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When it comes to surviving the nasty world of Washington politics, people have often said that if you want a friend, get a dog. The same goes in Hollywood, especially when your movie has crashed and burned at the box office.


So it’s no surprise that all of the industry buzz over the weekend has focused on the rocky opening for “Knight and Day,” the supposed sure-thing romantic action comedy that did a belly flop at the box office, barely topping $20 million for the three-day weekend (giving it $27.8 million in five days of release).


Despite having Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in starring roles and a wall-to-wall marketing blitz of TV ads from 20th Century Fox, the movie simply didn’t find an audience, finishing a distant third to “Toy Story 3” and Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups.” In Hollywood, when a movie fails to open, the blame game begins in earnest. Many in the media thought the problem started with Cruise, who did tons of press for the film but couldn’t pull moviegoers into the multiplexes. Many in the industry, including several people close to the film, were privately pointing fingers at Fox co-Chairman Tom Rothman, who picked the movie’s title and micromanaged its marketing campaign.


Also coming under fire was Tony Sella — Fox’s co-president of marketing, who is viewed as one of the best in the business — for having done a poor job of positioning the $117-million film, the studio’s third consecutive dud of the summer, after “Marmaduke” and “The A-Team.” Sella’s critics say that audiences were confused by the studio’s initial trailer for the film, which ran on the front of “Avatar,” the phenomenally successful James Cameron film that dominated the box office this year. When tracking about audience interest in “Knight and Day” became available several weeks ago, the numbers were surprisingly low. Despite frantic efforts by Fox to reconfigure the film’s marketing message, the numbers never recovered.


Those close to the film, who declined to go on the record in fear that their criticisms could compromise their relationships with the studio, contend that the movie’s title was off-putting to younger moviegoers, saying it evoked wheezy, 1980s-era action films like “Tango and Cash.” They were also surprised to see Fox running posters and outdoor advertising that didn’t have any images of Cruise and Diaz, opting instead of silhouette style cutouts of the actors — if you’re going to pay multiple millions to movie stars, why not get your money’s worth from using a sexy photo of their images in the campaign? After all, for all of the inside-the-industry backstabbing of Cruise after his outbursts of off-putting behavior, the actor successfully opened 2008’s “Valkyrie,” a Nazi-era World War II movie that represented a far more questionable commercial genre than an action thriller like “Knight and Day.”


In a rare interview Monday morning, Sella, who is painfully media shy but a delightful raconteur when he’s far away from a tape recorder, took full responsibility for the film’s poor showing. He was especially vocal — and unusually candid — when it came to the issue of the Cruise Factor.


“Blame me, don’t blame Tom Cruise,” he said. “We did lots of focus groups for this film, and no one ever said there was a star problem. Never. Tom Cruise was not the issue. I take full responsibility.” He laughed. “And if the movie ends up going to $100 million, I want full responsibility too.”


Sella contends that the silhouette-style representations of the film’s stars weren’t meant to hide the actors from view. “I was doing an homage to (fabled title designer) Saul Bass,” he explained. “It was a way for us to signal that this was a different, adult kind of movie. The whole campaign was designed to evoke a film like ‘North by Northwest.’ It wasn’t in any way us trying to hide anyone, simply to make the film look unique ...”


Sella acknowledged that the film’s initial trailer didn’t get its message across properly. But he insists that Fox wasn’t asleep at the switch when the lousy tracking numbers began showing up, as some critics have contended.


“We knew there was an audience disconnect, and we reacted and tried to adjust the spots accordingly,” he said. “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that when you got your trailer out in front of the biggest movie of all time and you still didn’t have the tracking numbers you should have, it wasn’t an awareness problem. It was a problem with our message.”


Sella found himself in a classic marketer’s quandary. He’d been running an offbeat campaign to make the film feel unique. But once the audience registered its confusion with his campaign, he found himself simplifying the message, which created a new set of problems. “Once we decided to change the message to be as literal as we could be — to help moviegoers understand the film — then people started to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that movie before. It’s ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ or it’s ‘True Lies.’ And that was exactly what we’d tried not to do, to make the movie feel like something you’d seen before.”


One of the biggest problems with “Knight and Day” was that it appealed largely to an older audience, either because younger moviegoers have little interest in a sophisticated “North by Northwest”-style thriller or because Cruise and Diaz have even less of a following among younger moviegoers than anyone had imagined. According to reporting by my colleague Ben Fritz, under-25 moviegoers made up 44 percent of the film’s opening weekend audience, a figure that doesn’t bode well for the film, since even fewer younger moviegoers will be available after the new “Twilight” film opens Wednesday.


In the summer, adult moviegoers rarely drive the box office, especially when your film skews as old as “Knight and Day” did and receives decidedly mixed reviews. “It’s a grown-up film,” says Sella. “That was the whole theory behind selling the film, that it was a cool, adult movie, hence the poster and the graphics behind it. We wouldn’t have called it ‘Knight and Day’ if we weren’t going for an adult audience. I guess that if I’m guilty of anything, it’s that I always believed an adult movie could work, even in the summer.”


But why didn’t the young moviegoers come too? Sella falls silent. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve still got to try and figure that out.” He dismissed complaints about the film’s title, arguing that titles, good or bad, are overrated. “If there are three words that you should never put in any title, its ‘Dead Poet’s Society,’ and yet that film was a huge success. Titles really don’t hurt movies, and for that matter, I don’t know what else we could have called it. What we were up against was bigger than that.”


Frankly, no one knows for sure what kept moviegoers away from “Knight and Day.” Even if the film had a lousy title and a questionable release date, it’s easy to name dozens of films that have triumphed over those factors, just as it’s easy to name dozens more films that had unbelievably enticing titles and a perfect release date — and still went down in flames.


It’s why Hollywood loves to play the blame game. In a business where there are no infallible filmmakers, where audiences are perpetually fickle, blowing hot and cold over every fresh new actor or hot new trend, the only constant is that our movies are our most enigmatic consumer product of all, their appeal a perpetual mystery. All we know is that something was missing from the witches’ brew represented by “Knight and Day,” something that even a savvy marketer like Sella is still having trouble figuring out.

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