Director Kevin Smith has stated frequently that his movies seem to have, for the most part, a $30 million dollar or so ceiling at the box-office. The mix in his films of raunchy humor and genuinely felt emotions has an appeal that extends to just about that many people and few others, never quite breaking fully into mainstream crossover success. As I’ve said to numerous people recently, $25 million of that $30 million likely comes from the same group of fans that have stuck with Smith loyally since 1994, having gotten hooked with Clerks and even enjoying Jersey Girl. The remaining $5 million comes from the limited number of people who have seen the trailers and other marketing materials and have decided to check it out. But there’s no word-of-mouth buzz that keeps the movie’s box-office momentum going and so it tops out somewhere in that ballpark.
But all of his films to date have been released before Judd Apatow hit the big-time with audiences.
Apatow had some success with The 40-Year Old Virgin but in 2007 he became Judd Apatow, King of All Comedy with not only his own Knocked Up but as the producer of Superbad. Like Smith, his movies featured coarse dialogue on the subjects of sex and drugs but had it coming out of characters that had real emotions and problems and were obviously just trying to make their own way in the world. But unlike Smith his characters didn’t devolve often into outright geekery.
So now into this post-Apatow world Smith is releasing Zach and Miri Make a Porno. The movie, which stars Apatow regular Seth Rogen and Virgin co-star Elizabeth Banks as the titular Zach and Miri, follows those two friends as they attempt to overcome their financial troubles by making, well, a porno. They figure people are always willing to pay to watch two people have sex and so enlist their friends to help them produce a low-quality porn movie.
With a title – and subject matter – like this the marketing campaign has obviously got to walk a fine line and the two are certain to turn off a good amount of the potential audience. Indeed Smith has even said that the title is, to some extent, designed to make sure that no one went in with any incorrect expectations. But the casting of Rogen and Banks speaks to a desire on his (and the studio’s) part to bring some mainstream audiences to the movie, the kind that has made Apatow’s movies successful at the box-office.
So let’s look at how Smith and The Weinstein Co. (for which this is the only movie on their slate that didn’t get bumped to 2009) are trying to sell this slightly mixed bag to the movie-going public.
The first poster to hit the public’s awareness was one that, alternatively, was labeled either one that was rejected in the U.S. by the MPAA or simply a Canadian version. The “banned” label earned it a lot of publicity, though the simpler explanation is that it was labeled thusly by some over-enthusiastic bloggers in order to drum up some excitement.
It shows Rogen and Banks in split-screens, with the top of the head of the other one just visible at around their waistline, the implication being that they’re performing oral sex on each other. I’m actually a bit surprised by how sort of bland it is. It’s a tough plot and title to find a singular image for, but this just kind of falls flat. Both Rogen and Banks are mugging it as best they can, but there’s no “ooomph” behind the poster.
Shortly after the poster debuted, Newsaskew and others noticed that while this one was rejected by the MPAA, a similar one-sheet had been approved by the board for Good Luck Chuck that showed star Dane Cook seemingly being pleasured by the tuft of blond hair emerging from around his mid-section. If I were a conspiracy theorist I’d say this was part of the MPAA just having it in for Smith and judging his stuff more harshly than they do that from other filmmakers. Again, that would be if I were conspiratorial minded. Which of course I’m not. But if.
Shortly after that the theatrical poster was released that was designed to mute the criticism. This design featured stick figures in place of the actors, with the actors names written out above them and arrows pointing to which is supposed to be which. The text above that proclaims the movie’s subject matter, as well as the problems with its marketing campaign, by saying “Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks made a movie so titillating that we can only show you this drawing.” At the bottom was the movie’s simply title treatment, containing the full name of the film.
Considering all the sound and fury that’s accompanied the poster campaign for the film it’s notable that the rejection of the original design became, ultimately, a blessing in disguise. The stick figure idea is not only notable and memorable since it breaks easily through the clutter of all the other posters featuring the Big Floating Heads of the stars involved but, as we’ll see, it became an effective hook on which to hang much of the rest of the campaign.
The first teaser trailer that was released contained no footage from the movie at all. It simply featured Rogen and Banks sitting in a theater like they were auditioning actors, which is exactly what the premise of the trailer was. They sat there asking the various off-screen auditioners to do assorted things, most of them pushing the limits of the physiology and all of which sounded on some level disgusting. It was funny as all get-out and, if nothing else, showed the two leads have an great level of chemistry together.
It was pulled within 48 hours. The reason was that, much to the surprise of Smith and the other filmmakers, they needed the MPAA’s approval for it to be distributed, even though – and this was the point they apparently got hung up on – it contained zero actual scenes from the movie.
A few months later an official trailer was finally released that, unsurprisingly, was red-band in content. It introduced us to the basic idea of the movie: Rogen and Banks are roommates with money trouble who decide to make a porn film with the help of their friends as a way to raise some quick cash. It’s full of wholly inappropriate scenes and contains a lot of language and content that is in no uncertain terms going to be offensive to a large swath of the public.
