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Knight and Day: Cruise/Diaz Original Action Comedy Works

by Anne Thompson
June 17, 2010 3:00 AM
6 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

No question that everyone gets that audiences are suffering sequel and remake overload. But Vulture's Claude Brodesser-Akner overstates the case that Hollywood is back to chasing originals when he cites a few anecdotal examples of recent studio buys.

Most of these examples are comedies, which like last year's summer sleeper The Hangover, are not exceptions to the rule. The only arena where Hollywood is consistently willing to chase originality is comedies, because they know that they have to be fresh and timely. And ideally, they tend not to be expensive tentpoles (studios fall into their usual traps when huge stars are involved). With comedy, high-concept is king, and The Hangover was the perfect example.

Take an original movie like the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz romantic action comedy Knight and Day. In this case, Twentieth Century Fox was willing to fund a big-budget original--even though the reason studios avoid doing this is simple: they're hard to sell. Audiences may seek the unexpected and the new, but over the years they have proven over and over that they also flock to the familiar and pre-sold. So nowadays it takes courage for a studio to fund an original summer tentpole. The good news? When they do, they really believe in it. But Knight and Day is tracking badly, because it's not a pre-sold title and its two stars are not at their peak right now. Fox admits that the only thing to do is hang on and hope that audiences like the movie. God forbid!

Truth is, the studios are facing a new reality. Tracking is no longer accurate because audiences are getting wind of feedback on films via Twitter and other social networks. It's hard to buy an opening weekend gross now. But with a movie that plays--which Knight and Day does--it will build good buzz. That's why the studio is not only wisely opening the movie on Wednesday, but sneaking it this Saturday too: they hope to grow strong WOM. (I'm not sure that hawking the first-ever game-embedded trailer will cure the film's marketing ills.)

What the studio has failed to do is get the movie's concept into the ads. The marketing shows Tom Cruise the way we don't like him: over-charged with adrenaline. (The trailer is below.) James Mangold's movie, written by Patrick O'Neill, boasts a clever high concept--it pits masculine/dark/muscled action star Cruise against feminine/light/sexy comedienne Diaz. It's a meta-movie that deconstructs and riffs on its genre formulas. And Cruise and Diaz are a delightful combination. (Here's her Playboy interview.) She more than holds her own with him--they both know exactly what they are doing. Fox believes that the movie will pick up steam as it goes.

These days the studios are rewarded when a movie plays (Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, The Karate Kid) and punished when it doesn't. That's why Sex and the City 2, which was a "guaranteed" boffo opener, did not deliver. Folks who didn't like it passed the word to their friends. So a brand isn't going to protect a studio from having to make a good movie. (I'll be seeing Twilight: Eclipse at the LAFF premiere next week. Series fans are hyped. But man does this movie look familiar. That's what marketers need to worry about.) But the studios will still resist originality--because it's harder to push upfront. The tricky issue is how to sell audiences something new--and deliver the goods. Even "original" Inception has a brand to sell: The Dark Knight's Christopher Nolan.

JC Spink (exec producer of The Hangover) is right when he tells Brodesser-Akner that people feel like they are being marketed to rather than catered to:

“I think we’ve all gone a little bit overboard as an industry. There hasn’t been room for original material for a little while now. It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s what anyone [who works in the business] came out here for.”

Let's hope that Knight and Day shows Hollywood that it doesn't take James Cameron and 3D to sell an original.

6 Comments

  • Sergio | June 17, 2010 12:46 PMReply

    People are resisting the film because it smells like something they're seen 1000 times before since North by Northwest and they're right.

    What about Valkyrie, Cruise's previous film? Definitely a out-of-the-box original movie and I thought he was really good in it. In Knight and Day I felt he was just phoning it in. And the action sequences in the film were just badly done. They never thrilled me (always choosing the wrong camera angles for a stunt) and WAY too much dependance on CGI. Can't ANYONE make exciting, decent action scenes anymore without resorting to computer tricks?''

  • Anne Thompson | June 17, 2010 8:38 AMReply

    This is the most I've enjoyed either Cruise or Diaz in a long time, and I credit Mangold, who is a clever director. That said, it's still very familiar. That's part of the problem Fox marketing is dealing with here. They haven't figured out a way to make the movie pop, to show someone something they haven't seen before. (Also Disney's issue with Prince of Persia.) The movie isn't about the chases and explosions, it's about the two characters. And I suspect it will play better for women than men, if they can get them in. Problem is people are resisting the movie, and I hope Fox didn't pay Cruise and Diaz their full price. Would you have a better time renting The Mask, True Lies, Wanted or Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Hell yes.

  • Sergio | June 17, 2010 7:58 AMReply

    Sorry but I saw another film altogether. I found Knight and Fay tired, boring, routine and very predictable. I could see every plot beat long before it happened

  • Kinsey | June 17, 2010 7:33 AMReply

    Your insights on this and on Brodesser's Vulture column seem spot-on to me.
    As you say, the problem with "Knight and Day" will be getting enough people to see it opening weekend to allow it to hold on to theaters. I wonder whether its opening date position will allow that. Months ago when I first saw the trailer in a full auditorium at Universal City it got zero response. Deafening.
    It was followed by the much more enthusiastically received trailer for "Salt," which was ironic considering that project's history.
    I definitely want to see "Salt" but your column is the only reason I will take the trouble to see "Knight and Day." Almost everything Tom Cruise ever does seems 100% forced and artificial -- phony -- to me. He does exhibit focus, I'll give him that.
    Only his remaining diehard fans likely will be interested, INMHO. The only movie of his that I have seen in which what he was doing approached believability was "Magnolia."

  • Jamie | June 17, 2010 6:10 AMReply

    Those who found his couch jumping merely amusing may be swayed. But the problem is if people disliked his crazy antics, then his onscreen behavior in Knight & Day is a turn-off because it is too similar and no amount of word of mouth is going to make them want to watch the movie.

  • mary | June 17, 2010 4:34 AMReply

    On the other hand, while "Iron Man 2" and "Shrek Forever After" play better than many others summer films, they play worse than their previous installments. It may means something for the studio.

    I was very pessimized about original films; I'm glad that I was wrong.

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