Cameron Crowe can, at the very least, be called a unique filmmaker. His movies all are self-contained and exist in their own universe but also have a common thread going through them of pain, love and self-discovery. From …”Say Anything,” the movie he is perhaps most identified with, to “Vanilla Sky,” which is at the very least a noble attempt even if he does kind of over-reach, all the movies have an antagonist who is trying to discover himself. Crowe’s most personal movie to date is reportedly Almost Famous, which fictionalizes the director’s own experiences getting into the music business.
Crowe is now adding “Elizabethtown” to his dramatized autobiographical film output. This one tells the story of a Crowe surrogate, played by Orlando Bloom (who just had to be glad he didn’t have to brush up on his sword play for this flick), as he deals with the death of his father. The movie’s release is timed perfectly in the early fall, just as the award-ready movies are heating up and after the summer’s action flicks are starting to cool down. One problem, though, is that the movie has suffered from some bad buzz after debuting on the festival circuit. Some critics have said it’s a complete wreck and that’s prompted Crowe to defend the movie as one that “wasn’t made for critics” and instead is geared toward the general public. Whether it was pre-planned or done as a result of this negative press Crowe reportedly did some heavy editing of the movie prior to it’s opening. While all this is not necessarily the kiss of death, it is something the marketing campaign will need to overcome.
Bloom and costar Kirsten Dunst are simply seated on what appears to be a funeral home lounge seat. That’s all there was to the initial poster and points to the relationship that will drive the movie. That’s also the central image in a second poster that rings that picture with a collage of smaller ones showing the other characters in the movie. In those smaller snapshots we get a glimpse of Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon and others.
I’d be hard pressed to say which one works better for me. On the one hand I appreciate the second one because Crowe assembles such great ensembles and they deserve the spotlight. The first one, though, might just win by a nose simply by virtue of it’s simplicity and just kind of…I don’t know…basic nature of it. It’s an awfully close contest.
The problem, though, is that while I as a Crowe fan love them, I don’t know if they stand out well as selling points for the average movie goer. The first one might be so understated – and the second one so cluttered – that I’m afraid they wouldn’t stand out in a theater lobby.
A few months ago Paramount released what they billed as a “first look” at “Elizabethtown.” What it turned out to be was a 12 minute or so compilation, put together by Crowe, of clips from the movie that presented the plot in kind of a Cliff’s Notes way. Set against a wonderful instrumental score (most likely by Crowe’s wife Nancy Wilson) it was so engrossing that I watched it a half-dozen times in the first couple days. It was, in short, fantastic.
The actual studio-produced trailers aren’t quite as good but still work fairy well. They both present the plot pretty well, of Bloom having a very bad day that includes him getting fired from his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and then finding out his father has died. The rest of both trailers involves Bloom dealing with his extended family, who he obviously has not kept in touch with and then taking his father’s ashes on a road trip. We also get copious amounts of flirting between Bloom and Dunst after they meet when Dunst is the flight attendant on the flight Bloom takes back home. Dunst is pretty much the focus of the trailers as it’s her cuteness and connection with Bloom that seems to be driving the movie. I have to say that, everything else being equal, I could watch Dunst in that little black cocktail dress for two hours alone so I don’t mind her being the focus here.
First off, I have to say I love the music that plays while you’re surfing the official website for “Elizabethtown.” It’s from Crowe’s wife Nancy Wilson and is presumably the score to the movie. Crowe’s films always have such a great soundtrack of pop songsand the music from Wilson compliments his images in a different, but no less meaningful way, than the other tracks.
Anyway, let’s start with “The Film.” In there you’ll find a brief Story synopsis that sets up the movie in a very rudimentary way. Crowe’s films often have so much going on within and underneath the plot that reading a two paragraph blurb feels like a cheat. There’s also Cast and Crew biographies in addition to Production Notes, which are broken out to focus on The Story, The Production, The Characters, The Road to Elizabethtown and, most notably, The Music. Again, since music is almost another character in Crowe’s films this section is probably the most interesting since it’s an aspect of the production that often gets short shrift.
“Videos” probably contains an hour of streaming video for your viewing pleasure. Under Trailers there are the two trailers as well as something labeled “Music Trailer” which amounts to a four or five minute interview with Crowe discussing what music he picked for the movie and why he picked it. There are also five “Clips”, three “Features” (including the Internet First Look I mentioned earlier) and three “TV Spots.” That’s a lot of video goodness.
There’s the usual mix of a Screensaver, some Wallpaper and a bunch of AIM Icons under “Downloads.” In addition to playing in the background of the site you can access clips from the soundtrack under the “Music” heading. “Road Trips” is kind of neat if you take the time to play around with it and “Partners” is just a list of companies engaging in a bit of product placement.
Finally, there are two portions of the site that are, to some extent, interactive. First, there was a contest where people could submit a 10-20 second long video of their hometown for possible inclusion in an “Elizabethtown” TV commercial. Second, you can create your own “Elizabethtown” poster by uploading your own photos to the collage version of the one sheet. Then, of course, you could send the finished product to your friends and family.
I love the website but am so-so on the poster and trailers. I don’t know if the formal campaign can overcome the bad word-of-mouth the early screenings let loose, nor do I think that the trailers produced by the studio do anything to build on the First Look video that was assembled by Crowe. I think that the interactive bits on the website do a bit to try to empower the audience and get them involved but I don’t know that there’s enough to really make them feel as if they have a stake in the movie’s outcome.
While Crowe’s existing fan base will probably be enticed by the campaign I’m not sure it goes far enough in trying to reach out to a general audience. Certainly the emphasis on the romance between Bloom and Dunst being at the center of the campaign is an attempt to do just that but considering the same six scenes are used over and over again I almost get the feeling that’s all there is to it. It’s a consistent campaign if nothing else. There are a lot of elements carried over from one aspect to another, especially the whole collage theme that starts on the poster and gets utilized again on the website. Points to the marketing team for that.
There’s one part of the Elizabethtown website that I didn’t cover in the new column simply because I couldn’t figure out how to address it. On the site there is a section called “Claire’s America.” It’s essentially a journal written by Claire, the stewardess in the movie played by Kirsten Dunst. It covers Claire’s travels around the country and contains her thoughts on music, movies, local cuisine and the passengers on her flights.
The idea of “character blogs”, or blogs written by fictitous people as part of a promotional campaign, has come under some criticism in the past. PR luminaries such as Shel Holtz, Neville Hobson and others have weighed in on whether incorporating character blogs is a good idea or not. The debate seems to be over the issue of trust and whether blogging, which is supposed to be open and honest, is the right way to use these characters or mascots. Blogs are supposed to be written by real people and contain unfiltered content that, to the best of the writer’s knowledge, is true. By putting the face of a fictitous person on the blog you are violating that trust from the get go.
While there certainly are valid points to be made on the weighty issues of trust and transparency I think there’s also one key thing to point out about these blogs: They aren’t very good. Almost no character blog I’ve come across has come anywhere near sounding like a real person or like it wasn’t written after hours of drafting and revisions by a team of marketers. They’re often stiff, formal and not very fun to read. Claire’s Journal on the ETown site certainly falls victim to this as it’s almost unreadable for more than a couple minutes.
Marketers would be wise to spend less time on crafting these character blogs and redirect that energy into getting real people from the movie’s production on the computer to post updates. That, I think, is what people would be more interested in on a website. As long as they continue to push these character blogs at us it shows they think the audience is stupid. Suspending disbelief for a movie is one thing but this pushes beyond that level.