Trumping the Box Office Slump

Amos Posner

Posner has some advice for all those suits who believe that the current box office slump is centered around bad films or the burgeoning sell-through schism of DVD: 'It's the marketing, stupid!'

It's been a few weeks now, but New Yorkers, in the wake of our recent scare, can finally breathe easier. No longer do we have to cower in fear around every turn and down every darkened street, frightened of an unforeseeable foe. It appears to be gone for good, that threat so terrifying that we can hardly say its name.

That's right. Elijah Wood.

For those unaware of New York's familiarity with everyone's favorite hobbit, it seems that this autumn, the producers of Green Street Hooligans decided to promote their film by placing scoreboard-style video screens playing the movie's trailer on subway stops all around the city. This odd and inescapable ad campaign was bizarre on two levels. First of all, it was strange to see these video signs everywhere, especially when not once did I see a theatrical preview, print advertisement, or TV ad for the film. Second, and far more important, the people who masterminded this campaign seemed to be tragically unaware of how the ads would look to fresh eyes.

The movie tells the story of a student who gets kicked out of school for something he didn't do, then travels to England and falls in with the wrong crowd — an iffy, but reasonable premise for a movie. The problem is that the trailer simply showed Elijah Wood trying to look menacing as he marched into a brawl. Picture it. Seeing the trailer for Green Street Hooligans (without sound, no less) made it look like someone had tried to remake Gangs of New York with the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. Elijah Wood in intimidation mode is pretty frightening.

But there's a lesson to be learned from this bizarre promotion of a little-seen indie flick. While Hollywood worries about the recent slumping box office, maybe it's wrong to say that it's the increased prevalence of DVD releases or cable television. And it's just as wrong when people snidely remark that ticket sales would bounce back if better movies were released. Perhaps the real answer has everything to do with common sense and marketing, and far less to do with bringing highfalutin notions of artistic merit to the masses.

Salesmanship in Hollywood might be suffering every bit as much as creativity. Whether it's the slow performance of a brilliantly executed, star-studded film like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the swing-and-miss of a big budget would-be blockbuster like The Island, there's enlightenment to be found in such past missteps. Commercial success comes down to much more than "good" and "bad" films. Basic marketing and positioning often seems to be a lost art form. But even the biggest mistake makers can shape up with these simple rules:

Step 1: Cast to your audience, play to your stars' strengths.
People seemed confused this summer when The Island flopped miserably (a reported $130 million budget, grossing under $36 million domestically). But what were Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson doing in an overblown Michael Bay movie? Sure, the movie stunk, but so do lots of Michael Bay movies. It's never hurt him before. McGregor's only really found success in indie fare like Velvet Goldmine, Star Wars movies whose success w entirely franchise-related, and in vehicles like Moulin Rouge, which was really Nicole Kidman's show. Similarly, Johansson's success is essentially relegated to the arthouses for Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring. Dreamworks executives Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald were criticized for publicly blaming the movie's failure on its stars, but they should have anticipated what was already apparent: People who like McGregor and Johansson aren't going to see a Michael Bay movie, and people who see Michael Bay movies don't know who McGregor and Johansson are.

Step 2: Being in a hit doesn't mean an actor is automatically a box office draw.
Okay, the movies were great, the movies were huge, New Zealand got thanked a lot. Done. But this throwing of Lord of the Rings actors' names above the marquee is getting ridiculous. Elijah Wood has the least presence of any man getting lead roles today. Viggo Mortensen reached epic levels of flatness with his performance in A History of Violence.

As for Orlando Bloom, he's been present for numerous blockbuster hits now, but was he responsible for any of them? It's pretty certain that it was Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt that made Pirates of the Caribbean and Troy into international cash pots, not Orlando's second fiddle status. Kingdom of Heaven and Elizabethtown, the two major releases to clearly star Bloom, have both drawn poorly in the US amid lukewarm reviews. Just like with Ewan McGregor, wishful thinking and affiliation with mega-hits don't make a certain superstar.

Step 3: Time your releases.
Eternal Sunshine was an artistically ambitious, serious movie bound to receive Oscar notice (Kate Winslet was nominated, Charlie Kauffman won for his script). It was grey, wintry, and dependent on critical buzz, in spite of its star-studded cast. So who thought to release it in March? It came and went with shockingly little fanfare for such a well-realized movie with such high-profile talent both in front of and behind the camera. Focus Features missed out by releasing it in March 2004 instead of in the November-December Oscar frenzy.

Similarly, it's madness to release movies like Road to Perdition and Cinderella Man in the summer. Road to Perdition underperformed and Cinderella Man outright flopped. People don't want heavy critic-bait films in the summer. They don't want the great depression and artisan, Oscar-chasing drama. Summer is the time of year that paid for the summer homes of Adam Sandler, Michael Bay, and Will Smith. Releasing prestige films in the summer is like serving caviar at a baseball stadium — it doesn't matter whether it's good or not, it's just not right. And for anyone who thought Cinderella Man could fit the Seabiscuit mold of summer success and Oscar buzz, don't be fooled by the Depression uplift commonality. Parents will take their kids to see horsies and that nice boy from Spider-Man as often as they want. No parent will take their kids to see Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti

Step 4: Mind the trailer.
Two of the most interesting hits of the summer were Wedding Crashers and Red Eye, mainly because of the way they were marketed. The trailer for Wedding Crashers was set to Green Day's "American Idiot", and advertised the movie as a fun, kinetic, and lightweight laugh-fest that may as well have been a set of vignettes. The movie turned out to be far more plot-driven and long-winded in its pace than the montage-oriented preview let on. But the mood of the ads set the tone for the movie, and it did live up to its promise of being a fun, sidesplitting comedy. The preview, the summer release, and the movie's similarly snappy billboards combined to help the movie open big ($33.9 million, a hair shy of the film's reported budget). Surely that marketing deserves mention alongside the strong actual production and the resulting positive word of mouth for its ultimate success.

Red Eye, while a far more modest hit, can also unquestionably chalk up some degree of its success not only to its tight writing, direction, and cast, but to what was probably the best trailer of 2005. It offered a brilliant twist that turns what looks like a cheesy romance into a tense, creepy thriller.

And this doesn't just work for strong, well-reviewed movies. Jarhead opened bigger than any of Sam Mendes' previous films, even with far worse reviews. The movie's commercial success clearly owes some debt to its heavily pushed preview, which emphasized a topical subject, a prestigious director (in November, the beginning of Oscar season), and Jamie Foxx's extraordinary utterance of the almost-word "Oorah".

* * *

Of course, we should really worry more about quality than money-making when it comes to movies. But let's be realistic: movies are a business (not just in the US) and weekly box office write-ups aren't filled with executives complaining about the quality of films versus a year ago. It's all about bringing in the cheddar.

So rather than look quizzically to the skies and ask for guidance, it's up to Hollywood to learn these lessons and stick to the basics: don't name a golf movie The Greatest Game Ever Played; remember that people like seeing terrible things happen to Jodie Foster; and utilize your basic knowledge of actors, marketing, and past box office performance instead of just hoping for the best when trying to assemble a hit. Otherwise, they're going to look in the mirror one day and see their indie nephews, desperately trying to sell New Yorkers on Elijah Wood's toughness.

And that's just scary.

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