I realize that movies are just products to the companies selling them, but every once in a while I’m reminded what a joyless and cynical world these people live in. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Tad Friend records an October weekend he spent shadowing Tim Palen, copresident of theatrical marketing for the elbow-throwing distributor Lionsgate (Saw, Sicko, Religulous, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Deliver Us From Evil). Like every weekend in Hollwood, it’s an opening weekend, and Palen is sweating the box office returns for Oliver Stone’s W. even as he monitors a test screening of the Renee Zellweger comedy “Chilled in Miami” (which opens this Friday under the more marketable title New in Town). In both cases Palen’s job is to turn the movie into something it’s not. “Publicity is selling what you have: the film’s stars and sometimes its director,”writes Friend. “Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have; it’s the art of the tease.”
The art proves maddeningly elusive in the case of W., which opened two weeks before the presidential election. Palen, hoping to evoke the Saturday Night Live political sketches that were a huge online hit, spent $23 million on a marketing campaign that stressed W.‘s comic moments, with a trailer that ran like a presidential blooper reel. He even wanted to use a photo of Brolin, as George W. Bush, sitting on the toilet in the pose of Rodan’s The Thinker. But the real problem was the movie: conservatives would never see it because of Stone’s reputation, and Stone’s treatment of Bush was too even-handed to interest frothing liberals.
If you really want to see the sausage being made, nothing else in the piece compares to the test screening for “Chilled in Miami” and the machinations surrounding the film’s rollout. Zellweger plays a Miami executive sent to fire people from a plant in small-town Minnesota, where she meets Harry Connick Jr., etc. David Schneiderman of Seismic Productions, who edited theatrical trailers for The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, recalls Palen’s complaints when he saw the one Schneiderman had cut for the Zellweger movie. “Where’s the Mary Tyler Moore?” Palen asked. “This girl goes to this little town in Minnesota and she’s a cold person, and they warm her up, right? More warmth, more style, more Devil Wears Prada.” When Scheiderman told him he couldn’t find that in the movie, Palen replied, “Create it.” Palen also personally reshot the photos for the poster to give Zellweger more pizazz and a pretty pair of red heels.
Friend’s piece is the sort of rich, extended profile that I always look forward to in the magazine, and you really should give it a read. But I can’t resist excerpting a few more jaw-dropping observations on the black arts of Coming to a Theater Near You:
• “Marketers segment the audience in a variety of ways, but the most common form of partition is the four quadrants: men under twenty-five; older man; women under twenty-five; older women. A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn’t expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film’s budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach.”
• “Posters are intended to tell you the film’s genre at a glance, then make you look more closely. Horror posters, for instance, have dark backgrounds; comedies have white backgrounds with the title and copy line in red. Because stars are supposed to open the film, and because they have contractual approval of how they appear on the poster, the final image is often a so-called ‘big head’ or ‘floating head’ of the star.”
• “For marketers, much of the science of marketing is determining which old movie your new movie is like, so you can turn to that movie’s playbook as a rough guide. Much of the art of marketing is developing a campaign that reassures moviegoers that the new film is very similar to (or at least ‘from the director of’) another one they liked.”