While curse words and sexual overtones are in abundance, Kevin Smith’s name is not, appearing only at the end in the credits block. An odd move to be sure and one made by the creators of the trailer possibly with the intent of not infringing Smith’s name on the audience’s likely conclusion that this is in some manner another Judd Apatow film. What I mean is that they’re willing to let the audience believe this is an Apatow movie if it means they’ll come and see the movie. The marketers, on some level, don’t want Smith’s brand to get in the way of the positive vibes Apatow has in the public mind right now.
After that a green-band version was released that features much of the same footage, though with the most offensive bits obviously cut out and replaced with more family-friendly scenes and dialogue. I think it’s just as funny as the first one, though it definitely has its own rhythm and pacing. The main plot is still there and we get the same general sense that this is going to be a wildly inappropriate comedy.
A new red-band version was then released the covered much of the same footage as the green-band, but with more curse words and names of body parts included of course.
I still think the question needs to be answered as to whether there should even be all-ages advertising for a restricted film since, while this trailer makes the movie accessible for anyone, the actual film won’t be.
The final trailer was released just over a week before the film’s release. It largely mined the same territory as the previous trailers, more or less explaining the plot and relying mostly on the charms of Rogen and Banks, which are thankfully plentiful and in full effect here.
The movie’s official website is…well…it certainly doesn’t look like the website for a major motion picture release. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether or not you like most movie sites. But at the very least you’ll not mistake this for something else.
The first section of the site’s content is “The Story” which actually contains not just a story synopsis but also production notes on the writing, casting and shooting of the movie. Most of the major cast is quoted in the piece and it reads very well, like someone was writing a story for magazine or other publication on the film.
“Watch the Trailer” contains both the final green band and the red-band versions of the trailer, the latter requiring age verification to view of course. There’s also a TV spot that features the full title of the film, something we’ll dive deeper into later on here.
“Downloads” has a handful of Wallpapers and some IM Icons. There are links to the TV spot but I don’t see those as leading to downloads. Instead it just goes to the same viewer that is contained in the previous section. “Photo Gallery” contains a mix of stills from the film and behind-the-scenes shots.
Finally amid the major content is “Cast and Crew,” which has brief write-ups of the major cast members and filmmakers.
Also online were sites like Get Your Porn I.D., which took you through the process of finding out what your porn name would be (after answering a series of questions) and uploading a picture to your liking. After the creation process is done you can download the finished product or add it to the social network of your liking or send it to a friend to get them to do the same.
There was also Zach and Miri Footage, which had you helping make the decisions leading to the creation of your own porn film. After you answered the questions you were presented with a grainy TV set with stick figures of various genders engaging in various activities with each other, sometimes three at a time.
The movie took over Kevin Smith’s MySpace page, which featured artwork, trailers and other video. And it had a Facebook profile page that housed much of the same content as the official site in terms of pics and video.
A series of videos titled “Money Shots” were created as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. Those were housed over at Smith’s entertainment news hub QuickStopEntertainment and, of course because they featured some coarse language and subject matter, required age-verification to view.
And last but not least is this “I’m F**king Seth Rogen” video from the two stars that was created shortly after the “I’m F**king Matt Damon” video from Sarah Silverman. It was funny in the moment but was definitely a stunt designed to take advantage of that video’s buzz more than anything.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The advertising blitz for the movie started a little over a month out from its opening. TV spots debuted, to the best of my knowledge, during the season premiere of “The Office,” a nice high-profile slot for the film. Around that time online ads that utilized the stick-figure poster art also started appearing. Both kept up in moderate to heavy rotation after that.
Also on TV, the film was the primary sponsor of the debut on FX of “Testees,” a series about guys who make money by selling their bodies for various medical experimentation.
The usage of the poster art in a series of outdoor ads raised the anger of a college professor who, unsurprisingly, recently authored a book about the over-sexualization of media. Her protests came despite the fact that, of course, the ads had met the MPAA’s standards and we know there are no problems with that process.
The movie’s advertising campaign hit a speed bump when a number of media outlets, including newspapers, TV stations and some outdoor companies, refused to put up ads for it, saying the word “porno” was objectionable. Some TV stations that ran commercials containing the movie’s full name said they received complaints and therefore pulled the ads. This is ridiculous on a number of counts including the fact that TV stations run ads with large-breasted women hawking beer and sell billboard space to adult entertainment facilities all the live long day. But put the word “porno” in an ad – not an ad for a porno mind you – and they’re the guardians of moralistic America.
More than anything this shows once again how sensitive everyone gets about sex (prudish hiding that it exists is much easier than having an intelligent conversation about it) than, say, violence. Lots of guns and explosions? Bring it on. The word “porno?” AWAY FROM ME SATAN!!!!
Of course this mini-controversy, like most of the others surrounding the film, was partially created in order to drum up some publicity for the film and in that regard this was a complete and utter success.
The controversy didn’t mean the end of the movie’s advertising, though. A version of the TV spot that chopped the name to just “Zach and Miri” appeared on various shows that wanted the studio’s advertising money but were worried about offending their family audience.
