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.