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Letter to the Studios: How Not to Market Adult Dramas

Thompson on Hollywood By Mike Kaplan | Thompson on Hollywood August 5, 2009 at 9:34AM

Here's the first of a series of pieces (which do not necessarily reflect my POV) by guest bloggers on various aspects of the entertainment industry. Now based in Nampa, Idaho, Mike Kaplan is a veteran filmmaker (Never Apologize) and marketer who has managed campaigns for Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Robert Altman (Short Cuts) among others. More recently, please note, Kaplan helped to introduce Clive Owen to American audiences with the sleeper hit Croupier and You'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Here's his argument for how the studios are killing adult dramas--through misguided marketing. Kaplan came up in a film industry that made producing and marketing films for grown-ups its first priority. That is no longer the case.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Here's the first of a series of pieces (which do not necessarily reflect my POV) by guest bloggers on various aspects of the entertainment industry. Now based in Nampa, Idaho, Mike Kaplan is a veteran filmmaker (Never Apologize) and marketer who has managed campaigns for Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Robert Altman (Short Cuts) among others. More recently, please note, Kaplan helped to introduce Clive Owen to American audiences with the sleeper hit Croupier and You'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Here's his argument for how the studios are killing adult dramas--through misguided marketing. Kaplan came up in a film industry that made producing and marketing films for grown-ups its first priority. That is no longer the case.


In the past two years, there have been worrying signs of systemic change in the film business toward anything that smacked of quality, a power play to minimize the influence of art. After Paramount Vantage produced three of the best American films in one year – Oscar-winners No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood (both released with Miramax Films) and Into the Wild, Paramount gutted the specialty division because too much money was spent on the films – marketing costs above all. Instead of reconfiguring future spends, the baby was thrown out with the bath water.

Then Warner Bros. shuttered its two specialty divisions – Warner Independent and Picturehouse, the latter headed by Bob Berney, one of the most innovative architects of specialty film distribution (Memento, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Passion of the Christ , My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the Oscar wins of Charlize Theron and Marion Cotillard).

Warner Independent was also the original distributor/co-financier of Slumdog Millionaire, which was headed for DVD-land when big Warners shrewdly placed it with Fox Searchlight, keeping a share of the profits. However, in signing a new deal with a British company, Slumdog producer Christian Colson acknowledged the increasing difficulty of getting smaller films financed and hoped that “riskier projects would still be backed.”

In reading this year’s Oscar postmortems, the prevalent attitude was that the nominations and awards –aside from Slumdog – had little major boxoffice impact, from Frost/Nixon to Milk and The Reader. Along with the regular carp that the most popular films (in this case, The Dark Knight, Iron Man) weren’t getting their due, the Oscars – never an elite barometer but the most influential tribute to the movies – were now less important.

Thompson on Hollywood

THE SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES arrives in semi-rural Idaho by mail, so it was with extra anticipation that I turned to the Arts & Leisure section last March, eager to find the first large quote ad for Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity. I wanted to see what quote and layout choices would be made for one of the few films from a studio’s major division that was a smart, adult entertainment and not a tentpole sequel or a science fiction/action oriented/special effects extravaganza aimed at the audience whose movie choices rarely go further than opening weekend need-to-see.

Unlike the usual, empty afternoon seats at Edwards Cinema Complex in Nampa, there were actually people at the 2:00 PM first day matinee, a good sign. They were not talking to each other nor rushing out for popcorn refills. They were enjoying the film, which on one level is a clever, time shifting, beautifully-crafted corporate spy caper, and on the other, a re-imagined screwball comedy with two attractive stars, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, who create a romantic chemistry that hasn’t been seen since the golden pairings of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray. This was a big-budget, glamorous, witty, surprising movie that couldn’t fail.

So what would the ad look like? Would the quotes only come from the major raves – A.O.Scott in The New York Times (“The most elegantly pleasurable movie to come around in a very long time”), Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times (“Sleek, dizzying entertainment. Sophisticated amusement that needs to be experienced"), David Denby’s later-breaking New Yorker (“Enormously enjoyable. The stars’ bantering rhythm is so natural and easy that it’s already an early stage of sex.”) Or would they be peppered with less covered but equally important sources…Todd McCarthy in Variety (“This is as good as Hollywood gets”), Leah Rozen in People ("Deftly written and directed. Roberts exudes an edgy world –weariness and Owen, well, he’s pure sex on a stick"). And would someone have spotted the rarely achieved 4 Stars in The Week, the influential newsweekly compilation?

[Photo of Mike Kaplan, Sally Kellerman and Malcolm McDowell by Jeffrey Wells]


I turned the pages: quarter pagers next to each other for the poorly reviewed Nicholas Cage actioner, Knowing, and the “bromantic”comedy I Love You Man, two films aimed at a younger audience that opened the same day as Duplicity, to better weekend business, . Duplicity would have to build with word-of-mouth as the review consensus got out, the Sunday NY Times being the most important for any film of consequence.

I reached the end of the section and couldn’t find anything. Not even a one column display ad showing where it was playing. I went through the section three more times and then counted the pages. The count is correct.

This is either inexcusable incompetence or deliberate sabotage.

I don’t know why there was no ad. It’s hard to believe that any studio could abandon this film without a second or third week push. Wasn’t it in Universal’s original marketing budget? They could have turned it over to Focus, the studio’s expert specialty film division, which doesn’t live by tentpole mindset and knows how to platform a film that isn’t easily definable.