Lemons were also turned into lemonade with the stick-figure print campaign. Those figures – or at least their heads – were turned into downloadable PDFs for use as Halloween costumes.
Online there were ads all over the Internet. Most of them used the same stick figure graphics as the posters and the rest of the campaign but there were also some that I saw that featured Rogen and Banks kind of sitting in a pleasant meadow like something out of a fairy tale. The ad enticed people to click to view the trailer. While interesting they seemed a little odd considering they were completely out of whack with the entire rest of the campaign. But I saw them on sites like Yahoo Movies so perhaps this was a strategy meant to present something a little more mainstream than even the stick figures to that audience.
Media and Publicity
For the longest time it looked like the movie was set to receive an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, something that would have pretty much doomed its chances of any box-office success. Such a decision would have meant most all newspapers and TV stations would have refused to run ads for it, all the trailers would have been labeled like that and a general stigma would have been attached to the film. It would have, in short, been a death blow for it. An NC-17 would have made for great fodder for discussion and probably raised the movie’s awareness among movie fans, particularly those online, a gret deal, but the general audience would likely have been largely unaware the movie was even coming out.
Ultimately, though, the MPAA finally gave the movie the R-rating it needed, saving it from a fate that would not have been pretty at all.
Zack and Miri got a big boost in the buzz department from its appearance on two high-profile film festivals, Toronto and Fantastic Fest.
Director Kevin Smith got some additional publicity by writing an introductory post on the Hulu Blog for the debut on that site of Slacker, the movie he’s often cited as his biggest inspiration. He also helped his own cause with the release of the third DVD, appropriately titled Threevening, chronicling his in-person appearances, which fans have lapped up because of Smith’s extraordinarily candid way to tell a story.
The Apatow/Smith connection was strengthened with a couple stories like this one that ran the week before the movie’s opening that talked about the mutual admiration society between the two. Basically Apatow thanks Smith for opening the doors to this kind of comedy in film and Smith thanks Apatow for taking it to the next level and making it accessible to a wider audience.
I’m an unrepentant fan of Smith’s – Part of that loyal fanbase that keeps going to the theater with every new release that he puts out there. So I’m predisposed to like the campaign and, eventually, the movie. But even beyond that I think this is a solid effort, even if I don’t think the movie will go too far in shattering that box-office glass ceiling the director has identified. The inclusion of “porno” in the title is simply going to turn off a good chunk of people, even some of those that might have checked it out because of Rogen and Banks’ involvement.
But let’s be clear that the rejection by the MPAA first of the initial teaser trailer and then of the first poster were the biggest favors the body could have done for the movie, even if they might have been totally engineered and foreseen reactions by Smith and the studio.
Putting aside the buzz that each of these reactions generated in the online press, those little stick figures did more to focus the marketing of the movie and its branding than anything else. This was something unique that could be distributed in multiple formats that was immediately identifiable as belonging to the movie. They were funny and not only branded the movie well but went a long way in poking fun at the whole movie industry and its conventions.
Taken as a whole, though, this is a very strong campaign. The trailers are all funny and engaging (thanks in no small part to the charm and chemistry of the leads) and the website, with its resounding lack of Flashturbation, is a bit of fresh air with its “links” and such. And Smith is no slouch at creating publicity for himself so there was plenty of press to support the film and its release.
Now it simply remains to be seen whether the movie going public is ready to see the creation of porn.
(Special Note: This column likely would not have been possible were it not for the excellent NewsAskew. As the ultimate source for all goings-on with Smith and his band of collaborators and friends, they’ve cataloged the developments with Zack and Miri with the same dedication they have other Smith movies. I’ve linked to them sparingly here so as to spread the love around a bit but I wanted to give them a shout-out as they were the primary source on a number of things in this column. Thanks, guys.)
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 11/7/08: Christine and Film.com goes into the battles Smith and the Weinstein Co. endured with the various marketing materials they submitted, had to pull, had to redo or wound up getting approved. I think Christine kind of takes her argument to the extreme but it’s still an interesting read.
- 11/7/08: Wired’s Epicenter blog covers the campaign from the angle of intentionally making it seem dirtier than it really was in an effort to drum up publicity. There’s a lot to be said about this line of thinking, though I don’t necessarily think much of it wasn’t generated by what was really happening. Basically I don’t think the studio was making stuff up out of wholecloth, just taking advantage of what the MPAA was actually doing in the best possible way.
- 11/7/08: Part of the chat transcript by the WaPo’s Jen Chaney deals with the eventual striking of “Make a Porno” from the movie’s television advertising campaign.
- 11/19/08: Cinematical has the full alternate poster for Zack and Miri Make a Porno that I’ve only seen in peices before. I never came across the full size one-sheet among any of the official marketing communiques but did see a small part of it used as medium rectangle ad on Yahoo Movies a couple times. I think it’s a lot less interesting than the stick figure campaign, which is at least memorable.
- 4/3/09: In a new interview with Anne Thompson, Seth Rogen says he pushed Harvey Weinstein to launch a more full-throated marketing campaign that embraced the movie’s raunchy title and is still frustrated that his input wasn’t listened to.