Movie Marketing Madness: The Politics in Movies Special Edition

Sometimes movies lend themselves very easily to shortcuts when it comes to marketing. Sequels, obviously, play on how much bigger the explosions are, steamier the sex is or funnier the jokes are. Adaptations of existing works mean there is a built in fan base that can be appealed to. You can bet that the 40 percent of a movie that actually follows the source novels plotline will be what they pull footage from for the trailers and website synopsis.

Movies that delve into the realm of politics are no different, especially in an election year. When the population’s attention is being consistently brought toward a presidential race then movies that deal with political issues are given fair amounts of free coverage. This is more true now than ever before with at least three 24-hour news channels constantly needing topics to fill the hours between truly newsworthy events (even though those channels seem less and less interested in real news, but I digress).

2004, in case you haven’t noticed, is such an election year. This November we will go to the polls and decide whether or not we want terrorists to strike our country again and again (at least that’s what the candidates would have us believe). No shortage of filmmakers have decided to cash in on the upswing in political thinking and release films dealing with issues being touched on by the campaigns. But are these really just blatant attempts at money-making or do the people behind these movies actually hope to influence the election one way or the other? Let’s take a look at some of the more high-profile movies hitting theaters in the next few weeks.

I’ll start off with Silver City since it is the one clearly defined work of fiction. The latest film from writer/director John Sayles (who I will always picture filling out his scorecard in the press box in “Eight Men Out”) has Chris Cooper portraying a slightly less than bright gubernatorial candidate. Cooper’s character obviously is meant as a proxy for all the intellectual criticisms leveled at our current president, whom no one has accused of being a mental heavyweight. It isn’t clear whether Sayles actually thinks this movie will change people’s thinking but seems to be more in the style of “Primary Colors”, which played as just a ranting on then President Clinton’s, um, peccadilloes. Sayles just has something to say and this is the best way he can think of to say it.

“Michael Moore Hates America” isn’t so much it’s own film as it is a coda to Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. Think of this as the Republican response after a Democrat’s State of the Union speech. Pointing out all the weak parts of Moore’s arguments and accusations, director Michael Wilson really just wants to ride the coattails of “Fahrenheit”‘s Phenomenal success. By directly taking on such a high profile and popular film (it now ranks as the top-grossing documentary of all time) it assures itself multiple discussions by commentators on news channels and Sunday morning political round-tables (whom Calvin Trillian once dubbed the Sabbath Gasbags).

Wilson takes an interesting tact in trying to repudiate Moore. The framework of the film has Wilson trying to interview Moore to see where the two of them get their drastically different views of not only America but of the President. It’s a great hook and one that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Moore’s documentaries. Moore of course has made no secret of his desire to influence the upcoming election in general and get George W. Bush out of the White House specifically. To that end, he has opted to allow “Fahrenheit 911″ to be shown on television before the election, thereby disqualifying it from Oscar consideration. The man obviously wants to reach a large segment of the population before they enter the voting booths. There’s a belief that anyone willing to pay between seven and 15 dollars to see his movie in the theater was going to agree with his point of view anyway so this is designed to get anyone who may have been curious about the movie to take a look.

There is another documentary hitting theaters which is designed not to attack the current occupant of the White House but to defend the candidate looking to take his place. “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry” is the latest salvo in, essentially, the Vietnam War. Why this conflict has been brought to the forefront of the current campaign is beyond me, but that’s not important. The nation still views service (or lack thereof as the case may be) in the war as an important issue of character when choosing a leader. I can only look forward to campaigns thirty years down the road when all veterans of Vietnam are off the political stage and we no longer have to rehash the morality of the war every four years.

The campaigns for all these movies, fictional or not, will have to tread carefully. This is September and the race for the Presidency has been going on for over a year now. Tolerance for rhetoric, doubletalk and promises yet to be broken is wearing thin. On the other hand, the divisiveness of the current political climate may mobilize a good portion of the electorate. If the marketers play up their partisanship too much then they cut out a sizable chunk of their potential audience. If they don’t make their points in the campaigns clear enough then they may not bring out the very partisans their message is most likely to appeal to.