Julia Roberts' films and the Bourne trilogy written by Gilroy have grossed billions of dollars for the majors, a bottom line fact that demands respect and attention. Their success has helped perpetuate the industry’s high living standards. Gilroy’s acclaimed Michael Clayton and Mike Nichols' Closer, starring Owen and Roberts, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, with Owen, helped to keep alive the hope of cinema for adults.

We live in transforming times. Wall Street’s greed and ruthless values have turned the world inside out. I thought, "how ironic if Duplicity, which cunningly exploits the intricacies of corporate machinations, became the scapegoat for leaving sophisticated moviemaking to small-budget independents. If they dumped Duplicity, there’s no hope."

Several months ago, Charlie Rose had the first interview with Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup, after the company’s $189 billion bailout. At mid-point in the hour-long session, Rose asked, “Shouldn’t some major Wall Street figure offer an apology to the American public?” Pandit, maintaining his passive arrogance, replied, “We are moving forward.” No apology. No acknowledgment. Onto the next.

When Duplicity disappeared from cinema screens through lack of support, it was onto the next week’s giant sequel to Transformers, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman and X-Men, all made by talented people and sometimes rewarding – but one needs champagne as well as beer – and they need not be corporately incompatible. Champagne, however, requires more attention.

Forty years ago, an emblematic film campaign was adapted throughout the country following an experimental tryout in New York. This was “The Ultimate Trip” for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, transforming the stiff, hardware images of spaceships, lunar landscapes and astronauts in space suits, which I’d been railing against for over a year as Kubrick’s point man, into a last minute inspiration -- the welcoming embryonic Star Child looking at us with eyes wide open.

This was the second act of the film’s life, in the second year of its run, having spent the first year being the catalyst for an editorial approach in marketing (it was called advertising, publicity and exploitation then) that eventually found its own momentum, establishing 2001 as a cultural milestone. Following its 70 mm/Cinerama roadshow engagements with full technical bells and whistles, 2001 went wide in many key cities, including New York, where the grosses fell precipitously in comparison with other wide releases for roadshow films – Doctor Zhivago, The Sound of Music, Lawrence of Arabia etc.

After studying the figures, and having ridden and sometimes initiated the waves of the 2001 turnaround, it was apparent that the film’s audience only wanted to see the film in its original, technically pristine format. Therefore, a 70 mm re-launch, should be tried with a new campaign, while 2001 was still playing in its various release patterns throughout the country. MGM finally agreed and its success is history.

However, I have always maintained that had 2001 been an average costing film, had MGM not been fighting for its corporate life with a looming proxy fight, and had Kubrick not been a master of Socratic logic in dealing with the studio – and being so open to unconventional marketing ideas -- 2001 would have closed in two weeks. The major reviewers didn’t understand it; the upmarket roadshow audience wasn’t responding. Into the toilet.

This all came back in realizing that Duplicity wasn’t even going to last a full two weeks. For the decision in not having the Sunday quote ad had to be made shortly after its opening weekend. Even the minority press that had reservations about Duplicity's interwoven structure wrote enticingly: The thoughtful salon.com critic Stephanie Zacharek: “Roberts and Owen are a pleasure to watch. His scenes with Roberts are close to perfect and the role gives him a chance to stretch out and play….Duplicity made me realize how much I’ve missed Roberts. She makes the dialogue equally casual and effortless.”

Enough to work with?

Without support, Duplicity topped out at $40.5 million domestic gross (it did no better overseas: $39 million). The ad budgets for its opening competition, however, weren’t pulled: Knowing went to $78 million and and I Love You Man to $70 million. Duplicity, with a little help from Universal, could have equaled those figures.

There is a particular talent needed to open a film to $70 million--which happened the next weekend with Universal’s 4th Fast and Furious installment, setting an April industry record. Being from the same corporate team, it complicates the argument that Duplicity delivered the goods but marketing didn’t. Getting to the young, primarily male audience, who are afficionados of car chases and crashes, is not a given, but that audience is market-specific and turns out immediately, quickly diminishing by the second weekend.

Duplicity’s audience demands nurturing and constant assessment, which requires executive career risks, utilizing valuable time. In the days of the studio system, the moguls made decisions by the seat of their pants. They knew that certain films were guaranteed winners – adventure epics, westerns, literary romances, escapist musicals -- and those films cushioned the chances they took on less commercial subjects they wanted to try because they loved making movies; it was more than a business.

When Ann Sothern told MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer she was tired of starring in the Maisie movies--the successful, inexpensive ten-film feminist series produced between 1939 and 1945--he told her she had to continue because, “Your films pay for our risks.”

John Ford had to wait more than a decade to make The Quiet Man, his pet project, and only after he first agreed to film Rio Grande, a western that would also star John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Republic demanded that insurance.

The treatment of Duplicity seems to me to represent a dangerous sea change, for despite what Gilroy, Roberts and Owen produce in the future, let alone what they’ve done in the past, it will be nearly impossible to negotiate a quid pro quo. Now it’s all business, without any guarantee of giving “problematic” movies a fighting chance.

When the history of Duplicity is discussed, there will be little mention of why a potential hit disappeared, because marketing is never dissected as a reason for failure. The blood, sweat and tears that artists spend in developing and then making a film become irrelevant if their efforts can be destroyed in a matter of days -- without accountability. Lillian Gish, always committed to the art of film, put it best: “What you give is a life; what you get is a living.”

At their best, movies provide a window to the world and an insight into human nature. The unfathomable is that Duplicity could ever have been considered problematic or difficult in terms of finding its audience. If we care about seeing future Duplicitys, the system has to be re-invented. Corporate values have to change.

Calling Mr. Obama?

This article is related to: Headliners, Hollywood, Studios, Guest Blogger, Marketing, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Universal/Focus Features


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