards said. “It allows them to reflect on the films by just watching a 3-4-minute clip, and gets them possibly interested in seeing the whole film, and all the daily doses [focus] on the greatest gags in slapstick history, so these are just a great way to see how the gags evolved from, say, Chaplin in 1915 all the way to Will Ferrell in Anchorman.” And, he added, “it’s just been a big hit.”
In fact, the Daily Dose of Doozy, which doubles as an email marketing campaign that ties directly back to the airing of whatever film the clip is from, has produced metrics “that would make larger networks pretty envious on some fronts,” Clute said. “We’ve seen better than five times the open rate on these emails and 20 times the click-thru rate than what we’ve seen on other campaigns [of this nature], and we’ve also seen our largest spike in sign-ups and participation on TCM message boards.”
That all adds up when you’re dealing with more than 20,000 class-takers, as TCM was for Into the Darkness last year. (The numbers are still being tallied for Painfully Funny.)
But perhaps the most creative and delightful innovation to be found in Painfully Funny involve its weekly “Breakdown of a Gag” segments, which find Prof. Edwards teaming with none other than NBA TV broadcaster Vince Cellini to analyze classic film-comedy moments.
Seated behind the desk on the set of Studio J in the TNT sports studio in Atlanta, the duo of Edwards and Cellini look for all intents and purposes like the hosts of a basketball game halftime show, only what pops up on the screen behind them is not highlights of slam dunks and three-pointers, but Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana peel, or some other hilarious scene from cinematic lore. They then use tellustrator technology to do the classic on-screen scribbling that’s become a staple of the sports visual language, circling, drawing arrows on, and otherwise marking up the key elements that make these complex visual gags tick.
“I have always been very jealous that sportscasters have better analytic tools for analyzing a football game than I do to analyze a film,” Edwards said.
It all adds up to an opportunity “to get the TCM name and that deep contextual experience in front of a broader worldwide audience,” said Clute. “It’s a win-win. We learn as a company what it means to put fans at the center of the media experience, and all the while, those fans are having a heck of a lot of fun.”