Movie Marketing Madness: Ray

RAY_RGB_TSR_CompThere haven’t been many high profile biographical movies that have scored both critical and commercial success. I was a big fan of Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin biopic with Robert Downey Jr. but it bombed with audiences. “Malcolm X” by Spike Lee was, for all it’s pretense, a fairly powerful (if uneven) portrait of the slain civil rights leader. There’s something about condensing a life down to two to three hours that strips some essential soulful or essential element out of it’s subject and leaves them neither sympathetic nor entertaining.

But “Ray” may be different. Talk of an academy award nomination for Jamie Foxx has already begun and many early reviews tag this movie as an entertaining but fair and unvarnished look at the life (or at least it’s high points) of the music legend. The movie caps off a busy period of post-humus activity for Charles that also saw the release of his final album as well as the publication of his autobiography.

The Poster

Ray Charles’ face is amongst the best known in music history so I’m glad they didn’t go with a straight-ahead portrait of the late singer. Instead, Foxx’s profile is sort of outlined in white against the black background. This design is fairly generic so it can be transferred easily to the cover of the soundtrack and any other related materials.

The Trailer

As I said before, we all know what the real Ray Charles looked like and Jamie Foxx seems to have that down pat. This isn’t some caricature as we’ve been subjected to by countless non-talented “comedians” but a genuine impression in the best sense of the word. We are shown the setup as a young Charles learns he’s going blind, see him hit a few career high points and battle personal demons. All of this is standard fair but Foxx has a very engaging looseness to his performance that seems to show he didn’t just approach this as another role but genuinely wanted to pay homage to his subject.

The Website

This is hands down the best movie-related website I have come across since beginning to write this column. The features and depth to the site are not to be believed. Compared to the incredible superficiality of sites for big-budget releases like Alien Vs. Predator and Shark Tale this is friggin’ Tolstoy to their Danielle Steel.

When you first bring up the site a pop-up appears promoting a tribute program on television, hosted by Foxx, the same day the movie opens.

At first the site appears to be rather thin Flash-based material. Ray Charles’ music plays in the background (a great way to ensure people stick around at the site for a while) and there are only a few visible section heads. But wait until you start drilling down into those.

“Trailer” sounds like it will just have the trailer but contains in addition to that, three “TV Spots“, all of which are shorter than the trailer and focus on one particular theme. They’re all pretty solid but not as well-rounded as the trailer itself. Three “Clips” offer one-to-two minutes of footage from the film that are extensions of scenes found in the trailer. Finally, “A Look Inside” is a three-minute or so long video press release type of segment that involves a lot of glad-handing by the cast and director about how great they and the material are. It’s the weakest of the video-based features and seems like the kind of thing that’s too fluffy even for a show like Entertainment Tonight.

A link to the online store selling the companion soundtrack is all that is found when you click the “Get the Soundtrack” link. “About the Film” contains the usual Production Notes and Story recap (someone really needs to figure out something new to do with these two concepts). Cast and Crew bios can be found in the “Who’s Who” section and “Downloads” gives you access to AIM icons, desktop themes and screensavers. “Video” is simply the same content we’ve already seen in the “Trailer”section. About 30 photos can be found in the “Photo Book”. Finally, “Ray Testimonials” has brief blurbs praising Charles by musicians both classic (Sinatra, James Brown) and contemporary.

The next section is labeled “About Ray Charles”. I expected a brief biography that would play up the same moments dramatized in the movie. Instead what I got was sent to a whole new site which focused on Charles’ life and work.

A more in-depth biography, as well as an excerpt from his auto-biography can be found in “The Man”. “The Music” really explores what it was he did that was so groundbreaking musically and contains a full discography. More examination on the impact Charles had in the music industry can be found in “The Legacy” and “The Movie” expands on the Story/Production Notes concept by really explaining what approach the filmmakers took in creating the film. “News” gives you the latest updates on what’s happening with all things Ray.

