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.The importance of ads, trailers, and the 30-second spots we see on TV cannot be underestimated. Take the sad case of Knight and Day, which the talented creative marketing Fox Exec VP Tony Sella took a bullet for at Fox this summer. When I first saw the spot, I thought, "Boy, I might actually want to see this movie, even though I'm not so sure about the cast." Then, according to industry reporter Nikki Finke, the trailer tested terribly, and the studio pulled it, because, she reported, the audience didn't like the cast—he's weird (!) they said, and she's old (!?!). So apparently, micromanaged by top management, as often happens when things go sour, Sella pulled the cast out of the rest of the materials, and they came up with a strange campaign with silhouettes, based on the Saul Bass James Bond titles which no one from the generation they were trying to reach recognized or understood. It failed completely. The movie didn't open, and marketing was blamed. Even people who might have liked the original material didn't go.
What do we mean when we say a movie opens? Back in Pleistocene era, (the late '80s/early '90s) my old favorite The Fisher King could make $7.9 million on opening weekend and get a congrats ad in Variety, and play and play. These days it would get yanked out of the theater after a second weekend. A movie has to gross double digits to keep its theater, assuming it's going to drop on average 40 percent the next weekend. Talk about inflation! The costs of production, prints and advertising, all of it have made opening a movie out of control. Blockbusters are in ego race every summer, like billionaires competing in the America's Cup.
Big Stars are the traditional way to open movies—getting them on talk shows, the covers of magazines, everywhere talking about the movie—so getting them in the movie was the producer's job. They are still a vital tool of a marketing department, and a large portion of their job is getting their stars to work and negotiating with their press agent about what they are willing to do.
The return of Julia Roberts was a big deal for Sony. She worked and worked, and helped open their movie Eat Pray Love. But mostly Jeff Blake's campaign was brilliant. It was beautiful, dreamy, and everywhere. If you'd remotely heard of the book, you would have seen the poster, the jewelry, the dumpboxes with prayer beads in stores. It was utterly female-friendly penetration, pardon the pun.
But stars are not what they used to be, either in cooperation or in usefulness—with the exception of Sandy Bullock for women—who is besieged with offers and both works and sells anything at this point—and perhaps Will Smith, Johnny Depp, and Robert Downey for guys. On the other side of the coin, poor Michael Cera was blamed for the failure of the critically adored Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But all the marginal comic book material that worked at Comic Con has been flailing at the box office, (Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass—this is a trend that should be watched), and the aimless campaign didn't help a bit.
Sony's excellent marketing department, led by the talented veteran Jeff Blake, knows how to hit its targets, and this summer had four movies cross $100 million, a smooth co-ordination of production and marketing slate planning. Adam Sandler makes $100 million in the same pattern every summer, and he did so this year in Grown Ups; Karate Kid 2 for the family set; Salt for international; one for the girls—last year Julie and Julia, this year Julia in Eat Pray Love, which opened well and dropped off considerably, unlike last year's J&J.
Marketing was always important in our business. But it was never the be-and end-all as it is now. The marketing people are charged with the job of getting us, America, the smart and dumb and young and old and male and female to want to see this movie we've never heard of before. They have to make us all excited about filmmakers, while not afraid of a hard movie, not afraid of a long movie, and not afraid of a maze.
Ten years ago, we never knew the names of the heads of marketing. They were suits who came to previews. Now they are the other rock stars, besides the studio heads. We know they are vital participants in the studio green-light process, and now we hear they are called into meetings to decide whether to buy a $50,000 spec script! If that's the case, here's a new Hollywood riddle: what's the difference between a marketing head and a studio head? Answer: It doesn't matter, as long as the marketing head is a whiz kid who believes in your movie.