In June, I had breakfast with one of my favorite prognosticators who—for this blog—will remain nameless. He tests movies for studios, and I asked him to anticipate the summer. He rightly predicted that Toy Story 3 would be the season's biggest movie. (Duh, summer=family.) He called The Expendables, being a guy. But when I asked him in June to call Inception, the movie I most wanted to see, he shook his head. "Not big," he said. "Specialty movie ... For cineastes ... Too hard to explain ... Big cities... Lucky to break $100 million ... No Dark Knight."
This was the industry call on an original idea of Chris Nolan's based on a dreamscape, before Warner Brothers' marketing department whiz Sue Kroll and her team got a hold of it. And $270 million domestically—$650 million worldwide—is the number after they did their magic on it. That is why creative filmmakers and producers—in fact the entire industry—are increasingly dependent on marketing wizards for the survival of the "one-offs": the non-franchise, original material that is the endangered species of the movie business.
How did they take an unknown property like Inception and turn it into an unexpected blockbuster? They made it a must-see phenomenon. If you didn't have an opinion about Inception by Saturday, the day after it opened, you were simply uncool. As my son Oly put it, "I felt they were saying, 'Trust me. You don't have to know what it's about. You just have to see it. Dreams. Chris Nolan. GO.'" So it was with the key demo all around the country. It was so beyond water cooler talk—it was brunch topic A in Chicago, dinner party chatter in Denver. If you hadn't seen it by Sunday, you were in the theater Sunday night for work chat Monday. Industry analysts call this buzz or "want to see."
How did Sue Kroll and her team at WB do this? They turned Chris Nolan into a star—not a movie star, but a cinema star. No director had accomplished this, except Spielberg. In this case, the Dark Knight director wasn't coming at them with an obvious blockbuster; he had an original idea based on a drawer script from 10 years ago, which ran at two and a half hours—a formidable running time. The materials cut by the WB team were taut, dramatic, consistent, and told a narrative:
1) This is an event.
2) This Director (Capital D)—who made Dark Knight—is the Real Thing.
3) It's about dreams.
4) This movie is cool.
5) Here's all the story you need.
5) It's action: mucho action.
6) Here's Leo.
7) He goes home.
8) Visuals are mind-blowing.
9) More action.
10) You have never seen anything like this.
The ad spend was commensurate with any summer blockbuster. I asked Sue if they did anything unusual.
"Rather than attempting to answers all of the questions within the context of our materials, we really encouraged a dialogue. We wanted audiences to struggle a little and really invest in what the movie promised to deliver," she said. "If they had questions, that was a good thing. It meant to us that they were engaged and paying attention, and that ultimately drove our results. Our campaign was a slow build over a period of months. We had to create event status, but that can't be done all at once when you have an original concept. By the time we got to release it was an event, but it took careful planning to get there."
What makes someone like Sue or the excellent Jeff Blake at Sony so good at their jobs? It is the same gift as a great creative production executive: Total absorption in the job, discovering something about each movie to fall in love with. I once saw Sue at a press junket, doing the bugaloo down a hotel corridor with Matt Damon. She actually has fun at work—okay, sometimes—and that may be the key. The way she went out on a limb and championed the unbelievably difficult-to-open Where the Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze and was like a crazy producer. But her gift is by no means reserved for highbrow material—she made hits out of Clash of the Titans, 300, and The Hangover, too: "Mike Tyson, a tiger, chaos. Go."
It is the marketing department's job to get the audience to show up, not to keep showing up. The "legs" of the picture—how long it plays, you could say the success of pact between the audience and the filmmaker—is up to the audience. If they like it, they will keep coming. But thinking they will like it is the job of the marketing department, and if a movie does not have a "unaided awareness"—i.e., it is an original idea, or not a sequel or based on a big or well known comic—it is increasingly dependent on the genius or lack thereof at each studio to invent a campaign that sells that idea to the world. If it doesn't click, the movie dies a quick death.