Overall

I’m really quite impressed with the quality of not only the materials making up the campaign but, at least from the previews and snippets of footage, the film itself. The trailer is well put together and plays to the strong selling point of Jamie Foxx’s performance as well as the timeless and incredible music Charles produced. The poster is understated and classy. It doesn’t play to Foxx’s face as a drawing point while still touching on his performance which has drawn so much critical praise even before opening.

The website especially is great. Not only does it provide a great deal of information on the movie, but also on the man himself. By using the opportunity and flexibility provided to them on the web to expand on the biographical examination of the subject they are both admitting and making up for the inherent shortcomings of the movie format. This is a great site and should be checked out by anyone who enjoys movies or simply Ray Charles. The secondary site serves as a great personal site for the man both in conjunction with and even independent of the movie.

Movies on the Brain: The Day After Tomorrow

WATCHED: 10/19/2004

I had reviewed the campaign for this one in my Movie Marketing Madness column at FilmThreat and now get to trash the actual movie. Who says life doesn’t have it’s perks?

0:00 – There are certain studio logos that will always be associated with specific movies for me. The 20th Century Fox opening equals Star Wars. Tri-Star equals The Natural. United Artists equals Rocky. So on and so forth..

0:01 – Remember the Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny is traipsing through some artic locale and comes across the penguin escaping predators or hunters. My favorite part was when the penguin cries the ice cubes.

0:01 – Perry King is in this?! How did I not know this ahead of time? “Riptide” was during that period in television when more than just district attorney and medical shows were on. Of course that was when there were a bunch of private eye shows like it, “Magnum P.I.”, “Simon & Simon” and “Jake and the Fatman”, which shared Joe Penny with Riptide.

0:02 – The score composer’s name is Harold Kloser. Guess the coffee is only for him.

0:04 – All this snow and I just keep waiting for a meteor to hit the ground near there.

0:06 – Dennis Quaid is speaking in a ballroom right now and I think Harrison Ford just came in to accuse him of covering up the drug test results.

0:08 – Ian Holm must be trying to balance out the good he did by being in the Lord of the Rings movies.

0:10 – I think this guy is eating at the same sushi stand they used in Blade Runner. How long till Edward James Olmos taps him on the shoulder with his walking stick?

0:14 – Did anyone else see the Tim Allen movie Big Trouble? Pretty good but not as good as the Dave Barry novel.

0:16 – The scene right now has three characters discussing turbulence and I can’t decide whether to go with Alec Baldwin’s line about it from Hunt For Red October or John Cusack’s airline safety stats in Say Anything. Any votes?

0:18 – Am I the only one who remembers Millennium, where Kris Kristofferson plays an NTSB investigator who comes across how time travelers are taking people off planes that are destined to crash? Thought so.

0:20 – All the birds are leaving New York City. Even they think the rents are too high.

0:22 – Did I bring an umbrella? Oh…right…It’s just in the movie that it’s been raining for twenty minutes now.

0:27 – Fox News: Providing fair and balanced weather coverage.

0:28 – Just to set out some ground rules for this movie – If any jokes are made which reference Wizard of Oz or if Bill Paxton and/or Helen Hunt appear at anytime I will turn the movie off immediately with no chance at redemption.

0:30 – Not only is Perry King in this movie but he’s the President. Are there more of less things wrong with this than Billy Bob Thornton being Prez in Love Actually? Let’s discuss…

0:32 – An example of the dialogue here: Dennis Quaid just uttered the phrase “critical desalinization point”. Almost makes my job too easy.

0:36 – Thanks to the posters and DVD cover we all know that the shot of the Statue of Liberty here is just a setup for its fate in a block of ice. Way to completely spoil a concept.

0:38 – Oh my goodness I think that’s Snuffleupagus in the New York Natural History Museum.

0:41 – I’ll admit it: watching the guy freeze after opening the helicopter door was kind of cool.

0:44 – I want all four of these kids to die. Damn. Probably shouldn’t have actually written that.

