On Dec. 20, in the thick of the feel-good season, surrounded by holiday fare like Tri- Star’s “Hook” and Disney’s “Father of the Bride,” Warner Bros, will put onto 900 screens what could be the feel-bad movie of the decade.
It’s Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which already has been portrayed in newspaper and magazine articles as an incendiary, political-conspiracy thriller, by Hollywood’s most controversial director, about the most traumatic day in American history since Pearl Harbor.
Is this a marketing nightmare or a bold marketing maneuver? The experts are divided.
“This is going to be a major event picture,” says independent marketing maven Jody Cukier. “You get that from the trailer – it’s a major story, with a major budget – a major event on every level.”
“They’re absolutely committing suicide by opening it that wide,” a rival exec demurs.
WB toppers are counting on “JFK” to carry their Christmas; they already have bumped the Chevy Chase vehicle “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” to make room for it.
Warner execs say “JFK” has extremely high awareness among potential audiences – second only to TriStar’s “Hook” of the holiday releases.
In determining that, WB actually commissioned a Gallup poll last June, which asked a cross-section of Americans whether they believed that a single gunman killed President John F. Kennedy, and whether they’d like to see an Oliver Stone-directed movie, starring Kevin Costner, investigating that question.
According to WB, 73% of those polled said they did not believe the Warren Report’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and 64% said they would want to see “JFK.”
Those numbers and other WB research produced what could be a potential marketing difficulty: The audience for the movie’s subject matter and the audience for the movie’s star appear to be different. That can translate into a very large picture with very broad appeal, or a picture that isn’t sure whom it is trying to attract.
According to a source near the picture, research indicated high interest among the general population over 30 (people who remember the assassination itself), women over 18 (thought to be responding to Costner) and teenagers of both sexes (who may be studying the assassination in school).
Says Cukier: “That could mean a very major hit. The whole theme of JFK is broadly based, and Costner will obviously bring people into theaters. And WB is obviously not worried about spending money to advertise it. They’re going full tilt.”
Going full tilt will translate, per a marketing source, into expenditures of $20 million for pre-opening and first week advertising, added to an uncertain budget that most sources guess is over $40 million.
And it may still require some delicacy. Warner Bros, execs declined official comment, saying they are aware that the picture is potentially explosive and requires special marketing handling. “You’d have to be an ostrich not to realize that,” a studio source says.
The source added that the controversy already surrounding the film will not force the studio to adopt a defensive marketing strategy. “Absolutely not,” said the exec. “We intend to be very aggressive about this.”
They’re pretty aggressive already. TV spots already have been appearing during primetime network hours, featuring a trailer – cut by Steve Panama of Kaleidoscope Films, who made the trailers for “The Godfather Part III” – that already has the film marketing community talking.
“Based solely on the trailer, I want to see this picture bad,” says a veteran producer not affiliated with the film. “It’s one of the most exciting trailers I’ve ever seen. It really got me.”
Despite the conventional Hollywood wisdom that no publicity is bad publicity, sources close to Stone already are sounding more than a little concerned about the barrage of bad “JFK” press, including scathing articles in The Washington Post, Time and Esquire.
A source close to Oliver Stone cautions that early reports about the film are inaccurate because the film is not done yet. “I’ve never seen a script or an early cut of one of Oliver’s films that didn’t have some wild stuff in it that didn’t make the final cut,” that source observes.
Spin control campaign
Stone himself has embarked on a pre-release spin control campaign, meeting with a select group of political editors and writers from publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic and The Washington Post – with the assistance of Democratic PR man Frank Mankiewicz and his Washington firm, Hill & Knowlton.
Stone also has written a story about the controversy surrounding his film for the upcoming issue of Premiere magazine.
And there is even a documentary in the works about the making of “JFK” and the questions it raises about the assassination. According to documaker Rory O’Conner, Stone’s involvement, via Camelot Prods., has been limited to helping raise funds from Arnon Milchan’s New Regency. But O’Conner’s description of the docu sounds rather like Stone’s description of his “JFK.”
“Oliver has been instrumental in helping with the money, and he’s going to let us use footage from his movie, but this is not really ‘The Making of JFK,'” O’Conner insists, adding, “it’s more of a why-done-it than a whodunit. We’re not going to try and come up with who killed Kennedy, but we might come up with why. In that sense, it is a parallel to the film.”
One rival studio chief says, “I’m sure that they’re nervous as hell about it because they see a lot of the press is lying in wait to attack Oliver on this.” But the same exec suggests that the excessive press attention, even the negative articles, can only help “JFK” in the long run.
‘Get people talking’
“You want to get people talking about a film,” he says. “By that standard, I think the publicity people at Warner are doing brilliantly.”
In the face of such potential controversy, the studio chief suggests, the worst thing that Warner could do in marketing “JFK” is try to disguise the film’s true identity. “There’s no way you’re going to be able to sell this film as some namby-pamby film that just happens to star Kevin Costner.”
He recommends that the best way to overcome negative advance press is “to get the movie out there and get it seen by as many people as possible who are predisposed to like it, as quickly as possible. They only have a problem if the movie is bad, and I’ve heard that it’s excellent.”
Another top exec, who has had much experience releasing controversial end-of-the-year movies, predicts catastrophe for the film – whether it is excellent or not – demonstrating the Hollywood motto that “nobody knows nothing.”
“If they had any faith in it, they would forget about getting it out there in a hurry, and open it small and platform it and let it build,” a dubious rival exec says. “As it is, going that wide when they are, I think they’re just trying to buy an opening and hope for the best.”
History might disagree. Earlier Stone films have fared pretty well as December releases. “Born on the Fourth of July” built a bundle on its Dec. 15,1989, release, as did “Platoon,” though it started small and widened gradually after its Dec. 2,1986, bow. Only Stone’s “Talk Radio,” which opened on Nov. 30,1988, garnered generally good reviews but failed to turn into national velvet for the director.