0:46 – So the character description for Sela Ward’s doctor pretty much said “gasps a lot, looks worried, gasps some more”, right?

0:48 – Lady Liberty has had it up to her armpits with all this global warming. I can very clearly visualize you all leaving this site after that joke.

0:50 – The problem with this movie is there’s no cheese factor. Independence Day is a bad movie but at least it’s a little bit fun and kind of knows how bad it is. Everyone is so deadly serious here that it sucks all the enjoyment out of watching it.

0:54 – I can kind of see Jake Glyenhaal as Spider-Man but can’t really picture anyone but Kirsten Dunst as Mary-Jane Watson. And now I can’t picture anything but Kirsten Dunst. I’ll be back in a little while.

0:57 – Quaid is doing his best with the material but he looks frustrated, like he’s trying to build an expansion bridge using balsa wood and spackle.

1:02 – The ship floating down the street right now has me remembering Cheech Marin’s line from Ghostbusters 2 when the Titanic pulls in. “Better late than never”.

1:07 – Ian Holm is right – Getting drunk should be a priority no matter what the situation is.

1:10 – I just can’t get past the CGI breath fog. (By the way, what’s the technical term for that? Cold breath? Breath smoke? Anyone care?)

1:14 – They just broke into a vending machine and I’m just now waiting for Colonel “Bat” Guano to show up and reprimand him. “You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola company”

1:16 – I really hate movies that put kids in peril for no other reason than to elicit some sort of mawkish emotional response from the audience. If you can’t find a better way to make the people feel something then just move on and let it go.

1:20 – “You’re taunton will freeze before you reach the first marker.” “Than I’ll see you in hell!”

1:23 – Frank fall down go BOOOM!

1:27 – Almost and hour and a half in and we’re just now getting to the romance? Don’t the filmmakers realize this is what draws in repeat business? Teenage girls are not going to go gah-gah over Jake G. simply because he can throw books in a fire.

1:29 – Just asking (and speaking as a loyal fan) – Does all this snow mean the Cubs have won the World Series?

1:32 – If all this display of emotion was only in a better movie it might be worth something.

1:34 – I can’t keep it in any longer – This is horrible. It’s just really, really horrible. There are no redeeming qualities to this movie.

1:36 – Reason This Movie Sucks: Terrible looking CGI wolves.

1:37 – Reason This Movie Sucks: Exposed bare flesh is not freezing to metal in a sub-artic environment. I mean Flick learned this shortly after being triple-dog-dared.

1:39 – Reason This Movie Sucks: As with most films the only two cities we actually see affected are Los Angeles and New York. What happened to Chicago? Can’t you spend a week and build a CGI skyline for just a quick shot of it?

1:41 – Reason This Movie Sucks: Ice doesn’t really creep like a fungus, does it? It forms more from the bottom up, not growing across a surface so quickly I would think.

1:45 – Reason This Movie Sucks: Large scale catastrophe used as metaphor for personal crisis.

1:47 – A buddy of mine who went to UW: Madison sent me a postcard once of a paper-mache head and outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty some people had built on a frozen lake. It looked more realistic than this CGI garbage.

1:48 – Do you think the ghost of the librarian is still haunting the basement of the New York Public Library these people are surviving in.

1:50 – So now that Dennis Quaid has found the survivors what do they do? Walk back? Cause that will turn out well.

1:54 – I don’t even have anything. This movie sucks.

Movie Marketing Madness: Sideways

sidewaysmmm01storyThis column has primarily been devoted to reviewing the campaigns of large scale movies. Be it The Day After Tomorrow or Catwoman, these movies have, I felt, put up targets too big and too obvious for me not to chime in with snarky and mean-spirited commentary. I like to think of it as a public service.

This week, though, I decided to skip the most obvious target of derision, Ben Affleck’s new film “Surviving Christmas” and choose a movie I was actually looking forward to seeing: “Sideways” by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, “Election”). Sideways stars Paul Giamatti (who was excellent in…well…just about everything but most recently in American Splendor) as a wine connoisseur taking his pal Thomas Haden Church (still trying to live down the years on “Wings”) on a weekend road trip just before Church’s wedding.

The Poster

All green with a sketch of two guys stuck inside a wine bottle, this poster is clearly being marketed at people who enjoy movies and are not just looking for a one-sheet with some familiar A-list movie star. By not including Giamatti’s floating head they are actually challenging the audience to take a chance on a movie that may be out of their range of awareness. I’m sure this concept will be ruined by the DVD cover but I love this as it doesn’t play to the lowest common denominator.

The Trailer

Again playing against the template setout by the big-budget major studio tent poles, The trailer for “Sideways” actually shows characters interacting with more than just catchphrases and clichés. There are actually some hints that these are real people going through real things.

Basically, we see the setup for the journey (both emotional and physical) that Giamatti and Church will go through as they depart for some pre-wedding male bonding, including playing golf and wine tasting. The gags are ones we’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times before (wine snob vs. clueless beginner, secrets potentially tearing two people apart) but considering Alexander Payne never lets his characters go down the easy road these plot points have a chance at being far more interesting then they could otherwise be.

The Website

The website for “Sideways” continues to defy expectations set out by the blockbusters which populate the summer months by being in-depth and interesting in a quiet, almost gentle sort of way.

“Story” starts out the site with a pretty good plot description which “spoils” a good portion of the film. That’s alright, though, since this isn’t a movie which is going to rely on big shocking plot twists in place of, you know, an actual story. Read only if you want to go into the movie fresh.

Brief biographies of the main cast and crew are included in the “Story” section but are expanded in “Cast” and “Filmmakers”. Reading the credits for producer Michael London I saw he was responsible for two of my favorite recent movies; Thirteen and House of Sand and Fog. Of course it also credits him with The Guru and the Josh Hartnett disaster 40 Days and 40 Nights. Talk about two steps forward and two steps back.

About ten pictures are available in “Imagery” to view and then, if you so desire, download or send to a friend. The “Soundtrack” gives simply a track listing and a link to purchase the CD at Amazon. This kind of feature is becoming more and more common as studios look to the ancillary products associated with movies to increase profit margins. This isn’t a pop-heavy record so it’s more likely to appeal to the same adults that the movie is going to play to.

“Life Uncorked” provides five short video segments from the movie that, surprisingly, are not just repeats of footage already seen in the trailer. Instead, these are actually designed to increase the viewers’ anticipation of the movie by providing actual short scenes that give a taste of the movie. Worked for me.

The movie’s emphasis on the wine-tasting pasttime of the characters in the film contributes to the final two portions of the site. “Wine Tasting 101” gives a very brief guide to wine-tasting etiquette and protocol (great – now I’ve got C-3PO’s voice in my head) and “Snob-Free Guide to Wine” provides a quick chart matching wine tastes to certain foods and flavors. You can print this guide out and, following the lines, fold it into a neat little book to carry along. Nice touch.

Overall

Like I mentioned, the campaign as a whole is geared toward adults who actually enjoy film and aren’t just looking for the most generic form of entertainment available on a Saturday night. Everything from the poster to the website sucks any interested party in by being just a little elusive, by showing that there is more story than can really be conveyed in a trailer or video clip.

As readers of my previous columns will know, I love consistency in campaigns and the green wine bottle sketch shows up quite a bit from the poster to the website. This is a movie that will need good word of mouth to make an impression and I hope it gets it.

Movie Marketing Madness: Taxi

taximmm01storyLet me start this off by saying I am extremely disappointed this is not an adaptation of the 1978 – 1983 television series. The mere chance that someone (aside from Jim Carrey) could completely ruin the genius of Andy Kaufman by doing a bad Latka Gravas character seems like a natural choice for a studio executive to make.

As it is, Jimmy Fallon (can anyone actually tell the difference between him and Chris Kattan?) and Queen Latifah (who I can only assume is holding someone’s child hostage in exchange for a film career) star as a cop and a taxi driver respectively whose lives intersect as they maneuver through New York traffic and a myriad of plot holes in search of something the ancient Romans once referred to as “humor”. Anyone want to place bets?

The Poster

Fallon and Latifah mug at the camera as if madcap hijinks are ensuing before their very eyes. Fallon actually looks rather sick to his stomach and QL flashes her wide, mischievous grin, which is both the beginning and end of her acting abilities. Fallon looks very serious, as if he’s not in a comedy. Oh – wait – he’s not.

The Trailer

It was surprising to me how much screen time is devoted to the back-story of Jimmy Fallon’s New York cop who apparently can’t drive. No, that’s not quite right. What surprised me was how little time was spent on Queen Latifah’s character. As the co-headliner of the movie she gets surprisingly short shrift in the trailer, mostly just shots of her reacting to Fallon and his antics.

Considering Latifah can officially be referred to as “Oscar Nominee Queen Latifah” you have to wonder what rationale there was for pushing her to the background of the trailer. It’s possible that her role isn’t actually that big and the marketing team didn’t want to misrepresent the movie (I’ll take a moment for the laughter to die down). It’s also possible the test screenings showed her plotline to be the weakest and so it was felt safer to hinge the movie on Fallon’s character. Watch the trailer again and see what I’m talking about.

The Website

Presented completely in Flash-animation, the thinness of the website should provide a large and obvious red flag as to the thinness of the movie itself.

First off, the trailer is presented only in Quicktime. As I stated in my take on the “Alien Vs. Predator” campaign, this is extraordinarily short sited. The whole point of a movie’s website is to keep people there and encourage them to visit the whole site. I realize Quicktime is a great high-quality format, but not everyone has it and if people are using dial-up modems then a large Quicktime trailer may just be too much for their connection. This may encourage them to go to Yahoo! or some other site where they can find it in Windows Media or Real Player format. Research has shown that once people leave a site – especially if it’s because of frustration – they’re not coming back. This is extremely shortsighted in my opinion.

The “Story” constitutes an entire two-sentence paragraph. Wow. That’s something. Reminds me of Tom Skerritt in “A River Runs Through It” continually telling his son to make a writing assignment half as long. “Cast and Crew” has a list of personnel in front of and behind the camera but contains no bios or filmographies. There are some “Behind the Scenes” pictures but all seem to be so long range that it’s almost impossible to make anything out. Besides, it’s not like this is “Lord of the Rings” where a glimpse of the production yields various details that pass by too quickly to notice in the movie.

“Stills” has a fair amount of pictures from the movie, including a few of what seem to be some all girl gang of bank robbers in the flick. Frankly, this just reminded me of the C.L.I.T. gang from “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”. (I’ll now take a moment while everyone goes through Jay’s “I am the master of the clit” speech. All finished? Great. Let’s continue.) There are “Character Profiles” at the bottom of each page that, when you click on say Jimmy Fallon (while imagining punching him in the crotch) you get a brief profile and video clip that is taken straight from footage already found in the trailer.

The “Downloads” section contains, in addition to the usual Wallpaper and Buddy Icons, a calendar you can create by dragging stills from the movie to blank pages and then print out in calendar form. Great idea, but why use this on Taxi and not, say, a big-budget sci-fi flick or comic book adaptation. Oh, right, because then they wouldn’t be able to license a calendar for sale with those pictures. I keep forgetting. Finally, there is a “Game” that looks like something developed originally for an Atari 2600.

Overall

As I stated, the reliance on Jimmy Fallon in the promotions says to me that something is telling the executives that Queen Latifah just doesn’t work in this movie. Frankly, after her Oscar-nominated (still working on processing that) role in “Chicago” and success with Steve Martin in “Bringing Down the House” (something else I still can’t consciously comprehend) working on a B-level release like this is a bit surprising. I get the feeling she’s a supporting character in this one and it’s something she may have agreed to do a while ago.

By putting her on the poster the goal is to attract those people who thought she was hilarious in her previous movies, but playing up Fallon in the trailer shows where the true focus of the movie is.